Tintagel Castle: The Complete Guide

United Kingdom, England, Cornwall, Tintagel, Bridge to Tintagel Castle
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The remains of Tintagel Castle perch on the cliffs of North Cornwall and cling to the rocks above crashing seas. It's easy to see why this early Medieval castle, parts of which are more than 1,000 years old, and the even older remains around it have become the stuff of legends. Was King Arthur born here? Did Tristan steal Iseult from under the nose of King Mark here? The setting is so dramatic, it's no wonder that the stories swirling around it are operatic.

 But what's really known about Tintagel Castle and how can you visit it?

What to See at Tintagel

The main features and structures of Tintagel are spread over the mainland and the island (really a peninsula attached to the mainland by a narrow neck of land). They include:

  • Remnants of the Dark Age settlement, on the island. The outlines of some have been rebuilt based on archaeological research while the rectangular shapes of Dark Age huts were only revealed after a forest fire as recently as 1983. The so-called Northern Ruins are based on excavations from the 1930s.
  • The walled garden; actually, just the remains of the walls — you'll have to imagine the garden. This may have been built by Earl Richard in the mid-13th century, as an homage to the romantic story of Tristan and Iseult.
  • The Dark Age settlement: the setting of the fragmentary ruins of what was the most important settlement in Dark Age Britain, are more impressive than the ruins themselves. If you are brave enough to climb up to see them — over hundreds of steps — the views are amazing.
  • The island courtyard: the remains of the main part of Earl Richard's castle. The ruins include the great hall, the kitchens and the lodgings. You will have to put your imagination on overdrive to see what may have been located in these stony ruins.
  • The Upper Mainland Courtyard; this is where the lodgings and the garderobes (Medieval toilets) of the Medieval castle were located.
  • The Gatehouse Courtyard: the main entrance to the castle on the mainland, where the porter's lodge and the stables were located.
  • Merlin's Cave: Twice a day, at low tide, you can climb down to the beach and scramble over low rocks to a large, deep sea cavern
  • The Visitor's Center: The center at the bottom of the site includes an exhibition about the development of the site, the various periods in which it was occupied and the important historical and mythical figures associated with it. The exhibition also continues on a series of outdoor panels, located across the site, that explain what you are seeing while you are there.

Heights and Access

Exploring this site is safe, if you stick to the paths and staircases protected by handrails. But it can be challenging if you are worried about heights and precipitous hills that end in cliffs. You also need to be reasonably fit to fully enjoy the site because there are a lot of steep steps. From the mainland castle there are 148 steps to the island and the wooden door that leads into Earl Richard's Great Hall. The Dark Age settlement begins beyond the Great Hall. The site is considered family friendly, but it is also spread across rocky, uneven terrain and parents need to be attentive to the hazards.

There is a Range Rover service that can take ambulatory disabled visitors from parking in the nearby village to the visitor's center. Unfortunately, the geography of this site make visits beyond the visitor center impractical, if not impossible, for visitors with accessibility issues.

How to Visit

  • Where: Tintagel Head, where the mainland castle and island are located, is on the north coast of Cornwall between Boscastle (4.5 miles north east) and Port Isaac (9.5 miles south west). It is about a third of a mile, on foot or cycle from the village of Tintagel, over an uneven track. This is a vehicle free track, except for the Land Rover service mentioned above.
  • When: Tintagel is open from March 30 until September 30 2018 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will close from October 1 2018 until Spring 2019 while a new footbridge between the mainland and the island is constructed.  Check the website in late spring 2019 for the new opening hours.
  • Cost: Adult admission is £9.50 with child, senior and family tickets (two adults and up to three children 5 to 17 years) are available.  Tintagel is included on the English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass.
  • For More Information Visit the English Heritage official website

Tintagel Tours

Cornwall Tour offers a variety of day tours to various Cornwall landmarks in luxury 7- or 8-seater vans. Their Tour Four includes Tintagel and the North Cornish Coast with prices starting at £245 per person. Transfers from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton airports can be arranged as well as from, Birmingham, Manchester,  Bristol, Exeter,  or Newquay . Pick-ups can also be arranged from the  cruise terminals at Southampton, Falmouth and Fowey.

The Legend

For centuries, students of the Arthurian stories have pointed to Tintagel first as the place that King Arthur was conceived when his father, Uther Pendragon, the King of Britain, seduced Queen Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall. He did it with the help of magic, appearing to the Queen as her husband, so the story goes.  Later embellishments to the story put Tintagel as the place of Arthur's birth as well.  

The separate, later story of the cuckolding of King Mark (a historic, 6th century Cornish king), who lost his betrothed wife Iseult to his nephew Tristan  (once again a magic potion being the excuse) became wrapped up in the Arthurian literature too.

The romantic location of Tintagel, a rock-bound peninsula connected to mainland Cornwall by the slenderest of land bridges, studded — even as early as the 12th century — with mysterious ruins of earlier occupation, makes it a location for local legends right out of central casting.

Too bad it's mostly nonsense.

The Earl of Cornwall Was a Fan of the Book

You've no doubt heard of fanatic book and movie lovers flocking to the locales of their  favorite stories. The lovelorn head for Verona to seek romantic advice from the "experts" installed in "Juliet's house".  And these days people name their children after favorite characters in Game of Thrones or build themselves a new agey home to resemble a Hobbit dwelling.

It’s not a new phenomenon.  In the early 13th century, King Henry III made his brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall.  Not long after, Richard bought the 'island' of Tyntagel and built himself a castle there. About 100 years earlier, the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote  History of the Kings of Britain in which he put Tintagel on the map, so to speak, by weaving it into the origins of Arthur, powerful King of Britain, Ireland a parts of Europe. He may have been drawing upon oral traditions of the peninsula as the stronghold of earlier rulers of Cornwall.  It was the first written mention of Tintagel and the text  became the 12th century equivalent of an international best seller.

Arthur became a popular figure among the cultured and well-read of the period. Richard must have been attracted by Tintagel's literary fame because he traded  several  other manors for this small and virtually useless piece of land. He hardly used the castle and rarely visited Cornwall. It's possible that Richard wanted to strengthen his legitimacy as ruler of Cornwall and acquired Tintagel, according to English Heritage which manages the site, "to recreate the scene from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story and, in so doing, write himself into the mythology of King Arthur. "

So What Really Happened There?

There's no question that in the Dark Ages, Tintagel was a very important place.  Archaeologists have found evidence of one of the biggest settlements in Britain with a village of more than 100 houses, a chapel and other structures. They've also found more high quality continental tableware, Mediterranean crockery and glassware than anywhere else in Britain for the period immediately after the Romans left, between AD450 and AD650.

The site, connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land was strongly defensible - a contemporary writer suggested three soldiers could hold off an army. And the views over the Bristol Channel, all the way to the south coast of Wales, meant it made easy to protect important trade. Even before Roman times, Cornwall's riches lay in its tin mines. They provided this key ingredient for making bronze all over the ancient known world.

Tintagel was probably a royal stronghold for the rulers of Dumnonia, as the kingdom of the Britons, covering Cornwall, Devon and parts of Somerset, was known.

What Else to See Nearby

  • Bodmin Moor: Cornwall's highest and least populated moorland, home of the legendary  (and probably non-existant) "Beast of Bodmin" and the location of Jamaica Inn, inspiration for Daphne DuMaurier's book of the same name, can be entered about 10 miles from Tintagel. It is 280 square miles of granite moorland with Cornwall's two highest peaks, scattered with Bronze Age hut circles and Neolithic monuments.
  • Boscastle is a pretty stone-built fishing village with a natural harbour and an Elizabethan quay between steep cliffs. Much of the land around it is owned or managed by the National Trust. For most of history it was the only way to approach this inaccessible, rocky coast. The area is marked by scenic coastal, clifftop and woodland walks.
  • Port Isaac: This picturesque village is where to find Restaurant Nathan Outlaw and Outlaw's Fish Kitchen. Celebrity chef Nathan Outlaw is one we recommend as worth leaving London for.
  • Beaches: Once the cliffs and rocky shores give way, west of Tintagel, sandy beaches are within an easy drive. Surfers and watersports enthusiasts are especially well served. Try Polzeath Beach for a relaxing day out. It's good for surfing beginners. Surfers flock to Newquay, which has 15 listed beaches and a reputation for lively nightlife.