Very few kings and queens can boast having a reputation so widely known as that of King Arthur. While tangible proofs of his life are unfortunately quite scarce — with many modern historians questioning whether he even existed at all — the legend is alive and well in the minds of almost anyone mildly interested in Camelot, round tables, Merlin, Excalibur and medieval Britain. In light of the upcoming release of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword movie which was extensively shot in and around Britain, and following an epic trip to most of the filming spots, I’ve compiled a list of signification King Arthur locations across Wales and England.
Who Was King Arthur?
Surprisingly enough for someone of such notoriety, very little is known about the heroic Romano-British warrior chief aside from literary inventions and romanticised folklore tales gleaned and slightly embroidered from the Annales Cambriae and the Historia Brittonum. That’s not to say he is entirely made up; a fearless warrior chief might have very well existed in early medieval Britain, but the chances that he slew dragons and bloodthirsty giants — much less defeated — as a hobby are, from a rational standpoint, rather slim.
King Arthur is said to have led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the early 700s and established an empire over not only Britain but also Norway, Gaul, Iceland and Ireland, aided by his mystic sidekick Merlin, his knights of the round table and his beloved wife Guenievre. It’s unclear whether he was Welsh or English as neither present-day countries were formally established at the time, but the first-ever references to the character were written in Welsh; and some 1500 odd years later, Arthurian legends are unequivocally stronger in Wales, still.
Notable King Arthur Locations
With its rocky outcrops and inexplicably mystical atmosphere, it’s no surprise Wales’ and England’s rooftop, at 1080 metres, is intrinsically associated with Arthurian legends. The daring warrior reputedly fought and vanquished the mountain’s fearsome resident, a murderous giant named Rhitta whose dearest yet impossibly morbid project was to create a cape out of his enemies — basically anyone bold enough to pay him a visit — beards. Only one man was able to slay him: King Arthur, who hurriedly covered the corpse with massive boulders atop the mountain the giant once ruled. Some even say that a handful of Arthur’s knights, who unfortunately did not survive the battle, still sleep beneath the surface.
Make your way atop Mount Snowden to tread along the very location of perhaps the most famous Arthurian tale in Wales. Hike up the 1080 metres if you’re up to the physical challenge or let yourself be taken to Clogwyn station in the historic Snowdon Railway.
Rumour has it that King Edward I of England strongly believed in fellow King Arthur and even went as far as using the legend to strengthen his own claim to the throne at Caernarfon Castle. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this fortress was built on the ruins of a Norman motte and bailey castle and, before that, a Roman fort. And you would be right to think it looks like it means business, as this was Edward I’s whole point: to make Caernarfon Castle intimidating and pompous in order to scare off enemies with the potentially funny idea to attack the kingdom.
Fun fact: the reason why the Prince of Wales is, still to this day, the next-in-line to the throne of the United Kingdom is because Edward I’s first son was born here, at Caernarfon Castle, making him the very first Prince of Wales. This is where the investitures take place, including that of HRH Prince Charles.
Although I didn’t get to go on this trip because it was raining, Dinas Emrys is one of the most significant King Arthur locations in Wales for the sole reason that this is where the infamous meeting between Vortigern and a young wizard named Merlin took place.
See, the warlord fled to Wales to escape Anglo-Saxon invaders and, every single day for months on end, had his men build a fortress only to find the masonry collapsed the next morning. The boy, whose real name was Myrddin Emrys, was procured but closely escaped death; Vortigern had planned to sacrifice the boy in order to appease the supernatural powers that prevented him from building a much-needed hillfort. But Merlin’s wit prevailed and he promptly recognised the source of the unrest: a hidden underground pool where the White Dragon of the Saxons and the Welsh Red Dragon were engaged in an epic battle.
The red dragon won and is now Wales’ national symbol.
Nant Gwynant Pass
Overlooking Llyn Gwynant 600 feet above, this panoramic point off the A498 deep in the mountains of Snowdonia was used to film a pivotal scene in the King Arthur: Legend of the Sword movie. It truly is a spectacular and very special place, offering unparalleled views of remarkable Snowdonia landscapes shaped by glaciations thousands of years ago.
Llydaw, Dinas and Ogwen Lakes
Although no one can pretend to know the precise resting place of Arthur’s legendary sword, Excalibur, it’s always been said that it’s hidden somewhere deep in the lakes of Snowdonia. Lakes Llydaw, Dinas and Ogwen are the most obvious contenders — one of them has got to be the right one — and they’re all quite close to each other, making it easy to admire their surroundings and analyse the likeliness of the magnificent sword resting at the bottom.
The lakes are rather widely featured throughout the movie.
Betws Y Coed
This lively town, also known to visitors as the “gateway to Snowdonia”, is where the cast and crew of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword movie stayed during filming. The location manager for the movie said that housing everyone involved in the film was a bit of a challenge, as there wasn’t necessarily enough accommodation for the 300+ people that made up cast and crew; they had to rough it up a little and became real close, real quick!
From a historical standpoint, Betws Y Coed was always an important stop in Wales; first as the main coaching centre between eastern and western Wales, and eventually a major stop along the Irish mail route from London. All around a lovely village — do not miss the beautifulPont-y-Pair Bridge and River Llugwy — to use as a base for exploring Snowdonia.
Maen Huail, Ruthin
This is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of Arthurian attraction but it is well worth a visit nonetheless, if only for an overnight at the village’s Ruthin Castle. The limestone block that sits right next to Barclays Bank in the town centre is said to be the very stone on which King Arthur beheaded his rival Huail. You see, the young warrior had the funny and eventually fatal idea to raid Arthur’s lands and nick one of his mistresses, resulting in his inevitable death.
What used to be the second largest slate quarry in Wales was most recently used to film a pivotal scene in the King Arthur: Legend of the Sword movie where the king is seen jumping off a dizzying cliff in the Dinorwic Quarry into the dark waters of the lake below. These are the coordinates.
If you’re an avid scuba diver, the lake is, in fact, so deep that it’s become one of Wales’ top diving centres.
Moving on from Wales to northern England, where Arthurian legends are also quite vivid, we embarked on a centennial steamer — one of the oldest working passenger vessels in the world — for a cruise on mythical Ullswater Lake. Known as the Dark Lake in medieval times, the lake is home to Dunmallard Hill at Pooley Bridge, which is believed to be the burial mound of Sir Tristian, one of the Knights of the Round Table. Additionally, another noble Knight of the Round Table named Sir Eglamore lived at the ancient castle of Baron Lyulph nearby. The boat even has a King Arthur app highlighting the stories and myths in each location.
Our little group had the chance to be accompanied by a costumed Jonathan from Lakes & Legends, who was instrumental in making the legends come to life, if only for the duration of the cruise.
King Arthur’s Round Table
Okay, so it turns out that King Arthur’s round table isn’t an actual table with chairs and a pendant light — sorry to disappoint. In reality, it’s a Neolithic earthwork henge dating back 4000 years believed to be King Arthur’s jousting arena, consisting of a low circular platform surrounded by a wide ditch and earthen bank.
Although the exact purpose of this henge remains unknown, legend supposes that this is where King Arthur would have met with regional rulers to discuss trading and potential issues.
Welcome to the original Camelot! Or, at least, what is said to be Camelot. Indeed, Carlisle Castle is rumoured to have been the most likely location for King Arthur’s headquarters, with both him and his advisor Merlin making great use of the Roman fortifications. Camelot would have been the place where Arthur and Guenievre were married and lived.
Whether or not you believe in the Arthurian legends, the fact is that Carlisle Castle is fascinating in its own right. Built in 1092 by William Rufus, it once served as a prison for the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots’ and, given the proximity of Carlisle to the border between England and Scotland, is also the most sieged castle in England.