A slender carpet of slate hangs above a rocky ravine on the north coast of Cornwall, where azure waters lap at the entrance to Merlin’s Cave. It looks like the wizard has been up to his old tricks, conjuring a gossamer-thin bridge that effortlessly spans the chasm, reconnecting the mainland to the ancient ruins of Tintagel Castle for the first time in centuries.
The modern-day Merlins take the form of Laurent Ney, a Belgian architect and engineer, and William Matthews, lead designer under Renzo Piano of the Shard skyscraper in London. The pair teamed up to summon this £5m footbridge into being for English Heritage. “We had no magic spells to help us,” says Ney, whose firm has built around 100 bridges across the world, but none in such a challenging location. “It was the first time in my life that I had to design a bridge in a site that was totally inaccessible – and which was expected to disappear into the landscape.”
The rugged promontory provided the perfect place for the Cornish kings to build their fortified stronghold in the fifth and sixth centuries, when the headland was connected by a narrow isthmus that has since crumbled into the sea. The end-of-the-earth feeling also helped to fuel all the legends that have swirled around the site since the middle ages, when it was named as the place of King Arthur’s conception, prompting Richard Earl of Cornwall to build his castle there in the 13th century. This made it a tricky place to bring 50 tonnes of steel and 40,000 slate tiles – all of which had to be delivered by helicopter in five-tonne prefabricated chunks and assembled by a crane on a cable stretching right across the gulch.