A guest post written by Beth Knight
As a self-confessed history nerd, I love nothing than more than exploring castles and stately homes on my holidays (and days out, and weekends away, and any time I can possibly get away with it…). When planning this holiday we had hoped to fit in a whopping 7 castles over the 10 days; the reality was 5 but I’d still say that was pretty good going! Two of these were in Cornwall and three were in Devon; here’s the first of two posts about the fun we had. This one is all the Cornish Castles.
St. Michael’s Mount
We set off for Cornwall really early (5am!) on the first day of our holiday as we knew the journey from Cambridgeshire to the bottom of Cornwall was going to be a long one, even if it was a random Tuesday morning in Mid-May. This was partially so we could enjoy the afternoon in Cornwall too and not spend the entire day travelling. We arrived at our campsite on the outskirts of the tiny, gorgeous town of Marazion at lunch time and by the time we had pitched up, we could spend the afternoon exploring the local area. The town is opposite the well-known tidal island of St. Michael’s Mount and where the causeway to the island runs out from. We parked up with about 15 minutes to spare before they would be stopping people walking across before high-tide. I’m glad we were able to walk across as it definitely added to the fun. The causeway was cobbled but flat and I believe it had wheelchair access down to it from the street level at the back of the beach.
Although the weather wasn’t great, there was something majestic about the island coming into clearer view as you walk towards it. The island is small, but very pretty with a range of buildings on it, the most iconic being the castle at the top of the hill. The island is very steep too, so although you can get a wheelchair across on the causeway, pushing it up the steep, cobbled paths may be challenging. The best place for better information would be the accessibility page of the island’s website here.
The island is joint run by the National Trust and the St. Aubyn family who have owned the castle since the 1650s. The island is kept beautifully and is a wash with plants, trees and shrubs. The climb to the castle is steep but definitely worth it not just for the castle, but for the incredible views across Mount’s Bay. Even on a pretty dreary, wet day, it was spectacular. If you are a National Trust member, entry to the castle is free.
The castle itself is fascinating. It’s a lot bigger than I first thought and it took us well over and hour to explore. There is no formal guided tour or audio tour but there are stewards in each of the main rooms who were very friendly and knowledgeable. My main area of historical interest is the English Civil Wars. There was a lot of fighting in the West Country during this time and the guides were able to tell me loads about what happened to the castle and the local area in the 1640s and 50s which was great.
The castle’s history is obviously considerably more than just those decades so it was great to find out so much. The Chevy Chase and the incredible chapel were two rooms of particular note but the whole place was a treasure trove of architecture and artefacts.
The huge courtyard was amazing and gave incredible views out beyond the bay and down upon the incredible castle gardens below. Unfortunately, the gardens closed at 4pm and we didn’t have a chance to explore them ourselves but I would love to go back and wander up and down the zig-zagging paths.
It’s a surprisingly interesting place to explore in one of the most incredible settings; you get to explore a good proportion of the castle, the remaining section being closed to the public as the family still live there. Once we had finished the route through the castle, we headed back down to the bottom of the island where a small collection of buildings surround a pretty harbour. These include a cafe and some shops but as we were the last ones out of the castle, these had all shut for the day by the time we got back down.
From the harbour we got the boat back to the mainland. This takes about 10 minutes and cost £2 each. The boat holds 12 passengers and runs when the causeway is closed. It lands are three points on the mainland so the guides on the mainland will direct you to the right one. All the information about the boat crossings is here.
One thing to note, the Island is closed on Saturdays so this needs to be factored in when planning trips, all information about visiting is here on the Island’s website.
Our time on St. Michael’s Mount was fairly brief but absolutely excellent and I would highly recommend a visit if you’re ever venturing to Cornwall. I cannot wait to go back again, hopefully in the sunshine!
Our next castle visit was a couple of days later when we went to Falmouth. To avoid the traffic we had taken the train from Penryn into Falmouth, so got off the train at Falmouth Docks station, which isn’t far from the castle. There are signposts out of the station and from the station car park but no more after than so make sure to check the route! We ended up walking past the entrance road, most of the way down to Pendennis headland before realising and then coming back through the moat! Once we did get to the Entrance, we were welcomed by very friendly English heritage staff and pointed in the direction of the ticket office. We got our tickets (free entry for English Heritage members) and started to explore.
We had arrived just in time to see the firing of the Noon gun. Some of the volunteers were in Edwardian uniform and fired an original 12-pounder QF gun, having given a brief talk about it’s history (fired most days from April to October). Our next stop took us to the cafe… standard English Heritage cafe with ok cakes and drinks but nothing special really.
The castle was a lot larger than we expected and as we wanted to explore Falmouth afterwards, we had to choose which bits to see. We chose the Tudor Keep first. This part of the castle really piqued my interest as I am a big fan of British history at that time. The castle was great with various boards of information and lots of rooms to explore. You can also get up onto the roof of the keep and take in the expansive views of the sea and Falmouth itself.
We took about 50 minutes exploring there and had just enough time to visit the gun shed before meeting Steve. Steve was fantastic! He was a credit to English Heritage and their volunteers. He was clearly exceedingly knowledgeable on his subject and cutting a fine figure in his WWII uniform, he led the guided tour of the gun batteries at the castle.
Built into the side of the headland, below the castle walls, are the One Gun Battery (Steve told us this was inaccurately named, it’s only a battery if there are two or more guns) and down a tunnel is the larger Half Moon Battery. These have been in use, defending the mouth of the Fal since being built in the reign of Henry VIII when he built a series of artillery fortresses along the south coast, but they played an important role in WWII and that’s what Steve was there to tell us about. He told us all about the castle’s role at the time and how all the guns worked and the tour ended with us being taken into the old munitions store below the half moon battery. Steve was brilliantly engaging and we thoroughly enjoyed our tour.
After this we decided to head down into the town to ensure we had plenty of time there but this did mean there was plenty we didn’t see. We easily could have spent another 2-3 hours there exploring the rest of the buildings, walkways and the exhibitions.
Pendennis makes a thoroughly enjoyable day trip and is definitely something to include in any Cornish holiday itinerary. All the information you need for visiting is on the English Heritage website here.
We had a great time exploring just two of the many castles in Cornwall, not only do we need to revisit both to do them justice, there are so many others on the ‘to visit’ list including St. Mawes, Restormel and Launceston.
I’ll be writing another post soon about the rest of the castles we explored on this holiday, over the border in Devon!