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With nearly 700 miles of coastline, it’s no wonder there are so many castles in Devon and Cornwall. English nobles have known over the past centuries that you can never be too careful when it comes to protecting an island.
Apart from the series of enormous fortifications that overlook important trading ports, there is also a network of inland castles.
A few of them are still owned by families who have been with them for hundreds of years. Most of them are now in major retirement and some have remained on their former selves. But there are also places where the life of the castle continues to this day.
Whatever their fate, the castles of Devon and Cornwall are still two great and wonderful places to visit. Every ancient stone walkway and tall tower has a story to tell.
Follow in the footsteps of West County gentry and defenders by visiting these castles at Devon and Cornwall.
Discover more hiking days in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in my large collection of 101 family attractions in the UK And My guide to castles in Devon and Cornwall.
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Okehampton Castle in Central Devon
We have William the Conqueror to thank for the many castles in England. And Okehampton is no exception.
Construction began in 1068 to quell an uprising in central Devon. The castle became the largest fort in the county under the ownership of the Courtney family – the Earls of Devon.
Its downfall was at the hands of Henry VIII after the execution of Henry Courtney for treason in the 16th century. This was the beginning of the collapse of this Devon castle.
However, the stories of Tudor ghosts and the romantic outlines of its crumbling walls have made it a popular place to visit ever since. Notably, artist JMW Turner depicted the ruin in his works including “Okehampton, on the Okement” (1824), now in the Tate Britain.
Find out more about visiting Okehampton Castle in Devon.
Pendennes Castle in Falmouth, Cornwall
Henry VIII was the first to build prolific castles to defend his kingdom. He commissioned Pendennis Castle at Falmouth in response to threats of invasion from the continent. It was erected at the mouth of the River Vaal, to form a formidable coastal defense with its twin, Castle St. Maus, on the other side.
Ironically, Pendennis’ fortifications were first tested during the English Civil War of 1646, not against foreign enemies. It was one of the last strongholds of the forces loyal to King Charles. Layer-by-layer defenses have been built over the centuries in response to new military threats.
The Pendennis tunnels, carved into the cliffs of the cape, were modernized and artillery operated until World War II. Training continued in the barracks until 1956 when the fortress was finally decommissioned.
Today it takes care of the English heritage and is an exotic place to visit. If you entered the cliff-top observation station and the air raid shelter, it seemed that the troops stationed here had only recently been evacuated.
Find out more about visiting Pendennes Castle near Falmouth, Cornwall.
Compton Castle near Torquay
Compton is Devon Castle that is still associated with its ancestors. It has been home to the Gilbert family for nearly 600 years, including Sir Humphrey Gilbert – the half-brother of the English Navy hero and favorite of Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh.
Compton is located three miles from the English Riviera and was originally built as a manor house in the 15th century. It was soon fortified against the threat of French raids with a high curtain wall and towers and portcules that survive today. This was not used in anger.
Compton Castle is now sponsored by the National Trust, and since the Gilbert family is still a resident, it only opens a few months each year. If you visit properly, you can tour the medieval kitchen, great hall, and solar and semi-solar sitting rooms, as well as the formal gardens and orchard.
Find out more about visiting Compton Castle in South Devon.
Powderham Castle near Exeter, Devon
Powderham is another castle in South Devon that is still occupied. It is the 600-year-old home of the Earls of Devon after they left Okehampton.
The castle has stunning views of the Exe Estuary – you can discover them on the railway line from Exeter to Plymouth – and has a rich history dating back to the 13th century AD.
There has been work to adapt this ancient residence to modern life, but you can still find secret doors, incredible marble halls, winding staircases and stately sitting rooms.
Powderham is also a fun Devon Castle for families to visit, with a small animal farm and play fort, deer safaris and falcon shows on school holidays.
Find out more about visiting Powderham Castle near Exeter.
Saint Michael“s mount, Marazion in Cornwall
St Michael’s Mount has to be one of Cornwall’s most recognizable landmarks, along with the Lands End and Eden Project. It is also the setting of a well-known fable that everyone will know from their childhood – Jack and the Beanstalk or Jack the Giant Killer.
Legend has it that a giant built the mountain and would roam the beach to feed on the herds of local farmers. One day, Jack sets off from Marazion, the village across from St Michael’s Mount, to take a giant sleigh. He dug a hole halfway up the mountain and sounded his horn. The giant came running and fell into the hole that Jack quickly filled.
If you cross the bridge and go up the cobbled hill towards the castle, there is a heart-shaped stone that is said to mark where the giant fell.
The castle on top of Mount Saint Michael was originally a monastery. If you’re wondering if it contains links to Mont Saint Michael in Normandy, you’re right. It was built by the same monks – not a giant.
Today it is the home of the St Aubyns family. There are plenty of historical curiosities inside including the weaving of a coat worn by Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
Find out more about visiting St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
Totnes Castle in Devon
This castle is located above the Bohemian town of Totnes in South Devon and dates back to the 11th century. It was originally built by William the Conqueror using timber. This was replaced by the Bailey stone you can see today at the turn of the 14th century.
It is now one of the best preserved Norman Mott and Bailey castles in England.
It doesn’t take long to explore Totnes Castle, but it’s a great addition to wandering around the town’s independent shops and by the river. Climb the motte, enjoy the views down the River Dart, and stroll the castle walls.
Find out more about visiting Totnes Castle in Devon.
Tintagel Castle in Cornwall
No trip to Cornwall would be complete without researching one of its most famous legends: King Arthur. He is said to have been born in Tintagel Castle, which now stands in ruins on the cliffs of Tintagel Island.
In fact, the castle was built in the 13th century – long after the supposed reign of King Arthur – but let’s not let the facts stand in the way of a good fairy tale.
However, there are remains of buildings dating back to the 5th century when the Kings of Cornwall owned a powerful fort here.
Any fan of Arthurian mythology should have a picture with a temperamental bronze sculpture guarding the head.
There are two ways to get to the island – a footbridge or a set of steep steps cut into the cliffs. Be prepared for all weather as the address is very exposed. The payoff is incredible views of North Cornwall’s rocky coastline.
Find out more about visiting Tintagel Castle On the North Cornwall coast.
Berry Pomeroy Castle near Totnes in Devon
Visit Berry Pomeroy on a foggy morning and you will be forgiven for your dread. This 15th century ruin is said to be one of the most haunted places in Devon. There is an audio tour that tells you all the ghostly tales.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of Henry VIII’s only legitimate son, began building the Elizabethan Palace within the castle walls in 1560. The plan was for it to be the largest palace in Devon. But it was never completed and was eventually abandoned by the 18th century.
Although it is now a ruin, you can still walk through the Great Hall and explore the first floor of the medieval gateway where there is a preserved fresco. This depicts the Three Wise Men visiting Bethlehem and is believed to have been used as the backdrop for a chapel.
You find Find out more about visiting Berry Pomeroy Castle in Devon.
Dartmouth Castle in South Devon
The salty remains of Dartmouth Castle cling to the cliffs above the entrance to the Dart River in South Devon. Unlike many English castles, it has never been home to kings or courtiers. But it has played an important role in protecting nearby Dartmouth Harbor since the 14th century.
Over the centuries, towers and batteries were added to fortifications. A chain can also be drawn across the mouth of the river between Dartmouth Castle and Kingswear to prevent entry to unwelcome ships.
Today you can visit the castle battery, tower and turret where troops were stationed periodically until World War II.
One of the best features of this castle is the panoramic views over the sea and down the river. Stand on top of the Venetian Tower and you will be able to see the Royal Naval College Britannia located on the hill above Dartmouth.
Find out more about visiting Dartmouth Castle.
Kerhay Castle in Cornwall
Caerhays is a relative newcomer when it comes to Cornish castles. It was designed by famed architect John Nash in 1805. The project cost so much that the Trevanion family who commissioned it ran out of money before it was completed.
Fortunately, she was saved by the Williams family 150 years ago. It has remained in the family and is now a private residence open from mid-February to mid-June.
The castle and its 140-acre woodland gardens overlook Portthalone Bay on the south coast. It’s a gardener’s paradise with a collection of Chinese plants purchased here as early as the 1870s.
Find out more about visiting Caerhays Castle in Cornwall.
More places to visit in Devon and Cornwall
If you’re interested in more places to visit than castles in Devon and Cornwall, I can recommend checking out the Devon with Kids website and these other posts:
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