The tiny fort known as Little Dennis is probably the oldest building in the Falmouth area, apart from the ruin of Arwenack Manor perhaps, it was constructed by the Tudors nearly 500 years ago. Little Dennis was built straight onto the bedrock, close to the highwater line, looking out across the sweep of Falmouth Bay towards the Roseland Peninsula, St Mawes and beyond.
The Sunday afternoons of my childhood were often spent with my grandparents and a special treat involved a drive to Pendennis Point for an ice cream. After eating my Mr Whippy I was allowed to go and play. I vividly remember running down the narrow path to Little Dennis in that golden hour before dusk. This old fort was my own private castle, the castle in all the fairy tales I had read, a place of adventure and imagination. In this article however I hope to discover the more reality-based past of this beautiful old building.
“Crimson rambler roses luxuriate the cliffs, and the sloping side of Pendennis Point are a tangle of sweet briar, bramble in flower, honeysuckle, thick bracken, tall feathery grasses, and wildflowers growing right down to the sea’s edge.” – Lake’s Falmouth Packet, July 1908.
Early Cliff Castle
Pendennis Point has always been of strategic importance. The name comes from the Cornish, pen meaning headland and dynas meaning castle or fort. It’s position and geology, a narrow, rocky finger jutting out into the sea within the sheltered bay, not only makes the promontory a perfect outlook point but also easier to defend. The earliest mention of a defensive structure on the point are the remains of an Iron Age Cliff Castle (Hals, 1750). This castle probably would have been built around 800 BC but no trace of it can been seen today. Reports indicate that it once consisted of three earth, stone and turf-covered embankments that would have cut off and protected the headland from the mainland.
Tudor Blockhouse takes shape
Little Dennis is of course not really a castle, it is a Tudor blockhouse or artillery fort. It was built at the instruction of Henry VIII as part of his chain of coastal defences. Little Dennis was completed in 1539 and was the first of the fortifications on Pendennis Point. It was positioned to defend the sea lanes and the entrance to Falmouth harbour from invading foreign warships and pirates.
Little Dennis is built of killas rubble with granite dressing stones directly on to the bedrock. D-shaped, it’s walls are nearly 3m thick and miniature battlements face seawards. Inside there is a large granite fireplace and the remains of a staircase. The wooden roof is gone of course, but you can still see the stone sockets for the beams. The fort is just 9m wide by 10m long and was really built as an interim measure before the larger Pendennis Castle that now towers over it could be completed.
The main gunport makes a great viewpoint across to St Mawes castle opposite. It faces straight across the entrance to the harbour and Little Dennis Blockhouse was equipped with three heavy guns.
During the reign of Elizabeth I the blockhouse was incorporated into a small fort that covered the whole of the far end of the point. The fort included sea level batteries and a deep defensive ditch. Access to Little Dennis was via a drawbridge. The batteries, which can still be seen in parts, were known as the Blockhouse Long Platform and Crab Quay. A painting (above) dating 1734 shows them bristling with at least a dozen canons. The Elizabethan defences were constructed in 1598 and appear to have also included a wall which stretched along the waterline from the blockhouse for 80 metres according to Cornwall Archaeology Journal No 24 (1985).
Safe Anchorage & Balmy Location
By 1654 the fort had fallen into poor repair and was partly dismantled. But Little Dennis blockhouse remained in use by the military until the 18th century. In 1862 the newspapers printed Trinity House‘s announcement of that year’s charges for the anchorage and the piloting of ships in Falmouth bay.
Imaginary lines were drawn across the bay denoting the different rates. For example, dropping anchor inside a line from the Manacles to Dodman was one price and then there was another for inside a line from St Anthony Lighthouse to the Little Dennis Blockhouse and so on. How this was effectively policed isn’t clear.
Fun Fact: Strangely the whole of Pendennis headland, including the castle and the blockhouse, is a detached part of Budock Parish, not actually part of Falmouth.
Murray’s Handbook for Devon and Cornwall printed in 1859 describes the Pendennis Point and the blockhouse as an attractive viewpoint for visitors to seek out. Falmouth was not only an important destination for shipping and trade, it was increasingly becoming a place of visit for a relaxing seaside holiday as the number of people travelling for pleasure grew.
“The Ramparts command a view of extreme beauty in which the stranger may contrast the rugged coast of Falmouth Bay with the clustering houses and tranquil scene of the harbour.”
By the 19th century ‘Balmy Falmouth’ was very much an up and coming holiday destination. And understandably Pendennis Point was one of the town’s most picturesque attractions.
Charles Eyre Pascoe describes the scene in 1898.
“Pendennis, and the docks, the harbour itself dotted all over with large and small craft – yachts, boats and the rest. At nightfall the ships’ riding lights dance like will-o’-the-wisps . . . and the sun rises over the hills of St Just, the scene is one of surpassing beauty on sea and land.”
Little Dennis saw flurries of activity over the centuries that followed the Tudors and the Elizabethans, during the heighten tensions for the Napoleonic Wars and also during the World Wars for example, but mostly it was left to fall into disrepair.
It became a Grade 1 Listed Building in 1974 and the main castle and Little Dennis became the responsibility of English Heritage in 1984. Recent repairs have insured that this ancient little fort remains a wonderful place to enjoy whatever the season and it makes the perfect spot to watch the activities in the bay. This circular walk LINK HERE will take you to Pendennis point and many of the sights in Falmouth too. Importantly Little Dennis is also still open to the public all year round and completely free to visit. Although I do advise treating yourself to an ice cream!
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