Status: Cornwall Unitary Authority & County, Town, England
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: Launceston Castle, Main Square, Barclays Bank Building, White Hart Hotel, Launceston Town Hall, War Memorial, Town Walls, South Gate, St Mary’s Parish Church, Hayman’s Pianoforte Warehouse, Launceston Steam Railway etc
We parked up around the edge of the central square in the town centre, shown above. At it’s heart is the Launceston War Memorial, crafted out of fine Ashlar in 1921, just a few short years after the end of World War I. Whilst it was originally seen to represent the fallen of that war in particular, later conflicts such as World War II have seen it become a focal point for remembrance across many battles.
It’s design is almost unique, in that it has been deliberately made to look like an old Market or Butter Cross, medieval monuments that celebrated the granting of a Market Charter to many towns and cities across the UK.
There are numerous other standout structures around the edge of the Square, including the Barclay’s Bank Building directly behind the Memorial, completed around 1870. The Bank as a chain was founded in London, in 1960 under the name Goldsmith. In 1736 James Barclay joined the business, and when it expanded to include other Banks and become a global financial giant, it was named after him.
Just to the right of where I took the original picture, stands the “White Hart Hotel”, an 18th century Public House. It’s origins most likely lie in the strategic position of Launceston itself, as it is the first major town you will reach in Cornwall, and back in the day it lay on the main route into the county from Devon (although this has now been rerouted through Plymouth/Saltash to the South). This would have made the town an ideal place for travellers to stop and take shelter for the night, and indeed it did originally have it’s own stables. These have long gone, and the site is now home to the “White Hart Arcade” shopping precinct.
A large plaque on the side of the Inn (shown on the right) tells of an important moment in history, which began in November 1805. On Monday 4th of that month, Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere (1770 – 1834, Captain of HMS Pickle) landed at Falmouth, in the South West of Cornwall, with important news of the British Victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. He was to convey this news to London, and travelled along what is now the A30 through Cornwall, over Bodmin Moor and through Launceston, where he changed horses before continuing to Devon. I imagine it was here at the White Hart that he did so, cementing it’s place in history.
The White Hart Hotel is also hiding one other secret, albeit in plain sight. The arch around the main entrance is actually from the 12th Century, and is thought to have been moved here from a Chapel at Launceston Castle, although other sources suggest it was brought from St Thomas’s Priory.
Our next stop was the truly incredible edifice that is Launceston Castle, however as we clambered the steps into the Castle Grounds, we were afforded a grand view of Launceston Town Hall, directly opposite us on the far side of the street. The structure is split into two distinct parts, starting with the Guildhall of 1881 which includes the Clock Tower and the smaller Hall to its immediate left. On the right of the Tower is the grand Hall of the newer Town Hall, completed in 1887.
The history of the building on this site began in 1835, when the previous Guildhall in the town centre, which functioned as the County Courts, was demolished. The Courts had moved to Bodmin that same year, which also made it the year Launceston effectively ceased to be the County Town of Cornwall. A new Hall was then built in 1850 near St Mary’s Church, but caused conflict with the Vicar who tried to incorporate it into the Church. This lead to a new building, that you see now, being built here opposite the Castle in 1881. The designers were Mr Otho B. Peter from Launceston, and Mr. G. Hine from the city of Plymouth in Devon, who also designed the Town Hall, with both buildings merging absolutely seamlessly. The Town Hall was part of the original plans, for use as a Public Meeting Hall, but construction was delayed until 1886, and the complex was finally ready in 1887.
The joint Halls are used by Launceston Town Council, who hold their meetings in the smaller Guildhall, in a finely decorated Council Chamber, which is also available for Weddings, whilst the Town Hall is appropriate for receptions etc.
One of the main entrances into the Castle Grounds is the “South Gatehouse”, facing out onto the Town & Guild Halls. The Gate originally dates back to Norman Times, with the addition in the 13th Century of circular Drum Towers to either side of the Gate itself.
A wall continues off around the perimeter of the grounds to the right of the Tower, heading East towards the site where the Castle’s Watch Tower once stood, although sadly it was destroyed in 1830. The Wall to the left, which would have run West has also been lost, although the Gate is no less impressive.
The view through the Gate beautifully frames the original Guildhall as it would have looked in 1881 before the newer Hall was added, just out of shot.
The magnificent structure of Launceston Castle stands out all over town, sat high on top of a mound in the middle of the Castle Grounds, originally encircled by the thick stone Walls and a mighty set of steps which opposing armies must conquer to gain entry.
The Castle we see today dates back to the 13th century, when the 1st Earl of Cornwall, Richard (1209 – 1272, Son of King John, Brother of King Henry III) rebuilt part of the earlier wooden Norman Castle in Stone. His main contribution was the Round Tower atop the mound, which sat within the earlier 12th Century Walls. Whilst Richard was the 1st of a new generation of Cornish Earls, the title is much older, and it’s holders resided here for centuries both before and after Richard inherited the title.
Within the Castle grounds you can also see the ruins of the Castles Great Hall, also built by Richard.
Whilst Launceston held the title of County Town, the Great Hall was used as the “Assize Hall” where the most serious crimes/cases for Court were heard. It was finally demolished around the 1600’s, although its location is clearly marked within the grounds.
Moving back into the town centre, we came across the “South Gate” into the city, located on Southgate Street. Launceston’s final medieval gate, it is a historic insight into the layout of the town around the 13th century. A large wall encircled the entire town, with three heavily fortified gates allowing the only access into what was then the only walled town in the whole of Cornwall.
Of course the town gradually expanded over the years, and the vast majority of the walls sadly no longer exist. The Walls were deliberately designed to include the Castle as part of the defences. The main Town Walls pushed towards the centre of town near the West Gate, and met those of the Castle, creating one of the most heavily fortified towns in the South of England.
The South Gate survived many years of town expansion, and was later used as a Prison until 1884. Three years later, a small arch was added to the gate on the pavement to allow pedestrians to pass through, alongside the main arch which the road passes through. Later uses for the Gate included as the home of Launceston Museum until around 1950, before becoming the Gallery it remains today.
There are a number of other fine buildings which line the close knit streets of Launceston town centre, dating from various different periods. One building in particular that stood out to us was “Number 22 Church Street”, the beautiful red brick structure just past the Pet Shop on the left hand side. Completed as a Warehouse in 1870, it bears the inscription “Hayman’s Pianoforte Warehouse”, presumably after Henry Hayman (Born 1921 in Devon) who moved to Launceston and opened a new Warehouse, which would stock items such as Fruit, Vegetables and Jewellery, almost like a department store.
Following Church Street North away from the South Gate, past the Warehouse, we arrived at a road junction with Market Street and High Street, marked by the mammoth Church of St Mary.
The Church was originally built by Sir Henry Trecarrel in the 1520’s, using local Cornish Granite to create a smooth exterior. The Church Tower is however much older, a remnant of the previous Church to stand on the site.
Architecturally speaking though the building is incredible to look at, with every exterior granite block finely carved, with intricate detail. Many of the blocks actually originated from the village of Lezant a few miles away. Sir Henry had built a large hall here, and the exterior stone work planned to adorn the building was instead used on his new Parish Church, presumably his own idea.
Launceston is a lovely little historic Cornish Town, important in Cornish History as not only the seat of the Cornish Earls, but also as the County Town, which it held for several hundred years. It’s proximity to Devon has led to its nickname as the “Gateway to Cornwall”, and it certainly makes a great impression of what’s to come around the rest of the county. Many historic buildings survive in the centre, from the Castle to the South Gate, to St Mary’s Church, as well as the “Launceston Steam Railway” just outside the town, which runs along the path of the original local railway lines, which closed in the 1960’s.
Local main roads can take you to all the major nearby towns/cities, including the A30 West past Bodmin towards Penzance, East to Devon and the A388 South to Plymouth/Devon. It was time to move on, and our next stop was a return to the town of Fowey, which we also visited in 2014, so you can read about it in my previous post here. Fowey aside, we next arrived in St Austell…