The new bridge has opened at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, one of the most dramatic spots in Britain, and a place whose history is deeply entwined with tales of Arthurian legend. Carla Passino reports.
The contentious bridge across Tintagel’s atmospheric ruins is set to open this weekend. A marvel of contemporary engineering, the slender, 68-metre structure, which is made of Cornish slate tiles slotted into stainless steel cradles, recreates the tongue of land that once linked the 13th-century gatehouse on the mainland with the island where the castle sits.
Split into two separate cantilevers, the design (by Ney & Partners Civil Engineers and William Matthews Associates) features a small gap that could be interpreted, in English Heritage’s words, as the ‘the transition from the mainland to the island, from present to past, from history to legend’ — but is in fact dictated by practical considerations (to prevent excessive forces meeting in the middle of the structure).
The installation, on Tintagel’s steep, craggy cliffs, was a feat of ambitious construction to rival the bridge itself, requiring a special cable crane, of a type previously used in the Swiss Alps, which was built specifically for the task.
This combination of dramatic design, daring technology and symbolic value created huge interest in the new crossing well before its first steel section was put in place. More than 1,000 members of the public have made some financial contribution to support the project, with art-supporting philanthropists Julia and Hans Rausing giving £2.5 million through their Trust — the largest single private donation ever received by English Heritage.
Hailed by English Heritage as ‘a spectacular new addition to the site’, the bridge will also make visitors life much easier — previously, they had to climb 148 killer steps to reach the ruins. ‘Tintagel Castle has been made whole again,’ said the charity’s chief executive, Kate Mavor. ‘Once more, people will cross from one side of the castle to the other and their footsteps will echo those from hundreds of years ago.’
However, the new structure has hardly found universal welcome, with detractors lamenting that it takes away from the ruggedness of the site, that its main colour — red — clashes with the landscape and that, together with the carving of Merlin’s face in the rocks below the castle and the eerie bronze of a figure plunging a sword at the top of the cliffs, it contributes to the ‘Disneyfication of Cornwall’.
Some even argued that the land crossing that the bridge is meant to replicate never really existed, although this has been vigorously disputed by English Heritage, with Head Properties Curator Dr Jeremy Ashbee stating, in a letter to the Telegraph, that ‘the assertion that the present chasm at Tintagel has existed since prehistory… is impossible’. Indeed, medieval cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth mentioned the land crossing at Tintagel in his writing, describing it as so narrow that ‘three armed men would be able to defend [it], even if you had the whole kingdom of Britain at your side’.
Discontent has also been fuelled by the fact that the bridge’s construction process was bogged down by delays, forcing English Heritage to close the ruins for about three months longer than they originally intended, with an inevitable impact on local businesses. Even the official opening has had to be postponed for two days, from Friday 9 to Sunday 11 August, following a storm forecast for the earlier date.
However, now that the bridge is in place and has been showcased by drone footage, feedback has been generally positive, both in the media and from the public — social media comments in particular, variously referred to it as ‘breathtaking’, ‘stunning’ and ‘a Stirling Prize contender’.
And as someone who nearly died walking up Tintagel, I say: bring it on!
Alongside the new bridge, English Heritage has introduced timed tickets for Tintagel, to help protect both the castle and the environment. Advance bookings can be made on the English Heritage website: www.english-heritage.org.uk.
Simon Jenkins chooses Tintagel, Cornwall as one of England’s best views.