Cornish Capers

Lady Argante reminisces...

(Nb the pictures are fairly large - you are warned!)

As old members will already know, each term the Arthurian Society undertakes a 'pilgrimage' to a part of Britain with strong Arthurian associations. These pilgrimages take the form of a day trip in Michaelmas term, a week-end in Hilary, and a week after the end of Trinity term (10th week - put it in your diary!).

This year the summer pilgrimage took us to Cornwall, whose Arthurian associations are well-known. So 9 o'clock on the morning of Sunday 25 June saw eleven Arthurian pilgrims waiting outside Trinity gates in Broad Street, where (for the first time in recorded society history) the minibus actually showed up on time.

On our way westward we drove past Stonehenge (the legendary burial place of Uther Pendragon, said to have been magically transported to Salisbury Plain from Ireland by Merlin) and stopped for lunch in Exeter, where we visited the gothic cathedral. We had rented a cottage near St Agnes on the Cornish north coast, so our way took us through Bodmin Moor. There we visited Dozmary Pool, the place (well, one of them...) where Sir Bedivere is said to have thrown Excalibur after the battle of Camlann, at Arthur's command. Alas, we spotted no arm clad in white samite, but Craig struck a very knightly pose and had his picture taken a great many times. There was also the obligatory skipping of stones, which resulted in photographs apparently showing James and Andrew dancing the 'twist'.

The next day we headed west, spending the morning wandering around St Ives. We had lunch on Trencrom Castle, a hill a few miles south of St Ives with a breathtaking view from the summit of St Ives bay to the north, and St Michael's Mount in the hazy distance to the south. We accidentally walked up the bridle path rather than the footpath, which owing to its unfriendly and prickly vegetation led to a resurgence of the dread 'Morgause' joke. A boomerang was found in residence, and Craig (as our pilgrim from Oz) was prevailed upon to demonstrate. It subsequently took some time to retrieve his watch from the gorse, which was achieved thanks to the timely intervention of St Antony of Padua (embodied for the occasion in Neil, our Regent). From Trencrom we drove to Truro, to pick up our twelfth pilgrim, Louise, who was joining us from Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh (and also some necessary provisions).

On Tuesday we drove east along the north coast of Cornwall, and our first stop was Rump's Point near Polzeath, an ancient promontory fort with the additional interest of the rather melancholy wreck of the brig Maria Asumpta - I suspect the Arthurians were the only visitors who were there for the fort! Next came what was probably the Arthurian highlight of the week, Tintagel, whose castle is the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. Making our way past 'King Arthur's Car Park' and the 'King Arthur's Arms', we had lunch perched on a ledge overlooking Merlin's Cave (said to be haunted by his ghost), and then dispersed for a few hours to wander about the spectacular ruins of the castle, and St Materiana's church a little further along the headland. Next, at Slaughterbridge, whose name gives it a tenuous claim to being the site of the battle of Camlann, we clambered along the steep, overgrown bank of the river Camel to find a stone whose inscription bears Arthur's name.

Wednesday saw more exploration of central Cornwall. First we stopped at Roche to visit the ruins of the hermitage built on top of a rocky outcrop in the plain. This is where the hermit Ogrin is said to have advised Tristan and Yseult during their banishment from King Mark's court. Next we drove into Bodmin Moor, there to seek King Arthur's Hall (actually a mediaeval hunting lodge). Little did we know (until it was Too Late) that this was to be one of the hottest days of the month, and that the footpath oh so clearly marked on the O.S. map was quite fictitious! After about an hour of wandering in directions we hoped weren't aimless, we eventually struck lucky; our way back to the minibus took us through a bog, over a stream and past an electric fence. After lunch (in a shady, cool lay-by) we visited the church of St Dennis, which is built on top of a steep hill which can be identified with Dimilioc, where (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth) Duke Gorlois was killed. The wall of the churchyard is circular and follows the hill's ancient fortifications.

On the following day we headed west again, visiting Marazion and St Michael's Mount in the morning. Here Arthur fought a giant, whose heart can still be seen amongst the flagstones of the steps leading up to the castle. In the afternoon we embarked upon an ill-fated expedition to a 6th-century Celtic chapel and wishing well near Madron, a few miles north of Penzance, after which we intended to drive to Zennor. But unbeknownst to us, while we were sampling the water of the holy well and sitting around the leafy ruins of the tiny chapel, the Pirates of Penzance were taking advantage of the faulty window-latch on the minibus door to have their wicked way with several bags that had been left within. So Zennor with its carved mermaid and its Quoit had to be abandoned, and we spent the remainder of the afternoon cancelling chequebooks and cards, and giving our particulars to an officer at the Penzance police station. Kalpen vociferously blamed the 'malefic well', and for the rest of the trip refused to go anywhere near one.

Somewhat chastened, on Friday we kept an eagle eye on the minibus while we visited Castle Dore, a well-preserved, smallish hill fort with a double concentric ring of fortifications. Castle Dore has a fair claim to being the seat of the historical King Mark to which the Tristan legend refers, as recorded also in the inscription on the Tristan Stone, near Fowey, on whose pedestal Kalpen (who thinks Tristan behaved most unfeudally toward Mark) struck a pose from Shiva's Dance of Destruction. We also visited two more churches, St Sampson's (mentioned in the 12th-century French poet Béroul's Tristan romance), and the almost unbelievably picturesque St Clement's. That evening we had a most memorable last night dinner, a barbeque on Porthtowan beach (not far from the cottage), watching the sun slowly drop below the sea. Our last Cornish site, on our way back to Oxford, was Trethevy Quoit, the remains of an ancient megalithic burial chamber - but alas, it proved too high even for James, our most veteran quoit-climber!

One lasting memory of Cornwall: the delicious strawberries we consumed in the cottage sitting room to the accompaniment of a much-needed cup of tea, and the largest tub of clotted cream this enthusiast has ever had the joy to behold...