castle road trips in England
With its verdant countryside and long, exposed stretches of sand, Cornwall is the perfect place to embark on a five-day castle road trip. Get ready to discover the legend of Tintagel Castle, explore one of Henry VIII’s coastal artillery forts, and take in spectacular views across the Lizard Peninsula.
We begin our journey in historic Saltash: the gateway to the county. Nestled into the River Tamar, this attractive town has roots in the 11th century. It is also home to our first stop, Trematon Castle. Built on the ruins of an early Roman fort, Trematon is a dramatic motte-and-bailey castle. It dates back to the Norman Conquest and offers visitors a bewitching view of the Plymouth Sound. Sir John Betjeman once described this miniature Norman castle as having “one of the superb views of Cornwall.” It is currently open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Trematon Castle is renowned for once housing treasures discovered by Sir Francis Drake. The fortress has evolved over recent centuries, with a Georgian house in its courtyard and, more recently, a beautiful garden inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite period. The latter boasts an extraordinary array of wild flowers, juxtaposed with romantic woodland and an orchard. Why not meander across the motte and admire the carpet of cowslips, bright bluebells or blushing cherry trees?
Passing through the market town of Liskeard before heading south, you will arrive at Fowey. This small town, once home to the author Daphne du Maurier, is a perfect stepping-stone on your road trip. Home to cosy B&Bs, luxury cottages and boutique hotels, pretty Fowey is perfect for settling down for the night and getting some much needed rest.
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Before moving on from Fowey, it’s worth venturing to Readymoney Cove for a whistle-stop tour of St Catherine’s Castle. Built by Henry VIII during the 1530s as a defence for Fowey Harbour, this small artillery fort boasts panoramic views of the English Channel. Taking its name from the rocky headland on which it stands, these whitewashed ruins were kept in repair throughout the Tudor period. Consisting of a single D-shaped tower looking south-east from the tip of the headland, its bastion holds two gun ports in use during the Second World War. For those who want to explore this enchanting area further, there is the ruin of Restormel Castle: built in the 13th century and noted for its circular design.
Winding past The Lost Gardens of Heligan – one of the UK’s most popular botanical gardens – you will arrive at the village of St Michael Caerhays, with its resplendent surrounding woodland. There, located in a sheltered valley overlooking Porthluney Cove you will find Caerhays Castle. Set in 140 acres of countryside, Caerhays Castle boasts world-class gardens and unmatched tranquillity. It is home to a National Magnolia Collection, rare species of Chinese rhododendrons and towering evergreen oaks. Caerhay’s Magnolia Collection alone consists of around 80 different species and 500 hybrids. Designed by the famous Regency architect, John Nash, Caerhays Castle offers plenty of opportunities for adventure. It overlooks Porthluney Cove Beach: a hotspot for surfers and the perfect place to keep children entertained.
Following Cornwall’s coastal roads south for thirteen miles, passing through the creeks and valleys of the Roseland Heritage Coast, you will make your next stop at St Mawes Castle. A clover-leaf shape, originally surrounded by octagonal outer defences, St Mawes Castle is another of Henry VIII’s coastal artillery fortresses, and one of the best preserved. Approaching the castle through the original guardhouse, you will notice the walls are decked with Latin inscriptions: these praise King Henry and his son, Edward VI. There are also grand images of the Tudor arms, handgun loops in the walls and murder holes under the arch. Wander past a row of guns at the Tudor Blackhouse and discover the Grand Sea Battery: an imposing defensive gun platform. If you walk up to the second floor of the gun tower, you will find a glass panel covering a deep hole, known as an “oubliette”, which once housed unruly prisoners.
Head outside and you’ll find sloping paths that lead to views of the outer tidal basin, known as the Carrick Roads. Head north, along this section of the River Fal, to the King Harry Ferry. This ferry service runs 364 days per year and connects St. Mawes to Feock, Truro and Falmouth. Established in 1888, it is one of only five chain ferries in England. Once off the ferry, head south towards Falmouth and your next destination: Pendennis Castle.
Pendennis Castle, like St Mawes, has defended Cornwall against foreign invasion since Tudor times. Dominating a high, rocky headland, this stronghold offers 360-degree views over the town of Falmouth and has a history dating back five hundred years. Inside the castle, you will find an exciting exhibition telling the story of Pendennis and Falmouth during the First World War. Next, visit the Discovery Centre: originally used as the Field Train Shed, it is now jam-packed with activities that are sure to keep children entertained for hours.
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For the next stop on our castle road trip we head to a small island in Mount’s Bay called St Michael’s Mount. Around 25 miles from Pendennis Castle, some three miles east of Penzance, this island draws visitors from afar. It’s easy to see why: Napoleonic sieges, Benedictine Monks and ancient lookouts. St Michael’s Mount is an island of legend and beauty. The buildings date back to the twelfth century, but today the island is a melting pot of new and old. Amble across the island’s sleepy harbour, explore the castle and discover the extraordinary gardens: the rock absorbs heat by day and releases it at night, creating a micro-climate in which plants flourish.
Take a trip to the top of the castle and imagine tin-laden ships sailing over the horizon. Look to the east and take in the silky, smooth sands of the Lizard Peninsula, while the Neolithic sites of Penwith Peninsula sit quietly in the west. As if these sites weren’t enough, the castle’s interior is equally majestic. Children can hunt for a “giant’s stone heart,” a mummified cat and the armour of a samurai warrior.
If Michael’s Mount captures your heart, why not extend your stay? The Goldolphin Arms sits on a two-mile stretch of beach in Marazion and is the perfect place to unwind after a day of exploring. Alternatively, hop on the island’s boat, return to the mainland and head straight to our next destination.
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Making your way up the west coast of Cornwall, past the seaside towns of St. Ives and Newquay, you finish your five-day road trip at Tintagel Castle. Projecting from the mainland into the Cornish Sea, Tintagel Castle is one of the most extraordinary historical sites in the UK. An important stronghold during the Dark Ages, this fortress is more widely known for its association with the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
References to King Arthur first began in the twelfth century, when Geoffrey of Monmouth described Tintagel in his fictionalised account of British history, Historia Regum Britanniae. The legend extends to a bedrock located beneath the fortress, made famous in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. It was said that waves carried the infant Arthur to the shore, where Merlin took him to safety. As a result, this area is named Merlin’s Cave and today, a sculpture of the famous wizard is carved into the surrounding craggy rock.
Originally the castle was attached to the mainland, but centuries of erosion meant a bridge had to be built. Climb 148 steps onto the island and explore the ruins of the Great Hall, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Slither down the romantic paths snaking around the island, listening out for the coastal birds chattering overhead. If you are lucky, you may even be able to spot a seal, bobbing in and out of the waves. Once you have scaled the towering turrets and wandered through the sub-tropical gardens, why not finish off your castle road trip with a few tasty treats? The Beach Café is the perfect place for trying fresh, local produce, and the sea views make for fabulous photo opportunities.