One of my favorite poets, Simon Armitage, is having quite a year. Following on the success of his recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he’s done a documentary about the poem for the BBC, in which he tours some of the places associated with Sir Gawain’s adventures and engages in activities above and beyond the call of poetry:
Of course, there’s no more historical evidence to suggest that Camelot existed than there is for Arthur himself, but that hasn’t stopped Arthurians (Trekkies in chain mail) and tourist officers putting pins in the map from Winchester to Carlisle. Few places, however, have embraced the Camelot legend more than Tintagel, in Cornwall. On camera, I read some of the poem in Merlin’s Cave and stride among the castle ruins on the clifftops as poetically as a pair of elasticated overtrousers will allow. I also meet two latter-day knights, Gandalf and Gary, and voluntarily take a punch in the stomach to test the protective properties of a metal breastplate.
Gary: “How was that?”
Poet (swallowing blood): “Well . . . I felt it.”
Upon reaching Staffordshire, Armitage spent a night at the Roaches — which, despite its unappealing name, sounds pretty cool — and seeks out the most likely provenance for the Green Chapel:
Several locations have been suggested for the site of the Green Chapel, but for me it has to be Lud’s Church, near Gradbach, Staffordshire. Like an English version of the Grand Canyon, it’s a fissure in the rocks that reaches backward into the hill and is overgrown on all sides with luminous green moss. The clammy air feels as if it hasn’t been refreshed for several centuries, and it’s the perfect setting for the poem’s finale, as the terrified Gawain calls into the echoing cavern and hears above him the grinding of a giant axe. I’m wearing a green sash round my anorak by now, just as Gawain wore the gift of the temptress’s green girdle to ward off death, and I feel a bit like Miss Ireland circa 1976.
Next stop, Afghanistan. Oh the sheltered life of a poet.