Things to do in Launceston: Cornwall’s Old County Town!

Launceston street

 From visiting the ancient castle to exploring the historic town centre, there are lots of things to do in Launceston.

Its inland location means that it is not that popular with tourists, but although it is not a big town, there is so much to uncover here. 

It’s a fantastic place to visit if you are a history fan, interested in castles, or just want somewhere to stop on the way to other destinations in Cornwall

Trust me, Launceston might surprise you!

So, if you’re wondering what to do in Launceston and other travel information about the Cornish town, we will go into it in this blog post! 

About Launceston

Launceston is an ancient market town that was once one of the most important in the southwest. It is known as the ‘gateway to Cornwall’, due to the A30 running very close by (the road used to go through the town itself). The A30 and A38 are the only two dual carriageways in Cornwall. 

Launceston is thought to have had the first mint in Cornwall around the 10th century.

After Launceston Castle was built, the town became the head of the feudal barony of the Earldom of Cornwall, but in the 13th century, this moved to Lostwithiel. 

Launceston then became the county town of Cornwall for a few centuries, mainly because of the problematic travelling routes with getting to the rest of the region. It was where the county court was held. Once roads improved, this status moved to Bodmin in 1835. 

In the early 19th century, a town in Tasmania (the second largest in the state) was called Launceston, after Launceston Cornwall.

On the subject of its name – while the town is officially called Launceston, the Cornish call the town Lanson. If you want to impress the locals, use this name! 

The Duke of Cornwall

I always stress in this blog that Cornwall is a Duchy rather than a county, and there’s nowhere best to appreciate this history than Launceston. 

Historically, the Duke of Cornwall was entitled to royalties and tithes from Cornish citizens; and he used to collect them on Polson Bridge by Launceston.

Today, Cornish estates with no heir are still automatically transferred to the Duke of Cornwall (ie. Prince Charles) rather than the crown. 

Feudal dues is a historic and present Launceston ceremony where the Duke of Cornwall is presented with various items. Prince Charles became Duke of Cornwall when Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, but the ceremony itself didn’t take place until 1973. 

At Launceston Castle, Prince Charles received his feudal dues, which included: spices, a salmon spear, a bow and firewood, amongst other things! 

Where is Launceston? 

Launceston is in an ideal location if you are driving to and from Cornwall. It is just past the Devon/ Cornwall border, and it sits only a few minutes from the A38 – which is one of the two main roads heading west. So if you want to stop off somewhere on your way to other locations in Cornwall, Launceston is ideal! 

Old buildings in Launceston

How to get to Launceston

You can easily get to Launceston by taking the A30 from Exeter. The A30 starts in Exeter and travels westwards, terminating at Land’s End!

Launceston town is just off the A38. Look out for Cookworthy Knapp, a clump of trees on top of a hill – many Cornish people call these the ‘nearly home’ trees.

Just after the trees, you will cross over the River Tamar (which acts as the border of Cornwall and Devon), and then you’ll see the turn off for Launceston.

Where to park in Launceston

There are a few car parks run by the Launceston town council, including this one at Castle Street. It costs £0.80 for one hour up to £3.80 for three hours and is free after 4:00 pm. 

Things to do in Launceston

Launceston Castle

Launceston Castle on the border of Devon and Cornwall
Photo credit English Heritage

Launceston Castle is a historic motte and bailey castle dating back to the Norman conquest. It was built in 1070 by Robert, Count of Mortain, who was William the Conqueror’s half-brother, to administrate the surrounding area.

There is also a 13th century round tower which was constructed by Richard Earl of Cornwall. 

The castle was used as a prison in the 17th – 19th centuries and had several notable inmates, including George Fox, who founded the Quaker movement.

Most people in Cornwall supported the royalists in the civil war (which might seem surprising after its rebellions in the centuries before!), and Launceston Castle was used for Cornish royalist defence. 

Launceston castle archway

There is a display within the castle that goes into its long history, and it’s also well worth visiting for the historical architecture and the epic views over the Cornish countryside. 

Launceston Castle is definitely one of the best things to do in Launceston! It is run by the English Heritage. You can buy tickets here.

Alternatively, click here to join the English Heritage and get unlimited access to all of their properties. 

Launceston Steam Railway

The Launceston Steam Railway operates in the summer months and is a narrow-gauge railway that trundles through the beautiful East Cornwall countryside. 

Running from Launceston to the hamlet of Newmills, which is two and a half miles away, this train ride takes in some of the most scenic views of the area, with open and closed cabins. 

Newmills is a pretty hamlet and an excellent place for a riverside stroll. The Farm Park is also nearby. 

Back in Launceston, enjoy the Transport and Engineering Museum and the Gift and Book Shop which are both by the station.

Treguddick Manor

Treguddick Manor is a newly-opened distillery close to the town centre. They make copper pot-distilled spirits, such as vodka, gin, rum, single malt, and liqueur. 

The distillery is open for tours and tastings. You can choose a general tour that will detail how the team distils copper pot spirits and goes through different stages – from finding the raw ingredients to bottling the spirit up. 

Alternatively, there are rum and gin specific tours available, where you can learn more about the process of each particular drink. 

Lawrence House Museum

This museum now operates as the Launceston Town Museum, with collections spread over three floors. 

Learn about things like the Southern Railway Station, Launceston in the War, Victorian Launceston, notable people from the town and the Australian connection.

Entry is free of charge, but donations are welcome. 

St Mary Magdelene Church

St Mary Magdelene Church

St Mary Magdelene Church is one of the most interesting Cornish churches.

With a clock tower looming over the high street and lots of engravings featuring different scenes from the town, this is definitely one of the best things to do in Launceston!

The church hails from the late medieval era, although the west tower is from a 14th century church constructed by Edward the Black Prince when he was Duke of Cornwall. 

This tower that still stands today was a watchtower, used to look over the town for enemy invaders. It only had one bell at the time – this wasn’t used for church purposes but to warn citizens that the town was about to be attacked. 

However, it nowadays has six bells which date back to 1720. The cattle market was located at the bottom of the tower, and iron rings used to tether cattle remain there today. 

Clock tower in Launceston

The tower was also used as a weighing station, where vendors weighted wool and yarn. Furthermore, the earliest clock in Cornwall sat on the top of the tower. 

The rest of Launceston’s church dates back to the late 15th century when the Black Prince’s chapel was destroyed and rebuilt. Work began in 1511 and finished in 1524. 

However, the old west tower still doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the church, which suggests that there were plans to replace it as well. 

There are many elaborate carvings on the church, including the pomegranate symbol of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s arms, the figure of St Mary Magdelene, and St George and the Dragon. 

Polson Bridge

Welcome to Cornwall sign

The historic Polson Bridge used to be one of the only ways to cross the river Tamar. It was constructed not long after the Norman conquest as an easy way to reach Launceston Castle from Devon. 

It is a geographically significant place, being the spot where Royalist and Parliamentarian forces fought in the Civil War, and the limit of the parole area in the 19th century – criminals who stepped over the bridge and broke their parole could be sent to prison. 

It is also where the Duke of Cornwall used to collect royalties!

The bridge has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times, and the one you see today dates back to 1833. You can drive over it to travel between Cornwall and Devon!

It’s hard to stop on this bridge as although it is no longer the A30, it is still a busy road. However, if you’re interested in borders and historical places, it’s worth the short journey from Launceston! 

Horsebridge

Horsebridge over the River Tamar

If you want to visit a historic Tamar bridge that you can walk along, drive to Horsebridge, a small hamlet in Devon, which has a bridge spanning the river that dates back to 1437!

It’s a fascinating bridge and there’s a pub nearby. Click here for Horsebridge Google Map Location.

River Tamar Horsebridge Sign

Charlie Bears Gallery 

The Charlie Bears Gallery is a teddy bear company that was founded in the town in 2005. The gallery is a great place for children and features all of the collections from their beginning in the early 21st century. 

As well as seeing countless bears and learning about the design process, there is also a Charlie Bears store.

Entry to the Bearhouse Gallery is free. 

Hikes near Launceston

As it sits in the Cornish countryside, there are plenty of hikes to enjoy near Launceston. 

Two Castles Trail

One of these is the Two Castles Trail. This takes you to nearby Okehampton, where another Norman castle – with a lot of similarities to Launceston’s – is located. 

Okehampton Castle

This is a 24 mile hike, and most people spend four days walking the distance, dong 5-7 miles each day. 

If you don’t want to do the whole hike, you could just do the first part to Lifton.

This takes you over the River Tamar and through some of Launceston’s best surrounding countryside for about five miles. It is an easy 9 minute ride on the 6A bus to get back to Launceston from Lifton. 

Tamar Discovery Trail

The Tamar Discovery Trail also links to Launceston.

It is a 9.5 mile or 15 kilometre hike to Milton Abbot in Devon, which passes through some fields and quiet country roads, enjoying the epic scenery of the river. 

From Milton Abbot, you can take the 117 bus back to Launceston, which takes 20 minutes. 

Make sure that you check bus times before you set out. Some Cornish buses are really quite irregular, so have an idea of what bus you’re aiming for before you head off!

If you find that you are unable to get a bus, there are some taxi firms in Launceston, such as Dan’s Cabs.

Launceston Priory Ruins

The Launceston Priory ruins date back to 1127, when a monastery was constructed within the town. 

The priory was sold in 1539 due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries (when Henry VIII broke with Rome and changed the country’s religion so he could get a divorce!).

Ultimately, it was an abandoned building, and the stones and roof were robbed; it fell into complete disrepair and was used as a rubbish tip! 

Luckily, in recent years what remains has been preserved. It’s nothing like its former glory, but it is interesting for those who want to visit ancient ruins. 

It is one of the best free things to do in Launceston and is open during daylight hours. If you’re interested in a guided tour of the ruins, contact the priory through their website.

Independent shops in town

There are many independent shops in the centre of town, perfect if you want to do some souvenir shopping! In fact, Cornwall Live has called Launceston “a shopping destination with something for everyone”

From boutique stores to art galleries, you should find plenty for the shopaholic in you on Launceston high street! 

Launceston town centre

Wesley Cottage

Wesley Cottage is located in the nearby hamlet of Trewint, which is on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and is a fascinating historical place.

The cottage dates back to the 18th century and is where the founder of Methodism – John Wesley – preached. 

John Wesley stayed in this house in 1744. It was apparent that he was of a new religion – he prayed without a book – and the owners of the Stonemason’s house read about a woman who built a prophet’s chamber, and took that as divine intervention. 

So Digory, the owner of the house, constructed two rooms that he invited John Wesley to use.

Due to this, Trewint became a Methodist community. Wesley Cottage did fall into disrepair when some other chapels opened in the area, but they were restored in 1950. 

Check out the Wesley Cottage website for information about visiting.

Antique Chair Museum

The Antique Chair Museum is a collection of historic chairs that date from the 17th century to the early 1900s. You’ll see the change in chair styles throughout the last 400 years and be able to enjoy some unique craftmanship. 

Plus, the Antique Chair Museum is actually a live museum – nearly all of the chairs in the museum are for sale (apart from some really rare and irreplaceable items). So if you want a unique souvenir from your time in Launceston, this is the place!

The Antique Chair Museum is on Colhay Farm, which is a 5 minute drive or 30 minute walk from Launceston. It is open Monday – Saturday  9:00 am to 5:30 pm.

Trethorne Leisure Park

Trethorne Leisure Centre is one of the best attractions for families near Launceston.

So whether you want to go on the dodgems, try your hand at ten pin bowling, visit the playground with the little ones, or go to the animal park, there are loads of attractions here. 

If you are looking for somewhere near Launceston to spend a family day, Trethorne Leisure Park is ideal.

It is an 8 minute drive from the town centre or you can take the 425 bus most of the way. It costs £12.00 for adults and children and is free for under threes. 

Places to visit near Launceston 

Okehampton

Okehampton Castle

Okehampton is just over the Tamar from Launceston. Like Launceston, it is a historic market town with lots of beautiful old buildings. 

The most famous of these is Okehampton Castle, which was built around the same time as Launceston Castle. 

There’s also the fascinating Museum of Dartmoor Life, where you can learn all about the culture and history of the moors. 

Here’s my full Okehampton travel guide.

Tamar Valley

Nature lovers will adore the Tamar Valley.

This beautiful countryside is a hidden gem of Cornwall and Devon – while visiting, you’ll be able to enjoy epic riverside walks and stunning scenery in both counties.

The Tamar Valley runs from Gunnislake to Plymouth and includes the viaduct of Calstock and other areas.

A hiking trail runs down the route, and you can also take a scenic train from Gunnislake to Plymouth, where you can enjoy some of the most epic train scenery! 

Another way to enjoy the Tamar is a canoe trip from Calstock with Serious Outdoor Skills. This three hour trip will help you really experience the River Tamar in all its glory!

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park is one of the top UK travel destinations, and it isn’t too far from Launceston. 

Sitting over the border in Devon, Dartmoor National Park encompasses 954 km² of rugged moorland and charismatic towns. 

There are so many things to do in Dartmoor, so I would recommend sticking to the western part of the park as this is close to Launceston. Attractions in this area include: 

  • The historic Postbridge Clapper Bridge
  • Dartmoor Prison Museum
  • The dramatic Lydford Gorge, which is the deepest in England
  • The hilltop Brentor Church 
  • The market town of Tavistock
  • The National Trust property Buckland Abbey

Bodmin Moor

A misty sunrise in over the coastline of Cornwall

Bodmin Moor sits just to the west of Launceston. It is a wild and desolate place and is part of the reason why Cornwall was always so impassable. 

There are many things to do in Bodmin Moor, including incredible hikes, climbing to the top of Cornwall’s two highest peaks, visiting the beautiful Golitha Falls and visiting the smuggler’s pub Jamaica Inn. 

You can enjoy attractions in Bodmin town too, such as Bodmin Jail, Bodmin Keep and the nearby Lanhydrock House. 

Tintagel Castle 

Merlin statue at Tintagel

Tintagel Castle is a medieval castle with mythical connections.

Located on the north coast of Cornwall, it was owned by Richard, Earl of Cornwall – he didn’t visit the castle much but occasionally made an appearance!

Since the Victorian era, Tintagel Castle has been a site of myth.

Rumour has it that King Arthur was born there – this, of course, is a legend, but it does add an air of spirituality to visiting! 

The castle ruins are beautiful and fascinating, and the coastline is stunning, but it is quite an expensive day out. I would recommend joining the English heritage or the Cornwall heritage trust before visiting. 

Port Isaac

View of Port Isaac

Port Isaac is a 45 minute drive from Launceston, and it’s one of the best places to visit in Cornwall. 

Most famous for being the filming location of Doc Martin, Port Isaac has a scenic harbour and jaw-dropping views from the surrounding clifftops. 

Things to do in Port Isaac include a Doc Martin tour, hiking the South West Coast Path, and browsing the shops and cafes of the village. 

Camel Creek Adventure Park

Camel Creek Adventure Park is close to Wadebridge and is a fun theme park for all the family. Rides include swinging chairs, log flume, and lots more. 

Where is the closest beach to Launceston? 

While Launceston isn’t a beach town, you’re never too far from the coast in Cornwall and Devon! 

Bude

Beach huts at dawn by the beach at Bude, Cornwall

Bude is the closest beach, about a 30 minute drive away.

Bude is a chilled out surf town with beautiful beaches, including Crooklets Beach, Summerleaze, and Widemouth Bay. You can see my list of the best beaches in Bude here

Other things to do in Bude include strolling down the Bude Canal and visiting Bude Castle, which now operates as the town’s museum. 

Bude is also connected to Launceston by the 12 bus. 

Looe

Boats At Looe, Cornwall, South West England

Looe is the nearest beach town on the south coast. 

It has been a beach resort for more than 200 years and sits on both sides of the Looe River.

There is an array of beaches near Looe, as well as the picturesque estuary. 

Looe is a 50 minute drive from Launceston.

You can take the bus, but you will need first to take the 236 and then the 73, and it takes nearly 2 hours. Cornish buses can sometimes be a headache!

Where to stay in Launceston

Primrose Cottage B&B is a comfortable guesthouse offering studios or suites. Each room is spotlessly clean and has comfortable furniture, and all have their own private patio. The hosts are considerate and attentive, and serve an a la carte breakfast every day. Click here to read more.

Trethorne Hotel and Golf Club offers contemporary accommodation with well-furnished rooms and modern en suite bathrooms. As the name suggests there is a golf club on site, along with a bar and children’s play area. Click here for more information.

The Eagle House is a unique place to stay in Launceston. With a grand exterior and period decor inside, all rooms hark back to a bygone era, although there are lots of mod cons to make your stay comfortable. There is a beautiful view from the terrace and a bar on site. Click here to read more.

If you want self-contained accommodation, Avallon Lodges have villas with en suite bathrooms and kitchenettes with a fridge, a microwave and hobs. Plus each lodge has a hot tub! The lodges are 7 miles from Launceston, but they are in the heart of its beautiful countryside. Click here for more information.

Your Launceston Travel Guide!

As I said, Launceston may surprise you – and I hope this guide has proven just that! If you’re venturing further west in the Duchy, I recommend checking out the rest of my Cornwall posts – I’ve covered most places!

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