There has always been an other-worldly quality to Tintagel Castle, the mighty fortress of Arthurian legend which straddles its clifftop ravine on the North Cornish coast.
Last Sunday, the two sides were reunited for the first time in centuries thanks to a new £5million bridge straight out of a fantasy novel.
It was in Tudor times that the narrow strip of land which once connected the mainland part of ‘King Arthur’s Castle’ to its island citadel fell into the sea.
Since then, any visitors have been forced to scale 148 steps cut in to the rock. For the old and infirm, it was out of the question.
Now, though, Tintagel is reunited — much to the relief of the locals. Up to a quarter of a million tourists each year are now expected to use this 21st century drawbridge — as I have just done.
With a gentle bounce underfoot and an alarming gap in the middle, it is an exhilarating experience.
Princess Anne and husband Tim Laurence attend the wedding of Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank at Windsor Castle last year
A new footbridge re-connecting the two halves of Cornwall’s Tintagel Castle for the first time in 500 years has been opened
But this crossing also heralds an important new era for many of this country’s greatest historic treasures. And supervising it all is the Queen’s son-in-law.
Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, husband of the Princess Royal, is one of the most low-profile members of the Royal Family but, as chairman of English Heritage, he is in charge of some of the most famous structures in the world.
He is the chief custodian of more than 400 hallowed national sites — ranging from Stonehenge and the Battlefield of Hastings to Shropshire’s Iron Bridge and Osborne House — not to mention all those blue plaques on the homes of bygone greats.
On his watch, the whole lot has been turned into a new charity. And it has never attempted anything quite like the new bridge to ‘King Arthur’s Castle’.
So, ahead of the opening, I sat down for a rare and wide-ranging interview with the boss to discuss a range of issues, from government subsidies and HS2 to marrying in to the Royal Family, the prospects of a new Royal Yacht (‘not now’) and the pain of losing friends on active service.
What is instantly clear is that Sir Tim is much more than a figurehead. ‘We’re very ambitious.
We want to do things that are a bit spectacular,’ he tells me as we study the plans for Tintagel. ‘This is a leap. The whole point about it is accessibility.’
He recalls his first visit to Tintagel, negotiating the cliff in deep winter. ‘I first went down on a wet January day and I think it’s one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done climbing down those steps!’
Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, husband of the Princess Royal, is one of the most low-profile members of the Royal Family but, as chairman of English Heritage, he is in charge of some of the most famous structures in the world
People had been mulling over the idea of a bridge for years, to no avail, until Sir Tim’s arrival.
He got in touch with his friends Julia and Hans Rausing, members of the Swedish Tetra Pak clan, though he is modest about his part.
‘I know the Rausing family and made an initial contact,’ he says. The family trust made a generous grant of £2.5 million, the largest in the organisation’s history. What had been a nebulous idea could suddenly take shape.
One might expect to find a risk-averse, steady-as-she-goes approach from a retired admiral in charge of a lot of old buildings (particularly one whose official address is Buckingham Palace).
Sir Tim, however, speaks frankly and clearly feels he is on a mission — against the clock.
He was appointed chairman of English Heritage as it was being cut loose from the state.
Pre-2015, it had been a public sector body with two roles: running historic sites such as Old Sarum and Audley End but also acting as the planning regulator for all listed buildings.
Then the Government split it up. A new state agency, Historic England, took on the regulation while all the historic sites went to a charity under Sir Tim.
The son of a Royal Navy officer who served in World War I, Sir Tim (pictured with Princess Anne at the Badminton Horse Trials) is keen to ensure we never forget those killed in all conflicts
It would retain the ‘English Heritage’ title but was given a grant of £80 million to get started. After that, it would be on its own.
Since most of English Heritage’s sites — hill forts, remote ruins and so on — are open and free, it falls to a minority of paying landmarks such as Tintagel to subsidise the rest.
‘When we get to the end of our capital grant in 2023, we’ve got to produce enough running income to cover our running costs plus additional income to invest,’ says Sir Tim.
He might talk like the chairman of a FTSE100 company but his position at English Heritage is unpaid.
Yet he clearly loves it and has just been appointed for a second four-year term. And he is not afraid to get political defending his patch.
For example, he is adamant that the Government should slash VAT on conservation work.
‘I would love to see VAT reduced on historic buildings. We’ve been fighting that battle for a long time.
‘It would make a huge difference to the historic fabric of this country and it would provide a lot of extra jobs.’
He rattles off tourism statistics — £30 billion gross added value to the economy — and wishes ministers would listen. ‘I’m pleading on behalf of the historic environment.
‘I don’t think the Government is “anti” but I think it could be more “pro”. This is not a loss to the Treasury. There are benefits to the Treasury.’
He is also a fan of big, contentious projects such as the proposed road tunnel beneath Stonehenge and HS2.
Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, prior to his marriage to Princess Elizabeth, saluting as he resumes his attendance at the Royal Naval Officers School at Kingsmoor, Hawthorn in 1947
‘I’m supportive of HS2 — so long as we can do it in a way that is sympathetic to the countryside — because I believe very strongly in linking the North and the South of the United Kingdom.’
Having risen to the top of the Royal Navy during his 37-year career, Sir Tim has taken a number of public and private sector roles.
Aged 64, he maintains a schedule on a par with that of his famously busy wife (with 518 public duties in 2018, the Princess Royal still tops the Royal Family’s league table of engagements).
Until his term of office finished this summer, Sir Tim was also vice-chairman and de facto head of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which maintains the memorials and graves of 1.7 million men and women all over the world.
There, too, he ushered in a programme of innovations. The son of a Royal Navy officer who served in World War I, Sir Tim is keen to ensure we never forget those killed in all conflicts.
In 1982, he was serving as navigation officer in the destroyer HMS Sheffield, when he was summoned to Northern Ireland to lead a maritime patrol against IRA gun-runners.
In his absence, Sheffield headed to the South Atlantic without him. On May 4, 1982, she became the first major casualty of the Falklands War when an Argentine Exocet missile killed 20 men and sent the ship to the bottom of the sea. ‘I vividly remember watching the news,’ he says.
‘My first thoughts were of friends. Several officers were killed, all of whom I knew.’
The Duke of York, 59, sent the Princess Royal birthday congratulations, with a collection of images of Andrew and his older sister over the years. A black and white snap taken in 1960, showsng the royal family having a picnic on the Balmoral Castle estate, when Anne was just 10 years old.
They are always in his mind when he attends the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph (a monument which, oddly, is maintained by English Heritage rather than the War Graves Commission).
At the age of 28, Lieutenant Laurence received a Mention in Despatches for his work in Northern Ireland and was marked out for higher things.
He was seconded to be Equerry to the Queen in 1986 (meeting his future wife in the process) before returning to sea in command of his own frigate.
In December 1992, he married the Princess Royal in a low-key winter ceremony at Balmoral (a moment of respite at the end of what the Queen had, days earlier, called her ‘annus horribilis’).
‘Everybody who marries a member of the Royal Family has to craft their own way of doing things,’ says Sir Tim.
‘There’s no book of how to behave when you marry the Royal Family.’ The experience has left him with a deep admiration for two royal consorts.
‘I’m a huge fan of Prince Albert. He designed and built Osborne with William Cubitt. He also designed and built Balmoral Castle.
He had an incredible mind. Bearing in mind how young he was when he died and what he achieved, he was an extraordinary man.’
So is Albert his inspiration? He smiles and points to a more recent role model. ‘I think I’ve gained more from the Duke of Edinburgh obviously because I know him very well.
He is somebody who has supported the Monarch, but also done a huge amount in his own right.
Think of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and the number of young people who have been through that.’
Another snap sees the late Princess Margaret, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew standing behind the late Queen Mother at a Dance of the Decades official picture
The Duke had been one of the Navy’s rising stars when the sudden death of George VI put a stop to all that.
Sir Tim has great sympathy for his father-in-law. ‘The difference for me, personally, was I was determined to stay in the Navy and I was able to do that.
That gave me a career in addition to supporting my wife for many years. It was suggested that the Duke should leave the Navy when the Queen became Monarch.
‘I think, looking back, it might have been possible for him to stay for a bit which might have been good. But anyway, that’s what happened.’
Sir Tim’s first close encounter with the Royal Family came during a short stint in Britannia as a young ‘season’ officer.
He joined the Royal Yacht in the Gulf in 1979, with an early setback. ‘I came back through the Suez Canal on my back because I’d picked up a stomach bug in Saudi Arabia.’ His favourite memories are simply of making an entrance.
‘The impact of the Royal Yacht coming in with the Queen on board is unbelievable,’ he says.
It is now more than 20 years since Britannia was decommissioned to become a tourist attraction in Leith. Millions of us would dearly love to see a replacement.
Sir Tim thinks it could be a long wait. ‘I don’t think, at the moment, it could work,’ he says. ‘I won’t say that it won’t in the future because the tradition of royal yachts goes back to Charles II.
‘The Queen is probably not going to do trips in the way that she has done in Britannia in the past. In a new reign, perhaps the moment may come when they say: ‘Well, come on, We’re a maritime nation.
‘We are good at the sea. We connect with the world through the sea. Perhaps we should have a ship in some form that can represent our nation overseas.’
A final picture shared by Andrew sees the Prince with Anne as they receive Ambassador of Lithuania at Buckingham Palace
Pictured: Queen Elizabeth II hosts a garden party with Princess Anne, Princess Royal (C-R), Prince Andrew, Earl of Inverness (L) and Prince Edward, Earl of Forfar at The Palace Of Holyroodhouse on July 3, 2019
Britannia, like the monarchy, the English language and so much else — including our great historic sites — are examples of soft power. So do we make the most of them?
‘Probably not. I think we could make more of them,’ Sir Tim reflects.
‘The story that we try to tell through our English Heritage properties is of a nation developing from its roots, developing the rule of law, developing good governance, developing civilised structures.
‘I think that is something which most countries overseas appreciate more than many people in Britain actually.’
He points to some conversations he had during this summer’s state visit at the Palace.
‘I spoke to several people in President Trump’s camp who appreciate what Britain has contributed and can contribute.’
Does it bother him when, say, a hectic royal tour with the Princess goes unnoticed back home?
As one who never sought the limelight in the first place, he is relaxed. ‘My observation of those trips is that they have an impact overseas, which is very significant and not always appreciated.
‘There’s a great poem called the Laws Of The Navy, written in about 1900. One of the verses is: ‘If you win through an African jungle/ unmentioned at home in the Press/ Trouble not, no man sees the piston/ But it driveth the ship, none the less.’ I love that.
Sometimes you have to go overseas and do your bit and just accept that people won’t notice it. It’s part of life — as frustrating as the fact that it rains on Mondays!’
So what next after spanning the chasm at Tintagel Castle? Sir Tim is keen to see a broader range of names on Britain’s blue plaques. As for new sites, he’d like to take on some ‘brilliant’ old Lancashire cotton mills, despite friendly competition with the National Trust.
And he would dearly love to house the Bayeux Tapestry at a purpose-built site at the Battle of Hastings in Sussex when it makes its long-awaited first visit to Britain in the next few years.
He sees no reason why the capital should hog it. ‘It’s good for people to get out of London — and Battle is not that far.’ He also wants to see English Heritage push its £5-a-month membership scheme — with free entry to all sites — over the one million mark.
Some might lament the fact that great landmarks such as Stonehenge, the Cenotaph or Dover Castle depend on rattling a tin.
Sir Tim sees it as an opportunity: ‘It’s much clearer, now that we are a charity, for people to know what they are giving money to and how we’re using it.’
At Tintagel, the results are plain to see. Sir Tim believes the new bridge would probably never have happened in the days of state control. ‘It would have been difficult,’ he says. ‘We needed the independence of thought.’
Walking across the slate-lined pathway over the dizzying void — in fact it consists of two bridges with a three-inch gap in the middle for thermal expansion — I have no doubt this will be a splendid addition to the Cornish landscape.
Project manager Reuben Briggs points to the steel ‘dampers’ which will prevent a wobble like that which plagued London’s Millennium Bridge and says that the design can withstand a hurricane.
The main problem I foresee will be the queues flocking to pay homage to King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad and the other knights of the Round Table.
Being gallant chaps, I trust they’ll make a space for Sir Tim.