There are occasions when, as I ride around the Cornish countryside, I am frequently in awe of the rich history that is cradled in this small part of the world.
In recent posts I have travelled back to the times of legend and the Bronze Age. Let’s “shoot” forward a few years, drop in on the times of Henry the Eighth then fast forward to the Twentieth Century and do that all in one place and what a place it is! This is Pendennis Castle.
Perched atop a rocky headland that juts out into the open sea close to the historic town of Falmouth on Cornwall’s southern coast, the imposing fortress of Pendennis protects the sheltered mouth of the River Fal and the deep water anchorage of Carrick Roads. Over 400 years ago work began on this great fortification by order of King Henry VIII; by the 1540’s the elegant gun tower was built followed in 1600 by the ramparts which today still define the perimeter of the site.
The castle played an active role in the nation’s defence until the 1950’s, since then Pendennis has been treasured and conserved as a site of great historical importance. It is open to the public all year round, (weekends only during the winter) and should be on the “to do” list of any visit to Cornwall.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to be invited to visit by the staff of English Heritage, who are the custodians of the castle. Passing through the massive gatehouse on my new Ultra Limited was a thrilling and privileged experience, I must confess to wonder if this was the first time a Harley Davidson has entered the castle in its long history?
The first imposing building that greets visitors dates from 1902, it was the regimental headquarters and barrack block of the 105th Regiment Royal Garrison Artillery. The building is fronted by a parade ground where it is easy to almost hear the historical echoes of soldiers marching and the gravel crunching under their boots. The barracks today houses various displays showing facets of life in the British Army throughout he ages, at present there is a super exhibition to mark the centenary of World War One and is well worth a look.
Central to the inner bastion is Henry VIII’s keep, or gun tower.Begun in 1539, this was built as a response to the then threat of invasion by French and Spanish forces. It has four sections: a guardhouse, a fore building, a central round tower and a surrounding gun platform known as a “Chemise.” Not only is it one of the finest examples of one of the first purpose-built Gun Forts, but it also has one of the last drawbridge and portcullis installed in a castle other than as a decoration.
You see the most fascinating thing about this place is that it is not a castle from the days of knights on horseback and bow and arrows, no, Pendennis has always been about guns, very big guns! Everywhere around the place you will find artillery pieces from the various ages of the castle’s history and most impressive of all, a lot of them are still in working order and are regularly fired; much to the excitement of any children visiting, this one included!
Today, the main reason that I was visiting Pendennis Castle was to watch the firing of the Noon-Day Gun. This is a tradition that was only resurrected only last year. Pendennis has long marked the accurate passage of time; for many years a time ball was dropped at 1pm every day so that ships could set their clocks, so vital for accurate navigation. This in turn led to the firing of a gun at noon and later still to the use of a siren.
Today the Castle staff use the historic artillery pieces to mark the passage of time, during my visit the chosen gun was one of two Quick Firing 25 pounder British field guns that date from World War Two and were still in service until the early 1960’s. It was the first time that I had ever been up close and personal with such a weapon, despite descending from two artillery serving Grandfathers! There must be some artillery in my genes though, as I was handed the firing pistol and asked to cock it, without hesitation I did just that and I’d honestly never even seen one before, strange!
Anyway, we all got excited as the gun was loaded with it’s blank round and waited for the signal to fire. Then wait a minute, we can’t fire because there are a couple of dog walkers beneath the ramparts. . . Henry VIII never had this trouble! The we got the “all clear” and boom, the gun was fired! The photo really doesn’t do it justice, but it was a good bang!
Then all that was left was to unload and clear the breach ready for tomorrow.
Towards the Southern perimeter of Pendennis Castle can be found more recent defences. Known as Half Moon Battery because of its distinctive shape, this emplacement was first constructed in 1793. Over the years it was repeatedly rebuilt and modernised, from 1911 six-inch calibre naval guns have been in place. The guns were replaced twice during the Second World War the first time because they were worn out and the second occasion improved versions were fitted with greater range and power. The last time that these guns were fired in anger was in 1944 when Nazi surface vessels were engaged. The latter guns could fire a 100 pound shell to a range of 12 miles and were radar directed.Above Half Moon lies a low concrete building sunk into the rampart, this is the Battery Observation Post which controlled the two guns and provided accurate target information to the gunners. It has been restored to its wartime appearance and even houses an optical depression position finder, an early sort of computer for plotting the course and range of a target which was surprisingly accurate.
Beneath the battery are the powder and shell magazines; superbly preserved these chambers are open to visitors as part of informative guided tours, they include audio recordings of the guns in action together with the experience of being under attack from an air-raid and very interesting they are too, I’d certainly recommend tagging along if you ever visit Pendennis.
Leaving the subterranean chambers behind I enjoyed a stroll around the ramparts and on the eastern side spent some time at Nine-Gun Battery. Overlooking Carrick Roads, the deep water anchorage, this dates from 1730 and is armed with nine classic muzzle-loading cannons from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Captain Jack Sparrow and his mates would certainly recognise these guns!
That reminds me! Pendennis Castle holds various events throughout the year to interest visitors of all ages. Pirates will next be attacking on Tuesday and Wednesday 28th and 29th July, whilst Medieval Jousting is held every Tuesday and Wednesday in August, for more details click here.
All that then remained was a visit to the rather excellent tea room for a spot of light lunch then hit the road again.
With particular thanks to Kirsty and Kate of English Heritage for facilitating my visit.
“Do you ever see in your dreams all the castles in the sky?”
Catch you soon.
PS It was OK for me to handle the firing pistol, I hold a firearms licence.
Sorry that some of the photos are a bit dark, but I hope you get the drift.
Does my gun look big in this?