Seat of a Celtic kingdom in the Dark Ages, Tintagel is a place where history and legend merge.
A wild, rocky peninsula has been pinpointed as the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur for hundreds of years, and the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson lent extra weight to these claims with his “Idylls of the King”.
You’ll understand how Tintagel can make imaginations run wild, at the sight of the castle ruins, dark Devonian cliffs, sea caves, beaches that disappear at high tide, disused slate quarries and gorges with contorted walls.
The whole coastline is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, while both the National Trust and English Heritage look after historical remnants and exhilarating nature.
1. Tintagel Castle
Since Medieval times this craggy headland with sharp drop-offs lashed by the Atlantic has been entwined in legend as the birthplace of King Arthur.
Another mooted inhabitant was the Celtic King Mark, father of Isolde, also a tragic figure from Medieval romance.
And even if you stick to the facts, Tintagel Castle is a place of real wonder.
It was the seat of the kings of Dumnonia in the early-Medieval period, and the remains of houses from this time are still visible.
This might have been an important trading settlement, as Roman-era pottery from Africa and Asia Minor, and glass blown in Malaga in the 500s or 600s has been discovered on the headland.
The current castle ruins, featuring a great hall, are from a stronghold for Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall in the 13th century.
English Heritage maintains the site, including a new cantilevered crossing over the isthmus from the mainland and lots of information boards.
2. South West Coast Path
The South West Coast Path stellar reputation comes from places like Tintagel.
This National Trail is 630 miles long, from Minehead, Somerset to Poole Harbour, Dorset and often ranks among the best walks in the world.
In the space of a couple of miles, Tintagel brings you the calf-shredding climbs, enigmatic history and uplifting natural scenery that people associate with the trail.
Humans have had a hand in the terrain here, at slate quarries that were worked between the 1400s and 1900s, leaving isolated columns of rock behind.
Walk the trail on a warm sunny day and the shimmering water below will take on a green tint, caused by the high copper content in the Devonian rocks.
There’s a chain of three signposted circular walks in Tintagel maintained by the South West Coast Path, for awe-inspiring views, prehistoric monuments and grassland speckled with wildflowers like sea campion and sea pink in spring and summer.
3. St Nectan’s Glen
An enchanting beauty spot, St Nectan’s Glen is a rocky wooded valley about a mile in length, shaped by the Trevillet River.
This is both a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its rare bryophytes and mosses, and a kind of pilgrimage site for the New Age community.
Most beautiful of all is St Nectan’s Nieve, where a waterfall bursts through a hole in the Late Devonian slate and plummets 18 metres into the basin, which is lined with moss and ferns.
This site is private and you’ll have to pay a small fee to enter (£5.95 in 2019). Above the waterfall is a building claimed to be the cell of Saint Nectan, but more likely an 18th-century summerhouse, hosting a tea garden in the summer.
You can also admire the falls from above via a woodland walkway that opened in 2016.
4. King Arthur’s Great Halls
The social organisation, Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table, founded by the businessman Frederick Thomas Glasscock, built itself a magnificent headquarters on Fore Street in the early 1930s.
The order was set up to promote Christian and Arthurian courtly ideals.
King Arthur’s Great Halls has been a Masonic Lodge since 1952, home to four Masonic bodies, but also a visitor attraction for its abundance of Arthurian art.
Outstanding are 72 Arts and Crafts windows by the stained glass artist Veronica Whall, recounting the Arthurian legend and depicting the coats of arms of the Knights of the Round Table.
The Great Hall exudes authority with its banners and wagon roof, while there’s armour, ceremonial swords, a throne and, of course, a round table.
5. The Old Post Office
The name “Old Post Office” belies the majesty of this Medieval yeoman farmhouse owned by the National Trust.
In the 19th century this was briefly used as a letter receiving station, but was first built in the 14th century and was one of the National Trust’s first ever purchases in 1903. Composed of local slate, the building has been adapted down the centuries from a traditional Cornish longhouse, and is endowed with fine oak furniture, some dating back to the 1500s.
As Tintagel started to attract tourists in the 19th century, a group of artists took over the Old Post Office to ensure its preservation.
From the outside the building has an endearing, rickety aspect for its wavy roof, while open fires make things extra cosy on chilly days.
The post office counter has also been kept, and enriched by black and white photographs, and antique documents, scales and an inkwell.
6. Merlin’s Cave
Piercing Tintagel Island through a thrust vault between the slate and volcanic rocks is a brooding sea cave, 100 metres long.
Alfred Tennyson worked this cave into Arthurian lore in Idylls of the King, describing waves carrying the infant King Arthur to the shore and Merlin’s arms.
Merlin’s Cave, reached from the beach via a vertiginous stairway that might be difficult for younger walkers, is flooded at high tide but can be explored at low water.
In 2016 English Heritage unveiled a carving of Merlin’s face in the cliff by the entrance.
7. Trebarwith Strand
Getting to this magnificent 800-metre beach is half the fun, as you’ll enter from the south end through a lush valley in the village of Treknow.
As with all of the beaches near Tintagel, Trebarwith Strand has a formidable wall of cliffs and a big difference between high and low tide.
At high tide there’s no beach to speak of, and people lay their towels on the slate shelves, but at low water the sand goes out for up to 800 metres.
Cradled in that valley is the snug Strand Cafe, which has picnic benches out front so you can bask in this scene.
Trebarwith Stand is a well-known as a testing surf location, with rights and lefts, and barrelling waves.
8. Rocky Valley
There’s more mystery and drama at this small gorge cut by the Trevillet River as it rushes to the Atlantic.
Rocky Valley is another of the many National Trust sites in the area, and is scientifically valuable for its 161 different moss species.
The South West Coast Path crosses the stream on a wooden footbridge, where you can look up at the gnarled cliff-faces, more than 20 metres high.
There’s also a mile-long National Trust footpath through the valley, starting at Trevillet Mill and taking you to the river mouth, which is walled by strange slate terraces.
At high tide you can take a safe perch and watch the waves slamming against these rocks.
9. St Materiana’s Church
Roosted on the cliff-top south of Tintagel is an exceptionally old church with Norman and possibly Saxon elements.
The first St Materiana’s Church is thought to have been built as early as the 500s.
Today’s building was raised around the 11th and 12th century, while the tower is a little newer, from as late as the 14th century.
In 1889 an inscribed Roman milestone referring to Emperor Licinius (263-325) was unearthed in the churchyard and now stands in the south transept.
The round arches on the north and south entrances to the nave are Norman-Romanesque, while there’s a captivating Norman font, roughly hewn from elvan stone, with a snake motif and heads on each corner.
Three of the windows in the nave are Norman stained glass, the largest portraying St George.
Finally, between the nave and chancel is a Gothic rood screen crafted with intricate tracery in the 15th century.
10. Davidstow Airfield and Cornwall at War Museum
RAF Davidstow Moor took shape in 1942 and for the rest of the war was a base for night fighters, air rescue planes, anti-submarine patrols and target tugs.
The airfield was decommissioned in 1954, but the old control tower and outbuildings are still standing.
The Cornwall at War Museum occupies four of these 1940s buildings, and added an expansive new hangar in 2016. The collection has been assembled from this airfield, as well as other wartime bases around Cornwall.
There’s some striking pieces of hardware like a V-1 flying bomb, a Fairey Gannet, a Hawker Hunter F.6 and the cockpit of a DH Vampire T.11. You can also check out a narrow-gauge supply railway from WWI, the interior of a WWII air raid shelter and view a display about the many roles animals like horses and pigeons filled during the World Wars.
11. Glebe Cliff
On the South West Coast Path, Glebe Cliff is exhilarating as you make the climb south from Tintagel Castle.
There’s a car park near the cliff-top, and you can follow a short 0.2-mile loop during which you’ll be wowed by the vistas back to the castle and up to St Materiana’s Church.
If you walk this path in autumn you should see the house martins that nest in the cliffs getting ready to migrate south.
Peregrine falcons and merlins prey on these birds and are never far away.
12. Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
If you’re really immersing yourself in Tintagel’s folklore you have a to call in at this museum in nearby Boscastle, which has the world’s large collection of artefacts and regalia relating to witchcraft.
The museum is prized by the UK’s occult community, and was established by the folk magician Cecil Williamson to display the many interesting bits and pieces he had picked up in his career.
You can browse collections for the modern pagan religion, Wicca, as well as the witch trials of the Early Modern Age, freemasonry, alchemy and ceremonial magic.
Cunning Folk, or faith healers, have long been a part of English rural life, and the museum recreates the interior of a 19th-century faith-healer’s cottage, with herb containers and divination tools from the period.
13. Bossiney Haven
At low tide, bathers with a sense of adventure make for this secluded golden sandy beach at Bossiney Haven.
You’ll have to brave some steep steps to get down those dark Devonian cliffs, and will need to be aware of tide times, as there is no beach at all at high water.
So Bossiney Haven is probably not suited to children, especially as there are no lifeguards.
But if you catch a warm sunny day, the cove is a little patch of paradise, when the light turns the clear water a shade of light turquoise.
At low tide you can also walk around to the livelier Benoath Cove, where experienced surfers test their mettle.
14. Tintagel Toy Museum
Anyone who likes eccentric local museums will be in for a treat at this little attraction on Fore Street.
The Tintagel Toy Museum fills every square inch of its display space with mostly miniature cars, but also teddy bears, dolls, wind-up toys, action figures, board games and memorabilia from 50s and 60s childhood favourites like the Lone Ranger, Noddy and the Batman TV show.
The collection is from 1920-1980 so most grown-ups will be able reminisce a little.
The Tintagel Toy Museum is also a collectors’ shop, stocking die-cast model cars by the likes of Corgi and Matchbox.
A minor sight in the farmland a couple of miles west of Tintagel, Condolden is a hill crowned with a Bronze Age barrow.
Despite being a whisker away from the coast, Condolden reaches a height of 308 metres.
It’s also interesting to note that the barrow, three metres high, 26 metres in diameter and as much as 5,000 years old, has never been excavated.
Tying into Tintagel’s Arthurian lore, Condolden is supposed to be the burial place for either Isolde or Cador, a legendary Duke of Cornwall and caretaker of Guinevere in her youth.