Before we left on our two hour drive from St Ives to Tintagel, we consulted trusty1 Google Maps for directions. While it did give us the most direct route, the first two miles also happened to be along a typical Cornish road. We don’t have roads like this in the U.S.2 so I’ll try to explain. Four inches of space on either side of the car, if you’re lucky. Beyond these eight collective inches is usually a vertical mass of assorted greenery: flowers, climbing vines, stinging nettles, grass. Behind this layer of plant matter–and I mean right behind–is a solid rock wall (example here). You can’t actually see the wall, but it’s there. If you’re especially unlucky, you’ll get a few inattentive pedestrians or even an old man on a bicycle.3 You don’t want to run into a rock wall, because no matter how cushy those plants look, they’re not going to help you. And you’ll probably get stung by the nettles once you squirm your way out past the airbag. None of these things happened to us, thankfully. So anyway, we went about two miles on this road, praying that we wouldn’t meet any cars going in the opposite direction, until we connected with the main road and agreed to never implicitly trust Google Maps again. Moral of the story: Google will give you the quickest/most direct route, but it will not tell you about the stinging nettles, tiny lanes, and the bicycling elderly.
Right, so! Tintagel! It’s the kind of place you go and think, “My God, do they actually let children in here?” Well, that was my first thought anyway.4 First there’s a long, nettle-lined walk to the coast.5 And then, of course, there are steep, uneven steps carved out of the cliff face. Bonus points for doing it in the rain and wind. Once you get to the top, there are plenty of cliffs and no safety railings. Seriously, the cliff to railing ratio is about 14 to 1. And that one is to prevent visitors from getting through without paying. But wait! Can’t forget the two huge caves in the cove below the castle. They’ll have to climb/slide down a couple of unstable rock walls to get to those. There is also a very informative sign about rabies right next to the emergency telephone. And colonies of angry birds in at least one of the caves. (I would know. One of them squawked at me when I got too close, then dove at my head.) And, you know, the incoming tide filling the caves and cutting them off from the path back up. But if the kids do happen to live through all this, there’s a delicious reward in the form of ice cream at the café across from the gift shop.
Fun fact: Cornish Hurling (Hyrlîan) is a bizarre medieval sport, possibly derived from a pagan fertility rite, that is practiced in only two modern-day towns: St Ives and St Columb Major. Basically, a large crowd assembles in town, and the ball is thrown into the air. It is then passed from player to player. In St Ives, the goal is to be in possession of the ball when the clock strikes noon. The prize is five shillings from the mayor. In St Columb Major, the game is played “Townsmen vs. Countrymen”, and can get violent, apparently. The ball is passed around town for a while, but ultimately makes its way to the outskirts, where players dash around through fields and country lanes to get it to their respective goal markers. The scoring player is carried back into town on the shoulders of his singing teammates, where they share their prize of several gallon jugs filled with beer.
Fun fact #2: At 20 square miles, St Columb Parish holds the record as the largest playing area for any ball game in the world.
- Note: sarcasm [↩]
- I don’t think we could handle them [↩]
- They’re everywhere in Cornwall. One day I will photograph and interview them all. I’ll start an old-man-on-bicycle collection. [↩]
- Although, I think that a lot. At burlesque shows, modern art museums, the zoo, playgrounds… [↩]
- Did you know: the sting of Urtica ferox, New Zealand’s version of the nettle, has caused at least one human death. [↩]