Top Cornwall Historical Attractions
There is no denying Cornwall has a vibrant and interesting history extending back more than 6000 years so there are a more than a few stories to be told. Cornwall's story is a mix of struggle and success, with its past shaping the Cornwall we see today.
Much of its history is still evident and can be seen as you explore this fascinating region, it appears to be written into the landscape. From the Neolithic age through to the industrial revolution which brought huge changes to the area. Roman remains have been discovered in a few places in Cornwall.
Delve into its unique history by exploring museums, through ancestral houses and castles, prehistoric sites and the Cornish Mining World Heritage Sites. Get to know all about its prosperous smuggling history and rich fishing heritage.
Local guides are a great way to get to know the area, they are well informed and knowledgeable about the people, past and traditions. After all Cornwall is a land of legends, one of the most famous associations is with King Arthur.
Many of the towns and villages have historical societies that host local history meetings, these are a great way to learn about its history whilst getting to know the locals and their in-depth knowledge.
Pendennis Castle, In Falmouth
Taking pride of place at the entrance of the Fal Estuary, in Falmouth, this majestic and imposing artillery fort was constructed by Henry VII between 1540 and 1542. On the opposite side of the estuary is its brother on St Mawes Castle.
A defence since Tudor times when this Cornish harbour was a threat from France and the Holy Roman Empire, strong defences were needed to protect from invasion. It was operational through the Civil War, World War One and right up to the Second World War at which time it defended against torpedo boats and launches long-range, radar-controlled attacks against enemy ships.
Sitting strategically on a headland it has incredible views out to sea which, also made it easier to see any enemy approaching. Make your way to the roof via the spiral stairs for unparalleled panoramic views.
You get a real sense of history here, you can experience the sights and sounds of battle, in an immersive experience, encounter costumed characters from Pendennis' past, scan the horizon for enemies in the Battery Observation Post, see where ammunition was stored during WWII at Half Moon Battery, and witness the daily firing of a historic gun (this takes place April through to October). There is a collection of weapons of war including Tudor, Napoleonic, Victorian and 20th-century guns, each with information on how it would have been used.
There are fascinating exhibitions that are continuously changing and they host jousting shows and lots of other medieval entertainment.
The castle grounds are extensive and there is so much to discover both inside and out of this Tudor keep, an attraction that will appeal to all ages.
Wheal Coates Tin Mine, In St Agnes
A former tin mine with a dramatic cliff side location, although mostly ruins it harks back to a more prosperous past. Perched precariously on the cliff top this mine operated throughout most of the 19th century, at which time it employed around 140 miners.
Wheal Coates mine opened in 1802 and was eventually closed in 1889 however, it did operate for a brief period between 1911 and 1913 when it closed for good.
The site is recognised for its three engine houses most notably the iconic Towanroath Shaft engine house, which is now a Grade II listed building. When in operation it was responsible for keeping water out of the shaft 600 feet below. The other two engine houses were stamping and winding (whim) engine houses, built at around the same time. Their purpose was to hoist and crush the tin ore.
The site also includes an additional chimney stack and a calciner furnace, this was built when the mine was re-opened to remove impurities such as arsenic and sulphur from the tin.
There is an information board providing a brief history on the mine and information on local wildlife.
Wheal Coates provides a real sense of Cornwall's mining history in a dramatic setting with incredible views of the amazing coastline and seascape.
Levant Mine and Beam Engine, Near St Just
Sitting high on exposed cliffs at Trewellard, is Levant Mine, the oldest Cornish mine in existence. What is unusual about this location is that it has the world's only Cornish beam winding engine still operated by steam on its original site, and you can see this operating.
The surviving buildings and ruins reminisce of a past era where men and women worked to extract the valuable minerals from the earth and from beneath the crashing waves. The ore was extracted through the Skip Shaft from deep beneath the seabed, extending to depths of over 600 metres.
Trace the miner's footsteps through the tunnel to the man-made mineshaft where their working day started, listen to the stories of Edwardian miners and try you hand working as a bal boy or bal maiden.
Learn all about this compelling industry and the early days on industrialisation, an integral part of Cornish culture for centuries with one of their guided tours.
Outside explore these dramatic and engaging ruins on this stunning backdrop where the Atlantic ocean crashes below. There are lots of information boards telling the story of Levant Mine.
Bodmin & Wenford Railway
For a sense of nostalgia make your way to Bodmin & Wenford Railway, This heritage railway is Cornwalls' only full size railway operated by steam and mostly run by volunteers. Step back in time with a trip onboard a steam locomotive, evoking a sense of romanticism.
The station has been beautifully restored, it is quaint and has a selection of items to add a nostalgic feel with antique luggage, trolleys and old milk urns. Standing on the platform waiting for the train to pull in elicits a sense of childlike joy.
A thoroughly enjoyable experience, sit back and relax in luxury as you take a leisurely 13 mile round trip in the beautifully preserved carriages. Trains operate from Bodmin General to Boscarne Junction. Savour the sights as you pass through the scenic Cornish countryside. Revel in the sounds and smells of this bygone era of travel, watch the stoker and driver working, listen to the chuffing engines and the sound of the drivers whistle, delightful.
You can get off at any of the four stops and explore the countryside, talk a walk or have a picnic.
They also operate a number of special events throughout the year, check their event page for full details of fun events like murder-mystery evenings, cream teas or beer & jazz trains.
There are other engines and rolling stock to be seen on sidings or in a shed that are still undergoing restoration and you can go down and take a closer look. You can also go inside the signal box. There are opportunities for people to drive the engine and take a day course, make a special day for someone.
This premier steam railway will appeal to all ages.
Chysauster Ancient Village, Near Penzance
Chysauster Ancient Village is a well preserved Iron Age settlement located near to the village of Gulval, not far from Penzance. It is one of the finest examples in the country. It has not been reconstructed for altered in any way so is an authentic historical gem.
There are plenty of clues to indicate what rural life was like some 2,000 years ago. There are around eight circular huts, the walls of which are mostly intact and well preserved.
A central village street with stone-walled homesteads known as courtyard houses sat on either side, this design is unique and only found on Land’s End peninsula and on the Isles of Scilly. Each house had a stone paved open central courtyard with small rooms and byres leading off. You can see the remains of open hearths, stone basins for grinding grain and covered drains. Each would of had its own garden plot.
The rooms would have been thatched or had a peat roof and there is evidence of channels for fresh water supplies. The people who lived here would have been farmers who kept animals most likely pigs and goats, and would have grown cereal crops. The settlement was occupied for around 100 years, including during the Roman occupation.
The whole village was enclosed inside a stone wall. Outside are the stone-walled fields belonging to the settlement. The site also has a fogou, an underground passage but is in a derelict state
There is a peaceful atmosphere at Chysauster, it surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside with magnificent views for miles.
There are numerous information boards throughout the site giving an overview of the site, and there is a guide book available which has lots more information. Well worth a visit if you are interested in ancient sites.
Bodmin Jail has a horrifying past and a long history. This historic jail was originally built in 1779 by prisoners of war for King George III, and was operational for more than 150 years during which time there was 50 public hangings. During the First World War the Doomsday book and Crown Jewels were hidden here for safe keeping. The jail was closed in 1927.
It is a dominating landmark and an interesting attraction where you can discover what life behind bars was like for 18th Century prisoners. A sense of bleakness and despondency permeates the corridors as you pass through. Discover the dark and damp dungeons that housed inmates, read the stories of the poor individuals who occupied these grim cells and the reasons for their convictions, the sentences seeming totally unfair in relation to the crimes committed. See firsthand the harsh conditions they endured. It was the first British prison to hold prisoners in individual cells.
Bodmin Jail gives an accurate depiction of the desolate penal life in Victorian Cornwall. See the country's only remaining execution pit, and the Execution Shed. Visit Bodmin's Courtroom Experience.
Currently undergoing a monumental overhaul that will create a complete new range of exhibitions, virtual reality displays and new experiences.
There are also works underway to transform a section of the jail into a luxury boutique hotel, would make for an interesting overnight stay. As there are stories the jail is haunted with a former resident still roaming the halls.
Legends make up a large part of Cornwall's history and sometimes it is hard to separate fact from fiction, a perfect example of this is the iconic Tintagel Castle which dominates Cornwall's north coast. With an expansive history dating back 1,500 years Tintagel has a lot to tell. It is one of the most remarkable historic sites in Britain and a fascinating place to visit.
Find out how the Arthurian legends and stories of the castle have inspired and shaped the imaginations of writers, artists and poets over the years. This brooding ancient castle clings to the edge of of a jagged headland that projects into the Atlantic Sea where the waves crash below. Although effectively ruins now, use of your imagination is required to visualize how it would have been, when it was Arthur's seat around 500AD. There are information boards and artists impressions to assist with this. Meet Gallos, a life size bronze statue of the ancient king, visit the waterfalls and venture into Merlins cave. Take the Land Rover lift back up to the top to avoid the steep climb, there is an additional charge.
There is a new exhibition to explore the stories connecting Tintagel to King Arthur together with a 3D model of the site depicting how it has altered over the centuries. You can also investigate a Dark Age settlement.
After more than 500 years the two separated halves of Tintagel Castle have been reconnected thanks to a new link bridge which is thrilling to walk across.
Truro Cathedral is nestled in the heart of Truro, a neo-gothic building that has dominated the skyline for over a century. Its actual name is The Cathedral Of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This iconic Anglican cathedral was constructed between 1880 and 1910, a magnificent Gothic Revival design by architect John Loughborough Pearson. It sits on the site of a former more modest church dating back to the 16th century whilst retaining the south aisle and incorporating this seamlessly into the new building. The result is simply breathtaking.
It is one of only three cathedrals that have three spires and has some of the best examples of 19th century stained glass windows anywhere in the country, they are by the famous Victorian firm of Clayton & Bell of London. The nave is not straight, it does not fully align with the rest of the building, this was owing to access restrictions with the build. Four different types of stone were used in the construction. A highlight of the cathedrals interior is the stunning reredos behind the high altar. These ornately carved reredos are the work of sculptor Nathaniel Hitch. The organ was built into cathedral during its construction and was designed by the renowned organ builder Henry “father” Willis.
There are cathedral tour guides who offer tours or can answer any questions visitors have.
The cathedral is open for daily worship services and to visitors, the cathedral greatly appreciates all donations.
Restormel Castle, In Lostwithiel
Restormel Castle is one of four surviving Norman castles in Cornwall. It was constructed in the 13th century in a perfect circle. It was a motte and bailey design although some of the keep has been lost.
This circular keep was progressive for its time with water being piped in from a natural spring.
It appears as if it was erected in the wrong place being a distance from the sea but, its position was strategic, being at an important crossing point on the River Fowey.
The Black Prince is said to have visited twice. Restormel Castle only saw action once, this occurred during the Civil War of 1644 when the Royalists drove out the Parliamentarians. It was subsequently abandoned and fell into a state of decay. Today the mostly intact remaining ruins offer a glimpse of what life was like in Medieval times.
You can walk around the top of the battlements, there are fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding rolling countryside. The moat is dry and you can walk around this also.
There are information boards describing the different sections of the castle, as well as a guide book.
Kit Hill Country Park, Near Callington
Found at the highest point in the Tamar Valley with more than 400 acres of heathland to discover, as well as wonderful panoramic views. Kit Hill Country Park demonstrates how humans have processed minerals on marginal highlands since the stone age.
Kit Hill is a dominating feature, a wild, rugged granite hilltop with a fascinating history. This important site has been formed by more than 5,000 years of history. It uses in the early days was for agriculture, early field systems can be seen on aerial photographs, and religious purposes, with 18 known burial mounds occurring on its slopes. The area is rich in archaeology from a Neolithic long barrow and Bronze Age round barrows to 19th century mining remnants. There are more than 10,000 archaeological remains here.
There are a network of marked walking trails that takes you past a number of interesting sites including, the Quarry, the North Engine Shaft and Summit Stack which dates from 1858. Mining took place here during the First World War when tin and tungsten were needed for the war efforts, many relics relating to this period remain.
To commemorate the ancient battle of Hingston Down, Sir John Call of Whiteford, near Stoke Climsland in the 18th century constructed a folly, a five sided enclosure meant to impersonate a Saxon or Danish fort. The remnants of this folly are at the boundaries to the grassed area at the summit.
There are regular guided walks and events to learn all about this intriguing historical area.
Since 1929, the Old Cornwall Society has lit an annual Midsummer’s Eve Bonfire at the summit.