English Heritage looks after many of the best historical sites in Cornwall, from castles and forts to prehistoric ruins, ancient villages and burial chambers.
If, like us, you’re fascinated by tales of medieval jousts, mysterious tunnels and mythical castles, then a visit to some of these iconic places is a must.
And, if your journey into the past sparks excitement, there’s plenty more to discover at National Trust sites such as Lanhydrock, St Michael’s Mount and Trelissick. Cornwall has so much to offer an enquiring mind in all seasons – just don’t forget your waterproof!
Here’s our pick of the best English Heritage sites in Cornwall, starting with a world-famous visitor attraction…
1. Tintagel Castle
Tintagel Castle is one of Cornwall’s truly unmissable destinations, with a unique story interweaving history and myth. A visit here will allow you to follow in the footsteps of the ancient kings of Cornwall, and maybe even King Arthur himself who, legend has it, was born here.
The impressive footbridge linking the island and mainland was completed in August 2019, reinstating the original route (back in the Middle Ages a land bridge joined the two halves of the ancient settlement).
The bridge makes the whole historic site much easier to access, and people who would have struggled with the steps and steep incline before will find the visiting experience much more enjoyable. Read our location guide to Tintagel.
2. Pendennis Castle
On the headland jutting out from the beautiful and vibrant town of Falmouth, Pendennis Castle is a small yet mighty fortress built by Henry VIII to defend this strategically important section of coast. It has done so for more than 500 years; its guns were heavily manned during the Second World War.
There are many great vantage points dotted around the grounds and castle walls. Stand and imagine you’re a brave Tudor knight or a soldier during the Second World War, anxiously scanning the horizon!
There’s a programme of family-friendly events and activities at Pendennis Castle during school holidays, including jousting at the Knights’ Tournament. It’s a great place to visit with children. Read our guide to Falmouth here.
3. Chysauster Ancient Village
Originally occupied around 2,000 years ago, this settlement is a great example of the ‘courtyard houses’ found only in West Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. There’s the remains of a main street, with several houses coming off that, each with its own central courtyard surrounding by what would have been thatched rooms.
Visitors can wander around the ruins and imagine what life would have been like, while enjoying stunning views across the countryside and out to sea. There’s also a mysterious tunnel or ‘fogou’ – no one is quite sure what purpose it served.
To visit you’ll need to park about half a mile from the site itself, which is near Penzance. There’s toilet facilities, a small shop and a picnic area on the site at Chysauster. Read out guide to Penzance here.
4. King Doniert’s Stone
It may be one of the smaller landmarks managed by English Heritage, but King Doniert’s Stone is one of the most enigmatic and interesting (and it’s also free to visit, even for non-members).
It’s actually two pieces of a 9th century ‘Celtic’ cross, with an inscription commemorating Dungarth, King of Dumnonia in the south-west of Britain. The cross is richly and beautifully carved in tribute to the King, who drowned at sea in about AD 875.
Intriguingly, English Heritage note that: “Excavations have revealed an underground rock-cut passage that starts to the south-east of the crosses and terminates in a cross-shaped chamber beneath the two stones. The relationship between the underground chamber and the crosses has yet to be explained.”
5. Trethevy Quoit
Another free-to-visit place of wonderment cared for by English Heritage, is Trethevy Quoit near Callington. There are many ‘portal dolmen’ still standing in Cornwall, but Trethevy is one of the most impressive and best-preserved.
Standing 2.7 metres high, there are five standing stones surmounted by a huge capstone which weighs about 20 tonnes – getting it up there must’ve taken some doing! It’s thought that the structure was originally covered by a mound of earth.
Experts aren’t 100% sure what these quoits signified. They may have been tombs or shrines, places of worhsip or ritual. One thing is for sure though; they meant a lot to the community who created and used them, given the enormous effort it would have taken to create these box-like stone chambers.
Are you a wildlife enthusiast as well as a history buff? If so, check out our guide to the best Cornwall Wildlife Trust sites, here!