A new bridge connects a historic site that was once one, with a surprise in the middle for visitors. By Siobhan Morrin
Cornwall is a place that has always considered itself a little separate from the UK. Although technically attached and home to Land’s End, the most southerly point of Britain, the county and many residents are fiercely independent, demonstrated in the growth of the Cornish language, including the road signs, printed in Cornish and English for the past decade.
In one particular part of the county, there’s a more physical separation – a divide carved into the area’s dramatic coastline by hundreds of years of weathering – that has now been reconnected in order to better explain the legendary tales and history of Tintagel Castle. The ruins of a 13th century castle, originally built across a thin isthmus connecting the mainland to a small headland, until now have sat separated, the former entrance and stables on one side, the grand hall on the island. These two historic ruins have now been rejoined by a new bridge, commissioned by English Heritage in a £5 million project that opens to the public on Sunday 11 August.
English Heritage – now a charity after its 2015 split from the government body that became Historic England – commissioned relative unknowns, architectural practice William Matthews Associates and engineering firm Ney & Partners, after a competition to find a way to connect the two parts of the old castle. As well as its history as a royal site and castle, the area has, like many places in the UK, links with Arthurian legend; historian Jeremy Ashbee says indications are that the castle was built by Richard, the earl of Cornwall, in the 13th century to capitalise on the legend that the headland was the place of King Arthur's conception.
The result in modern times is a historic site visited by 250,000 people a year, a large proportion of whom never made it over to the island because of the difficulty taking the previous bridge and steps. The purpose of the new bridge, originally announced in January 2016, is to make the site more accessible; previously, visitors had to walk up and down 148 steep stairs to reach the island, meaning that many missed half the historical site.
The unusual location and relatively small size – the bridge spans 68.5m at a height of 57m above sea level – made both design and eventual construction challenging. 'It was the first time we've worked on a site that wasn't accessible,' says Laurent Ney, CEO of the engineering firm on the project. The steep dip down to the coast and tiny village roads made bringing heavy equipment down to the site impossible and the design process ‘was not how we usually work,’ Laurent Ney explains.
After creating a series of proposals for different bridges that would not require extensive anchoring within the limited cliff face available, the team decided to create two cantilevers, one from the mainland, one from the island, stretching out to meet in the middle – almost. The unusual design has a gap between the two sides of the bridge, supported through two large pins underneath but at first glance, appearing to be a break within the bridge.
'We wanted to give the sense of going from one world to another, reality to imagination, the present to the past,' says William Matthews, director of the architectural firm on the project and formerly an associate at Renzo Piano's practice, where he let the design team on the Shard.
The gap in the bridge at Tintagel is designed at an average of 50mm apart, but can shrink or grow up to twice as large or small in extremely hot or cold conditions. Matthews says the gap is designed never to become so large as to pose any problems for pushchairs or wheelchairs, though English Heritage does point out that the bridge offers ‘step-free access’ rather than expressly wheelchair access due to the hills and relatively rugged terrain that visitors meet on the island itself.
The bridge itself has a texture, both in its oak handrail that still has the roughness of wood to the touch and in the deck, made up of slates, split in a local quarry, all slotted on their sides into metal trays and turned into a subtle pattern through the addition of pieces of quartz. Up close, you can see the new silver colour of the balustrade and red of the beams, but viewed from a distance on the approach to the site, the bridge looks like it's been in place for years, fitting neatly across the gap at the same height as the island and mainland with no discernible arch.
An arch style bridge was one of the options on the table, Ney explains, as it was one way of maintaining the view between the island and mainland, but they chose a cantilever in part for its ability to maintain its structure throughout the building process. Due to the narrow streets leading to the site, the build required the use of helicopters and a cable car usually used in the Alps. 'The bridge was built upside down in pieces in Plymouth and then constructed using a cable car, anchoring each half into the rocks,' Matthews explains.
The anchoring was also an unusually tricky prospect due to the historic nature of the site. Win Scutt, properties curator at English Heritage, was concerned with protecting the potential archaeological remains yet to be discovered, particularly on island where there are ruins that date back to the fifth century.
English Heritage hopes the bridge will allow more people to visit Tintagel Castle and ensure those that do manage to cross onto the island. Part of the £5 million investment also went into creating paths across the island, to guide visitors around the significant ruins, protect the ecology there, part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and to protect areas being excavated by a team of archaeologists, who are preparing a major report with new findings about the potential use of the site to be released in early 2020.
Now, with the bridge and the paths in place, more visitors will be able to marvel at the buildings of centuries ago, and walk the way visitors to Richard’s castle did when these separate land masses were once one.