Ah, King Arthur. I’m sure he was here. Somewhere.
I’m standing high above Southern England on the west end of the Marlborough Downs at dusk searching for a Dark Ages super hero. Everyday life continues far below me, in the evening deluge of traffic up and down the M4. In the distance a late sun sparkles on the Bristol Channel. But up here I’m in a different world, gripped by greatness. Perhaps.
This is Liddington Castle, a Iron Age hill fort a few miles south of Swindon, now no more than a few ancient smoothed ditches around a wide slab of springy turf. Was it also Mons Badonicus the site of the Battle of Badon Hill, one of our greatest home wins, King Arthur’s decisive victory over the Saxons sometime around 516-518 AD?
“The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it 960 men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s,” reads an ancient account, “and no-one laid them low save he alone.”
Hold your protests, purists. I know there are lots of other possible sites – many are associated with places called Badon – but this is my choice, and there are experts who agree, so there.
And why not? Liddington was slap bang on the highway of history. The Ridgeway, the motorway of its day, now a long distance trail, ran right past it. Just the place to pull over for a mighty showdown.
And it’s the people’s site. Millions of us glance up at it every year. You can spot it from the M4, the London to Wales and the West railway, and from almost as far as Oxford: secret, brooding, and magnificent.
Historians are now sure there was an Arthur, or some great man fitting the profile, even if he never did pluck swords from stones, rescue distressed damsels and kick his wife Guinevere under the round table for eyeing up Lancelot, as Malory had it in Morte d’Arthur.
So even if Arthur is not still sleeping in an enchanted cave, he has never gone away. He’s usually in a cinema near you. One of the most recent Arthur movies offered a spare, mean king, (Clive Owen, with Keira Knightley as Guinevere), shorn of chivalry, questing and magic, as far from Sword in the Stone and Camelot as a film can travel. If that made us look afresh at the exactly who and the precisely where of Arthur, so much the better.
The film makers perversely preferred Ireland for the location scenes, which according to the (not too precise) accounts of the hard-riding war leader’s travels is the only place in the British Isles he did not pop up. That makes our shadowy monarch the tourist boards’ Messiah. There are tantalising “Arthur was (possibly) here” clues in so many places, you’d be hard put to get round them all in less than a month.
The hunt for the sites of his twelve great victories, recorded by Welsh historian Nennius, could have you tracking Arthur from a suburb of Glasgow (Cambuslang) via Hadrian’s Wall, to a valley in N Wales. There are possible Arthur locations in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and Essex (Colchester). But the strongest candidates are in the South West and Wales. I went to find the best (well I do have an Arthurian name – Sir Gareth).
So where was Camelot? Forget the colossal medieval fantasy pile they mocked up for the 1967 film of the musical. Some high wide hill, formidably defended, fits the bill, and the smart archaeological money is on Cadbury Castle, just off the A303 at Chapel Cross in Somerset. Digs in the 1970s suggested it might have been some great leader’s HQ.
I made the 20 minute ascent from the car park. It was worth it if only for the views over half of Wessex from the flat grassy top 500 feet up, and to the mysterious Tor at Glastonbury 12 miles away. (Some enterprising walkers have inaugurated Arthur’s Way, a 130 miles trek from Cadbury to Tintagel in Cornwall.)
And Arthur’s grave? So you think British politicians invented spin. The monks of Glastonbury Abbey may have been onto it in 1190 when they claimed to have “discovered” the bodies of both King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Oh, and there was even a sword.
Nothing remains, of course, although there is some evidence that a grave was dug up. But what if…? The Somerset levels still hint at the drowsy enchantment that came from the once annual winter flood. Add the Tor, our leading geological eccentricity, and all the ingredients for the Isle of Avalon are present.
It’s not too far to Winchester, for possibly our greatest surviving relic of early Arthur mania. The mighty Round Table has stood or hung in the Great Hall of the Castle for 700 years – it’s free, just walk in. But authentic? It has been dated to around 1270. Henry VIII later had it painted with the Tudor colours.
You can put together a perfectly plausible alternative Arthur tour in South Wales. I headed for Caerleon, just off the M4 at Newport; the Roman fortress is another strong contender for Camelot, with plenty of space for a round table.
Then it was west to Mynydd-y-Gaer near Pencoed, focus for one of the enthralling recent Arthur theories that spring up every so often. Two archaeologists claim to have traced King Athrwys’s (Arthur’s) grave near the altar of the ruined Church of St.Peter.
I pondered this claim while trying out the Ogwr Ridgeway Walk (splendid views) which runs the 13 miles to Mynydd-y-Gaer from Margam Park, past another strong Mt Badon candidate, Mynydd Baedan near Bridgend.
It was a short hop down the M4 to Arthur’s Stone on the Gower Peninsula beyond Swansea. The great man couldn’t be buried under the massive slabs on the high bare moor at Reynoldston, could he? I thought about it over a pint of Brains Best in, naturally, the King Arthur. Then on to Carmarthen, where his wizard sidekick is said to be interred under Merlin’s Hill, alongside the A40 just outside the town.
There is yet another Arthur circuit, in Shropshire. Two researchers claim to have identified Camelot as Wroxeter near Shrewsbury and his burial site as the Berth, close by. And they site his last battle on the Camlad river at Rhyd-y-Groes. There is a route you can cycle or drive to link them up.
But it’s down to Cornwall, for possibly the most intriguing Arthur find yet.
Tintagel, that storm-lashed headland, has been an essential stop since Tennyson gave Arthur his umpteen revival in the Idylls of the King. Today English Heritage look after it tastefully. But was it where Uther begat the future monarch?
In 1998 archaeologists found a piece of slate at Tintagel inscribed with the name “Artognov” (pronounced Arthnou, the 6th C version of Arthur). English Heritage declared it proof that at least an Arthnou was there: “It is a massive coincidence at the very least, the find of a lifetime.” The slate is now on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro.
And so to the end game. Was Slaughter Bridge near Camelford where the Battle of Camlann took place in 542, where Arthur was killed (legend has it by Morded, his wicked nephew)? There does seem to have a ferocious battle here in ancient times.
By now, and this being Cornwall, I was finding it hard to separate the few facts from the rich overlay of romantic legend. So how could I miss Castle Dore, linked to the sobbiest, gushiest romance in the entire Arthurian story, Tristan and Isolde?
I let my guard drop completely at Dozemary Pool, near Jamaica Inn, the “lake” where Sir Bedevere is supposed to have returned Excalibur to the depths.
(Bosherton Lily Ponds in West Wales is another top contender).
All made up, of course. But wait. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but as I gazed out over this dreamy water, weren’t they finger tips I saw just breaking the surface?
Royal Cornwall Museum River Street Truro Cornwall
King Arthur’s Great Halls, Tintagel, Cornwall. PL34 0DA.
Most sites, eg Liddington Castle, Cadbury, Glastonbury Abbey and Tor are free.
On the Trail of King Arthur in Shropshire, Shropshire Tourism, Harlescott Lane
Shrewsbury , Shropshire SY1 3SZ