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Uncovering the everyday of Tintagel: identity, place and the importance of landmark

Back in 2017, our digital guru, Victoria Jenner, undertook her undergraduate dissertation on Tintagel, a town located upon the North West Cornish coastline. Victoria was interested in what extent Tintagel was still a product of Victorian revivalist literature and how in turn, this impacted how local people saw the identity of the community today.

Before setting out upon my ‘chivalrous’ adventure (or in other words my dissertation research), I should emphasise that I very much welcomed the romantic stories attached to Tintagel’s ragged and dramatic coastline. Since childhood, I had been fascinated by the magical figures populating my ‘Arthurian Legends’ picture-book. Compelling figures had captured my imagination for years and the notion of standing in a place where their legends could so viscerally come to life was enthralling. Could I find myself standing in the Cornish chapel and supposed burial ground of Tristram and Isolde, or the cave where King Arthur was born and delivered by the elusive Merlin?

Venturing into the cave of the legendary story

It was this very nostalgia for my childhood fantasies that led me to question – why did I conjure Pre-Raphaelite representations of the ‘fair Isolde’ prancing across the ruinous remains of a ‘Dark Age’ chapel? I automatically rendered the characters as nineteenth-century artists had depicted them, meaning that I had fallen into the ‘tourist trap’ – the result of the picturesque movement that had dominated the perception of British landscapes from the end of the eighteenth century.

From 1793 to 1815 Britain held a turbulent and war-ridden relationship with France, which ‘inconveniently’ prevented many aristocratic figures of wealthy society from undergoing their Grand Tour of Europe. Certain landmarks of Britain were hence promoted as equally, if not more enticing as those on the continent. Although Herculaneum, Pompeii, Florence and Rome could offer insights into Graceo-Roman civilisation, the northern lakes of Britain to the dramatic coastline of Cornwall could offer exciting histories of the ancient Britons, whilst selling the ‘picturesque tourist’ their very own claude glass to prevent fainting from the overwhelming quality of the natural world. Tintagel became part of this broader arena of ‘travel performance’ that urged British travellers to explore their heroic indigenous past.[1]

Researching the ruinous mound

Tintagel’s earliest form of picturesque travel literature originated with The Complete English Traveller, or A New Survey of England and Wales Containing a Full Account of Whatever is Curious and Entertaining in 1771.[2]  An abundance of ‘informative’, scripted travel literature followed, with Dugdale’s weekly periodicals The New British Traveller in the 1780s. By 1799, Thomas Gray’s Travelling Companion directed visitors to Tintagel’s nearby ‘Nathan’s Cave near Bossiney’ to experience the “inspiration of visceral natural beauty”.[3]

By the turn of the century Tintagel was not only a legendary landmark, but offered artists and writers alike a quaint community and an idyllic setting to further exploit. St Materiana’s church was described as possessing “an ancient dovecot in the Vicarage garden” in Picturesque Excursions and later on, described as having to sell its bells to a London buyer who considered them the same as those that had “tolled for King Arthur”.[4] J.M.W. Turner also published a “highly fanciful engraving of the castle” in 1819, and six years later is referenced in Thomas Hogg’s The fabulous history of the ancient Kingdom of Cornwall. [5] The ruins of the ‘Dark Age’ castle were no longer acquainted with ‘Earl Richard’ but instead the magical King Arthur and suitably fit the Claude Lorraine-style landscapes so beautifully populating the route for the British Grand Tour. Indeed it was during Lord Alfred Tennyson’s own Grand Tour visitation almost twenty years later that led to his famous works Morte D’Arthur and then Idylls of the King in 1859 (re-published again in 1885 and selling 10,000 copies in the first week).[6]

As the poet described

But after tempest, when the long wave broke/

All down the thundering shores of Bude and Bos/

There came a day as still as heaven, and then/

They found a naked child upon the sans/

Of dark Dundagil by the Cornish sea

And that was Arthur…

Tennyson was tapping into the images conjured by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written circa 1135 to 38.[7] All of a sudden Tintagel was advertised as a tourist attraction in Cornish, Scottish, Welsh and London newspapers. However a letter of complaint from a ‘tired and angry traveller’ in 1858 suggests the local community of Tintagel were far from welcoming of their newly promoted status – prohibiting his access into the ruins due to their new safeguarding rules.

Postcard showing Old Post Office, Tintagel, circa 1910. The British Postal Museum & Archive blog, ‘The Postal Museum’: visit, Peter Grave

This is not the only example of anti-tourist sentiment. From the 1870s, Francis Frith had even started selling postcards with photographs of a derelict ruinous mound grazed upon by sheep – the perfect desolate place for a summer adventure. At the same time a local woman named Catherine Johns, started to sell her own illustrated postcards of Tintagel, yet showing The Old Post Office as the heart of the community and a symbol which should be saved from neglect. Johns’ raised the funds to repair the old building, circulating a competing image to Frith’s postcards. Instead of magical ruins, Johns’ presented local children playing in front of the Post Office amongst many other scenes capturing everyday community life. Needless to say, Johns was playing Frith at his own game.

The physical transformation of the high-street and drive up to the Castle, took place most profoundly between 1899 and 1930, in response to the demand of tourists now ‘flocking’ to the north-western coast. The expectation to host families venturing on holiday was acquiesced with Silvanus Trevail’s neo-gothic (and very Soanian) Camelot Hotel, overlooking the ruins on the adjacent clifftop. Thirty years later a similarly neo-medieval styled ‘King Arthur’s Halls’ opened to the public whilst explicitly acting as headquarters for a contemporary ‘Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table’. It is undeniable – Tintagel had succumbed quite literally to its romantic image conjured through nineteenth-century art and literature.

Poster promoting the memory event held at Tintagel (2017)

But had it changed today? I wanted to hear from the local voices of the community, just as Johns had once elevated her voice against Frith’s commercial agenda. I decided to delve deeper into how local people saw Tintagel’s identity in the twenty-first century by hosting a memory event, encouraging local societies to raise their concerns and discuss their local history.

I was particularly interested in whether the local people bore any resentment towards the emergence of the ubiquitous ‘Cornish Riviera’ image, in which the Duchy had been repeatedly represented as offering wide seascapes, golden beaches and a compelling legendary history.[8]

Yet during this session, it became apparent many local residents were the result of the tourist narrative. They had, like myself, been captured by the travel art and literature and had decided to retire to the town, transplanting themselves from neighbouring towns or a different part of the United Kingdom altogether.

Interested by English Heritage’s plaques discussing the industrial narratives of Tintagel

As I walked across the English Heritage site, now the charitable custodian of the castle site, I noticed their efforts to raise awareness of the fishing and mining history that had once been the predominant income for the local people. Although understanding why some may feel bitterly towards a displacement of their local industrial heritage, my conclusions suggest that without English Heritage, the National Trust and the enduring Arthurian image that still prevails the town today, these other local histories may be lost to the wider world.

Likewise, incredible stories that tell of shipwrecks, trading and the movement of peoples in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, can be told simply by venturing into the interior of St Materiana’s church, or walking around its graveyard. So without the mass-flocking of tourists in their coach-loads, these nuanced local histories, artefacts and local buildings may not have received the attention nor the financial support to survive.

Read the full article


[1] Judith Adler, ‘Travel as Performance Art’, American Journal of Sociology, 94, 6 (May 1989): p 1375

[2] Robert Sanders, & Nathaniel Spencer, The Complete English Traveller, or A New Survey of England and Wales Containing a Full Account of Whatever is Curious and Entertaining (J Cook, 1771) pp 719

[3] A.C. Canner. The Parish of Tintagel: Some historical notes, ‘Chapter thirteen: Of Poets and Painters’. Middlesex, Friary-Clark Ltd (1982): 78

[4] Ibid, 32. & T.H. Williams, Picturesque Excursions in Devonshire and Cornwall. Part 1: Devonshire (Murray and Highley, 1804) p 139

[5] A.C. Canner: p 79

[6] Beverly Taylor, Elisabeth Brewer, The Return of King Arthur: British and American Arthurian Literature Since 1800, (Cambridge Press, 1983) p 127

[7] Lord Alfred Tennyson, The Idylls of the King (1842)

[8] Philip Payton, Alston Kennerley, and Helen Doe, The Maritime History of Cornwall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2014)


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