Excalibur in lake

illustration: Matthew Lopz

Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

-- Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Monty Python

From "In Search of England, by H. V. Morton.


T. C. T.

You will remember how the morn, Came slow above the Isle of Athelney. And all the flat lands lying to the sky Were shrouded sea-like in a veil of grey, As, standing on a little rounded hill, We placed our hands upon the Holy thorn.

Do you remember in what hopeful fear, We gazed behind us, thinking we might see, Arthur come striding through the high, bright corn, Or Alfred resting on a Saxon spear? And as the cold mists melted from the fields, We seemed to hear the winding of a horn.

You will remember how we walked the Vale, Through Meare and Westhay unto Godney End ; And how we said : ' Time is an endless lane, And Life a little mile without a bend. ... Behind us what ? Before us, if we ran, Might we not be in time to see the Grail ?'


IBELIEVED that I was dying in Palestine. There was no woman to convince me that the pain in my neck was not the first sign of spinal meningitis, so that, growing rapidly worse, I began to attend my own funeral every day. My appetite, however, remained excellent.

In the black depths of misery, I climbed a hill overlooking Jerusalem, unaffected by the fact that this has been considered the best of all places to die, and, turning as accurately as I could in the direction of England, I gave way to a wave of home-sickness that almost shames me now when I recollect it.

I find it impossible in cold blood, and at this distance, to put into words the longing that shook me. I have forgotten the pain in the neck, but never will I forget the pain in the heart. As I looked out over the inhospitable mountains remembered home in a way which given any other frame of mind would have astonished me. I solemnly cursed every moment I had spent wandering foolishly about the world, and I swore that if ever I saw Dover Cliffs again I would never leave them. I had by this time made myself too ill to realize that it is this rare Stay-at-home sanity which justifies travel.

Perhaps in instinctive contrast to the cold, unhappy mountains of Palestine there rose up in my mind the picture of a village Street at dusk with a smell of wood smoke lying in the still air and, here and there, little red blinds shining in the dusk under the thatch. I remembered How, the church bells ring at home, and how, at that time of year, the sun leaves a dull red bar low down in the wes, and against it the elms grow blacker minute by minute. Then the bats start to flicker like little bits of burnt paper and you hear the slow jingle of a team coming home from fields.... When you think like this sitting alone in a foreign country I think you know all there is to learn about heartache.

But does it seem strange that a townsman should in his extremity see this picture ? Would it not be more reasonable to expect him to see his own city? Why did I not think of St. Paul's Cathedral or Piccadilly ? I have learnt since that this vision of mine is a common one to exiles all over the world; we think of home, we long for home, but we see something greater- we see England. This village that symbolizes England sleeps in the subconsciousness of many a townsman. A little London factory hand whom I met during the war confessed to me when pressed, and after great mental difficulty, that he visualized the England he was fighting for--the England of the "England wants You" poster--as not London, not his own street, but as Epping Forest, the green place where he had spent Bank Holidays. And I think most of us did. The village and the English country-side are the germs of all we are and all we have become: our manufacturing cities belong to the last century and a half; our villages Stand with their roots in the Heptarchy.

I was humiliated, mourning there above Jerusalem, to realize how little I knew about England. I was shamed to think that I had wandered so far and so often over the world neglecting those lovely things near at home, feeling that England would always be there whenever I wanted to see her; and at that moment how far away she seemed, how unattainable! I took a vow that if my pain in the neck did not end for ever on the windy hills of Palestine I would go home in search of England, I would go through the lanes of England and the little thatched villages of England, and I would lean over English bridges and lie on English grass, watching an English sky.

Quite surprisingly I recovered. It was the only religious moment I experienced in Jerusalem. I mention this because all journeys should have a soul.

St. Just in Roseland

I have blundered into a Garden of Eden that cannot be described in pen or paint. There is a degree of beauty that flies so high that no net of words or no snare of colour can hope to capture it, and of this order is the beauty of St. Just in Roseland, the companion village to St. Anthony. There are a few cottages lost in trees, a vicarage with two old cannon balls propping open the garden gate, and a church.

The church is grey and small and, as a church, not worth notice; but it stands in a churchyard which is one of the little-known glories of Cornwall.

I would like to know if there is in the whole of England a churchyard more beautiful than this. There is hardly a level yard in it.

You stand at the lych-gate, and look down into a green cup filled with flowers and arched by great trees. In the dip is the little church, its tower level with you as you stand above. The white gravestones rise up from ferns and flowers. Beyond the church a screen of trees forms a tracery of leaves through which, shining white in the sun, you see the ground sloping steeply towards the creek beyond which is that strong arm of the sea, Carrick Roads.

Over the roof of the church blue water gleams; above it rise the distant fields of the opposite bank. This churchyard is drowsy with the bee and rich with a leafy pungency. There is also a tropic smell in it, a smell of palms and foreign trees.

An elderly clergyman was training a plant over a wall. He looked up and smiled.

" Yes, I am the vicar. Which do you prefer--those wine- dark rhododendrons or the pink ? And do you notice that rather subtle shade in between ? I like that, don't you?'

" Who was St. Just, sir ? ' I asked.

" St. Just was,' he replied, taking off his broad black hat and smoothing his silver hair, "St. Just was-I want you to admire those pansies! Now look at this. Isn't it beautiful?'

He bent down and, taking a deep velvet flower between two fingers, turned its head gently towards me.

" You were saying that St. Just was-'

" Ah, yes, forgive me! St. Just-oh, the trouble I've had with those japonicas.' He shook his head.

"St. Just ? ' I murmured hopefully.

"That tall tree over there came from Australia,' he remarked proudly. " By the way, I have a tropical garden behind the church which you must see.'

I abandoned the saint.

'You have made this garden ?'

" With my own hands I have made it,' he replied lovingly. "It took a long time.' Here he straightened his spare figure and cast a look round over the indescribable tangle of loveliness. " But it was worth it.' He smiled at me, and quoted Isaiah : '"Instead of the thorn shall come up the fig tree, and instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle tree; and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off." ?

I could say nothing. I watched the sunlight soaking through the leaves from above, moving in shadows over the tombstones; I listened to the song of the birds in the trees and the drone of the bees' wings. I looked into my companion's calm eyes and at his brown gardener's hands, and my first sense of irritation vanished; I understood that there was religion in this gardening; that to him every new touch of beauty which he brought to birth out of this rich carth was like a psalm of praise; that year after year he had added beauty to beauty round the House of God.

How many times we made a start for the church, and were side-tracked by a clump of valerian I cannot say. we walked round and round and up and down, climbing shady paths, coming out upon terraces, talking (with frequent horticultural interpolations) about local matters :

" The origin of Roseland-look at those brier roses- -is a moot point. The legend is that it got its name when King Henry VIII spent his honeymoon here with Anne Boleyn. 'They are supposed to have stayed in the Castle at St. Mawes. The story is- smell this leaf; it comes from New Zealand. I wonder if I did right to put that clump of rock plants so high. What do you think? Oh, the story? They say that when Anne Boleyn got here she asked the name of the place, and, receiving no answer, turned to the roses and said, " 'Tis Roseland, forsooth! " Now foxgloves in a shady spot....

I tried desperately to hold him a moment, but he was off after some snapdragons. I managed to drag him back.

" Yes, it's a pretty story, but it probably isn't true ! The antiquaries derive the word from Rosinis, meaning the Moorland Isle "

Do you hear that cuckoo? He's in a wood at the back of my house.' We parted the trees and looked out on the peaceful beauty of the creek; the tide coming up; the high, Still woods; and, beyond, the deep waters of Carrick Roads. " Incredible, unspoilt beauty! '

" There is a scheme, you know,' he informed me, "I believe the Bill has passed through Parliament, to turn this place into a great harbour for Atlantic liners, to build ocean wharves and graving docks and a railway, for St. Just Pool is a natural deep-water anchorage! A graving dock and a railway in Paradise !

Nothing; " he went on, has been heard of this scheme for some time. It may have been dropped.'

We both cast a glance round the quiet churchyard. I imagined how it would look in the middle of Portsmouth!

We walked on until we came to a grave in a lovely corner

"My eldest boy,' he whispered, and we went on among the flowers.

" Forgive me, I said, " but you must be one of the most fortunate vicars on earth. Instead of sin you have flowers?'

He looked surprised. "My dear sir, you have no idea. There is sin, too.'

" But here? " I said. " Among this ? A mere handful of people living quiet lives. What sin can there be here?'

" My parish is a big one. My curate takes a boat on Sunday and visits my other churches. I have a large parish. I have care of nearly a thousand scattered souls; and-oh, yes, my dear sir--there is sin.'

I wanted to find out more about the sins of Eden, but he shook his head and smiled: "Wasn't I telling you about St. Just? Well, he, you know, was Jestyn, son of Geraint.'

I drew a deep breath. "Geraint of the Round Table, who married Enid and " crowned a happy life with a fair death" ?' I asked.

He nodded his head and smiled: " And the legend is that when he died he was borne across the bay at Gerrans, just at the back there, in a golden boat with silver oars, and buried beneath Carne Beacon. Just before you go, do come and look at the fuchsias, won't you ?'

Now and then, I whispered as I went on out of Roseland. " just now and then one seems to touch again the fringe of romance : it's just a flying second that stays for a flash-and never long enough to be grasped--before it flies on to Eternity to join all the lovely dreams and all the foolishness which one has, from time to time, lost.'


THE most conspicuous object in the Vale of Avalon is a high, rounded hill, crowned with a lonely tower, rising beyond the ruins of Glastonbury. This hill is known as Glastonbury Tor, and the building is all that remains of the old pilgrimage chapel of St. Michael.

In the early morning before the sun is strong, a man, standing on this hill looks down, not upon the neat flat pasture lands of the Vale of Avalon, but upon Avalon, an island again, rising from a Steaming sea of mist.

In summer the mist rises from the fields as if it were the ghost of that sea which covered the valley in the age of legend. In the cold wind that runs before the dawn a man looks down upon this faint, moving veil, watches it writhe in spectral billows over the land, steaming upward in faint lines in the high places and so exposing the darker objects beneath which, in this hushed hour, seem almost like the bones of heroes, or the hulls of legendary barges sunk in some old poem.

It was over this sea to Avalon there moved that " dusky barge, dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern', in which the hooded queens bore the dying Arthur, his scabbard empty of Excalibur. As the low mists move, curling up- wards from the land, the lowing of cattle in the fields below rises starkly in the silence as though it might be the wailing that died upon this mere so long ago; as though in the first hour of a summer's day the Isle of Avalon remembers Arthur.

The sun shines, the mists go, and the green fields are smiling to the sky-line.

I am writing in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. A hot afternoon is almost over. There is in the air that summer Stillness like the peace of a cloister, in which- so they say in Glastonbury- the scent of mysterious incense some- times drifts over walls to astonish men working in their gardens. I can, however, smell only the incense of new-cut grass.

An hour ago I stood on the summit of the Tor above Glastonbury in the shadow of the tower of the pilgrims' chapel of St. Michael, now a patched ruin.

When I looked east I gazed down at the Isle of Avalon; when I looked west I saw lying in a heat haze the isle of Athelney. These "islands are now hills rising from flat fields over which in the age of myth ran wide lagoons; and I thought that if a man were looking for the roots of England, this is the place to which he would come: in Avalon the roots of the Church ; in Athelney the roots of the State.

Now I sit in the ruins of Glastonbury. Near me at the east end of St. Mary's Chapel archaeologists are digging.

They have just unearthed the yellow arm bone of a man which lies in the sunlight on a mound of soft brown soil. I wonder whether it is the arm of saint, abbot, or king; not that it matters much now. A man in spectacles is examining it expertly while the red face of the labourer who unearthed it gazes up earnestly over the parados of the trench, wondering if it is a treasure or a piece of rubbish.

It is so quiet here. The shadows of the yews lie in long pencils over the smooth grass, but-stay-it is not so smooth !

There are grassy dips and terraces where once ran altar steps. From tree to tree is a chain of bird-song. Rising sheer from the grass, appalling in its appealing Starkness, is the great arch of the central tower of Glastonbury Abbey, the two piers rising into the air, but not to meet; there is blue sky between, and on the high, cleft towers grass is growing.

This with a few tumbled walls and the beautiful St. Mary's Chapel represent all that remains of the once mighty Abbey, the elder brother of Westminster and the birthplace of Christianity in England.

It is, perhaps, not strange that all places which have meant much to Man are filled with an uncanny atmosphere, as if something were still happening there secretly; as if filled with a hidden life. Glastonbury is like that.

A band of tourists, who came in laughing and joking, move among the ruins, puzzled and ill at ease. Glastonbury has stilled their laughter.

I hear the click and thrust of the labourer's spade in the earth, and it seems to me as each spadeful of Glastonbury soil falls on the mound that a spadeful of English history is stirred; in the brown dust that flies over the trench I seem to see the faces of anchorites, saints, priests, and kings; and in this pregnant dust of Avalon is drawn two of the greatest epics that have come from the English mind: one is of the Holy Grail and the other of a wounded king.

The Church of England has owned Glastonbury since 1907, and one must, at least, congratulate it on mowing the grass. But how is it possible that the Church has neglected for nineteen years to restore St. Mary's Chapel, the site of the first church built by British Christians, and probably the first above-ground church in the world.

This lovely ruin, whose four walls stand, whose magnificent Norman archways are almost perfect, could in a few months be made fit for public worship. What queer lack of imagination stands in the way?

And why, I wonder, is there no intelligent guide to satisfy the bewildered curiosity of the people from many countries who every day roam these ruins drawn to them by the greatness of the name of Glastonbury ? The Church could surely arrange that at least one guide should be available to tell people that this quiet field is the only spot in England linked by legend with a man who knew Jesus Christ.

For centuries men believed that in A.D. 61 St. Philip sent Joseph of Arimathaea, whose hands had laid Christ in the tomb, to preach the Gospel in England. He is said, according to the later legend, to have come with a band of missionaries bearing the Chalice of the Last Supper, which he had begged of Pilate. This Chalice had held the Sacred Blood from the Cross.

Here in this English meadow Joseph of Arimathaea is said to have built England's first church of plaited oziers.

When the missionaries crossed Weary-all Hill (' weary-all? with the journey), Joseph, so the famous old story goes, planted his staff in the earth. It took root and grew into the famous Glastonbury Thorn.

That belief founded the international fame of Glaston- bury: for centuries it was an English Jerusalem, one of the holiest places on earth. Men came from the ends of the world to pluck a sprig of the Holy Thorn in order that it might be buried with them.

Saints were gathered to Glastonbury to lie in its earth. The bones of Arthur and Guinevere are said to have been buried beneath the high altar.

Behind the abbey at the foot of the Tor Still springs the mineral spring which was one of the wonders of the world. Its waters, heavily impregnated with iron, colour the earth, and everything they touch a rusty red; and this is the place to which the medieval pilgrim knelt trembling and crying-as I have seen pilgrims tremble and cry in Jerusalem-believing that here was buried the Holy Grail.

As I was walking over the grass of the choir I came to a railed-off plot of turf which marks the high altar of Glastonbury. A man was walking over it behind a motor lawn mower!

He told me that when automatic script was received in 1921 directing people to dig in a certain part of the ruins he was one of the workers who found the hitherto unknown portions of the abbey indicated in the supposed spirit communication.

'Yes, sir,' he said, "heaps of people say they see ghosts here, but I can't say that I have"

He took a turn over the high altar and came back. "See that bush ? That's the Holy Thorn!

The original one was hacked down by a Puritan who got a splinter in his eye from it and died. There are several offshoots round Glastonbury, and you'd be surprised at the number of slips we send away. One is going to a big church they are building in New York. We sent one to America not long ago for the tomb of President Wilson."

The grass has come back to the altar of Glastonbury, but the Holy Thorn still lives!

Now the sun is setting, and the diggers are packing up. The arm bone has been taken away...

"I have been to Glastonbury !" Six hundred years ago a man writing this would remember the greatest experience of his life. He would remember the greatest church outside Rome, the sound of its bells, the smoke of its incense, the sound of perpetual prayer, the gilded shrine, the horde of pilgrims at the doors- saints in ecstasy, sinners in tears; and in every man's mind faith in the marvellous Story that had grown up round a reed hut in the Isle of Avalon. "I have been to Glastonbury!'

Now a man sitting on a carved stone in a meadow hears the robin chant evensong, watches the thrush hunt his supper in the grass of the nave. From the site of chantry and chapel the blackbird flies with a silver chink of alarm, and from the high altar of Glastonbury comes the sound of a man mowing grass....

The labourer has climbed from the trench. He shoulders his spade and walks heavily away past the ruin that Stands where England heard for the first time the greatest Story in the world.


I came to Tintagel as a man should, tired, fearful, and at evening.

I have all my life thought of Tintagel as one of those places which no man should see. For eight hundred years the story of that king who rides down history on a harpstring has soaked itself into the imagination of the English people. Charlemagne for France; Arthur for England. The Story grew here.

On this grey rock above the sea, Uther Pendragon took that lovely queen, Igerne; and so began the story that ran through medieval Europe challenging the imagination of poet and writer, gathering strength and beauty, to break at last in the splendid climax of the Grail?



To thousands of English people those syllables go clothed in grandeur because there are two Tintagels: one is in Cornwall, the other in cloudland. One on the map; the other spun out of verse and music; and this is the real Tintagel, no dead rock in a grey sea, but a country of dream more real than reality, where there are still music, the breaking of lances, and the pain of love.

The sun was sinking seawards as I climbed a rocky gorge and came to the most desolate little valley, I think, in all the wild West Country. The sides of the cliffs were scarred with grey splintered slate; half-way the rocks approach each other to form a kind of gate; at the end of the valley is a little bay, the sea foaming over a grey pebble beach and running through a cavern called Merlin's Cave. It seems as though a great sword has split this valley in two; on one side, perched high, is the tiny village Tintagel; on the other side, covered in grass, wrecked by a landslide, are fragments of an ancient wall known to legend as King Arthur's Castle of Tintagel.

The key is kept in a cottage among lemonade bottles.

" No, please, sir," said a little old woman who uses the word " please " unexpectedly.

" Please, it's too late for you to go up to the Castle to-night, please. But if you promise not to be long, please, I'll give you the key."

I began to climb steep, winding steps, cut in the face of the rock. The waves boomed below in Merlin's Cave the sea-gulls flew below crying, and in my hand was the key of Tintagel. Think of that!

What a moment!

In my hand was the key of Tintangel

Tintagel is the most disappointing castle in England.

A wall that is several centuries later than King Arthur runs its crazy course on the cliff edge. It is indescribably remote, thrust up out of a grey sea towards the sky, with the jagged peaks of lesser rocks lifted like spears below it, and all around it the hiss and whisper of the sea. Birds rose from the grass before me as I walked; rabbits scuttled away to dive into burrows in which--who knows ? may lie some fragment of a sword. A disappointing ruin, but a great experience.

As I climbed the rocks and looked over the gaunt cliffs I seemed to come nearer, not to the gentlemanly knights of Tennyson or the paladins of Malory, but to the rough chieftains of history from whom the epic sprang. I saw Arthur stripped of the spell, with no Excalibur, but only a common spear, and the sun of Rome sinking into a sea of trouble on which the fortunes of England were to set their sails. How difficult it is to visualize King Arthur as a half-Roman kinglet...

It grew dusk, and I saw the other picture.

Do boys Still read Malory? Do they lie on their stomachs in orchards with that book propped up before them in the grass? Do they forget to go home for food and lie on till the harvest bugs set about them and the dusk falls, reading that wild gallantry ?

Do they still go back through darkening woods, shamefully late, peopling the hush with the splintering crash of steel point on jesseraunts of double mail, seeing in the waving of the trees the fluttering of banneroles and in the starkness of pines on a hill lances against the sky?

I wonder.

Tintagel is haunted. It is haunted not by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table but by that moment in our lives when imagination caught fire and blazed. The ghosts on this rock are the great army of Englishmen and Englishwomen who in their youth believed in Excalibur and wept in sorrow beside that mere as the three hooded queens came in their barge with a crying that " shivered to the tingling stars " to bear the dying king of Avilion

When the wind blows from the sea at Tintagel a sudden grey veil is flung over this high ruin: a veil of damp mist that blots out the distant earth; it runs on into the valley like a cloud and is gone. No wonder that men believed Strange things of this place and of the king who would come again.

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