We wanted knights and a round table, but all we got was some fat French kids and a rectangular pool. We’d heard much about the lure of the Arthurian legends that cling to Tintagel, but they weren’t clinging very hard.
The Famous Arthyre Kynge of the Brytons was here begotten in the castle, said the map. On the ground it was as clear as the unusually blue Cornish sky that nobody knew whether anybody ever begat Arthur at all, but Tintagel wasn’t giving up on its mythical moneyspinner, not for all the mead in Avalon. Past the Old Post Office and the Penganna Pasties outlet, we headed down the steep hill to the sea, paid the equally steep entry fee and watched the introductory video. Seven minutes of further confusion. Wafting mists. Ghostly minstrels. Lurking smugglers. Collapsed ruins. Behind us, a busload of French schoolchildren in designer gear, chewing gum and reporting their boredom with every breath. The most likely builder of Tintagel, said the video, was Cunomorus, a mysterious Dark Age King of Dumnonia. Later, in 1233 AD to be exact, the dubious and little-understood Earl Richard of Cornwall also built a castle here in the hope that he might be associated with the legend of Arthur and thus somehow win support for his bid to become Holy Roman Emperor. Blimey.
Another climb up 100 ‘slippery when wet’ steps led us to the island which wasn’t an island, where Arthur’s castle might have stood but probably didn’t. Occasional trenches, lined with dry stone walls less than 1m deep, showed where there may have been some sort of building in days of yore. No sword in a stone. No round table. No wizards. No Gawain. No Guinevere. No Holy Grail. The guide book told us that a deeper hole in the ground further on, with low walls, was once a garden adorned with flowers in pots where the ladies played lutes and read poetry on rare visits from their lords. Wild guesswork if you ask me. One of the French children thought it was more likely to have been an Olympic swimming pool.
Uninspired, we headed back down the steps while more children ascended. Obviously a whole school of them. The fat French kid at the back didn’t care much about imaginary (or otherwise) kings as he hauled his podgy frame up the last steps onto the headland near the foundations of an unspecified Dark Ages ruin, which may or may not have been a medieval bioscope. “Oh woe is me!” exclaimed Fatty in uncharacteristic English, perhaps the tour had taken in Stratford-upon-Avon as well, then, in French, “C’est pire que le foot”. This is worse than football. I knew what he meant (although I am not sure that anything is worse than football). Tintagel had failed to convince and we made our way back through the dubious, spread-out ‘ruins’, rescued the car from the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Car Park and headed west. To Winchester and a statue of King Alfred the Great, who really was King of the English and really was a hero out of all proportion to other warriors of his time. And the huge statue in the square proved absolutely that he had existed. He is lauded to the Hampshire skies for his piety and valour but the inscription loyally makes no mention of his famed burning of the cakes. Or was it the Cornish pasties? Isn’t English medieval history confusing? Especially to the French, obviously.