After a rather damp departure from Devon, my first stop in Cornwall was the little town of Bude. It was still raining, so I headed off in search of something to do indoors. I found the town heritage centre, which is housed in a Victorian ‘castle’, built on the sand dunes by one of those wonderfully eccentric inventors who seem to be a byproduct of the Victorian age. This particular chap was the marvellously named Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, who also invented the first steam carriages which travelled on roads, the limelight, and worked on mine ventilation. His house is now a gently quirky little museum, crammed full of displays on boating, wartime Bude, the history of surfing and swimsuits, and several figureheads from ships wrecked along the local coast.
I spent a dry hour there, and then ventured out again. The rain had stopped and I finally bought my first Cornish pasty of the trip (I had utterly refused the many vendors trying to flog them to me in Somerset and Devon). I found a bench above the beach and sat down to enjoy my lunch, which was bloody good, before taking a wander across the beach.
And there, all of a sudden, the clouds parted…
By the time I left Bude, the clouds were almost gone. I arrived in my next stop, Boscastle, in sunshine. Boscastle is a little old harbour village tucked along the banks of the Rivers Jordan and Valency where they merge and cut their way out to sea through the cliffs. It’s the only harbour in a twenty mile stretch of rugged coast, and the slant of the inlet protects the village and quay from the full ferocity of the tides. It’s a lovely place to wander, but in the UK it’s best known for the near disaster that struck it in 2004.
On August 16th 2004, exactly 52 years after the catastrophic Lynmouth floods I wrote about some time ago, 7 inches of rain fell on the high ground above the village, triggering a flash flood. It hit the car park by the river first, sweeping cars downriver. In a hour, the river levels rose by 2 metres, with a 3 metre surge when the bridge broke and the water and debris pooling behind it suddenly smashed through and swept along the main road. 75 cars and six buildings were swept out to sea, and 100 homes and businesses destroyed. A group of students staying in the Youth Hostel were told to get out before they were trapped and spent most of the night stuck on the cliffs, fishing out exhibits from the Witchcraft Museum as they floated past (the news articles about them and photos of the destruction were framed on the walls of the common room, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I read the lot).
No one died, although 150 people were rescued by helicopters from roofs, trees, and the tops of cars. In the middle of an otherwise quiet summer, the news covered it to the extent that the whole country was looking on as the village crumpled under the water. As well as that, the BBC were already in the village, filming a rather jolly little gentle documentary series about the local vicar (if you’re interested, most of that episode is easy to find on youtube).
It was very strange seeing the village with the memory of all that news footage imposed over the peaceful scene. However, once I’d settled into the hostel, where I was once again the only guest and on my own overnight, I went for a wander along the cliffs to enjoy the evening light. Sitting up there with my kindle and my notebook, I looked up at the clifftops opposite, and saw the perfect place to start my next story. That little turreted building is a coastguard station or, in The Court of Lightning, the landing platform of the Shadowflight, secret operatives who cross the channel on glider wings to infiltrate the occupied territory on the far side of the channel. Boscastle transformed as I sat there, becoming Porthlevin. If you’re reading this because of that story, enjoy the rest of these pictures.
I spent a peaceful morning wandering around Boscastle, which included a fascinating couple of hours in the Museum of Witchcraft, which is a fantastic museum which covers the entire history of magic with a wealth of exhibits which challenge stereotypes and celebrate all manner of spells, charms and practitioners. I could have happily spent more time there, but the last bus to my next destination left just after lunch and I had no intention of missing the next place.
I was going to Tintagel.
Did I mention that I have a degree in English Literature before 1530? One where I deliberately chose my options to cover anything in the least bit relevant to Arthurian myth? That I spent a few gleeful months wallowing in Merlin fandom?
It’s a strange place, with the village quite distinct from the headland and island where the ruins of the castle stand. I spent the afternoon wandering around the ruins, having lugged my bag up the side of the island. Here’s part of the main complex.
I lingered up there for a long time, enjoying the views along the coast as well as the wealth of remains. There’s not just a castle up there, but also a complex of ancient houses, all overgrown. I didn’t quite feel the presence of Arthur and his knights, but it was haunting in its own right (and, yes, also in The Court of Lightning, right at the end).
Once I finally decided to move, I scrambled down to beach level, where I found this marvellous waterfall and could enter ‘Merlin’s cave’ which can only be entered at low tide. This did feel mysterious in the best of ways.
I then headed back inland and then out across the clifftops to the best situated youth hostel I’ve ever stayed in.
Here’s Tintagel island from the cliffs the next morning.
I had a few hours to fill, and this quirky building caught my eye.
This is the old post office, which belongs to the National Trust, and is a well-preserved village house. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘shelf’, a sleeping platform above the sitting room which could only be accessed by steps from the main bedroom. It was used as sleeping space by the unmarried daughters of the house, hence the phrase ‘on the shelf’ (I am somewhat dubious of this explanation).
Finally, on the recommendation of the very friendly woman in the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, I went to check out the stained glass windows in King Arthur’s halls. I was the only one there, squeezed in between school parties, which was probably a good thing as I got the giggles. A group of 1930s enthusiasts once decided to start up their own order of chivalry in imitation of the Knights of the Round Table, and so built themselves a set of meeting rooms, including a throne room and a great hall, and filled it with paintings and stained glass panels (several full scenes and a small window for every single knight, featuring his name and shield). The glass is beautiful, dating from the Arts and Crafts movement, but the six minute introduction to Arthurian legend, as narrated by a very plummy Merlin, in which the curator insisted that I had to sit in the throne to fully appreciate the accmpanying light show, did for me. It was a very long way from studying Laȝamon and the Alliterative Morte, although still tremendous fun (I often retell the legends to my classes, but I’m damned if I could compress the entire cycle down that effectively).
I left Tintagel a little reluctantly, but I still had miles to go. My next stop was Port Gaverne, and there really weren’t many buses that went there. By this point, the driver recognised me as I hopped on board, and we headed onwards, further west.