Saturday, January 26, 2008
From Merlin’s Cave To Hercules’s Headland
A remote corner of Britain’s coast has suddenly become a target of Google searches. North Devon, and the Hartland Peninsula in particular, have become popular search terms among would-be visitors. This is for reasons unrelated to our subject-area here - its use as a location in BBC-TV’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility. (Just finished on BBC, it’s now out on DVD, and is being shown in the USA as part of a “Complete Jane Austen” TV season.) But I thought it might be an opportune time to follow up our earlier blog item on the North Cornwall and Devon heritage coast, for legend has it this coast was on the sea-route by which Christianity arrived in Britain via Joseph of Arimatheia and his fellow disciples.
Though I’d spent a week in the region in June, I’d planned to return there in September, since midsummer gales had caused cancellation of our planned boat trip out to Lundy Island. Lundy is one of various coastal sites in SW Britain where there are legends Joseph of Arimatheia landed and founded a pre-Roman Christian church. Unfortunately come September, Lundy was closed and its 30-odd population evacuated, due to a nasty outbreak of norovirus. Nevertheless, although I haven’t been able to get out there yet (no sailings till spring due to rough waters all around Lundy), my previous blog item A Dark Ages 'Rough Guide' Travel Codex has given me the idea of doing something similar with this stretch of coast. This dealt with Simon Young’s AD 500: A Journey Through The Dark Ages Of Britain And Ireland, a modern elaboration of a genre of ancient codex, the coastal navigation guide which the early Greeks called periplus. (It literally means sailing or navigating right through, i.e. all the way to your destination, implying a long-distance route.) These early travel guides were no doubt compiled from the experience of more than one trip, as we’re doing here. (The Tintagel photo used here is from a 1995 visit.)
Tintagel is the first British landfall in Young’s periplus-reconstruction travel guide, the narrator describing it as the first safe harbour in Britain. This of course is nonsense, but the displays in Tintagel’s heritage centre (where I sheltered from a summer gale for over an hour, making notes) document that it was indeed an international early port for the Mediterranean trade. The coast along here can certainly be forbidding, and the other harbours have to be protected by encircling sea walls. Tintagel had a small harbour known as the Iron Gates, unsuitable for later, larger boats. With its monastic ruin atop a scenic rocky outcrop, the locality is an Arthurian-themed tourist trap (King Arthur’s Pub etc), the cliff-edge Tintagel “Castle” pictured above actually being a hotel. The locality has probably been a tourist destination since 12th-C legendizer Geoffrey of Monmouth had Arthur conceived here via Merlin’s magic, and the large sea-cave [see photo] to the right of the headland ‘neck’ is called Merlin’s Cave. (Later authors including Tennyson so associated the place with the legend that the locals complained when Hallmark declined to film any of their 1998 Merlin miniseries starring Sam Neill here, pronouncing Tintagel “a decrepit ruin.”)
The “Tintagel Castle” boosted by English Heritage is a small headland site, whose protective inaccessibility (now reached by a walkway, pictured) led to its becoming a “high status” Celtic monastery around the time Young writes of, though he suggests it was the palace [Celtic lys] of the king of Dumnonia (Devon). Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any old Joseph-of-Arimatheia-was-here legend of the sort which occur in the local lore of other ports around SW Britain as well as in the Arthurian Grail tales. (Da Vinci Code fans may be interested that Tintagel has just been in the news for a controversial new painting in the local Catholic church, commissioned for its 40th anniversary, a modernised version of Leonardo’s Last Supper showing the artist’s son as Jesus and locals as the disciples.)
Departing Tintagel, you pass the two arms of the stone-walled harbour guarding the mouth of a mediaeval fishing port hidden up the ravine. This is Boscastle, still being rebuilt since the heavy rains of August 2004 which funnelled a ten-foot wall of water down the ravine, sweeping away 50 cars and much of the town centre, including the town’s main tourist attraction, the Witchcraft Museum. Offshore, as we mentioned in an earlier blog post, a keen viewer of satellite photos last year spotted some undersea ruins which may be part of the ancient coast, long demolished by Atlantic waves.
As you sail north up the Atlantic Heritage Coast into ancient Dumnonia (Devon), you pass the seaside resort of Bude, where the old coastguard lookout is modelled on the octagonal Temple of The Winds in Athens. The long, flat-topped island of Lundy lies dead ahead since the coast trends north here as you approach the massive Hartland Peninsula. Here, bare headlands reveal more strange towers. Just beyond St Catherine’s Tor is the 128’ high 14th-C. tower of St Nectan’s Church just inland of Hartland Quay. Nicknamed ‘the Cathedral of North Devon’, it is Devon’s 2nd-tallest tower, built to be visible for miles as a seamark.
This is where the cliffs begin. These are not the white cliffs for which the south coast is famous and the isle of Albion may have taken its name, but red sandstone, twisted and folded by geological upheavals. The beaches are marked by rock arches tunnelled out by tide and storm. Water cascades into the sea in places, indicating the presence of small hanging valleys otherwise hidden, for the moorland changes here to dense woodland. The only gap in the cliffs is at Mouth Mill, which is uninhabited since an 19th-C. attempt at industrial enterprise was washed away. The cliffs here are so tall when they built a lighthouse in 1874, they couldn’t put it on the clifftop as it would have been too far up (above low-lying sea-mist) to be effective, so it was built on a rock spur, with the cliff rising hundreds of feet behind it. Hartland Point, where the coast turns eastward again was named by the early Mediterranean sailors the Promontory or Headland of Hercules.
The Peninsula continues east to the resort of Clovelly, which is built right into the hillside, on a cobbled street so steep goods are still transported (as I witnessed myself) by human-powered sledge. The famous Clovelly donkeys who with their straw panniers became early postcard stars when the first steamers carrying Victorian day-trippers began to call in here, are no longer much used as beasts of burden, but are kept on as a children’s attraction. (Photos of Hartland Peninsula and Clovelly here.) You can walk from the village west along a clifftop path to a viewpoint by Hartland Point, and see for yourself (look down over the edge) why Ptolemy’s map calls this the ‘Promontory of Hercules’.
The next port of call in Young’s periplus reconstruction skips Lundy, arriving after an overland detour (to Dorset!) at a monastic site north of Lundy, Caldey Island off the south coast of Wales. He describes how the 6th-C. monks there consider visitors’ Roman-style Christianity to be an upstart aberration, but doesn’t elaborate. He makes no reference to the early accounts of Christianity arriving in Britain before the Roman Conquest. No mention of Glastonbury either, which due to the shifting coast was then a sea-port, and has the best-known association with the legend of Joseph of Arimatheia et al. I have no doubt Glastonbury is even more of an internationally searched-for phrase, and perhaps next time we can pay a visit to this legendary ancient sea-port.