8 must-visit castles in Cornwall
- Credit: Historic England
It’s about quality, not quantity. That was my feeling when I delved into Cornish castles. There aren’t oodles; possibly due to being a separatist community in the South West. The Normans were great castle builders, erecting fortresses to cow the defeated English into submission. Perhaps in Cornwall it wasn’t necessary, well, not on such a scale anyway.
There are around 20 castles in the county, which is not a huge number, but there are exquisite examples other counties would give their touristy right arm for. Here follows my countdown of the top eight, and in the best traditions, I will leave best to last.
I’ve restricted my selections to castles which are accessible, where there are substantial remains and/or where there are stories to tell (possibly all these).
The first castle, probably wooden, was built by Robert de Mortain on high ground above the town. A stone castle followed when Richard of Cornwall built a shell-keep with round-tower, plus a strongly defended passage from gatehouse to curtain. A later gaol building was added. The East Gate contains the constable’s quarters; here, under the gatehouse, Quaker George Fox, was imprisoned in 1656, for wearing his hat in court. During the Civil War, although ruinous, the castle was still a prize, changing hands five times. The earldom morphed into today’s Duchy, Prince Charles visiting Launceston to take up the Dukedom and receive gifts, including greyhounds and a pound of pepper.
Sometimes labelled England’s most picturesque castle, Restormel was originally an earthwork built by Baldwin Fitz Turstin, passing to the Lord of Cardinham in 1100, who built up the gate, and whose grandson, Robert, added the circular curtain wall. By 1270 it was the property of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and since 1299 resided with the Duchy, also being home to the 14th century ‘Black Prince’. Buildings erected inside the curtain, including a chapel, were later. The east window was blocked during the Civil War, when it became a gun emplacement and lookout post. During the Battle of Lostwithiel (1644), Restormel was captured by Royalist Sir Richard Grenville. Visitors have seen a rare black pheasant up to this year; the Black Prince reincarnate one might suggest.
Near Anthony House (National Trust) on the Rame Peninsula, lies Ince, a 17th century castle, fortified during the English Civil War for the King. It became a farmhouse, was restored in the 1920s and is now a private house. Today’s attractions are the five acre gardens, planted since 1960, with a charming shell house (1964) created by the current owner’s parents and beautiful river views from almost anywhere.
This round tower and fore-building on the west coast of Tresco (Scillies), was built in 1651, so around the end of the English Civil War. It is remarkably well preserved and therefore well worth visiting. It once had a garrison of 20 men and was provisioned by sea from St Mary’s, the entrance by wooden ladder.
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Meanwhile, back on the Scillies, on St Mary’s, we have Star. It was built by Robert Adams, surveyor, in 1593, and is eight-pointed, surrounded by a rampart wall. It had gun embrasures, plus a basement and two storeys. It still has a gateway defended by portcullis and an 18th century bell tower. The garrison in 1637 stood at 25, with a further 25 Cornishmen for six months apparently.
Charles I, that doomed monarch, came here, when but a prince, with the Duke of Buckingham. After its capture by Parliament in 1646, Star was used as a prison for the Duke of Hamilton and other Royalists. In 1660 Harry Vane was imprisoned here by Charles II, a monarch who knew Star well. By 1669 the garrison had grown to 200 and later it would be the governor’s residence. Today Star serves as a well-appointed hotel.
This is the first of two pairs. It would be disingenuous to do these any other way, for Fowey and Polruan were forts connected by a chain, effectively guarding this harbour mouth.
The need for fortification was emphasised in 1457 when the French invaded and Place House was fortified by Thomas Treffry, whose wife apparently beat off the French from her doorstep with the help of one servant; not a full-scale invasion then. In Henry VIII’s reign, St Catherine’s Fort (Fowey) was built, mounting four cannon, later restored in 1855.
Across the water meanwhile was Polruan, a square harbour tower with two storeys and fireplaces, built around the same time as St Catherine’s, with the same intention of defending the harbour from French incursion.
It’s time for another pair, famed Pendennis and St Mawes, built by Henry VIII in 1548 at Falmouth, to protect Carrick Roads. The castles are only just over a mile apart, but the drive is 35-40 miles via Truro. There are also a couple of ferry options.
Pendennis sits 300ft above the sea and consists of a circular tower 56ft in diameter, with walls 11ft thick, pierced in three tiers with gun embrasures. Come Elizabeth I, a large angular rampart was added, covering almost two acres. The entrance is across a drawbridge from Castle Drive and through a gateway, over which Henry VIII’s arms are displayed.
During the English Civil War, Royalist Col. Arundel of Trerice was governor. Anticipating a siege, he strengthened defences with a pentagonal redoubt and other earthworks, constructed so that enemy cannon could not approach within range. Provisions for nine months were stockpiled; these must have been considerable for the garrison was some 800. When the Parliamentarian Fairfax arrived in March 1646, Arundel eschewed surrender, holding out until August 17, by which time supplies had run out and a quarter of the garrison was sick. Only Raglan in Wales held out longer (by two days). When the siege ended, the garrison left with heads high, weapons intact, banners flying, songs-a-singing. The intention was to re-form, but first, they visited the nearest pub (Penryn) for a good binge. Sadly they overdid it, the possibly apocryphal tale being that more died from over-indulgence than siege! Pendennis’s days as a fortification were not over, as it was re-used right up to WW2 because of its position and the word on the street is the MoD might requisition it again, should this country ever be threatened.
There is a fine collection of arms and armour inside, including guns and cannon from Tudor times to WW2. Wendy was delighted that a tradition of firing a gun at midday was reintroduced in April 2014. “We currently have a 1938 25-pounder, and I’m a member of the in-house gun-crew!”
St Mawes meanwhile, across the estuary, was begun in 1540, and is generally considered the finest of Henry VIII’s forts. It took three years to build, consisting of large central tower, surmounted by small watch-tower, three semi-circular bastions arranged in a clover-leaf; drawbridge, protected by musket loops and outer blockhouse, lead to the first floor. The garrison here varied from 16 to 100, but the only time it saw action was during the Civil War, when Lt. Bonython surrendered to Fairfax in March 1646. The castle was an important part of coastal defence during the last war, and now sits in pleasant gardens.
Near Saltash lies one of Cornwall’s most interesting castles. Mentioned in Domesday Book, Trematon stands high over the River Lynher. Built on a Roman or Saxon site by Robert de Mortain, it later passed to the crown and during the Lionheart’s reign, belonged to Reginald de Valletort, responsible for much of the building. It eventually became part of the Duchy of Cornwall.
There is a shell keep, standing on a mound, with ditch. The curtain wall extends west and south in a loop, with almost an acre enclosed. The south-east gatehouse, built as lodgings for the ‘Black Prince’, is impressive, with two portcullises, arrow loops and guard-chamber. Apparently when Sir Francis Drake returned from his circumnavigation in 1580, Elizabeth I ordered his accumulated treasures stored at Trematon.
In 1594 Sir Richard Grenville and his wife were surrounded by rebels of Kilter’s rising, who seized Trematon, stripping contents and prisoners. It appears to have been neglected thereafter, although in 1650 petty courts were held here. In 1808 a Georgian house was built in the bailey for Duchy Surveyor-General, Benjamin Tucker; the curtain wall partly destroyed for a sea view. The resulting vista was rated ‘one of the superb views of Cornwall’ by Betjeman.
Trematon’s gardens are open between April and September.