Brexit and King Arthur

England’s exceptional weather this summer has attracted foreign tourists in record numbers and persuaded the English to stay in England. No surprise, then, that Cornwall is almost Mediterranean in its colours and packed with international tourists. On most visitor’s bucket-list is Tintagel, home to King Arthur.

Tintagel in Cornwall, UK

I have visited Tintagel many times but when I was almost alone. Throngs of tourists change the place. They make you appreciate the workmen repairing paths, the new grouting on the slate steps up to the castle, and the care given to the conservation of the remains themselves. Tintagel was designed for a small sub-Roman community and as a small 13th-century castle, not for 5,000 day-visitors. Making it sustainable so the legend persists on this glorious stack in the Atlantic is an extraordinary challenge.

Ralegh Radford by H. A. Freeth

Ralegh Radford is the founding father of Tintagel. In the 1930s, while Director of the British School at Rome, he discovered the Arthurian phase with its diagnostic North African plates and amphorae. New excavations in 2016-17 reported by Jacqueline Nowakowski in A. Jones & H. Quinnell (eds) Reflections on the work of Charles Thomas (Archaeopress, 2018) show how rich this Arthurian phase was. 1500+ fragments of Mediterranean wares were found in a 6th-century rubbish midden. The excavations also produced a glimpse of the underwhelming Dark Age afterlife, showing that the place persisted after the collapse of the Arthurian kingdom.

Given the huge visitor numbers, English Heritage has indulged the myth and legend in its signs, and added a new feature. At the western lip of the stack, close to a sheer cliff, stands a bronze statue of the once and future king. His spectral body bids one to reflect. Tintagel has changed in recent times under this martial gaze, but is post-imperial Britain, with Brexit imminent, about to become as internationally isolated as Cornwall became in the wake of Arthur’s demise in the 6th century? The success in managing (and understanding through new excavations) this tourist destination stands in stark contrast to the absence of any strategy for managing Britain’s future. It is also a reminder of how episodic and serendipitous history is, rather like the English weather.

The once and future King

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