There are a handful of man-made landmarks in Cornwall that are unmistakable and unforgettable. Carn Brea Castle is one of these. A tiny fortress perched high on one of our most enigmatic hills it is pretty magical.
Carn Brea Castle stands on the eastern summit of Carn Brea hill, one of the highest points in Cornwall. At 215m (750ft) has a commanding position overlooking the once highly industrial towns of Redruth, Pool and Camborne.
The writer Folliott-Stokes vividly describes the scene in 1931 from St Agnes Beacon another high point on the near by coast.
“Some five or six miles inland we see the abrupt and curiously shaped hill known as Carn Brea, crowned with a lofty monument to the memory of Lord de Dunstanville. Beneath it is a chaos of tall chimneys and above them a pall of smoke. This is the black country of Cornwall and beneath that blue-grey smoke are some of the most famous tin mines in the world . . .”
Carn Brea Hill
The story of the castle is intrinsically linked to story of the hill on which it stands. And Carn Brea Hill alone is fascinating, with so many interesting facets there’s no time to explore them all in too much detail here. But it is important to note, however, that the setting in which Carn Brea Castle finds itself is a particularly special one. There is more than 6000 years of human history on this rocky hill.
The outcrop of Carn Brea was once a major Early-Neolithic settlement and tor enclosure. The people who lived there built a series of huge stone walls, two metres high and at least two metres thick. These walls encircled the central outcrops of the hill and were roughly 700m in length. The evidence of burning and the hundreds of arrowheads found on the hill suggest that the inhabitants were attacked at some point in the settlement’s history.
Of course, the story of the little castle began long after these distant events. But it is thought that some of the granite from the ancient enclosure were used to build its chunky walls. And Carn Brea Castle’s past is full of interest and adventure too. This building has had many varied and colourful lives.
The White Tower
The building that we see today is much larger than the original structure. There have been a number of additions, the last in 1979. The castle first gets a mention in 1478 when William of Worcester writes about “the Tower Castle owned by Sir John Bassett, Knight.”
The true origins of the structure are pretty obscure however. But it has been suggested that Carn Brea Castle’s first life was as a chapel or oratory dedicated to St Michael. Built in around 1379, one hundred years before William of Worcester saw it, the people that constructed the castle could not have chosen a more precarious position. They perched the building high up, straddling the tumble of giant granite boulders.
Early in the castle’s history it’s walls were covered in plaster. The white colour of the little tower may even have led to the name of the hill’s neighbouring parish. Illogan.
Murray writes in 1859:
The Cornish words lug gan signifying the white tower, and lug gan the tower on the downs.
Not everyone liked the white look however:
Recently this fine relic of antiquity has been daubed over with plaster and robbed of all interest . . . The defacement which has first taken place renders it almost ludicrous, especially on the site which it occupies being neither castle nor dwelling.- Cyrus Redding, 1832.
A lighthouse and a folly
In around 1780 the castle was converted into a folly for the Basset Family. Carn Brea Hill was part of their enormous Tehidy Estate and the castle acted as a ‘pleasure house’ and a status symbol. It’s thought that the building was redesigned in a gothic style to be used as a hunting and feasting lodge.
Again it was constructed erratically to incorporate many of the boulders. The layout is irregular, roughly 60ft by 10ft, and now included decorative battlements.
There is a great description of the scene left us by Rev. John Swete, who visited Redruth in 1780.
“Passing through the country, the face of which was extremely deformed by the rubbish thrown up from mines, about six we arrived at Redruth. Being now within a mile of Karnbre Hill – a place I was particularly solicitous of seeing, as it had been in a distinguished manner appropriated to the mysteries of Druidism, and where I learnt were to be seen every variety of those rude monuments consecrated to their worship. I immediately hired a boy to conduct me there and, leaving my companions refreshing themselves in the inn, soon found myself at the foot of the craggy ascent of the Hill. The first object that struck me was the remains of an old Castle situated on a carn at the Eastern end. It had a fine romantic appearance from the ground below and no less a curious one as I approached it. The architect seems to have chosen out the most wild spot on the whole hill. For its erection placing it on the verge of a precipice and on very irregular ledge of huge uneven rocks . . . the Eastern Tower hath quite lost its garb of antiquity having been modernized by the last Mr Bassett without a grain of taste.”
Sometime after the death of Francis Basset in 1835 the castle started being used as a beacon for ships. It’s stunning position means that it is visible from miles around and for much of coast between St Ives and St. Agnes. The West Briton reported in August 1898:
“For a very long the tenant of Carn Brea Castle was bound by a clause in the agreement to show a light in the window towards Tehidy House and consequently facing the Bristol Channel. This beacon light was plainly visible by sailors on the sea on clear nights and was a great service to them in reckoning their position at sea. This clause in the landlord and tenant agreement was faithfully observed for a long period but between ten and fifteen years ago it ceased to be kept in its entirety and the light was extinguished at eleven or twelve o’clock at night.”
A beacon was also lit on the hill, as they were across the country, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838.
Legend has it that the rocks beneath where Carn Brea Castle now stands were once the seat of a mighty giant. There are also rock formations across the hill called the Giant’s coffin, the Giant’s head and hand, the Giant’s wheel and the Giant’s cradle.
The legend says that the giant eventually grew old and lay down to die on Carn Brea Hill. He turned to stone and the land passed to the Basset family.
Legends persist of a lost smuggler’s cave on Carn Brea Hill. It was first mentioned in around 1866 and is not completely improbable as there was said to have been an old smugglers route that ran from Godrevy to Stithians, passing close to Carn Brea. A hollow found between the Castle and the Dunstanville Monument is thought to be the Smugglers’ Cave. From here a tunnel was said to stretch through the hillside to Redruth town or St Euny Church below. This tunnel, now blocked for safety reasons, is more likely to have been a old mine shaft however.
A tumultuous 20th century
After its many early guises as a chapel, a hunting lodge and a lighthouse the 20th century was no less varied for the Castle.
In 1902, according to the West Briton, Carn Brea castle was occupied by an old man and his wife who had lived there for 30 years. They made some extra money by charging visitors a penny each to see the view from the roof.
In 1980 former miner, Mr M. Martin, then 83 years old remembered the castle being used as a little shop where he could buy tobacco and groceries. This shop was run by Fred Pooley and his family until they emigrated to Canada in 1923.
Carn Brea Castle with St Agnes Beacon in distance
In 1944, Carn Brea castle was advertised to let. The advert described it as having:
“Five rooms and a cooker in kitchen. No mains services. Water from well. Telephone. Flat roof battlement for sunbathing. Rough rabbit shooting over 100 acres. Apply E. Carvolth, Bognor Regis.”
Soon after this the castle fell victim to vandals and was said to be in ‘a deplorable state’ by 1957. Luckily it was then sold and restored by Mrs. N. M. Hill. And this led to another lovely episode in the castle’s history which occurred in 1961. The new tenant Miss Wendy Lewis, who was famous for walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End, moved in that September. For some reason the people of Redruth decided to crown her with a garland of heather and daisies that had been gathered on the carn. She was then escorted to the castle by Redruth Town Band for a party to celebrate her arrival.
The Next Tasty Chapter
The next chapter came a few years ago when Carn Brea castle became a restaurant. The 1979 extension allowed space for kitchens and the castle first opened as a restaurant in 1980. The Jordanian Sawalha family are now using this amazing space to dish up delicious middle eastern style food and music.
I think it makes a fabulous place for a meal, although the road to the top can be very rough. The castle is like the Tardis. It is much bigger inside than I expected and very atmospheric. The view from the roof is not to be missed! Even on a misty night, as it was when I was there, it really is spectacular and these days there is no one charging you a penny a head from the privilege.
I provide all the content on this blog completely FREE, no subscription fee. If however you enjoy my work and would like to contribute something towards helping me keep researching and writing about Cornwall’s amazing history and places you can donate below. Thank you!