Pendennis Castle – how Henry VIII kept England safe for 400 years
Pendennis Castle – First day in Cornwall
Falmouth to be exact. We spent the previous day travelling through Somerset, Devon, stopped off at my old haunt Plymouth and then the final stretch down the A38 into Cornwall. It was a long day for us both involving traffic jams, garden centres and fish and chips. After a good night’s sleep we took in the view over Falmouth and its famous harbour and had some breakfast. We were both ready to face the day – little did Ash know what was to come for her! We were only going to Pendennis Castle.
Just a short walk, he says
The plan was to walk from the apartment to Pendennis Castle, which is perched on top of a hill on the Pendennis headland, overlooking the mouth of the River Fal. I (Google Maps) estimated that this would be a 1.8 mile walk (merely just over half an hour) – an easy trek, right? Apparently the Irish and walking do not mix; in the Republic they mainly rely on their cars – Ash is Irish, so as an Englishman knowing nothing about the Irish, I rely on her word for this. However, she thought she’d go along with this; it wasn’t that far after all.
After a leisurely stroll, we came to a turning, and me being a man who knows all things about directions rightly decides that we should take the right direction and take the scenic route. And the road signs are right, this was the scenic route. And I can say with certainty that if we didn’t take this route, we would have missed the chance to see a fully functioning harbour. Ash saw it as an unnecessary extra mile uphill on our journey, and didn’t I know about it – she must be right about the Irish. I’d be sleeping on my own that night.
As soon as we reached the top, all was forgiven – luckily there was a medieval theme event which made Ash forget about the extra long excursion…for now.
The first thing I noticed when walking up to the main gun tower was its size – after visiting quite a few castles in my lifetime, I was expecting at least the main tower to be much bigger. The main gun tower of Pendennis Castle was built in the 16th century from 1539 to 1545. This was a time when England faced a real threat of invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire. To combat this threat, Henry VIII bolstered the English defences by implementing a national programme of military and naval preparations. This included building new coastal artillery forts. These were equipped with guns to destroy enemy warships that might attempt to invade and capture English ports.
Pendennis – a strategic location
The great thing about Pendennis Castle is the almost 360° views you can get over Falmouth Bay, the town of Falmouth, and the River Fal estuary. Because of the strategic importance of the estuary of the River Fal (known as Carrick Roads), it was seen as a potential location where the enemy could establish a base. So, two forts were built either side of the estuary to protect it – Pendennis Castle being one of these.
The defences of the castle were vastly improved by the turn of the 17th century, where Henry VIII’s original castle was enclosed within a much larger fortress complex in order to defend the headland on which the castle was situated. This enabled Pendennis to withstand attacks coming from land and sea.
Pendennis under siege
Despite the numerous threats posed in the hundred years since the castle was first built, Pendennis castle never saw any real action. That was until the English Civil War where the Pendennis defences were tested. At the time, Falmouth was a Royalist stronghold and an important port of Charles I’s army. The castle and its 1000 soldiers endured a three month siege in 1646 against the Parliamentary forces, which only ended when food supplies had run out.
Neglect and Improvement
After the Civil War, things at Pendennis were relatively uneventful for the next 200 or so years. Wars with the Dutch and French in the Georgian period meant that a garrison in one form or another was always kept in post. However, the castle was in such serious neglect that major repairs were needed in the mid-18th century in order to modernise the castles defences. New buildings were erected, old ramparts rebuilt, and new guns were installed. The latter half of the 18th century also saw new buildings erected as well as the upgrade of existing gun batteries.
The castle again endured cycles of neglect and improvements in the 19th century, reflective of British and French rivalries at that time. Notable improvements were of the installation of more powerful six-inch guns at the Half Moon Battery and One Gun Battery. Looking at these guns were a marvel to see – I always wondered how loud these things would get after being fired. Even more impressive was the view out towards the Carrick roads entrance. Carrick Roads was also protected using an anti-submarine minefield, which could be detonated remotely from Pendennis.
Pendennis during the World Wars
Pendennis also provided a valuable service during the two world wars of the 20th century. During the First World War, Pendennis Castle became central to the defence of the West Cornwall coast as its main command centre. Pendennis was also used as a training ground for thousands of soldiers before being sent to the trenches in France and Belgium. Pendennis fulfilled the same role again during the Second World War when all defences were upgraded to counter the German threat.
After the war, Pendennis continued to be used as a training facility until its closure in 1956.
The fortress has a tearoom situated in the Royal Barracks, serving a selection of locally sourced light refreshments and snacks. Because there was a special event happening that day, there were also stalls selling hot food and alcohol. The price is what I would say average for a tourist attraction – £5 for a burger, and similar for a bottle of beer. There is an exhibition detailing the history of the castle and its connection with the town of Falmouth. The exhibition has an interactive scale model of the castle for the children, and a collection of wartime cartoons.
How to get there
Access by car to the castle is relatively straightforward. Head to the Pendennis Headland south-east of Falmouth. Sat Nav postcode: TR11 4LP. There is ample parking on nearby Castle Drive – no parking charges apply.
We chose to walk to the castle from Falmouth town centre. Foror most of the way up until the Pendennis Headland the walk is easy-going until the Melvill Road roundabout. From there, there are two routes. The quickest, but steepest route is via Castle Drive. However, if you want a gentler, but lengthier climb up, I’d recommend going up via Pendennis Rise (not recommended if you want to stay in your other half’s good books).
Falmouth is on a branch line. From the south west main line will need to change at Truro and board a train to Falmouth Docks station. From there you can walk up to the castle.
Prices start at £6.50 for children up to £10.50 for adults. If you’re a family, I recommend you buy a family ticket for £27.30 – it works out cheaper per person. Pendennis is owned by English Heritage, which owns other well-known historical English landmarks. If you sign up to English Heritage membership on the day, you will get a refund of the entrance fee – a free visit as well as free visits to other English Heritage sites.
Pendennis Castle is a charming coastal fort on top of the Pendennis Headland offering stunning views over the Falmouth area. We were lucky there was a medieval festival. Otherwise I’m not sure if we would have enjoyed the visit so much. Having said that, the £10.50 entrance still represents good value for money.
What struck me about Pendennis Castle is that you can see evidence of the development of weapons and military engineering. Right from the Tudor period up to the Second World War era. This definitely represents one of the best preserved examples of English coastal fortresses. The fact it is still standing today is testament to Henry VIII. His foresight to build such coastal defences has contributed to the successful defence of the British Isles since 1066.
We’ve just looked at one of Cornwall’s most iconic castles. Next time we’ll be going to one of Cornwall’s most iconic landmarks…stay tuned!