Seeking mystery and magic at Merlin’s Cave
A blast of wind forcibly pushed against me and a low rumble echoed as I set foot within the overhang opening to the legendary Merlin’s Cave. It felt as if the forces of the Earth itself were trying to repel me from entering. I of course kept going, but as soon as I was within the boundary of the cave the wind and noise unexpectedly stopped like an eerie moment in a movie.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I looked up to see steel-grey granite smoothed over centuries under the pounding of the ocean. Streaks of pearl, rust and even bruised purple wove through the rock, giving the appearance of jagged lightning strikes.
I surreptitiously stepped in further and as my eyes adjusted, I realised I could hear waves lapping against a small beach at the back of the cave. The dark waters snaked behind a ginormous boulder and beyond this, a ghostly light seemed to be glowing from nowhere.
I couldn’t see if there was an opening at the other end of the cave, but the rational part of my mind assured me that the light must be emanating from one. My imagination, on the other hand, was starting to suggest that just maybe it could be something else much more fantastic and mysterious, given the long history and lore associated with Merlin.
If you don’t know the legend of Merlin yet, I’ll give you some homework to do as there are plenty of movies and TV shows all about Merlin and Arthur. I would suggest as a starting point, Disney’s 1963 animation The Sword In the Stone, the 1981 film Excalibur (where Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson launched their careers), or the 1998 movie Merlin (who was played by Sam Neill). Then or good measure, go ahead and watch the entire series of British fantasy-adventure drama, Merlin (2008-2012).
The legend of Merlin really first came to light in the early 12th century in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (“The History of the Kings of Britain”). Geoffrey’s conception of Merlin as the prophet and wizard led to Merlin becoming popularly associated with the Arthurian legend.
The shorthand version is that Merlin is a legendary magician of Arthurian legend and romance of the Middle Ages. Lore states that Merlin was King Arthur’s trusted counselor from an early age. He was supposedly the one that suggested that the true heir to the throne would be the man who could draw the sword Excalibur from the stone. It was also he who advised him to establish the the Round Table of knights.
The cave has only been known Merlin’s Cave since the late 19th century. It lies beneath Tintagel Castle, which is where – according to Geoffrey – King Arthur was conceived. The organisation English Heritage manages the site, and explains Merlin’s supposed role in this conception on their website:
“…an ancient king of Britain, Uther Pendragon, is driven mad with lust for Ygerna, the wife of one of his barons, Gorlois of Cornwall. Gorlois prudently removes his wife to an impregnable stronghold on the coast, the castle of Tintagel, but then rather less prudently withdraws to another fortress nearby. The pursuing Uther and his men inspect Ygerna’s refuge and realise that no ordinary attack can succeed: At this point in the story, the ‘prophet’ Merlin proposes a supernatural remedy: by means of a magic potion, he transforms Uther into the exact likeness of Ygerna’s absent husband. The ruse is entirely successful. The guards of Tintagel allow him into the castle, and Ygerna takes him into her bed:
That night she conceived Arthur, the most famous of men, who subsequently won great renown by his outstanding bravery.”
Tintagel Castle is 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) south-west of Boscastle, in Cornwall, in the south west region of England. It is a medieval fortification with a long association with legends related to King Arthur, and of course Merlin.
It’s situated on a jagged headland, and the island is connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land making it strongly defensible. This also means that it is a very steep climb up narrow stone stairs to get to the ruins, but the amazing views of Cornwall’s rugged coastline is definitely worth the effort.
Dilapidated stone wall remnants of the castle built by Henry III brother, Richard the Earl of Cornwall, in the early 13th century greet you at the top. Signs map out the various rooms and halls that would have stood there against the howling winds and salt spray from waves crashing on the cliffs below. I know I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to live there.
You can wander beyond the maze of old stone walls of various heights and further onto the weathered cliffs. Out there you will soon learn that this headland site was not only used through medieval times, but it is believed to be inhabited long before that in the late Roman period and into the Dark Ages. Plaques depict certain mounds and shapes under a carpet of grass which indicate this earlier occupation. If not for the signs I probably would have trampled all over it none the wiser!
At the furthest point of the small island, resides an wonderfully artistic bronze sculpture depicting King Arthur. As hard, tough and weathered as the coastline it sits on, it feels like this lonely statue could keep standing here long through the ages, just as its namesakes’ legend has.
Visiting the site
The area is managed by English Heritage, and unless you’re a member of the organisation its £9 per adult to visit. There are steep ascents and descents, and uneven rocky ground to walk on, so make sure you have good walking shoes. The coastal wind on the island can also be chilly even on a sunny day, so bring a jacket in case you get cold.
To make your ascent up the steep hill as you exit a little bit easier, I recommend to go all the way down to Merlin’s Cave first, then up the stairs to the castle, cross the connecting bridge back the the guardhouse, and follow the path on the side of the hill which will bring you already half way back up the ascent back to the town of Tintagel.
Don’t worry, you can reward yourself for all the hiking with a tasty Cornish Pasty back at the top!