Valerie Hall, finds there's more than myths for teachers at the latterday court of King Arthur, in Tintagel.
Prepare for a resurgence of interest in one of Britain's most magical and enduring legends from next week when King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table come to a cinema near you in the epic film First Knight. Starring Sean Connery as Arthur and Richard Gere as Sir Lancelot, it is set to capture the imaginations of another generation of children.
Given the popularity of Arthurian myth, it is surprising that until a few years ago the only memorial to the sixth-century court of Camelot and the Christian and pagan values it represents, was a ruined 12th-century castle, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall and clinging precariously to a rapidly-eroding headland near Tintagel in Cornwall. The connection was invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth and set in concrete by Victorian writers such as Tennyson. For if Arthur existed at all, he was probably a wandering warrior who never even set foot in Tintagel.
Now, however, a more substantial building dedicated to the Arthurian idyll can be found in Tintagel. The splendours of Camelot were first recreated here in King Arthur's Great Halls by custard millionaire Frederick Glassock, but when he died in 1933 only a year after work was completed, the centre was closed and could only be seen by appointment until purchased and refurbished in recent years by Mike Godwin and his partner, Louise Clements. It now draws enthusiasts from places as diverse as Sweden and Siberia, but has only just started to attract school groups. (Ironically, local interest only really began to pick up when the other Camelot staged the National Lottery here in February).
In the darkness of the smaller hall, visitors are greeted by the wise words of Merlin (actor, Robert Powell) in an electronic theatre representation of Arthur's life and death taken from Malory's Morte d'Arthur. As he recounts such episodes as Lancelot's rescue of Queen Guinevere from the fire and Mordred cleaving Arthur's skull in twain, the corresponding original oil painting by William Hatherall is spotlighted. Visitors then pass into the grand Hall of Chivalry, which has an impressive vaulted oak ceiling, enormous granite throne and Round Tables, and is built of 50 different local granites with names like "cheesewiring granite". But six magnificent stained glass windows, created by Veronica Whall, have the greatest impact. All eyes are drawn involuntarily through the spectrum of light from the darker colours of three of the windows and the polished granites at the near end of the hall to the brighter, lighter colours of the windows and stonework at the far end. This signifies the quest for the Holy Grail the transition from earthly to spiritual virtues which is pictured at the far end descending upon Sir Galahad. Striking details abound, such as the vivid blue dress of the Lady of the Lake, which metamorphoses seamlessly into streams of water at the hem.
There are 72 stained glass windows in all. Some are dedicated to the ideal of chivalry, while those that line the covered corridor surrounding the hall portray the heraldic devices of the knights, including Lancelot's three golden lions on a blue background and Arthur's red dragon on gold.
Here you discover that a knight had to perform a brave and noble deed to win his golden spurs, but they would be "hacked off his heels by a cook's chopper" if he behaved badly. Also on display are reproductions of Gustav Dore's King Arthur collection and the sayings of the knights, among them "right must be defended against might and the distressed must be protected."
Children are encouraged to "to have fun sitting on the thrones and at the Round Tables," says Louise, who believes school groups would find plenty of scope here for cross-curricular projects in, say, English, history, art, religious education, and geology. Mike adds: "We have seen young people slouch in here saying 'what's the big deal?', who have emerged at the other end with excitement and shining eyes".
King Arthur's Great Halls, Fore Street, Tintagel, Cornwall PS30 0DA. Tel: 01840 770426. Admission: around Pounds 1.50 per head for groups of 20 or more. Wheelchair access. The shop stocks a wide range of beautifully-illustrated Arthurian books and activity booklets