In Cornwall, Ruth and I visited 10 towns. Fowey and St. Ives were full of tourists. Penzance was the scruffiest. Mousehole was Ruth’s favorite. Mine was Launceston despite the fact that Tony, the taxi driver who took us there, told us he hadn’t been in this fading town for years and that it was dying. No way. It has been there for many centuries and its residents are devoted to it.
Close to the border of Cornwall and Devon, Launceston is in the middle of the peninsula that is England’s southwest region. For those not on tours or in a rental car and driving on the left side of mostly narrow roads and in busy traffic circles Launceston is hard to get to. Kirsty Fergusson, who wrote the definitive book on slow travel in Cornwall, said it is “thoroughly likable”. Spot on. Her descriptions of it made me driven to go there.
A hill topping market town, Launceston didn’t get much notoriety until William the Conquerer made it the capital of Cornwall after taking control of England in 1066. William’s half-brother Robert, Count de Mortain, built a castle atop the hill above the town then known as Lan-Stephen. This is the highest point in Cornwall. The castle, a protected ruin now, has neither been besieged nor captured. I thoroughly enjoyed climbing to its top and appreciating a spectacular, almost 360º view. On a clear day, the city of Plymouth from which the Pilgrims sailed, can be seen in the distance. Or so I was told. Robin Hood would appreciate the exterior of St. Mary Magdalene church. George Fox, founder of the Quakers, suffered a lot during imprisonment in Launceston in 1656. Before him, St. Cuthbert did time here for refusing to recognize Queen Elizabeth I as head of the church. The view from the castle is so enchanting that noted artist JMW Turner traveled here twice to paint it. Brilliant Georgian mansions can still be seen on Castle Street. One of them now contains the Eagle House Hotel. Opened for only 2 months, it’s a great place to stay if you don’t require an elevator. Some of the town is still medieval, like the Priors Bridge, although every architectural era since the castle was built is represented somewhere. Launceston’s town hall adjoins an old Guildhall and was built in 1887. It has been recently renovated. It’s interior is 21st century but its exterior would make Queen Victoria smile. It was here that Ruth & I witnessed a genuine curiosity, a performance of a child’s version of Sweeny Todd performed by eager pre-teens.
Launceston sits on the eastern edge of Bodmin Moor. After reading about English moors all my life, I can now say I’ve seen one. There are 3 very different pronunciations of this town’s name and I prefer the Cornish version “Lanson”.