Simulacra. That’s the first word that came to mind when I visited “King Arthur’s Great Halls” today in Tintagel. Exploitation is the second word. The legend of King Arthur’s conception and birth at Tintagel Castle has turned this small village into a veritable Camelot-everything-tourist-town. This is a quick run down of my first impressions of my second field site.
I was the first one to visit the Great Halls today so I took a few minutes to do an informal interview with the manager before he led me into the first room where a 10-minute “light show” introduces visitors to their version of the story of Arthur. The story is narrated by “Merlin” and various oil paintings are illuminated throughout the narration to illustrate the story. Cute, but also cheesy. The room smells damp. There is red and gold wallpaper, velvet curtains, a wooden ceiling, shields and flags adorning the walls, a fake Excalibur stuck in an anvil on a shelf and even some back lit cobwebs. The cobwebs might be the most authentic thing in that room… Ok. That sounds harsh. This place delivers exactly what it sets out to deliver.
After you sit through the light show you enter the next room which is the Halls of Chivalry, also available for wedding receptions. The hall is a fun space, lined with some legitimately pretty stained glass windows, but the laminated computer print outs posing as museum labels do take away from the atmosphere… as does the exposed 1990’s CD player which is the source of the melodic lute and harp music meant to bring you back to days of knights and chivalry. Obviously I have a lot of opinions about this particular establishment, but I also appreciate that they are completely honest and open about their (shameless) exploitation of Arthur.
The Great Halls are located at the top of the street, near the Tintagel Visitor Center. All along the street as you walk down toward the English Heritage ticket office for Tintagel Castle itself are shops and cafes dedicated purely to tourism and often specifically, King Arthur. You can eat at King Arthur’s Cafe, or Guinevere’s Restaurant. There is a tourist candy and fudge shop and several car parks that fill up as the morning progresses. The English Heritage office sits at the top of the hill that leads down to the headland where the castle ruins sit. The walk down the hill is steep and takes about ten minutes and then you arrive at a complex of English Heritage buildings including a cafe, toilets, membership/ticket office and a gift shop/museum.
The “museum” is a recent addition and supposedly enhanced the interpretation of the site. Personally, based on the journal articles I read about it, I expected it to be a larger exhibition. It’s roughly four panels, two object cases and a fancy 3D model of the castle grounds that is lit up with different projections to show the evolution of the site over time. I find it to be a deliberately vague exhibition. It says the site is connected with legend and history and asks “But what really happened here?” without every explicitly answering that question. It alludes to a Dark Age settlement and Victorian tourism but never says yes or no in regards to the Arthurian connection.
The outdoor interpretation is also fairly new and does a pretty job of explaining the ruins since there really isn’t that much to see at Tintagel. Nothing remotely resembling a castle is still standing.
Overall, I think the appeal of Tintagel is as much the landscape surrounding the ruins (I mean, that blue water is stunning!) and the possibility of it actually being linked with Arthur. Last year a statue called Gallos was added to the top level of the site and is supposed to represent an unnamed Dark Age leader. It is purposely unnamed but the media and visitors continue to refer to it as a King Arthur statue. And now everyone wants their photo with it!
The site requires a certain level of fitness. There are stairs, stairs and more stairs! I find myself winded quite often and have noted several visitors commenting on it. It’s usually pretty amusing actually as I make eye contact with a complete stranger and we exchange a knowing smile before we continue huffing and puffing up the steps.
Down on the beach visitors can go inside Merlin’s Cave at low tide. Like Gallos, a local artist recently carved Merlin’s face into the stone outside the cave. If you only read media coverage about it, you might think it was huge! The uproar certainly made me expect something large. It’s not. And personally, I think the uproar is silly. Yes, in some ways this is a form of vandalism, but it could be worse! Someone clearly thought it was terrible though, since his nose has since been smashed off his face.
So, overall, my first impression of Tintagel is that when it comes to “authenticity” there is an entirely different sort at work here than in Glastonbury. Scholars working in heritage or tourism studies will be familiar with David Harvey’s writing on different forms of authenticity and this has been on my mind since I first arrived. I am interested to see what people say in the interviews I hope to complete while I’m here. I already have one scheduled for Thursday and hopefully another for Friday. I’m heading down to Truro and the Royal Cornwall Museum on Tuesday to explore some of their collections and archives. They are the main stewards of the results of any archaeological dig that has taken place at Tintagel. I’m very interested to see how they feel about all the Camelot business! 🙂
Fun Fact: The village itself was not always known as Tintagel. That name once refereed only to the castle, originally Dintagel, (meaning roughly the “fort on the constriction” or headland). Eventually the village, formerly Trevena, adopted the name as tourism grew.