King Arthur’s connections to Cornwall are long-standing and rather tangled. I have to admit that sometimes I find this connection frustrating, because his myth often seems to over ride the true history of the county. Tintagel being the perfect example of this.
However, there are two sites on Bodmin Moor which bear his name that are definitely worth seeking out. King Arthur’s Hall and King Arthur’s Bed. But there is no evidence whatsoever, that I’m aware of, to connect these places to the ancient king.
Twelve Men’s Moor is one of my favourite areas of Bodmin Moor. It’s such a dramatic and isolated spot. On one side you have the lofty castellated heights of Kilmar tor and on the other quieter, more discreet Trewortha Tor. The whole area is dotted with numerous prehistoric remains – cairns, huts and ancient field systems.
You will find King Arthur’s bed on the top of Trewortha Tor. This deep man-sized hollow in the rock is easily big enough for me to lie in. But despite it’s strange appearance this strange hole in the granite was not formed by human hands or indeed the magic of Merlin. And it’s only connection to King Arthur is one of legend.
King Arthur’s bed is actually a Solution Basin. Simply the result of weathering, but for me these basins are a magical part of the Moor in themselves.
Solution basins often form on the very highest rock stacks and, for some reason, always occur in the hardest granite. This means that they take literally thousands of years to form.
They are the result of some strange alchemy, a chemical solution of the rock’s surface when standing water collects in a small irregularity. Gradually weathering causes a small hollow to form which becomes progressively larger and deeper. As the granite dissolves the insoluble crystals of quartz are deposited and often form a magical, glistening layer in the bottom of the basin.
What is a solution basin?
Solution basins can be perfectly circular, while others at oval. They can be up to 50 cm or more deep. And sometimes, after centuries, they erode into each other forming a chain of basins. King Arthur’s Bed is a particularly large rock basin and in all likelihood this is how it was formed. Several basins slowly joining up with each other to become this fantastical shape.
Solution basins are responsible for much of the strange scalloping of rock formations on the top of the tors. But they are more than just an impressive type of erosion. There are theories that these basins had a particular significance and many different uses in prehistory.
For example some basins hold their water all year round, making them an important resource for man, bird and beast. But there is also the idea that ancient man found other uses for these still pools of water, such as scrying or observing the stars.
According to Alex Langstone, in his book From Granite to Sea, William Borlase once wrote about the druidical healing associations of this place and others basins on the moor. The god of the rock, he believed, was asked to cure the ills of the body. E C Axford in his book on the moor refers to Borlase also, he writes:
If Borlase knew that the man-shaped rock basin on Trewortha Tor was associated with Arthur he does not say so but he comments elsewhere that ‘whatever is great and the use and author unknown is, in Cornwall, for the most part attributed to King Arthur’.
So the next time you find yourself on the heights of one of the tors, take a moment to think about the forces that have created all that you see. And the other people who have stood where you are, breathing in that familiar scene, for thousands of years. For me, it is a very grounding thought. That connection to place is a vital part of human nature, I believe.
Arthur: Myth and Legend
Returning to King Arthur’s connections to Cornwall, local author Craig Weatherhill sent me some interesting comments on the subject which I have included below. You can also find more on this in his book The Promontory People.
“Like King Arthur’s Hall and Downs, the Battle of Vellan-Druchar and the king’s ownership of Treryn Dinas cliff castle (St Levan),his legend is found throughout Cornwall but in forms that are unique to Cornwall and not repeated elsewhere in Britain. They’re found, saved and preserved in Bottrell, Hunt and other Victorian and Edwardian collections. Therefore, these localised myths are not over-riding the true history but, rather, complementing it. The Vellan-Druchar legend might even be preserving an event of true history.”