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DESTINATION: ENGLAND

In The Realm of King Arthur

Making a pilgrimage to the Cornwall countryside that bred the legend, and finding it entwined with Christian lore

August 13, 2000|JOE MOCK

GLASTONBURY, England — I started my search for King Arthur on a local train in the company of a bunch of surfers on holiday from gritty Manchester. We all were going to Newquay, and they wanted to talk about the Jerry Springer show. It was hard to picture Arthur and his knights in the flat green landscape of Cornwall rolling by outside.

I've always been fond of Arthur's story and the promise of Camelot, even though it is a bittersweet tale without a happy ending. Like so many great real-life figures I admire--JFK, John Lennon, F. Scott Fitzgerald--Arthur had a life of achievement but not fulfillment. He loved Guinevere, but he lost her to his friend Lancelot. He forged a great political alliance with his knights, yet eventually his quest for the Holy Grail would lead many of them to defect and even fight against him. He united bickering tribes to defeat invading Saxons and was mortally wounded in battle by his nephew, Mordred.

Of course, this is all legend, but it's a legend that has been told since the 7th century, a durability that suggests very powerful roots.

Arthur, his knights, his wizardly advisor Merlin and the realm of Camelot are familiar to us moderns from T.H. White's "The Once and Future King," a 1958 bestseller that inspired the Broadway musical "Camelot," and from comic books, movies like "Excalibur" and animated films like Disney's "The Quest for Camelot." It was the 1998 NBC-TV miniseries "Merlin" that gave me the idea of a vacation trip to Britain with Arthur and other legends as my focus.

There is historical proof that a Celtic leader forged a brief era of peace in southwestern England--in Cornwall and nearby Somerset--an area that had been overrun by Saxons after the withdrawal of the Romans about AD 435.

Was that man Arthur? Excavations at Tintagel, on the rocky Atlantic coast just 50 miles north of England's Land's End, have uncovered a clue about one noble former resident: a 6th century slate carved with the words (in Latin), "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had [this] made."

I had to see the castle for myself. But first I had to get a room in Newquay.

It was September of last year, and the prices of hotel rooms were still high. A kindly cabdriver directed me to Mount Wise, where he said I would find affordable B&Bs. After a couple of "no vacancies," I stumbled on Leigh House, which had an attractive enclosed patio out front. A chilly evening had settled in, and I was wearing shorts, which must be why proprietor Dave Walton greeted me with a smile and the words, "You look like you could use a beer." "And a room," I said. "We have both here at the Leigh House," he answered, and he led me past his cozy downstairs pub. I would end up spending a good deal of time there in the next two days, arguing with the locals about soccer versus football.

My room was typical of the affordable singles I've stayed in all over Britain: a small bed flanked by two small night stands, a dresser with a small TV on top. Everything about it was small by American standards, including the price, about $35. With its own private toilet and shower, it was quite a bargain.

I was traveling light, so there was not much unpacking to do before heading downstairs for that long-awaited beer. I asked Dave about Tintagel (pronounced tin-TA-jull). He told me which bus to take and said I should have a lovely time "if the weather holds," a phrase I would hear throughout my stay.

Next day, I occupied myself on the two-hour bus ride to Tintagel with "The Winter King" by Bernard Cornwell and my CD player, with tunes like "The Battle of Evermore" by Led Zeppelin and "Guinevere" by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The main street of the village was lined with souvenir vendors and pubs showing their allegiance to King Arthur. At the end of the street, a long dirt road headed down to the ocean. That's where I caught my first glimpse of Tintagel Castle, perched high on a rocky cliff surrounded by impossibly blue skies and even bluer waters.

There was a sign pointing to the castle entrance, but I took a detour: I slip-slid down a long flight of stone steps to the rocky beach and Merlin's Cove, where the surf's weird sounds in the hollow rocks set the right mood of mystery. After climbing back up, I paid the admission fee--about $6--to the friendly custodian for English Heritage, the organization that maintains historic sites.

The castle, built in the 12th century on a site occupied six centuries before that, is in two parts separated by a narrow isthmus. To get to the far side I had to climb down another long set of steps and up again, but the payoff was worth it. (There is a paved path, wheelchair accessible, around the upper castle grounds.)

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