The name Cornwall probably comes from the local tribal name ‘Cornovii’, meaning horn-people, since the county is located at the very end of England’s south-western peninsula. It was the Anglo-Saxons who added the word ‘Wealas’, meaning foreigners, to the end.
As such, the history of Cornwall is as multi-faceted as its name: it is home to ancient Neolithic ruins, medieval castles, Tudor mansions and UNESCO World Heritage listed mining sites, all set against the pretty backdrop of its stunning coastline.
A county rich in myth and poetry – King Arthur was said to be born at a castle ruin upon a picturesque peak there – it is home to a host of historical sites worth visiting. Here’s our selection of 10 of the best that Cornwall has to offer.
1. Bottallack and Levant Mines
The remains of the old mining structures at Botallack paint a fascinating picture of Cornish mining over a century ago. Early mining records in the area date from at least the 1500s, while some archaeological evidence even suggests that the area was mined in the mid-Roman period or even Bronze Age. The mine at Bottallack closed in 1895 due to rapidly falling copper and tin prices.
The entire mine at Bottallack closed in 1895 due to rapidly falling copper and tin prices. Most other Cornish mines had already closed. Today, there are popular walking trails around Bottallack and Levant Mines where visitors can learn about the history of the area and experience its beautiful scenery.
The Mên-an-Tol (meaning ‘stone of the hole’ in Cornish) is a small formation of standing stones in Cornwall, believed to date to the early Bronze Age. It consists of 3 upright granite stones: a circular stone with its middle holed out (1.3 metres wide) with two standing stones to each side (1.2 metres high) in front of and behind the hole, and one other standing stone nearby. There is speculation that these 4 stones helped formed an ancient circle or a chamber tomb, used in fertility rituals.
Today, the stones are a popular tourist attraction. Mên-an-Tol is believed to aid fertility: local legend claims that if a woman passes through the holed stone 7 times backwards at full-moon, she’ll soon become pregnant. The local moniker the ‘Crick Stone’ alludes to another legend that passage through the stone 9 times will cure a child of rickets.
3. Lanhydrock House and Garden
Undoubtedly one of the most impressive and visited historic houses in Cornwall, Lanhydrock was built in around 1620 by a family of wealthy tin traders from Truro. Built of local grey slate and granite around an inner courtyard, it was later used by the Parliamentarian general during the Civil War. Most of the house today dates from post-1881, since a devastating fire that year destroyed most of it. Still surviving are the chapel, the gatehouse, the 2-story porch and the north range with its 116-foot long gallery.
The house has been under the care of the National Trust since 1953. Today, 50 rooms are fully open to visitors, complete with the decoration and atmosphere of an Edwardian country house. The kitchen and servant’s quarters have been restored and are in stark contrast to the various fabulous family rooms.
4. Tintagel Castle
Tintagel Castle is a cliff-top medieval fortification located on the peninsula of Tintagel Island adjacent to the village of Tintagel (Trevena), in North Cornwall. Inextricably linked with the legend of King Arthur, this dramatic castle and coastline has inspired writers and artists for centuries. It’s thought the site may have been occupied in the Romano-British period; however, it was during the early medieval period when Tintagel Castle was first settled.
Most notably, the castle has a long association with legends related to King Arthur – first recorded around 1135–38 when Geoffrey of Monmouth described Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception. Today, Tintagel Castle is owned by Prince Charles as part of the landholdings of the Duchy of Cornwall, and the site is managed by English Heritage.
5. Wheal Coates
Wheal Coates tin mine opened in 1802 and operated until 1889. An iconic silhouette against the stunning Cornish coast, it harks back to a time when, from 1700 to 1914, the metal mining industry played a vital role in fuelling the Industrial Revolution. Life as a miner was tough; the work was physically gruelling, life expectancy low and hours long. By the mid-19th century, Cornwall’s mining industry had all but declined, leaving the mines falling into ruin.
In 2006, select mining landscapes across Cornwall were inscribed upon the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, marking them as international treasures. Wheal Coates, which is instantly recognisable for the Towanroath engine house, was one. Today, though the mine is closed, walks in the area from the Trust car park are scenic. Nearby is Chapel Poth, one of the most popular beaches in Cornwall.
6. Tregiffian Burial Chamber
Located in Lamorna, Cornwall, the Tregiffian Burial Chamber is a Neolithic or early Bronze Age chambered tomb, featuring a 15-metre wide mound surrounded by kerb stones. A burial chamber is in the mound, as is a passage lined with stones that leads towards the centre. It would have almost certainly been a very important place for a form of ancient ceremonial observance.
Some of the chamber was destroyed in the 1840s when it was levelled to allow for a road to be built. Today, the site is open for all to visit, and is a very short walk along the road from the Merry Maidens stone circle, which would likely have formed part of a larger monument with the Tregiffian Burial Chamber.
7. Trethevy Quoit
Trethevy Quoit is a particularly well-preserved example of a portal dolmen, a burial chamber that dates to the early-middle part of the Neolithic period. Portal dolmens were used over long periods as communal tombs, but may have also been places that were used as places of worship. The energy required to built such a monument is testament to its importance; for instance, the huge capstone on Trethevy Quoit weighs about 20 tonnes.
Located on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, Trethevy Quoit is a popular site for hikers and history enthusiasts alike.
8. Chysauster Ancient Village
Chysauster Ancient Village in Cornwall contains the ruins of a late Iron Age and Romano-British settlement, now operated by English Heritage. Thought to have been inhabited from about 100 BC to the 3rd century by the native Dumnonii tribe, it began as a late Iron Age village, it was likely used up to and during the Roman occupation, before eventually – and for unknown reasons – being abandoned.
Today, the site contains the remains of around 10 ancient houses, each around 30m in diameter. Visitors can trace the houses’ minute details, such as water channels and stone hollows once used to support timber uprights, while considering who might have lived there those 2,000 years ago. Set on a tall hillside, Chysauster boasts stunning views across the countryside and out to the sea, while in the spring a carpet of bluebells adorns the atmospheric site.
9. Launceston Castle
Set on a large natural mound overlooking the town of Launceston, Cornwall, Launceston Castle was first built after the Norman Conquest. Made up of a 13th-century round tower inside an earlier shell keep, it was once the administrative headquarters for the Earl of Cornwall to keep control over the different estates in the area. George Fox, founder of the Quakers, was harshly imprisoned there in 1656. It was also the base of the Cornish Royalist defense of the country.
Located within the town of Launceston, the castle grounds are ideal for relaxing and picnicking and enjoying the views of the surrounding valley.
10. Trerice Manor House
Trerice is an Elizabethan manor house in Newquay, Cornwall, built by the prominent Arundell family upon a building on the same site from 1572. The same family lived there until their line died out in 1768, at which point it was taken over by the Acland family, who restored the Great Chamber and its ornate barrel-vaulted ceiling. In the early 20th century, it was sold to the Elton family, who negotiated a 200-year lease on the property with the National Trust on the condition that they restore the house.
The result is a fantastic display of original Tudor interiors with intricate plasterwork ceilings. Equally interesting are some parts of the house which are decorated in a 1950s style because of the Elton family living there then. Outside are terraced walks and a recreated Tudor turf maze.