It is a dream I have… (Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)
I have been obsessed with all things Arthurian since a young age – and that compelled me to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend as I reached an age when I could hit the road. Coming from a run-down Midlands town it was thrilling to walk in a landscape soaked with myths and legends – but back then I did not realise such things are under your feet, wherever you live. What we consider to be sacred is as an act of perception – but sometimes we have to go on a journey to realise the wonders of the everyday.
Having walked many of the national trails in 2017 I decided to create a more meaningful route – one with a narrative, a significance, I could relate to. One that might even be transformative. And thus I researched the modern pilgrimage route I called the ‘King Arthur Way’ – a 153 mile long-distance trail from Tintagel (the place of Arthur’s conception, according to legend) to Glastonbury (site of his ‘grave’, or passing).
I loved working out the route on the series of OS maps I purchased – one that takes the pilgrim from the rugged north Cornish coast, across the wild fastness of Dartmoor and the Blackdown Hills, and over the Somerset Levels towards the iconic terminus of Glastonbury Tor. Along the way one passes castles and mysterious stones, winding rivers, woods and heathland, charming villages and tempting pubs. There were, as on any long-distance walks, days of real challenge and days of reward. Some of the highlights include:
- Waking up on the coast overlooking Tintagel.
- Stumbling upon the ancient rock-cut mazes in Rocky Valley.
- St Nectan’s Glen.
- Brent Tor.
- Wild-swimming in the Tamar, Dart, and Shilley Pool.
- Castle Drogo.
- South Cadbury.
- Burrow Mump.
- Walking to Glastonbury across the Somerset Levels.
Most of all there was this sense of ‘walking the legend’, which made it real in a very embodied way. If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Yet whether he existed or not, there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.
For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.
But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.
My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream requires inspired leadership. By setting out to create the King Arthur Way perhaps I had awakened my own ‘king’ – and I hope that all who walk it connect with their own inner sovereignty too.
Route details etc here:
Read a fuller account of the creation of the King Arthur Way in the latest issue of The Pilgrim:
For general mapping and other pilgrim trails: