Starting mileage: 16408 km
Day started: 08:30
Day ended: 22:00
‘Timing is everything with these cars,’ said the proprietor of Atlantic Services in the morning, handing us the keys. He had adjusted something called ignition timing, which made the engine run smoothly once again; I can’t admit to know anything about it – the wikipedia explanation sounds complicated, but it also mentions how crucial proper timing is. Apparently, either nobody bothered to check it on the new engine, or it was set up wrong from the start. Well, at least now we know what to ask the next mechanic about if the problem repeats…
It was 10:30 am, and despite our fears we were only slightly behind our schedule. We got to Tintagel before noon.
What a difference coming here in the height of season made! When we last visited the castle, it was deep autumn, in the afternoon. The town was closed, empty and foreboding, even before we got to the dark cliffs swept by the freezing Atlantic gale.
This time, Tintagel was bright, full of people, with all the pubs, inns and souvenir shops on the main street wide open; the castle cove was almost idyllic at low tide, the sea a calm layer of turquoise (the colour caused by deposits of copper in the rocks), the cliffs lush green, the waterfall of the mill creek sparkling in the sun. We could finally enter Merlin’s Cave – the giant tunnel carved by the waves at the beach – and climb to every nook and cranny of the castle, where before the pathways were closed due to poor weather and high wave.
Tintagel is of course the birth-place of King Arthur (spoiler: it’s not, really) as mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory – the legendary association made even more tantalizing by the archaeological finds of a rich and powerful 6th century fortress on the headland, and the “Arthur Stone” – a piece of sacrificial pottery with the name of one Artognou. Due to only that connection – and the romantic setting – it’s now one of the most popular destinations in the whole of the UK.
The current ruins on the promontory are that of a 13th century castle of Earl Richard of Cornwall, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Europe in his day (and an almost Holy Roman Emperor); it is widely accepted that the only reason he had built the castle was to associate himself with Arthur (and to impress women), as the place has little else value.
It’s a tiring slog up the many steps past EH ticket booth, first to the mainland castle then, even higher, to the promontory part. What we haven’t noticed on the previous visit was just how wide the headland area was; enough to fit a whole village, not just a small castle. In immediate post-Roman times, there was an important settlement here, with trade connections to the Mediterranean – a discovery of which did, of course, increase the probability of this place being the castle that Geoffrey wrote about. Most likely, if anything, he was recording a local tradition of an ancient fortress.
There are more Arthurian connection in the area – the nearby Bodmin Moor holds the pond in which the Lady of the Lake is said to reside, guarding the Excalibur.
On the way back we stopped at the Old Post Office – the oldest building in the village, now in NT’s care, with a characteristic undulating roof being the picturesque result of poor carpentry – and headed for another nearby town with mythical connotations: Boscastle. The small harbour town is nothing to look at if you approach it from the East – a cluster of pubs, cottages and a few hotels, with a mysteriously large car park and all tourists disappearing somewhere down the river. Luckily, we drove in from the West – by way of Tintagel, like probably most people – and were able to appreciate the full view of its unique, winding harbour from above. The entire lower part of the town, from the bridge to where the river meets the sea, is closed off from traffic and protected by National Trust, which has in Boscastle the largest shop we’ve ever seen, a kind of NT supermarket. This part also holds the Witchcraft Museum – the largest collection of wicca memorabilia in the world. As far as I could tell, there was no particular reason for why it was here – just that the owner, originally an Isle of Man resident, liked the place enough to move the museum to Boscastle.
We got on the concrete causeway on the east bank (stepping over the ‘this is not a walkway’ signs) and wound it along the black and red slate all the way to the end. The harbour was closed off with high stone walls in 16th century, but the river ends with one more bend among the steep cliffs; there was a pastel-blue yacht in the bend, and with the bright sun and the turquoise water we felt once again as if we found ourselves in the Adriatic.
From Boscastle, the Atlantic Highway took us straight north, past Bude, finally out of Cornwall – and back into Devon. For a long time we drove in the shadow of a massive array of antennas and radars spread out all over the cliffs above Bude – the Bude GCHQ station, one of the places in the center of this year’s massive political controversy. According to wiki, the antennas at Bude are able to track signals along the entire spectrum from spy satellites to BBM and text messages. Somehow the knowledge of that didn’t make us feel any safer.
Not long after crossing the Cornish-Devon border, we began to spot carved wooden signposts directing us off the A39 towards a village of Clovelly. Having never heard of the place, I checked the map and discovered this was supposed to be one of Devon’s main tourist attractions, so we decided to give it a try. Past the usual winding, narrow roads we found ourselves on another car park, with no village in sight, or indeed anything else other than a large visitor centre.
This turned out to be the most bizarre thing so far in our journey: a paid, roofed entrance to an actual, living village! The entrance building was not unlike those standing at the gates of zoos or botanical gardens, and the entrance fee to Clovelly was a steep £6.50 per person, but now that we got here, we just had to see what was behind that door.
The way down starts with a slow descent, but then it gets pretty steep pretty fast once you get to the original cobbles. There’s the usual Land Rover service from the bottom end up (Land Rovers replace lifts in these part of the world). After a few minutes, the village proper is revealed – and man, is it worth the price!
I’m slowly running out of adjectives and similes with these coastal villages, but if there was one place that looked the most Italian or Portuguese of it all, it was Clovelly. The village is tiny and compact – made up of only two parallel cobbled streets, running steeply down the cliff, lined with pastel-coloured cottages, with one inn, one chapel, one shop and a couple of donkeys. Secluded in a cove behind a thick forest, even Clovelly’s climate is different to the outside world, milder and more mellow on the hot summer’s day. The village is proud of its connection with Charles Kingsley – author of the Water Babies, who lived here for a while – but in truth, adding any more tourist draws on top of what already is one of the loveliest places we’ve seen so far is pushing it a bit.
The long climb back up was the last thing we had strength for, and so we headed up the A39 again, past the curious medieval bridge at Bideford and around Barnstaple/Barnstable (so boring they named it twice), in search of a camping site near Ilfracombe, whence we were planning to sail to Lundy the next morning.
PS: today marks a landmark in our journey: this is the longest we’ve been out of office since 2007!
Damage Barton is one of what seems like dozens of campsites around the North Devon’s “Golden Coast”, and one of the finest; it supports both C&CC and Caravan Club members, with steep discounts for either (£16 with hook-up for us), and is incredibly busy in season (we could barely find a pitch). The facilities are vast (proper taps!) and sea view is great, especially at sunset.