Castle an Dinas in mid-Cornwall is one of our most
impressive hillforts. The hill, around 700 feet above sea level and with
commanding views, was already important for people in the neolithic period,
before 2500BC. They had erected two barrows on the hilltop to house their dead.
Then, in the late Bronze Age, around 1500-800BC, a single low rampart was thrown
up encircling the hill. This probably did not have a military purpose but was instead
for managing stock or to mark a symbolic or religious venue.
At some point in the Iron Age, suggested as between 400 and
100BC, two more ramparts were added to produce what can be seen now. These were
altogether more substantial. The inner one still rises up to 7.5 metres above
the ditch in front of it, while the outer rampart is about half that height. A straight
entry point from the south west may have had a cobbled road. The site could
have been occupied permanently as it included a spring. However, there have
been disappointingly few material finds from what would presumably have been a
collection of wooden buildings.
Castle an Dinas looks southwards across Goss Moor towards
the church at St Dennis and the nearby site of Domelioc, or Domellick, which
featured in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s stories of King Arthur. In consequence it’s
often been linked to Arthurian tales. In popular tradition it’s sometimes been
seen as Arthur’s hunting lodge or even his birthplace. In the 1470s William of
Worcester claimed it was here that Cador, Duke of Cornwall, the husband of King
Arthur’s mother, was killed.
The name Castle an Dinas (in 1504 Castel an dynas) is
tautological as Dynas, the name of a nearby farm, itself means hillfort.
Now that most of the hordes of sightseers who flock to Tintagel to commune with King Arthur have better things to do, it’s as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the proper significance of this iconic site. While it has no significance at all for English heritage, it has major, if still not fully understood, significance for Cornish heritage.
We have to forget its present marketing as a commercial tourist honeypot and home of Arthurian fantasy. The castle remains point to the earlier role of Tintagel, as a symbolic centre of great importance. When Earl Richard planted his castle there in the 1200s it had no military point, but was instead a massive folly, built to symbolise the earldom’s control over Cornwall, squatting on a revered site for the Cornish.
The astounding fact is that this inhospitable spot has
provided archaeologists with more sherds of fifth/sixth century Mediterranean
pottery than any other site in the British Isles. Far more. More goods passed
through it than any other place between around 450 and 550. Tintagel was at
that time the primary site of a trading system that stretched far up the Atlantic
coast and back to the eastern Mediterranean. It was the gateway through which
the remnants of the Roman Empire maintained contact with the Christian parts of
It doesn’t end there. Tintagel was some sort of royal
citadel, the pinnacle of a pyramid of tribute centres. It may well have been
the geographical centre of the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia, or Greater
Cornubia, one that in the 500s organised the colonisation of parts of what was
to become Brittany.
Look beyond its present condition and the twaddle peddled to
tourists. Tintagel speaks to us down the centuries of a time when Cornwall was
at the centre of the Atlantic world, not a marginalised periphery of England.
It deserves to be remembered as such.
Next weekend sees the anniversary of the birth of Charles
Rashleigh in 1747. He was the tenth child of Jonathan and Mary Rashleigh of
Menabilly near Fowey. With six older brothers and unlikely ever to succeed to
the family estate, he became a property developer.
His best known purchase was on the coast south east of St Austell, a place called Porthmear. In Cornish, Porthmear means a great cove or landing place. However, landing on the open beach was neither easy nor safe. Therefore, in 1790 John Smeaton, builder of the third Eddystone lighthouse, was commissioned to design a harbour, which was constructed in the early 1790s.
Behind this, inner harbours were dug. At first these would have sheltered vessels engaged in importing timber and supplies for the mines and lime for the farmers and then exporting copper when mining boomed in the locality in the 1810s. When the mines faltered Charlestown, as it quickly became known, was perfectly placed to become a china clay port, until eclipsed by Par and Fowey in the early 1900s.
When the harbour was built, Charlestown was home to a farm,
a hotel which had been built in 1782 and a few cottages. Within a generation it
had grown to more than 100 houses. Its decline in the twentieth century left it
intact as an unspoilt example of a nineteenth century working port. It now has
a new role as the picturesque backdrop to films and TV series set in that
Charles himself made little from his venture, being swindled
not only once but twice and bankrupted in the process. He died in 1823, a
tenant at the home he’d formerly owned at Duporth.