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Did you know that visiting Merlin’s Cave in Tintagel is completely FREE? This is something that is a well-kept secret in Cornwall.
Well, I say it’s a secret, it isn’t really. Not to locals.
However, many people believe that they have to pay to visit Tintagel Castle in order to be able to access Merlin’s cave. But, this isn’t the case at all.
Just before the Tintagel ticket-checking booth to head up to the castle, there is a little pathway that leads down to the coast and this is where you can access the cave at low tide!
From here, there is even a way to see Tintagel Castle for free.
Then you can save yourself some pretty pennies if you didn’t want to go up inside the ruins. Here’s the secret way to visit Merlin’s cave in Tintagel for FREE.
If you’re looking for more information on Tintagel – click here for my complete guide with important tips
What is Merlin’s Cave?
Merlin’s Cave is a 330-foot long cave that sits under the cliffs of Tintagel Castle.
The cave passes completely through Tintagel Island from Tintagel Haven on the east to the west finally reaching West Cove.
As a cave that lies by the sea, it fills up with water at high tide and can hardly be seen. Then, in low tide, the cave is revealed with a small beach near it.
For many, this is just another cave on the coast that has formed with marine erosion. But, to others it’s special.
According to the Arthurian legends, Merlin the Wizard is meant to have lived here.
Who is Merlin the wizard?
If you have NO idea who Merlin is, where have you been?! He’s only the most famous magical wizard of all time.
Merlin is a character in Welsh mythology and in the tales of King Arthur. As well as a wizard, he’s a mysterious prophet, tutor, bard, and advisor of kings.
Although now he has been mainly associated with the Arthurian Tales, what we know of him started out in Welsh poetry.
How he was born and got his power is little understood, some say he was born of a demon and a nun. But, he became a boy prophet and advised kings on battles and fortresses.
In the Arthurian tales, Merlin advises many kings and was responsible for Arthur being born.
He tutored him and ensured that Arthur became king by pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone.
If you wanted to know more I would recommend watching Merlin starring Sam Neil here, or you can watch the BBC version which is also on Netflix.
King Arthur’s Tintagel Castle
So what does King Arthur have to do with Tintagel Castle?
Well, there are many tales about King Arthur’s Tintagel Castle but the one that is most famous is the fact that this is thought to be the place where he was conceived.
King Arthur was the child of King Uther and Lady Igraine. The wizard Merlin was entirely responsible for making it happen!
The legendary tale goes that King Uther was mad with lust for Lady Igraine.
But, she was married to Gorlois, The Duke of Cornwall. King Uther was so obsessed with her, he tried on many occasions to attack Tintagel Castle in order to have her.
Eventually, Merlin wanted to put a stop to the madness and so he enchanted Uther to look like Gorlois.
Uther’s men retreated and Gorlois followed them. While Gorlois is away, Uther was let into the castle and took Lady Igraine.
Gorlois dies on the battlefield and the Lady Igraine, who falls pregnant, marries King Uther. She has a child who eventually becomes King Arthur!
The legend of Merlin’s Cave
The legendary tales say that Arthur is meant to have grown up in Tintagel Castle with King Uther and Lady Igraine.
Merlin lived in the cave below and then tutored Arthur as a boy, in the hope that he became a good man and noble king.
We know this story from the tales by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He writes of the legend in the ‘History of Kings of Britain’ in 1139.
However, it truly shot to fame when Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of Merlin’s Cave in his ‘Idyll’s of the King’.
In the cycle of twelve epic poems, the waves of the sea bring Arthur to the shore and Merlin saves the boy and brings him to Tintagel castle.
Legend has it that you can still see Merlin here sometimes and hear his voice in the cave.
Discoveries made at Merlin’s Cave
So, is there any proof that King Arthur or Merlin was at Tintagel? Well, there is no evidence to prove it or disprove it.
Medieval kings have fought and bargained for this land for centuries just because it’s meant to be where King Arthur could have lived!
There have been numerous excavations made around the area by King Arthur enthusiasts and eager historians looking to find truth in the tales.
Apparently, it was indeed a settlement around the sixth century and was the stronghold of an ancient Celtic King.
In 1998, a piece of slate was recovered with the inscription ‘ARTOGNOV’ which is Latin for the British name Arthnou. Further investigations have proved it was from the 6th century.
Could this be from Arthur’s legendary seat? There are many who say he was real and even those that claim to be from the bloodline of house Pendragon. So, who knows?!
Sleeping Merlin face carving at Tintagel
There has been such a connection made between Merlin and this cave over the centuries, that a carving of Merlin’s face was cut into the rock here.
‘Sleeping Merlin’ was made by a local artist Peter Graham in 2016 with the support of English Heritage.
Apparently, this is part of a whole range of projects made to create more connections with the Tale of King Arthur and Tintagel.
However, the sleeping Merlin was met with a lot of controversies and many said it ‘dumbed down history’.
Personally, I think it’s awesome and you can easily find it nearby Merlin’s Cave. Although it looks big on the photo it’s actually the size of a human face. So, you may need to look closely to find it.
How was Merlin’s Cave formed?
If you don’t want to believe the hotchpotch of myths, legends, and tales of how this cave came to be by magic. Then, I guess we have to turn to geology to find the answer!
Merlin’s Cave was formed over many thousands of years through natural erosion by the sea.
It happened along a thrust plane between the slate and volcanic rocks around the area.
There are actually two caves that run underneath Tintagel Rock. One is a smaller tunnel cave that leads out to some fields near Tintagel and the other is Merlin’s Cave.
Over time and erosion, the cave has turned into a 300-foot tunnel that passes directly underneath the castle.
If you’re able to climb over the many rocks at the other end you can walk through it and reach West Cove!
Can you go in Merlin’s Cave?
YES! Merlin’s Cave is located underneath the ruins of Tintagel Castle and you can visit and walk inside the cave if you want to.
However, there is one catch, you must plan your visit around low tide!
At high tide, you can only access the cave by kayak or swimming but it’s not recommended as it’s dangerously close to the rocks.
I would personally wait for low tide at Tintagel. This is when the beach is revealed at Tintagel cove and you can then walk inside Merlin’s Cave.
Merlin’s Cave tide times
To enter Merlin’s Cave you must be wary of the tide times!
You can only access the cave at low tide and you definitely don’t want to be in there when the tide is coming in. You will get wet and It can be extremely dangerous as the waves crash on the shore.
A lot of people recommend asking locals but you can easily check the tide times yourself online.
Tide times are forecasted a year in advance. However, the tide times do change massively every day!
I probably don’t need to say this but also use common sense. Don’t attempt to enter the cave as the tide is coming in or if the water is already in the cave. It fills up really quickly!
Click here for the calendar of Tintagel and Merlin’s Cave tide times.
Warnings & travel tips for visiting Tintagel Castle Merlin’s Cave
- Tintagel Castle is only open on the weekends out of season from November – April. So, you can only see the site on the mainland before that. Merlin’s Cave and the area around it, however, is open and accessible all year.
- Try to pick a sunny day to visit. The castle ruins are exposed on the coast and cave isn’t really much fun if it’s raining or if there is stormy weather.
- Make sure you use the toilet before you head down to Merlin’s Cave. There are toilets near the beach cafe but these are closed when the castle is shut.
- Make sure you bring a bottle of water, snacks, or a picnic with you here. There is the Tintagel Castle Beach Café with a takeaway option when the castle is open. But nothing if it’s closed. We grabbed some pasties and drinks from the Cornish Bakery shop at the top of the hill to bring with us.
- Tintagel Castle is often closed if the wind speed is too high or there is bad stormy weather. So, the area around Merlin’s Cave may also be blocked off to the public. Always check the English Heritage website for closure details.
- Going down to the wooden steps to the beach is simple, getting off the steps and over the rocks to the cave is not! We struggled a little bit to scramble over the boulders here and reach the beach! So be really careful.
- Is Merlin Cave dog friendly? Yep, I saw quite a few dogs around the beach and cave that were loving the visit! Tintagel Castle is also dog friendly.
How to visit Merlin’s Cave for FREE
Okay, so here are some detailed directions on how to visit Merlin’s Cave for free. This was definitely a highlight of my visit to Tintagel and is well worth making the journey.
My directions will start at Tintagel Village. There will be signs all over pointing you toward Tintagel Castle along Atlantic Road.
When you reach the Cornish Bakery shop, take a left on Castle Road which is a pathway leading down to the coast.
1. Walk down Castle Road and pass the Tintagel Castle ticket booths
So, when you reach the top of Castle Road, you’ll see English Heritage signs with opening times and prices for the castle on them. At the top of the hill is also where the ticket booths and gift shop for the castle are.
But, you can simply walk past the signs and ticket booths here. Tickets are not checked until you proceed onto the island itself.
2. Walk down the STEEP hill until you reach the coastline viewpoint
The area of Castle Road and around Merlin’s Cave is completely free to access. Along the way, you’ll find the Tintagel Beach Café which is free to visit without a ticket.
If you are paying for Tintagel Castle there is the option of getting a Land Rover down the hill toward the entrance. This will cost you £2 a person and £1 for dogs.
From here, all of the walks up to Greeb Cliff and down toward the coastline are free to access.
There are also lots of pathways that give you a great view of Merlin’s Cave and Tintagel Castle if the tide is too high.
3. From the coast viewpoint head down the steps to Tintagel Cove
If you carry on around the cliff in the direction of the cave, straight ahead you’ll see the old Tintagel castle ticket booth entrance.
The steps towards Tintagel Cove are just a little bit before that. So, you’ll need to turn off and start to walk down the wooden steps to the beach.
This part is really easy and accessible. But, at the bottom of the steps, there will be lots of uneven rocks and boulders to scramble over.
4. If the tide is low proceed into Merlin’s Cave
Once you’ve made it over the rocks, you can then walk along the beach and head inside Merlin’s Cave.
The cave is over 100 metres long (330 feet) so there is lots to explore inside and if you’re feeling particularly active you can scramble over the rocks to the other side of West Cove.
Just make sure there is enough time before high tide.
We just decided to go in a little bit of the way until it became quite rocky and then turned back.
Top tip: don’t forget to check out the sleeping Merlin face carved into the rock around here.
Alternatively – visit on the exit of Tintagel Castle
If you have paid to visit Tintagel Castle it’s more than easy to visit Merlin’s Cave after you exit.
Once you’re ready to leave Tintagel Castle, you can either cross over the bridge back to the mainland from Tintagel Island or take the steps route down to Tintagel Beach.
Although the steps route is quite steep, it has a handrail the whole way down and provides dramatic views of the area and the Tintagel suspension bridge will be above you.
After you have exited Tintagel Castle, you can then take the steps down to Tintagel Beach from here to visit Merlin’s Cave.
Can you visit Tintagel Castle for free?
No, BUT you can SEE Tintagel Castle for free on the mainland before you cross over to Tintagel Island and from around Merlin’s Cave.
You see, all of the land surrounding Tintagel Castle is public land and as it is so exposed on the coast, there are a number of amazing viewpoints you can get of Tintagel Castle ruins around here.
Tintagel Castle as a tourist attraction is open in the spring and summer seasons, but in the off-season, you can still explore the area.
Some of Tintagel Castle is actually on the mainland and you only really pay to cross over the bridge to explore the island part.
How to see Tintagel Castle for free
A great view you can get of the island part of Tintagel Castle is from the area surrounding Merlin’s Cave.
When you’re down here at the viewpoints and the coastal walkway around the cove, if you look up, you can see the ruins on the headland.
Also, the National Trust Tintagel walk takes you along Glebe cliff towards Tintagel Castle. This will take you towards the mainland part of the castle.
From the top of the Glebe cliff, you can see pretty much all of the tidal island and castle ruins across the way.
At some point, you’ll access the English Heritage ticket booth on your left to take you towards the castle.
You can then carry on straight down a pathway to Castle Road and access Merlin’s Cave from there for free. Click here for more details and directions on the walk.
The new Tintagel Castle bridge
There used to be quite a steep hill to access the castle entrance where you had the option of paying for a Land Rover to take you there.
Then, you had to climb some 100 vertical rocky and hazardous steps which could be dangerous in the wet and windy weather.
Also as it was one way only, queuing took forever!
Now English Heritage has built a swanky new footbridge that runs straight over from the mainland to the island so that you can avoid that walk.
This has connected the two halves of Tintagel Castle for the first time in 500 years! Click here to learn more about it.
Paying to visit Tintagel Castle
You’re really paying English Heritage for the upkeep of the castle, to cross the new footbridge, and to get up close to the ruins here.
It isn’t too much money to pay and it’s a great attraction, save for the fact you have restricted ticket times now.
Due to the new bridge and to limit the number of tourists on the island, you now get a restricted time allocated with your entrance ticket.
So, they do recommend booking online beforehand to ensure you get at a time slot that works for you.
What can you see on Tintagel Island?
So, is it worth paying to visit Tintagel Castle? I would definitely say, YES it is!
There is so much to see and do in the castle ruins and over the island.
Although there isn’t much left to see of the original structure of the castle, English Heritage has done an amazing job to paint a picture of what life would have been like here.
They have lots of signs with recreated images of what the medieval great hall, kitchens, stables and even the priory would have looked like in ancient times!
Although most of Tintagel Castle has completely weathered away, there are still some amazing preserved ruins on the island that date all the way back to the 6th century.
There are also some incredible views of the coastline all around you and a small garden to visit.
Click here to read my top tips for visiting King Arthur’s Castle!
King Arthur’s statue at Tintagel
A new addition and highlight to Tintagel Castle have been the amazing statue on top of the headland.
It’s an 8 foot tall Bronze Sculpture of King Arthur holding Excalibur that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.
The piece was created by sculptor Rubin Eynon and it was flown in by helicopter for its construction.
It’s really cool as it’s almost been made to look ghost-like and hollow due to the fact he’s a legendary king!
But again, like the sleeping Merlin face, this is controversial and the residents of Tintagel fear that it added a “Disneyfication” to the town.
So, they don’t advertise it as a statue of King Arthur but simply a “Knight of Tintagel”.
Personally, I think it’s a great addition and adds a taste of the legend to the site which is a big part of why people visit. It’s also a photo opportunity you cannot miss.
Tintagel exhibition & giftshop
As you make your way back up to Tintagel village, you’ll pass by the Beach Café, Tintagel gift shop, and the FREE Tintagel exhibition.
You must visit if you are interested in finding out more about the Arthurian legend and the links to Tintagel Castle as Camelot.
It is very informative, has wonderful imagery, and even a replica of the King Arthur tablet they excavated on Tintagel Beach.
After, you can visit the Tintagel gift shop to purchase some souvenirs to take home. They had King Arthur souvenirs, tapestries, keyrings, and all sorts of wonderful things to buy.
Plus, you should try out the English Heritage mead that they sell inside. It’s delicious.
How to get to Tintagel in Cornwall
The small coastal village of Tintagel is located in the north of Cornwall. This is along the west coast between Camelford and Bude.
Boscastle is also 3 miles away. It’s easiest if you have a car to access Tintagel as there is no train station and bus services can be infrequent;
- Tintagel Castle Parking: There are plenty of car parks around Tintagel. The Tintagel Castle Car Park does fill up quickly but there are plenty of overflow car parks in the village by the visitor centre. Also some fields open up as overflow car parks if it’s a busy weekend. These usually come with an all day charge of £4/5.
- Bus to Tintagel: The nearest train station to Tintagel is Bodmin Parkway which is around 15 miles from Tintagel. But, you can connect with a bus to Camelford and then switch over on a service heading to Bude that stops at Tintagel. However it’s often infrequent, so it’s recommended to have a car.
Where to stay in Tintagel?
There are plenty of places that you can stay in Tintagel for all types of budgets.
As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Cornwall, it’s nice to use this area as a base and then explore the rest of the area;
- Camelot Castle Hotel – This amazing historic 4* hotel looks over Tintagel castle and its cliffs. So, you can see it from the comfort of your own room! It’s also a great place to have afternoon tea. Click here to book.
- The Olde Malthouse Inn – this cosy inn with a terrace is located above a popular restaurant and bar. Plus, you’ll get free private parking. Click here for more info.
- YHA Tintagel – There is a cheap hostel for backpackers in Tintagel, which has dorms and private guest room options. Click here for rates.
Places to visit near Tintagel Castle
So, once you’ve visited Merlin’s Cave and Tintagel Castle, what next?
Well, there are plenty of breathtaking places that you can visit in the North Cornwall area.
Although most of Tintagel is largely over-commercialised with endless gift shops, cafés, restaurants, and pubs. There are still some quaint places to check out while you’re here.
The Tintagel Post Office is a unique museum that is a medieval property that has been here for over 600 years.
In 1380 it started off as a farmhouse, over time it has been renovated but it has always remained a residence.
In the 19th century, it acted as a post office for the town. It’s now a museum owned by the National Trust with 5 rooms to explore.
Rocky Valley & St Nectan’s Glen
Close by the area of Tintagel are some magical sites worth seeing. The first is the Rocky Valley Labyrinth stone carvings.
The labyrinth symbol that is carved on the rocks has often been associated with fertility and is used in pagan rituals.
You can find the famous carvings behind a derelict mill on the east banks of the river Trevillett.
Nearby is the magical St Nectan’s Glen which is inside the Trethevy woodlands of Tintagel. Here you can visit a magical waterfall and hermitage.
Click here to read my guide on how to visit St Nectan’s Glen waterfall
Boscastle is a magical harbour town off the West coast of Cornwall and it is well worth exploring for a few hours.
There are plenty of art galleries,cafés, and gift shops to explore, plus you can access many walks along the coast here.
The highlight to any visit is the mystical Witchcraft Museum which has been here since the 1960s. You can read my complete post here with all the reasons to visit!
A stroll along Boscastle Harbour to the headland is a must and from here you can see the Devil’s Bellows which is a blowhole on the cliff!
The Pixie house was one of my favourite shops as a child that is set in a quirky 300-year-old cottage. It’s now been transformed into Harbour Light Tea Garden.
Or, a lovely place to eat with a cosy pub atmosphere is the Cobweb Inn.
Click here to read my complete Boscastle guide
Bodmin Moor is a seriously underrated place to visit and is full of ancient sites, waterfalls and walks.
Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor is also another legendary site of the Arthurian Tales.
Here, the Lady of the Lake is said to have gifted Merlin the sword Excalibur. This was a be a gift for prince Arthur to be the next King of England.
The Hurlers Stone Circles are another magical place to visit or, you can find the Cheesewring on Stowes Hill. This is a bizarre rock formation formed thousands of years ago.
Bodmin Moor is also famous for being haunted by many ghosts but none so famous as the Jamaica Inn a notorious Smuggler’s Pub.
If you’re feeling brave, you can visit or check-in for the night.
Looking for places to see around Cornwall?
Mousehole is a quintessential Cornish fishing village that is effortlessly beautiful. Or, visit the mysterious St Micheal’s Mount from Marazion. Cornwall’s magical tidal island.
Minack Theatre is open for theatrical performances throughout the summer, but visiting during the day is also amazing!
It overlooks the spectacular Porthcurno Beach which is one of Cornwall’s top beauty spots!
If you were looking for secret coves and beaches to hide in then I would recommend Porthgwarra. This quaint spot by the sea was featured in Poldark.
There is also the top-secret Songs of the Sea Cave Beach but this is quite hard to find and requires a fair bit of trekking.
Kynance Cove is also magnificent but a touristy hotspot. Land’s End at Sennen is also an incredible area to visit to see what’s at the very end of England!
Thursday 15th of July 2021
brilliant article very informative.
Thursday 15th of July 2021
Thank you for reading Paul, I'm glad you liked the post! Sophie x