Saturday, 28 September 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Fracas

The Eagle dipped low. Bilbo slid from its back and landed on the edge of the rocky precipice. He looked up as the majestic bird wheeled back into the sky, emitting its stereotypical cry before disappearing into the clouds. Several more eagles swooped, depositing their cargoes. Bilbo cowered, covering his head as dwarves rained around him.

His companions straightened up, dusting themselves down and inspecting their lofty surroundings. Gandalf adjusted his conical hat and muttered, 'Another day, another bloody mountainside.'

The party inspected the vista. Below them, the forbidding expanse of Mirkwood stretched toward the murky horizon. At the limit of their vision, Mount Erebor rose like a wonky phallic symbol.

Thorin Oakenshield stepped forward and cocked his head as a thrush flew drunkenly past, twittering meaninglessly as it made a beeline for the distant peak. 'The birds are returning to the mountain," he stated with satisfaction.

'Not all of them," Bilbo spat.

Thorin frowned. "What mean you?"

"Well, the eagles aren't heading that way, are they? Why did they dump us here? Why not take us all the way? We'll have to cross that whole bloody forest before reaching-"

Gandalf stretched a friendly arm across Bilbo's shoulders and led him away from the party of bearded and befuddled midgets. "You forget yourself, my hirsute-footed friend. We're trying to make a trilogy out of a short novel and a few appendices. If the eagles had taken us all the way, it would make for a rather short saga."

Bilbo shook his head. "I don't get it."

Gandalf nodded sagaciously. "I don't blame you. We're doing this whole thing arse about face. We made a popular trilogy in which you played a small part as a doddery schizophrenic jewellery hoarder, and now we're capitalising by making a whole new trilogy out of the leftovers. If we don't go through that wood, we won't be able to justify bringing back that wimp from the Pirates Of The Caribbean."

Bilbo stared at him.

Gandalf shrugged and continued. "There's a bit more to it. You know the ring you nicked from that stunted little Special Effect?"

Bilbo shifted uncomfortably. " I found it."

"Whatever. Well, that ring will have an important part to play in the future. So will the Necromancer, that shadowy figure what the Seventh Doctor warned us about."

Bilbo glanced askance at the flustered wizard. "Is Keira Knightley going to turn up at any stage?"

"No. And neither will Captain Jack Tonto."

"Dammit," Bilbo declared, mopping his brow, "Well, I suppose we'd better get a shift on."

Their progress toward their dwarf companions was suddenly arrested by the arrival of a high-pitched, melodious operatic voice, emitting random musical notes. A tall, willowy brunette appeared upon the scene, accompanied by a bunch of drooling cartoon animals.

"Who the f--k is this?" Bilbo shrieked.

The paleness of her skin denoted long-term heroin addiction. The slenderness of her proportions suggested severe bulimia issues. " I am the Princess Snow White, and I am seeking refuge from my murderous Godmother."

"And you conceal yourself by swanning around, singing at the top of your voice, surrounded by a bunch of bewitched cartoons?" Bilbo hollered, clutching his hair in disbelief.

"Well, she's not too bright. Talks to herself in the mirror. Oh-" Her delicate hands flew to her rosy lips, "Dwarves!"

Thorin and his companions glanced at each other, then at the newcomer.

"Oh," she gasped, "I just love hairy little men." She glanced around secretively. "I know a cottage where we can... you know... set up house." She winked conspiratorially. "Anyone want to come with me?"

The dwarves shot their stubby hands into the air and clamoured for attention.

She laughed with delight. "Then let's go! Except for you two." She pointed at Thorin and Gloin. "You're far too serious, and you're far too ugly."

The remaining party watched, in a kind of mental haze, as Snow White and the seven dwarves headed with alacrity into the sylvan haven of Mirkwood.

Gandalf frowned. "Don't remember this being in the script."

"Well, that's great. That's just great," Bilbo declared, "Trilogy my arse. I'm going back to being the butt of Sherlock's jokes." And he stomped away.

Gandalf, Thorin and Gloin glanced at each other.

"Well, now what?" Gandalf said.

"I guess we just wait here," Gloin replied," and hope there's a Time Bandits 2"

Friday, 19 July 2013

Rough Circles

West Penwith is the 'toe' of Cornwall, an area of outstanding natural beauty, of timeless ambience, of ancient history that lifts the heart and animates the soul. The landscape is an inspiring blend of pasture, moorland, heath, sharp rocky tors, meandering drystone walls and tiny villages, hewn from  granite and slate. The beating nucleus of Cornwall's ancient identity can be seen in the multitude of standing stones, old tumps, time-cracked quoits and wild earthworks. On warm days, sea air from the nearby coasts both north and south provide a refreshing relief from the humidity of the lush pastoral closeness. On wild days the wind and rain can scythe through your very bones, and the venerable landscape becomes a treacherous enemy. It is a land worthy of reverence and despair, wonder and fear, courage and care. Hyperbole, indeed, but West Penwith - as all who know and love it would agree - is such stuff as hyperbole is made for.

Land's End, a popular Penwith destination

  Armed with an OS map, one can spend a week wandering the footpaths and hoary tracks of Penwith, every differing view a masterpiece, every tor a challenge, every discovery a delight. A single blog post cannot do credit to this region, so I will attempt to do credit to one small walk, a stroll of about an hour and a half, a trek forming a rough circle.

Bosigran Cliff, West Penwith
It is a walk I discovered myself, and I returned a year later with the three offspring in tow. The year I cannot remember, but it was c.2007. The day was bright, sunny and warm (but not stiflingly so) and our journey began on a small, dusty carpark on the side of an unrated country road, the main highway between the villages of Madron and Morvah. On the other side of the road sits a lone, small building, the Men An Tol Studio, now a gallery and publisher of local literature. In the heart of an area that has inspired many artists and writers, it could not be more perfectly sited.

Men An Tol Studio, (c) Big Al Davis

Sadly, it is not the studio we have come to visit, which is just as well as it appears to be closed. We strike out in the other direction, along a farm track heading away from the car park. The ground is rutted and crumbling with the furrows churned by agricultural vehicles. On two occasions it is a quagmire, possibly caused by the presence of springs and underground water channels in the area. We step gingerly past the boggy bits and keep as much as possible to the dusty, sun-cracked parts. To our left we can see the crumbling hulks of abandoned farm buildings, left to the mercy of the seasons. These are not the last derelict structures we will encounter during this stroll. In the distance to our rear we can make out the slopes of Chun Castle, an ancient Cornish fortress that still contains walls constructed during the Iron Age, and in the distance ahead we can see the undulating, dramatic profile of the tor known as Carn Gulva.

Chun Castle

Carn Gulva
The first site we intend to visit is, thankfully, much closer than those two. It stands in a field, close to the right of the track, and is one of the most celebrated prehistoric sites in Cornwall. It is known locally as the Crick Stone, but more familiarly by the Cornish for 'the hole stone' - the Men An Tol. It has been interfered with at various points in its 3-4000 year history, as old antiquarian notes and sketches suggest, and no-one is sure of its purpose. Some believe it to be the remains of a burial chamber, a 'quoit', others - myself included - believe it to be the ruins of a stone circle of which the holed stone was probably the centre.


The site is rich in local folklore. The obvious symbolism of the shape of the stones lead many to think that the site is a Bronze Age fertility clinic. Other local rituals have also been connected with the enigmatic monument:

  • Rickets/Scrofula: To protect children against these ailments, pass them naked through the holed stone three times, then draw them along the grass three times in an easterly direction. For the sake of the kids, I hope this ritual was reserved for warm days.
  •  Rheumatism/Ague: Adults afflicted with these should crawl through the hole nine times against the sun. This would probably be quite a chore if you were afflicted with rheumatism. Or obesity.
  • Prophecy: According to nineteenth-century folklorist Robert Hunt: If two brass pins are carefully laid across each other on the top edge of the stone, any question put to the rock will be answered by the pins acquiring, through some unknown agency, a peculiar motion. 
Men An Tol is not a large monument, but it is a unique one, and on a warm Summer day you would be lucky to have it yourself for more than a few minutes. I had long enough to conduct a brief experiment, and am happy to report that I can fit through it.

Back to the track, and we only have a few paces to go before the next site on our walk. In a field on the left, a single standing stone holds itself proudly erect. Stones such as these are not unusual in West Penwith, but this is more exciting than most, because it bears an inscription dating back to the Dark Ages, some 1500 years ago. The stone itself may date back to the Bronze Age and has simply been used as a grave marker.

Men Scryfa
It is six feet high, and part of the inscription has now sunk below the ground. It reads: RIALOBRANI CVNOVALI FILI, meaning 'Royal Raven, son of Famous Leader/Glorious Prince'. This shows how, in the culture of the time, names and titles were more or less interchangeable (as has been noticed by scholars who believe the name Arthur to be a title meaning 'Bear'.

According to local legend, the Glorious Prince held sway at Lescudjack near Penzance. An invader attacked and seized the fort and the Prince's lands. This may have had something to do with the important tin trade in the area at the time, and the re-fortification of nearby Chun Castle seems to have been contemporary with this affair. The Royal Raven attempted to win back his father's lands in battle, but was killed and buried by the stone. The fact that the stone was left to stand as a memorial suggests that the fallen Prince managed to gain victory despite his sacrifice.

Four Parish Stone

A little further along from Men Scryfa, the track splits in several directions. One leads to the rocky prominence of Carn Gulva, the others head right up the hill toward a distant engine house, relic of an abandoned tin mine. At this junction can be found a recumbent stone with a small cross incised at the end. This cross represents the junction of four parishes: Madron, Morvah, Zennor and Gulval.

Of the two tracks leading toward the mine, we take the higher option. We stroll past gorse and heather, and skirt an overgrown round barrow, a Bronze Age burial mound, which still has fallen kerbstones which once enclosed it at ground level. Beofore our ascent allows us to reach the mine, there is another monument to encounter; one which had been suffering from vegetative encroachment but, happily, has been cleared to provide us with a better view. It is the Nine Maidens Stone Circle, 72 feet in diameter. The antiquarian William Borlase noted in the 18th century that 13 of its original 20+ stones were standing - today that has been reduced to 7, and some of them lean precariously. They stand to an average height of 4ft and represent just one of the many wonderful, lonely and atmospheric stone circles that dot the Penwith landscape.

Nine Maidens

We put the Circle behind us as we continue to ascend the path. The landscape around us starts to change, some areas deeply pitted and fenced off, as we walk through an area pocked by the deep pits and gorges of old mining works. To our left the vista opens, affording us a glorious view of St Michael's Mount, and even further, to the rocky scarp of Carn Brea. We reach the peak of the path, the ruins of the Greenburrow engine house, the steadfast and atmospheric remnants of what is known as the Ding-Dong Mine.

Ding Dong Mine (c) Nick Macneill

From this elevated spot we can look back at our route, the Circles at Nine Maidens and Men An Tol hidden by scrub but the surrounding tors and peaks thrusting from the earth in their granite glory. Looking ahead, toward the Madron-Morvah road, we can see the defiant outline of the Lanyon Quoit, one of Cornwall's finest and most famous Neolithic monuments, which we had visited shortly before embarking upon this trek.

Lanyon Quoit, Ding Dong Mine behind (c) Hayley Greet

The path winds downward, across a stile, the gorsde closing in. Well hidden in this heathland, to the left of the path, is a small and perfect Neolithic burial chamber called the Bosiliack Barrow. It is a fine example of a prehistoric chambered tomb and, protected almost jealously by the surrounding undergrowth, is very difficult to find. For the hardy, however, it is well worth tracking down.

Bosiliack Barrow (c)Hansjoerg Lipp

The path now winds randomly toward the road. At one point we have to leap across a ditch, a field boundary, the water trickling sweetly and melodiously, as though to camouflage the treachery of the quagmire it has built around itself. The gorse sways and the heather bristles; it is with yearning hearts that we leave behind this beautiful, challenging landscape to step back out onto the rude tarmac of the road, and commence the short stroll back to the car.

Not a mighty hike, but a short, picturesque and historic stroll. Just a fragment of West Penwith was covered by our ambling, yet it encapsulated all that is glorious about this magical, mystical corner of our diverse and mystical island home. A rough circle, with other rough circles to bear witness to along the way. Many have stepped along this route. None, I'll wager, have forgotten it.

All of the above pics were lifted from the interweb, and I have credited these talented photographers where I have been able to identify them. I can only thank them for falling under West Penwith's spell as heavily as I did.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Fine Things To Be Seen

'...For there are good things yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green'
                                                                                GK Chesterton, The Rolling English Road

The Anglican Chapel

An Open Day at a 72-acre cemetery? Seems an unattractive prospect for a daytrip... unless you harbour an interest in Victoriana, a fondness for Gothic sculpture, and the burial ground in question just happens to be one of the most celebrated in the world. There is even a free photography exhibition. Maybe a trip to Kensal Green Cemetery could be fascinating after all (unless, of course, you have a one-way ticket).

Angel at Kensal Green © E&K

  The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, was created in 1833, using the famous Pere Lachaise in Paris as its inspiration. The 'General Cemetery Company' was created in order to run it... and indeed they run it today, making Kensal Green the only one of the 'Magnificent Seven' cemeteries surrounding London to be maintained by its original owners.

  The need for cemeteries arose due to the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the churchyards in the City (which are mentioned in some detail here). Kensal Green was the first to arrive, the other six being West Norwood (1837) Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Nunhead (1840), Brompton (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841). Many others have opened since, including the City Of London Cemetery at Manor Park, which is one of the largest in the world. The City churchyards were finally closed in the 1850's, and those that have not been cleared and had big office buildings planted on them have become pleasant gardens.

Tomb with caryatids © E&K

 The centrepiece of the cemetery is the classical Anglican Chapel, recently restored with the help of English Heritage and now a Grade I listed building. Two other structures at Kensal Green are listed Grade II: the Dissenters Chapel and the North Colonnade. All three of these structures have catacombs running beneath them.

Dissenters Chapel

  The catacombs beneath the Anglican Chapel follow the footprint of the Chapel and its colonnades, and have room for 4000 coffins, although 3000 have been filled. Like the rest of the Cemetery, they are still being used for internments today. They are currently under restoration. The catacombs beneath the North Colonnade are sealed. On the Open Day that we attended, the catacombs beneath the Dissenters Chapel were open for the first time, providing a home for a Photography exhibition.

The Grade II listed North Colonnade at Kensal Green, overpowered by a block of flats. Nice one, town planners.

The reality of mortality. It is uncomfortable to be confronted with it, but you can scarcely avoid it here. I turned up with my photographer daughter, her boyfriend, and the promise of another friend joining us later. All roads in Kensal Green lead to the Anglican Chapel, and we naturally gravitated to the stalls, the exhibitions, and the leaflets embellished with convenient maps, before striking out to explore the grounds.

  We headed for the Dissenters Chapel. It sits at the eastern end of the cemetery, reflecting a Victorian division that has, thankfully, pretty much disappeared today. The catacombs below the Chapel are hosting an exhibition of images by the Guardian photographer Sean Smith, and his work is not easy to behold. Dead bodies laying in the street in a warzone, ragged prostitutes, junkies shooting up... all within a space defined by our being surrounded by curtained vaults. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, to say the least.

Impressive tomb ©  E&K

I pull back a heavy curtain to show my companions the true purpose of the catacombs. Behind me lie coffins, Victorian-era Dissenters, wrapped in polythene to protect them from damp.Their names glare at us, scribbled down on cards and attached to their caskets. This touch makes it personal.  We have a male name, a female name, an 'unidentified adult', and then my daughter shrinks back, alarmed by something she has noticed. A fourth coffin, atop the other three. This box is about three feet long.

I try to explain the reality of infant mortality in Victorian times. It has been said that if you could survive all those childhood illnesses, then you had a good chance of living a relatively long life. The stumbling block was, of course, those childhood illnesses. Chicken Pox, Smallpox, Whooping Cough etc. This is why the Victorians had such large families. They simply didn't expect half of them to survive.

Anglican Chapel catacombs. The coffins in the Dissenter Chapel are 'sleeved' in polythene.

Explanations are not enough. The stark reality of the Catacombs, the coffin of a child, the blunt confrontation with the fact that History is not just costumes and archaic phrases. Time to leave the brooding vaults, to leave Mr Smith's photographs in their admittedly appropriate surroundings. Time to explore, with slightly troubled minds, what Kensal Green can show us not just about our past, but about our mortal futures.

  As an avid bookworm, my chief interest in Kensal Green is its literary connections, and we explore the ground to find the places of repose for those famous for their writings - and their relatives. Not far to the east of the Anglican Chapel can be found the tomb, half-hidden in the undergrowth, of Byron's wife Anne Isabella Millbanke (his half-sister/mistress Augusta Leigh is in the Anglican catacombs). Their quiet repose belies the scandals that often blighted their lives. One of the poet's closest friends, the politician John Cam Hobhouse, also lies in the cemetery, as does Lady Charlotte Bacon, the 'Ianthe' to whom he dedicated his epic poem Harold Childe's Pilgrimage. Around this area can be found the novelist William Thackerey, the playwright Harold Pinter and the poet Thomas Hood. To the west of the Chapel can be found Anthony Trollope and one of my favourite Victorian authors, Wilkie Collins of The Moonstone and The Woman In White.

An old photo of Collins' grave. Today, the iron railings have disappeared.

  Collins' grave has a few weathered pages from a book placed upon it. I pick up a page and try to recognise the words, but they are in German - a language of which I have little knowledge. We walk north of the grave, to an area where the grass is growing wild, covering many of the crumbling stones. Something catches my eye; a small white mausoleum, standing stark and lonely between minor monuments in this neglected part of the cemetery.

  It catches my eye for three reasons: it stands alone, not clustered with other, more opulent mausolea near the Anglican Chapel. It is anonymous, no inscriptions visible on its exterior. And, unlike the other mausolea which have doors or bricked-up substitutes, this one lacks a door at all. A black rectangle where the door should be seems to beckon us.

  My daughter, possibly still unnerved by the experience of the catacombs, has no wish to explore the mystery. Her boyfriend and I hold no such qualms. We pick our way to the structure, taking care not to stumble on hidden graves, and keeping an eye out for adders.

The Somerset Mausoleum

  Gingerly, we step into the mausoleum. Of its door there is no sign. The floor has litter, but not in any great quantity. A memorial medallion on the rear wall commemorates a woman. A shadow to its left attests to the presence of a now-vanished companion medallion. A slab is in the middle of the floor, inscribed with names and dates: Edward Adolphus Seymour and his second wife Margaret, who died in 1855 and 1880 respectively. We have found a descendant of the famous Tudor courtiers. We have found the 11th Duke of Somerset and his Duchess.

  Somerset seems to have been an erudite man. As well as being a Knight of the Garter, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the President of the Linnean Society, the Royal Institution and the Royal Literary Fund. Unusually for a large landlord, he supported the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Edward Adolphus Seymour (c) NPG

  We emerge into the daylight, and I wonder why the Duke chose to have his mausoleum in such an isolated spot, away from the impressive funerary architecture that characterises the 'fashionable' areas. Many noblemen are buried at Kensal Green, yet this one seems to have made an effort not to be buried alongside them, and failed to even place the family name on his tomb. For a descendant of  Edward VI's Lord Protector, this seems curiously modest. The building is Grade II listed, and on English Heritage's 'At Risk' register, due to erosion at foundation level and the encroaching undergrowth.

 We meet up with my friend and explore the neighbouring Roman Catholic cemetery, which contains the entertainer Danny La Rue among others. In the centre, a white headstone shines like a beacon, marking the resting place of Mary Seacole, after whom a ward in my local hospital is named, and making this the second time I have tracked the grave of a Crimean War nurse. Then it's back for a final stroll around the hallowed bowers of the main cemetery.

Squirrels ply their athleticism across horse chestnut trees. Wildflowers jostle with the fading blooms of scattered wreaths. Foxes have made their lairs in the nooks and caverns of the cemetery, but they remain concealed for our visit. The tombs of princes, dukes and princesses cluster boldly around the Anglican Chapel. The little daughter of Winston Churchill rests under a whispering tree, not far from the mother of Oscar Wilde and the stationer W H Smith. The names of artists such as William Powell Frith fade on their headstones, even as the colours they daubed continue to burn bright on their canvases. Mary Hogarth, sister-in-law of Dickens, lies close to the cemetery's outer wall, in a spot once baptised with the great author's tears. The carvings on the tomb of William Mulready RA form a gallery of images he painted in his lifetime. Graven angels reach heavenward, neglected mausolea crumble under the onslaught of bramble and time. We depart, heading for the gaudy lights and endless rumble of the West End and a Covent Garden dinner... a stark contrast to the rustling necropolis we leave behind, the slumbering city of the dead left to the scurrying of nocturnal mammals and the peace of night. Peace, for its residents both famous and forgotten, stretching into eternity.

Nature taking over... ©E&K

Many fine things... ©E&K

Monday, 18 February 2013

In The Footsteps Of Arthur, Part Five: Avalon

Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as they mayest, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou never hear more of me, pray for my soul.
   Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur

  Of the locations connected with King Arthur, none is so mystical as the one that appears at the end of his story: Avalon. Etymologically, the word appears to be derived from the Brythonic abal/afal/afall, meaning 'apple', and the notion of an 'Island of Apples' may be connected to Irish 'Otherworld' legends. It makes its first appearance in Arthurian lore in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Regum Historia Brittaniae, as the site where Excalibur was forged and where the King was transported after receiving a head wound at the Battle of Camlann... an event which we shall briefly explore.

The Battle of Camlann was, in most versions of the story, fought between the Knights loyal to Arthur and those who sided with his treacherous nephew Sir Mordred. It was first mentioned in the Annales Cambriae as having taken place in the year 537: 'the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished'. With the usual infuriating vagueness of early Arthurian references, it fails to specify a location or whether Arthur and Mordred were enemies or allies. The blossoming of legend around Arthur's final battle seems to have stemmed from this short and vague comment. References to the battle later turn up in the folkloric Welsh Triads, although these vary as to explaining its cause.

Arthur and Mordred meet at Camlann. By Arthur Rackham, 1917

The site of Camlann has been suggested in a myriad of places. Queen's Camel in Somerset, close to the South Cadbury hillfort that has been suggested as the site of Camelot.  A river in Gwynedd called Camlan. Somewhere on Salisbury Plain. Outside the town of Camelford in Cornwall.

Although the Camelford site is based on a fanciful (or perhaps merely hopeful) reading of an inscribed stone in the vicinity, it lies in an area much defined by proximity to the supposed Arthurian sites of Tintagel and Castle Killibury, and in a spirited attempt to emphasise Arthur's Cornish connection, the supposed site has become a visitor attraction in recent years. Calling itself the Arthurian Centre, it contains 20 acres of North Cornwall countryside abutting the River Camel (at this point an attractive stream). It does seem possible that a battle was fought here in antiquity, but is most likely to have been the Battle of Camelford, fought between the defending Cornish and the invading Saxon King Egbert in 823.

 And what of the Slaughterbridge Stone, used for centuries to suggest that this was the site of Camlann? It was first described by the Cornish antiquary Richard Carew in 1602 in his The Survey Of Cornwall... 'the folke thereabouts will show you a stone bearing Arthur's name...'

The Slaughterbridge Stone lies on the banks of the Camel. Photo by Babelstone.

  Over nine feet long, it now lies recumbent by the side of the stream, presumably having been cast down at some point from its original upright position. The inscription has faded, but has been dated possibly to the 540's (contemporary with Camlann). It is one of the few inscribed stones to use both Latin and Ogham script, the latter deriving from Ireland, and the tentative readings of the damaged inscription do indicate a hybrid of Latin and Irish names: LATINI IC IACIT FILIUS MACARI (Latinus lies here, the son of Macarius). The Arthur connection lies with earlier readings which suggested that the inscription actually read LATIN HIC JACET FILIUS MAGNI ARTURI (Here lies Latin the son of Arthur the Great).

Inscription on the Slaughterbridge Stone

  A more likely site for the Battle of Camlann lies in the western half of Hadrian's Wall. One of the forts along the Wall was, according to the late Roman document the Notitia Dignitatum, named CAMBOGLANNA, 'crooked riverbank'. It was long believed that this referred to the fort of Birdoswald, an evocative site that exists today next to an impressive section of the Wall. However, it is now believed that the fort at Birdoswald was BANNA and that the neighbouring fort, seven miles west at Castlesteads, was the real CAMBOGLANNA. Nevertheless, both sites are adjacent to the great Roman border and suggest, if Camlann was indeed fought here, that Arthur's enemy may have been the Scotti or the Picts.

The author at Birdoswald Fort, BANNA, Hadrian's Wall. (c) Emily McManus
Archaeologists discovered that a timber hall of the Arthurian period had been erected on the site of Roman granaries at BANNA, which has led to much debate over activity in the area during this period. Alas, of the real CAMBOGLANNA at Castlesteads, little remains. The adjacent section of Hadrian's Wall was virtually obliterated to provide building material for Lanercost Priory, and the site of the fort itself was levelled in the late eighteenth century when Castlesteads House and its gardens were constructed on the site.

Altar dedicated to Jupiter, found at CAMBOGLANNA at an unknown date
 According to the stories, Arthur and Mordred met in hand-to-hand combat toward the end of the battle. Mordred dealt the King a serious sword wound to the head before himself being  fatally struck down. Sir Bedivere, one of the few survivors of the strife, was instructed to return the sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Subsequently, Arthur was borne off to the Isle of Avalon on a barge accompanied by the Isle's queens, one of whom was Morgan Le Fay.

A rather hectic 13th-century depiction of the Battle of Camlann

Arthur was never seen again. In some versions of the story, such as Malory, he dies. In others he merely rests, awaiting the time that his country will need him so that he may return. Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus. The Once And Future King.

So what of the mysterious 'Insula Avallonis', first mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia? He returns to it with a little more detail in his later work Vita Merlini, but this time he describes it as 'Insula Pomorum' - the Isle of Apples. This ties in with the Celtic word 'afal' for apple, and the Welsh spelling of Avalon as Afallach. He also seems to be have been inspired, by this time, by the work of Saint Isidore of Seville (c.560-636). This scholarly Archbishop, in his highly influential work Etymologiae, describes the Isles of the Fortunate where fruit grows in abundance. These have been assumed to be the Canary Islands. Monmouth, in the Vita, describes Avalon as the 'Fortunate Isle' where fruit grows in abundance. He describes it as being occupied by nine sisters, the foremost of whom is Morgan le Fay. The others, of somewhat lesser importance in the Arthurian legends, are Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton. Notice how they are divided by their initials into groups of three, and combined form 3 X 3. This is the rhetorical trick used by the later Welsh Triads.

James Archer, 1860. Much visual art regarding Avalon emphasises its 'fairytale' nature

Putting aside the disconcerting notion that Monmouth may have based his description of Avalon on Tenerife, is there anything in the historical record to indicate that this otherworldly realm may have been based upon a more corporeal site? Oddly enough, there may be...

A popular candidate for the prototype of King Arthur is one Riothamus, a historical figure who was active around 470 C.E .Scholars of the period believe that this name may be derived from 'Rigotamus', a title meaning 'Highest King', and the Celtic linguist Leon Fleuriot argued that he may have been Ambrosius Aurelianus, the warlord mentioned by Gildas as holding back the Saxon tide.

 Although he is as obscure as most warchiefs of the period, there is no doubt that Riothamus existed. A letter survives from Sidonius Apollinaris, the Bishop of Clermont, asking Riothamus for redress regarding a humble landowner whose slaves had been enticed away by a group of Bretons (presumably part of Riothamus' 12000-strong army). According to the historian Jordanes, writing from Constantinople about eighty years later, Riothamus was a leader from Britain or Brittany (possibly both) who marched with his army to defeat the depradations of the Visigoths. It is believed by Geoffrey Ashe and others that this may be the basis of Arthur's continental adventures in Monmouth's Historia.

Apparently, Riothamus' war against the Visigoths was the result of a call from aid from the Roman Emperor Anthemius. Unfortunately, Riothamus does not seem to have been as successful as the legendary King whose adventures he may have inspired. Possibly betrayed by the Prefect of Gaul, Arvandus, Riothamus found himself intercepted by the Visigoth King Euric and, according to the writer Gregory of Tours, 'The Brittani were driven from Bourges by the Goths and many of them perished at the village of Deols'. Riothamus survived this rout and fled into Burgundy, at which point he disappears from the historical record. His last known position was near a Burgundian town called Avallon. This town, the Roman ABALLO, exists today with a population of 7700 and is known for the manufacture, among other things, of gingerbread. It has been twinned with various European towns, including Tenterden in Kent - another area known for apples!

Avallon, Burgundy.
 Unfortunately, the Burgundian connection with the Isle of Avalon has not endured well, despite the possible connection with the Historia. Only a few decades after that popular book was written, an event occurred that switched the focus of Avalon's location elsewhere... and that location has proved popular right up until the present day. Known to the Britons as Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, it is better known today as the Somerset town of Glastonbury.

The Isle Of Glass
Modern Glastonbury is a Mecca for both Christians and Neo-Pagans, fascinated by the legends surrounding the area and the evocative sites that can still be visited. Two neighbouring springs, the Red Spring and the White Spring, produce two completely different types of mineral water and are venerated for their mystical connections with Grail lore and Joseph of Arimathea. The unmistakeable conical shape of Glastonbury Tor dominates the town, and its folkloric connections with Arthur vie with the ruins of the town's Abbey as popular with visitors seeking the legend.

Chalice Well, a popular sacred site for both Christians and NeoPagans

So how did this curious town become so enmeshed in the Arthur legend, and why do so many consider it Avalon?

In the year 1184, only a few decades after the Historia Regum Brittaniae popularised the Arthur legend across Europe, the influential Benedictine Abbey at Glastonbury suffered a major fire which destroyed most of its monastic buildings. Rebuilding began immediately, and in 1190, under the directions of the Abbot Henry de Sully, monks dug to a depth of 16 feet at a point in the Abbey cemetery that was marked by two tapering crosses. Apparently, a travelling Welsh bard had entrusted to King Henry II the supposed site of King Arthur's burial, and at some point prior to his death in 1189, the King had passed this information to the Abbot.

The exhumation at Glastonbury

At a depth of several feet the monks recovered a lead cross. Digging further, they found a treetrunk burial - two skeletons encased in a hollowed-out tree. A male skeleton of large proportions was accompanied by a smaller female skeleton with traces of blond hair that disentegrated to the touch. The cross, which was drawn by William Camden in 1607, bore the inscription 'HIC IACET SEPTULUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA', meaning 'Here lies the famous King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon'. Some chroniclers, perhaps referring to an inscription on the other face of the cross which was not drawn by Camden, claim it read 'Here lies the famous King Arthur with his second wife Guinevere in the Isle of Avalon'.

Edward I had a marble tomb built for the re-internment of the pair, and the cross was laid on top of it. When the tomb was destroyed at some point following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the cross was kept by St John's Church in Glastonbury, subsequently being held at Wells until it disappeared from history.

The Arthur Cross, after Camden

Most scholars believe the whole exhumation to have been a hoax, perpetuated by the Abbey as a fund-raising exercise for the rebuilding. Curiously, however, the monks never seem to have 'cashed in' to any great degree. The marble tomb was not commissioned until the reign of Edward Longshanks and he, as a warrior King fighting the Welsh, had good reason to display that the legendary Arthur, who was meant to return and lead the Britons, was in fact six feet under.

Others have pointed out that the lettering on the Cross is tenth-century, and may date from when Abbot Dunstan (later an important Archbishop of Canterbury) ordered the level of the cemetery to be raised.

Whatever the truth behind the exhumation, it sealed Glastonbury's position as the Isle of Avalon up to the present day. The site of the tomb is marked in the Abbey grounds, and the legend has also encompassed the landmark Glastonbury Tor.

The site of Arthur's tomb

The Tor is a familiar landmark, a conical, terraced hill with a church tower perched on top (the rest of the church having been destroyed in a medieval earthquake). From the summit, a clear day's view will show you South Cadbury Castle, a hillfort suspected of being Camelot. In the other direction can be seen Brent Knoll, where Arthur is supposed to have fought a giant. The whole region is suffused with Arthurian legend.

Archaeological exploration of the Tor has shown that there was indeed some sort of complex here during the time of Arthur, but its nature is uncertain. The stories usually have the Tor as the site of Melwas' stronghold, the knight who abducted Guinevere and forced her rescue by Lancelot. Others, relating it to the Grail legends, would have it as the base of the Fisher King.

(c) Early British Kingdoms .com

The Tor is a special place in a very spiritual part of the country. The legends of Arthur, vibrant, colourful and mysterious even to the present day, take life here. Even if he was not buried here, did he walk these hills? Was this the centre of his lands? Was this Avalon? We will probably never know, we shall merely keep imagining, and as long as we keep imagining, the legends will never fade.


Following the footsteps of Arthur is a fascinating quest through some of the most attractive and historical sites in Britain. The following Gazetteer briefly describes the sites mentioned in this essay and its predecessors.

Tintagel   Coastal resort in Cornwall, site of Arthur's birthplace.  4.42'0"W, 50.42'0"N
Liddington Castle  Hillfort near Swindon, Wilts.  1.42'33"W, 51.30'30"N
Little Solsbury Hill  Hillfort near Bath, Somerset  2.20'03"W, 51.24'34"N
Badbury Rings  Hillfort near Wimborne Minster, Dorset  2.03'72"W, 50.49'21"N
Castle Killibury  Hillfort near Egloshayle, Cornwall  4.47'93"W 50.31'94"N
Caerleon  The Roman ISCA SILVRUM, Gwent  2.57'82"W, 51.36'13"N
Caerwent  The Roman VENTA SILVRVM, Gwent  2.46'70"W, 51.36'98"N
South Cadbury Castle  Hillfort near Ilchester, Somerset  2.31'49"W, 51.01'77"N
Slaughterbridge  Battle site near Camelford, Cornwall  4.40'05"W, 50.38'83"N
Birdoswald  Fort on Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria  2.36'67"W, 54.59'69"N
Glastonbury  Town in Somerset  2.43'79"W, 51.08'85"N


Early British Kingdoms