As legends go, King Arthur is one of Britain’s most enduring and perhaps one of the most divisive. Good job we’ve got Guy Ritchie to sort the wheat from the chaff then with his May 2017 film release King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Alas, early indications suggest that the British filmmaker’s latest effort may not be the blockbuster that myth and legend demands. Perhaps kings of ancient times had more of a gangster vibe than the regal expectations of today – at least that’s what Mr Ritchie would have us think.
Thank goodness then for the great British landscapes that feature in the film, backdrops to battles of words and swords. And more importantly, reliably reinforcing portions of our great tourism industry. There’s a significant Welsh slant to this, because a weighty 9th century Latin volume that outlines Arthur’s fighting with the Saxons suggests that the valley of Nant Gwwynant in Snowdonia was at the heart of the action.
So onward we march, with friends not foes, to the best British locations with a link (however weak) to King Arthur.
Nant Gwynant and the red dragon of Wales
This lush valley near pretty Beddgelert is said to have been the playground of Arthur’s troops as they took on the Saxons. As such, it features heavily in Ritchie’s version of events (where naturally, a man of current day sporting legend must play a cameo). Enter stage left, David Beckham. Exit stage right for drama school.
There are lakes in abundance here and past the lowest you’ll discover Dinas Emrys, Gwynedd – a standalone peak that is said to have been the site of a vain attempt to build a castle. Some kid with wizarding skills, who apparently called himself Merlin, came along one day and solved the construction conundrum for 5th century king, Vortigern. Upon discovery of a dragon battle beneath the castle that was won by the red dragon, arose a hero in the battle against the Saxons and everlasting symbol of Wales.
Merlin’s wizardry and the weather
“When Merlin’s Oak shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen Town,” went the saying amongst legend populists in Carmarthen. I mean what better tourist attraction than an ancient, oak tree stump stuck in the middle of a roundabout in the centre of town.
Any Carmarthen residents of the 1970s would heed caution at poo-pooing poetic warnings. Following the shift of the fragile oak tree stump to the town museum, Carmarthen suffered its worst floods on record…
A peninsula for purists (and wildlife fans)
20,000 saints are said to buried on Bardsey Island off the coast of the Llyn Peninsula. Whether it’s the saintly spirits or the lack of human intervention that attracts myriad wildlife to the island, it’s worth a visit more for the birdlife than any Arthurian reality.
It’s tranquil beauty makes it a natural destination to plug as Avalon – the location where King Arthur is said to have forged his sword Excalibur and been buried. Some other parts of the country typically dispute that…
Caves or castles?
Wales isn’t short of caves nor caves associated nowadays to Arthurian legend. The caves of the old slate mine in Corris are now billed as King Arthur’s Labyrinth – as unauthentic a claim as that may be, it makes a decent family day out.
The caves of Craig y Ddinas in the Brecon Beacons might also be heralded as a final resting place for King Arthur and his knights should you follow the theory that they’re not really dead, just lying in wait for the call to reclaim Britain from the Saxons. Whoever came up with that one probably didn’t take a history GSCE.
Over the border and down to Somerset to one of the south of England’s most mythical areas, Glastonbury Tor has its own associations to King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. This tale has stood its ground since the 12th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth ascertained that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall and buried at Glastonbury Tor.
King Arthur stories from Snowdonia
Given that King Arthur was busy fighting dragons and beasts amidst his battles with the Saxons, he must have been pretty fit. Maybe the Lions squad should check out his training regime to see if it’ll work in their favour against the All Blacks this summer.
The pile of rock atop the summit of Mount Snowdon is said to have been laid there by Arthur as he buried the giant Rhitta there. It’s quite some effort to climb a country’s tallest mountain and then slay a giant.
Home to many of Arthur’s conquers, it’s natural that three Snowdonian lakes lay claim to housing Excalibur. This most epic and durable of swords surely deserves a better resting place than rusting at the bottom of a lake but as they’re all quite close together, it’ll make a nice walk for you. In wetter conditions, the waterfall at Llyn Ogwen will surely add to the mystical air.
Crazy for Camelot and board room tables
Geoffrey of Monmouth should probably be hailed the founding father of the Welsh tourist board. His 12th century ramblings created much of the myth and magic that we associate with Arthurian legend today. From Excalibur to Camelot and the holy grail, you name it, he probably dreamed it up.
It was indeed he who claimed Caerleon to be home to the Knights of the Round Table. Good pickings really. Fairly indisputable back in the day. Caerleon was a major Roman fort and today home of the National Roman Legion Museum.
But the residents of Eamont Bridge in Cumbria will dispute it today, if asked. This Neolithic henge not far from Penrith also lays claim to being Arthur’s seat. Its proximity to Carlisle, where Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot was said to have been exposed, backs up that argument geographically at least. Back in the days before feminism and sexual equality, that got her sentenced to death.
Winchester, an historic city break option (that does have a cinema), also stakes Arthurian claims. It’s sturdy city tower houses an impressive oak table top commonly seeded as the Round Table. The tree specialists say otherwise – it actually dates back to the 13th century, but it’s still worth a visit.
You can bet your bottom dollar, these places will be busier than ever this year, so mind out for the crowds during the school holidays. Rural retreats have never been so popular!