DRAMATIC EXTREMES OF BOSCASTLE & TINTAGEL
This walk yielded a bewildering range of stories and images. A friend joined me for this wander into the past, the present and the future…
WIND CRAZED WILD TREES
The observant driver along the ‘Atlantic Highway’ A39 may have noticed these stunning hawthorn hedges bent over by the prevailing off shore winds near Davidstow creamery. They tail off down the steep slopes towards Boscastle and the sea beyond, and I felt they somehow point to the mysteries of the valleys and high places along this stretch of the Cornish coastline. These trees were in the windswept field next to where the trigpoint sits and where our walk began.
COLD WAR BUNKERS FOR SALE OIRO £20,000!
Beside 2 ancient tumuli with Brown Willy clearly in the background rests triangulation point BM5692. Out of the ground on this elevated grassy plain not far from the trigpoint poke these three strange concrete extrusions (above); 2 ventilation shafts and a half open manhole hatch. I had heard about these defunct bomb bunkers built in preparation for nuclear radiation fallout in the 1950’s and 60’s, but often they are hidden, unmarked on OS maps, or the access lids rusted and sealed shut. Adrian couldn’t resist descending the long ladder to the flooded chamber to explore and I followed.
In a single room strewn with debris, on a flaky table sitting in 3 inches of stagnant water sat a rusted old air freshener dated March 1975, its unfamiliar typeface preserved under a piece of first generation cellotape. A cubicle without a toilet, abandoned bed frames and an eeriely whispering ventilation shaft (we recorded) added to a sense of ‘post-place’.
After a bit of online research it turns out that this is Otterham ROC monitoring post: Royal Observer Corps (ROC) monitoring posts are/were underground structures found scattered all over the United Kingdom, constructed as a result of the Corps’ role of reporting the surveillance and threat of nuclear attack, and was operated by volunteers during the Cold War between 1955 and 1991.
Built to reduce any external nuclear radiation by a factor of 1500:1, these bunkers were manned by the ROC until 1991 when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union Bloc was split up marking the end of the Cold war.
Whilst this one is not for sale, recently a similar bunker was sold at auction in Somerset for £23,000! click here for the BBC story
Of the 1,563 bunkers built across the UK, this bunker has rare and unique ventilation shaft metal covers (according to one online ‘bunker blogger’) which protect occupants from wind carried radioactive fallout, and which accidentally feature in the first of the 2 artboards for this walk, as does the 1975 air freshener and the wind pruned tree shapes.
A FURRY BRIDGE BESIDE ANCIENT CROSS
Walking down to Boscastle we had lunch in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels, beside a bridge clothed in sliver lichen ‘fur’ unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Beneath this strange bridge a very steep cut channel carries running water away at great speed. I rub the word ‘angels’ and the shape of the old granite cross onto the artboard.
BOSCASTLE: CLIMATE CHANGE LIVE CASE STUDY
A lot of people know about the Boscastle flood of 2004 that caused great damage to buildings and watercourses, dumping 30 vehicles in the sea and effortlessly shifting another 100 with tsunami like force. Click here for some seriously dramatic footage
On our wander down to the old harbour we met Valency valley residents living in picturesque cottages who witnessed firsthand the aftermath of the flood which included 100 residents airlifted to safety, concrete boulders moving miles with glacial power, the river being completely redirected from its normal course and thousands of live trout from the decimated fish farm upstream caught and suffocated, leaving a rotting fishy smell for weeks.
But this quaint little harbour village sitting at the narrow geological funnel of the river Valency has had several watery disasters in the past. A flick through the Boscastle village online archives (click here) shows repeated flooding in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and right up to recent years this sort of freak flooding has been happening with a worrying persistence.
The latest Met Office 2019 report ‘UK Climate Projections’ has the following sober headlines relevant for the future of Boscastle residents and indeed the whole of the UK:
- Despite overall summer drying trends in the future, new data suggests future increases in the intensity of heavy summer rainfall events
- Significant increases in heavy hourly rainfall intensity in the autumn
- Significant increases in hourly precipitation extremes in the future. eg. rainfall associated with an event that occurs typically once every 2 years increases by 25%
Metal signs around the town mark the height at which the water rose to, and I rub the ominous date onto the top of the artboard for the gloomy reminder that Boscastle will probably see more floods in the future.
BOSCASTLE BRIDGE HOUSE B & B
But all this impending environmental doom certainly hasn’t put off Mr Smith of the Bridge House Bed & Breakfast (the only one in the centre of the town?!…hmm) who said “the 2004 flood put Boscastle on the map” and is “good for the tourism business”. Moved down in 2018 from North Wales, the refreshingly upbeat and friendly Richard, with wife Louise and daughter Molly (6yrs old) have been making the most of the lockdown quiet, smartening up their little courtyard with a cute bug hotel, flowers and Cornish coastal memorabilia.
Richard told us that some of the trout from the hatchery business that survived the flood now breed in deeper sections of the river and we actually saw unusually large fish in an adjacent valley stream later on, and are now wondering whether these were aforementioned trout escapees. Richard and Molly went onto say that during lockdown the quieter traffic has emboldened local Deer to happily pass through Boscastle high street and on the pavements in groups of up to 7 and even to swim across the harbour! – such wonderful encounters with nature that have been similarly experienced across UK towns and cities during this time. Click here for article
BOSCASTLE MUSEUM OF WITCHCRAFT & MAGIC
Boscastle is also famous for the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, thought to house the worlds largest collection of paraphernalia and artifacts related to folk magic, witchcraft, Wicca and ritual magic.
It was of course shut like everything else in the town except the Co-op and to be honest the ‘Pixie shop’ building opposite (below and pre-2004 flood) looked more fittingly like a quirky witches den than the quite ordinary looking museum – a converted house with a retro fitted stone arch, but to be fair some of the carved panels were quite interesting and I rub the horseshoe and the word ‘witchery’ onto the artboard.
The founder of the museum was local mystic Cecil Williamson who fell out with an early associate partner over sensationalist artefacts in the museum back in the 1950’s. A report around the year 2000 amongst local witches found that there were mixed views on the museum. Some witches felt that the museum provided “a marker of historical identification… illustrating ways that rural magical workers operate… and a source of heritage” while for others it indicates an ongoing problem of romanticized historical invention.” Others questioned whether there was sufficient evidence to justify the continued display of certain items in the museum. It seems the amusing old pub sign above the museum entrance with the words ‘THE WITCHES OF BOSCASTLE’, ‘SELLING THE WIND’ might still be true…
But since the 2004 flood and up to 2019 (pre-Covid 19) the Witchcraft museum, whilst an esoteric and curious speciality rather than a mainstream attraction, is generally well thought of by visitors and locals, receiving 4.5 out 5 on tripadvisor. Main criticisms today relate to explicit adult and child unfriendly content, small and cramped spaces and an expensive ticket price for the relatively small museum size.
But like the terrible flood of 2004 it all seems to be good for the tourism industry here which brings thousands of visitors to this part of North Cornwall every year and much needed local revenue.
THE MYSTERY OF TINTAGEL
A tendency to over cook the truth seems to be in the fresh sea air of these parts and in the second part of our walk we head along the coastal path towards Tintagel where romanticised stories of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the round table continue to cast a spell over the landscape and the people. Below: Bronze sculpture of King Arthur on Tintagel head by sculptor Robin Enyon, revealed in 2016 amidst ‘Disneyfication’ criticisms
Before reaching Tintagel though, we were treated to the most jaw stopping and sublime views; gnarled and citadel like rocky ruins contorting and abandoning themselves into the brooding seas, again all seemingly pointing to something otherly and fantastical…
I was still in the grips of this dizzy spell on the coastal path when we fortuitously came across Dr John Fanshawe, Cambridge academic and author of several renowned bird books including ‘Birds of the Horn of Africa’ (of course I didn’t find this out until later but what a project and field trip that must have been!)
John shared a tip with us to see the Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins on short island and pointed us to the Ladies Window, a gaping circular hole framing the Atlantic beyond, just at the edge of another dramatic precipice.
Unfortunately no funny puffins were on short island and my 300mm camera lens could only just pick out the stumpy Guillemots and Razorbill’s, somehow rather like mini penguins, and I have to confess too that I had to research to discover the subtle difference in these social seabirds that always seem to gather together to confuse everyone – the main difference being that Razorbill’s have a smarter shiny black coat and Guillemot’s a duller dark brown grey.
A bit further on we meet Ludo, a German man who has settled in Devon after his wife died, today was her birthday and he was remembering her on his walk. He contributed to the second art board with a little picture of him and his beard.
Walking on, the sun was periodically burning through the humid cloud cover and by the time we arrived at Tintagel Haven and ‘Merlin’s cove’ we were overwhelmed and drunk on the picturesque place, simply the colors, the dramatic cliffs and the caves seemed alive with natures treasure. This particular cave (below) caught the turquoise water and round rocks like giant gold and silver coins sparkled and shimmered in mesmerising colours.
I am reluctant to say it but the scenes all about us were rather, well, ahem, magical. Tintangel castle and monastery ruins above, giant amphitheatre rock elder creatures circling all around looking down on us, still ultramarine blues in the giant mysterious pool coves below and Merlin’s cave (or caves because there were so many) and everything just looked as though something epic was going to happen or had happened there…
We ventured out down onto the flat rocks to find somewhere to sit down, make tea and try and capture those unbelievable colours, and unbeknownst to me I had sat down right next to King Arthur’s Sword Excalibur set in the stone…
Well it was all a bit too much for us, and Adrian tried in vain and with guttural groans to grasp the handle, pull the sword and release the spell, taking up the ancient quest, but the sword obviously didn’t like him and a bit of rusted iron flaked off and fell to the ground.
To be honest I had already done the research on Tintagel and King Arthur, Time Team Tony Robinson in his 2000 series helping with the main de-bunking of all the fairy-tale candyfloss which outlines the following brutal summary of non-facts:
- Tintagel castle is mainly 13th Century therefore King Arthur of 5th/6th Century is about 700 years too late to be connected
- King Arthur was not born at Tintagel (No surviving folklore about Arthur at Tintagel until Tennyson cast a wonderful narrative spell we all want to believe, peddling a myth that brought a lot of Victorian train travelling tourists)
- Sir Thomas Mallory’s 15th Century popular classic ‘Morte d’ Arthur’ was the source of Tennyson’s wild romanticisations and is the basis of most of the stories surrounding Arthur
- In turn most of the Mallory’s sources were French authors and were connected to 11th Century crusades through Europe to the holy land, particularly Broceliande forest in Brittany and most of the story including Guinevere, Lancelot, Excalibur and the round table all come from these French authors
- A slightly more believable 5th/6th Century Arthur was written by Welsh historian Geoffrey of Monmouth in ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ (1136) outlining the Welsh Celtic Arthur’s epic warrior conquest of the Saxons and into Europe, nearly toppling the Roman empire, but Geoffrey’s accounts have now been largely discredited
- Recent finds suggest evidence of a larger 5th/6th Century building at Tintagel (1998 find) but no mention of Arthur, also Celtic Greek and Latin inscriptions in 2018 finds suggest a global connected community at Tintagel
- But overall the consensus among academic historians today is that there is no solid evidence for Arthurs historical existence
A good recent article for further reading can be found by clicking here
Again we could not enter English Heritage’s Tintagel Castle due to Covid lockdown measures, but the recent phased and controversial ‘Disneyfication’ of the site; the Arthur Bronze sculpture, carved rock Merlin and just last year the opening of the spectacular new £4 million bridge (below) really just seems to add to the sense of place and mystery that imbues the atmosphere here, regardless of facts, legends, and myths (or not). I guess like Tennyson and Malory before them, English Heritage would be missing a big marketing trick if they took a hard line and somewhat spoilsport on the whole Arthurian story and of course they need to now milk this site and continue to cast the somewhat ambiguous spell for visitors to flock with magic in their eyes to help pay for that brilliant new bridge…
We climb the steps and inspect the new bridge entrance, and I rub the interesting cast aluminium portcullis safety uprights onto the second artboard.
We headed up to the main village and along the way meet Sean, a genuinely friendly homeless man who freely told us his story while we ate pasties and pastries from the bakery which was shutting up shop
Sean had been staying in the shelter of one of the castle’s entrance booths and tonight was his last night there as staff were returning to prepare reopening the visitor attraction to the public post lockdown measures.
Sean shared his Christian faith journey and spoke of the peace and contentment he continued to experience here and even felt drew him to Tintagel. I asked Sean if he would write something on the artboard to contribute. Feeling that he never really fitted into society, Sean wrote: ‘Tintagel, home of spiritual peace, says the square peg’. Adrian and Sean chatted about conspiracy theories they had in common and I rolled my eyes a little and did some more drawing, capturing the silhouetted outline of St Materiana church in the distance on the cliff, as Sean spoke of when he had found refuge and sleep there several times.
Clouds were gathering and between a sharp shower we sat under King Arthur’s Inn outdoor shelter. I rub the word Arthur upside down on the artboard and draw the famous old post office across the road.
The forecast rain had arrived and with 2 miles to climb steeply up hill to the trigpoint (308m above sea level) we say goodbye to Sean, don waterproofs, cover the artboard and set off into the rain leaving Tintagel behind us. Originally I had wanted to find Merlin or Lancelot or something else to add or rub onto the artboard but somehow an upside down Arthur, spiritual peace and endless natural beauty sort of summed up the walk and the place.
By the time we reached the trigpoint sea mist and mizzle had got us pretty wet but we were very happy to have a dry car waiting.
THE ROUTE (ignore the straight line driving and forgetting to turn strava off bits!)
NEXT WALK No.84: Towards Camelford via Delabole