Look now to the dramatic landscape of the West Country. The sleepy villages of Somerset and Dorset give way to the colorful towns of Devonshire and Cornwall, which has become a magnet for visual artists. The hilltop island church of St. Michael’s Mount and the ancient fortress of Tintagel should not be missed.
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Starting in Somerset
When people talk about Britain’s West Country, they are typically referring to the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire. This is the area of Britain most associated with King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table.
According to legend, Arthur was taken to the Isle of Avalon as his life neared its end. There, in a deep sleep, he awaits the moment when England will call on him again to come to its rescue. The obvious question: Where is Avalon?
One candidate is Glastonbury, where a solitary hill, “Glastonbury Tor,” rises out of the Somerset Levels. For centuries, the Levels were swamp land, which would indeed have made the hill an island.
Glastonbury is a good place to visit. At first glance, it’s similar to many of the small market towns of southwest England, such as nearby Wells and Shepton Mallet. In recent years, it’s also been the site of a massive, annual music festival, usually on the last weekend in June, which attracted upwards of 150,000 people.Glastonbury Abbey was once second only to Westminster Abbey in wealth. It suffered a catastrophic fire in 1184, after which the monks decided to emphasize their Arthurian connection, as a way of building a lucrative pilgrimage. They alleged they had discovered the remains of Arthur and Guinevere nearby, reinterring them at the abbey in regal splendor. Now the abbey is a roofless ruin.
Also, ruined and roofless is St. Michael’s Tower on the top of Glastonbury Tor. This symmetrical hill, standing alone on the otherwise-flat plain, looks almost as though it might have been built by human labor, but in fact it’s natural. A wooden church on the summit was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. In the 1300s a stone church replaced it, of which St. Michael’s Tower is the only remnant. Wonderful views in every direction made the climb more than worth the effort.
Dorset in West England
Moving south from Somerset into Dorset, you’ll encounter a succession of sleepy rustic villages. One of them, Tolpuddle, comes as a surprise. In 1833, a group of six simple farm laborers, facing severe wage reductions, joined together in a friendly society, an early form of trade union. All six were convicted and sentenced to penal transportation to Australia, Britain’s prison colony. Trade unionists petitioned the government for their pardon, described them as “martyrs,” and held great protest marches. I’m happy to say the men were pardoned.
On the centenary of the men’s trial, in 1934, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) built a terrace of six workers’ houses there, each named after one of the laborers. The central space of the terrace is a museum, re-telling the story in highly partisan rhetoric and adding a summary history of British trade unionism since then. Every July, the TUC holds a local festival and march to commemorate the story.
Plymouth in West England
The waterfront in Plymouth, in Devonshire, is 100 miles to the south and west. Right next to it are the famous Mayflower Steps. According to tradition, this is where the passengers of The Mayflower left English ground for the last time as they set out in 1620 on their voyage to New England.
Plymouth is a dramatic town with a colorful history. Built on a steeply sloping limestone site, with old fortress walls, its high point is an open common, or park, called Plymouth Hoe. In 1588, when the Spanish Armada was sailing up the English Channel, lookouts spied the enemy fleet in the distance and rushed to tell Sir Francis Drake.
Drake and the others sallied out from Plymouth when the tide had turned, and attacked the Spanish ships repeatedly, in a running battle up the English Channel. Excellent seamanship and long-distance cannons played a role in this achievement, but Britain also credited divine intervention, in the form of a providential “Protestant Wind,” which had blown to favor their tactics. This was the moment when Britain began its long rise to world naval supremacy, a position it held until World War II.
Drake himself came from the nearby Devonshire town of Tavistock, where you can visit his home, Buckland Abbey. When he bought it in the early 1580s, local people born earlier in the century could remember Buckland’s former role as a Cistercian monastery. To buy it and live in it was, in other words, a defiant assertion of Protestantism, consonant with Drake’s entire career.
The house, now owned by the National Trust, contains a display about Drake’s daring round-the-world voyage in the Golden Hind, in 1577-80, a privateering voyage so lucrative that it prompted Queen Elizabeth I to knight him and enabled Drake to buy Buckland Abbey.
West from Buckland Abbey, in the county of Cornwall, lies the exposed high country of Bodmin Moor. It’s the wildest area in Cornwall, dotted with exposed stone crags, one of which, Brown Willy, is the county’s high point at nearly 1,400 feet. Bodmin Moor is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and home to several, rare bird species. Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of Neolithic farming and hunting communities, and numerous stone circles that were probably religious in origin.
Cornwall is still a magnet for artists. This is partly because it is warmer than most other parts of Britain, partly because the landscape is spectacularly beautiful, and partly because the lack of industry contributes to a crystal-clear atmosphere.
Tintagel in West England
The ancient fortress of Tintagel is another of the great Arthurian sites, and nearly every shop in the nearby village has an Arthurian name and sign.
According to the medieval chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, this is the place where Arthur was conceived by his mother Igraine, thanks to a bit of devious magic from Merlin.
Tintagel is a rocky promontory, approached across a footbridge, onto what feels like an island. The ruined castle remains are from the 13th century; even then, the idea that this was the place of Arthur’s birth prompted the builder, King Henry III’s brother, Richard, to use an older style, giving his own contemporaries the feeling that they were entering an ancient place. Tintagel is today one of the most popular visitor destinations in the whole of Britain.
Where Is Camelot?
Everyone interested in the Arthurian legends wonders whether Tintagel is also the site of Camelot, the home of Arthur’s Court, and the great round table. It’s certainly one candidate.
A second possibility is Caerleon in South Wales, a Roman stronghold, and site of a great round earthwork that is sometimes referred to as the Round Table, but is actually the remains of their amphitheater.
A third “Camelot” is Cadbury Castle in Somerset, quite near Glastonbury, where this lecture began. It’s an Iron Age hill fort, which archaeologists have shown to be the site of large buildings, big settlements, and at least one major battle.
A fourth possibility, attractive not least because it actually has a round table, is Winchester Castle in Hampshire. A massive round table hangs on the wall of the Great Hall there, with the names of 24 knights inscribed around the edge.
After years of speculation about its age, a group of dendro-chronologists, scientists who can date wood by the spacing of tree rings, tested it in the 1970s, and showed it to come from the late 13th century, probably about 1270. That’s far too late for Arthur, who, if he existed at all, lived in the 4th or 5th century.
Whether you’re tracing the legends of King Arthur and Francis Drake or looking for grand coastal hikes, I hope you’ll spend a few days of your journey to Britain in the West Country.