Britons, behold your king: In a Hampshire council maisonette, Excalibur's rightful owner has renounced worldly goods and the dole to help save the planet. Camilla Berens met him
He's dead serious. But it's quite hard to take in the exploits of this self-styled latter-day King Arthur when you're sitting in a council maisonette in Farnborough, Hampshire.
A short, thick-set figure with tattoos up both arms, Arthur doesn't exactly match the knightly picture of his namesake hanging over the mantelpiece. Nevertheless, he is convinced that he is the reincarnation of the 'once and future king'.
He looks more like a fan of Deep Purple than a warrior chieftain. His druidic white robe and dragon-emblazoned sackcloth hang on the back of the sitting-room door. 'I don't wear my gear all the time. For day-to-day stuff, I usually make do with this,' he says pulling open his studded leather jacket to reveal a threadbare jumper, with a yellow dragon on the front.
He wears a heavy iron circlet around his head (another dragon snarling from its centre) and a leather belt with numerous pouches containing a book of spells, tarot cards, holy water and a letter from the Crown Prosecution Service saying that it would not prosecute him simply for carrying Excalibur.
With pastel walls and well worn furniture, the flat it is not Camelot. But there are signs of Arthur's presence everywhere. Excalibur stands in the corner. His druidic staff rests by the front door. Upstairs, a poster on the loo door shows another image of King Arthur captioned 'I'm On The Throne.'
Arthur's most incongruous addition is, however, in the front bedroom. He opens a small wardrobe and pulls back the clothes to reveal the entrance to his 'priest hole'. Inside, there is a tiny chamber with a home- made throne at the far end, surrounded by books on the Arthurian legends. 'I don't read them,' he says. 'People give them to me. My knowledge comes from inside,' he explains. 'This is my personal chapel, where I come to pray, contemplate, read and study.'
But wasn't Arthur a Christian? 'Huh,' his reincarnation snorts. 'That's just the Christians changing the story to suit their own ends. You can be sure Arthur was a pagan.'
Arthur is keen to stress that the house belongs to a friend. 'I gave up all worldly goods as part of my pledge.' He says he has at least three different 'bases' in Farnborough and spends a third of the year hitchhiking around the country on 'druidic and other business'. His customised iron steed is out of action.
Arthur's claim has cut no ice with Rushmoor Borough Council, which is pursuing him for two years' poll tax arrears. 'I consider myself fully employed as King Arthur, albeit unpaid,' he booms. 'I don't pay rent and I don't claim benefit because I don't want to sponge off the state.'
How does he survive then? 'That's where the magic works,' he says mystically. But what about everyday things like his cigarettes ('Superkings, of course')? 'Well, you bought my last packet.' But isn't he just sponging? 'If I need something, it will come. My food and shelter are provided by my friends and my religious community. But I'm happy to sleep in a ditch.'
Now 39, Arthur refuses to reveal his identity before he reverted to Arthur Uther Pendragon by deed poll in June 1986. 'It's not important. That was then. This is now.'
The son of an army sergeant, Arthur says he spent six years in the now amalgamated Royal Hampshire Regiment before spending his late twenties 'running with various outlawed bike clubs'. He settled down in the mid- Seventies. 'I got a mortgage, got married, all that kind of stuff,' he says ruefully. 'Then my wife and I woke up one morning and wondered what had happened to us. The system had sucked us in. In the end she went off to manage a riding stables and I got on my bike and headed for the horizon.'
His calling finally came in a friend's squat. 'I was writing down all the nicknames I'd ever had on a board. Then my friend said, 'You know who you really are. You're King Arthur, the once and future king.' That's when I decided I'd better do something about it.' After changing his name, he jumped on his bike and set out on a quest to find Excalibur and Merlin.
He expected to find his magic sword at Stonehenge but came away empty handed. 'I was a bit annoyed,' he confesses. 'But 28 days later I took a wrong turning and discovered a shop with Excalibur in the window. The magic again.' Several years later, he discovered Merlin in the form of Rollo Maughfling, Arch Druid of the Glastonbury Order of Druids. 'I knew as soon as I met him at a dawn ceremony on Glastonbury Tor,' he explains. 'Maughfling is a Saxon corruption of Merlin. He is the Merlin of this age.'
For the past three years, he has campaigned against English Heritage's ban on summer solstice gatherings at Stonehenge by attempting to break through the police exclusion area. So far he has only managed to reach the perimeter fence. 'English Heritage think they have some God-given right to own the stones. But I'm an Englishman and I have as much right to be there as they have.'
English Heritage describes Arthur as a 'good chap' but says it is unwilling to risk damage by lifting the ban. Undaunted, Arthur spent last winter living in a makeshift tent near the stones, picketing the entrance in his Druidic robes. 'Basically, I tried to persuade the tourists to look at the stones from the road, rather than pay to see them from outside the cordon. The Americans thought it was great.'
Last year, he stood as an independent candidate in the local elections, and won 160 votes. He plans to stand in the May borough elections.
His other chief pursuits, he says, involve enlisting the help of the numerous knights in his 'Warband' to take part in various activities from fund-raising for the homeless to opening London's most alternative nightclub, Megatripolis. Last spring, he and several of his knights joined the Dongas Tribe in their bid to save Twyford Down from the bulldozer.
He is certainly committed to his role. But as King Arthurs go, he is less of the courtly nobleman and more your strutting, belching, slap-on-the-back chieftain. As we walked along a playing field to his friend's house, he opined on the Arthurian legends while hogging the path - leaving me to trot along behind or slide around in the mud beside him. Full marks for fighting for truth, honour, justice and a greener future, but he could do with a few lessons in chivalry.
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