Case Study Site 17 – Prehistoric Promontory Forts and Later Cliff Castles

Case Study Site 17 – Prehistoric Promontory Forts and Later Cliff Castles

1.         Location

This case study reviews seven Prehistoric promontory forts and later cliff castles in coastal locations, of which the furthest east is St Mawes Castle, with five further sites on the Land’s End Peninsula, together with Tintagel Castle on the north Cornish coast. 

2.         Why were these Case Study Site selected?

Apart from St Mawes Castle and Tintagel Castle, the other sites are largely prehistoric, often with limited visible evidence of their past occupation and use.  The purpose of this case study was to assess the level to which artistic and photographic images can assist in understanding and managing coastal change issues at these particular sites. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

St Mawes Castle and Tintagel Castle are located on sandstones and limestones of mid-Devonian age, whilst the westernmost sites on the Land’s End Peninsula are founded on largely igneous granites of the Permian and Carboniferous Periods.  Despite the perceived resilience of these clifflines, there are numerous examples of significant failures comprising both rock falls and landslide toppling failures that have occurred over the last 10-15 years.  These events have usually been preceded by prolonged rainfall, which is the preparatory factor prior to activation during or soon after severe winter storms, such as those that took place in the winter of 2013/14.  With rising sea levels and predictions of a possible increase in more unsettled weather patterns the rate and frequency of such events can only be expected to increase.  Evidence of this long-term trend can be found by examining some of the early cliff castle sites which have seen the gradual loss of heritage through erosion over many years. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Shoreline Management Plan (Royal Haskoning, 20111) highlighted the risks to Iron Age cliff castle sites such as Trevelgue Head and others on the north-west coast between Godrevy Point and Trevose Head.  Winter storm damage after the 2013/14 event necessitated repairs at Trevelgue headland following severe coastal erosion, which exposed fragile archaeological layers and features.  Elsewhere, the Shoreline Management Plan identified ongoing and potentially increasing coastal erosion risk such as at Tintagel, where the historic castle is perched on the edge of high cliffs.  By their very nature, many ‘promontory forts’ are located in exposed and vulnerable locations and are thus all the more susceptible to erosion and weathering. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

In this particular case study two areas were considered.  First, the accuracy with which features such as castles were depicted by artists.  The fine detail achieved by some artists is clearly illustrated in figures 17.1 and 17.3 in the case of St Mawes Castle.  Both John Chessel Buckler (figure 17.1) and Charles Napier Hemy (figure 17.4) were masters in terms of artistic accuracy.  Buckler was an architectural draughtsman by training, whilst Hemy was a follower of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of capturing the landscape in very precise detail.  These two examples (a watercolour and an oil painting) show the quality and detail that was achieved by some artists in the nineteenth century.  Equally, exceptional detail has been provided by artists such as John Brett (figure 17.6) in his painting of the headland of Treryn Dinas, which was painted from a point high up on Treen Cliff overlooking Porthcurno Bay.  Brett again was a significant figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and his coastal scenes are perhaps some of the most accurate to be found.  In Figure 17.7 a view of Penwith Cliffs (also entitled ‘Towards Land End’) by Charles Naper (c.1940) is a masterful depiction of the Cornish coast.  A further magnificent view of the headland on which Maen Castle is situated, is provided by Brett in figure 17.9. 

Whilst there are superb examples of coastal artworks illustrated in this study, generally artists were less interested or, indeed, unaware of the historic sites that might be situated within these particular landscapes.  Perhaps, there were insufficient remains to merit their painting and the views of these landscapes were best left to antiquarians (such as Peter Orlando Hutchinson – see Case Study 9, and Sir Henry Englefield – see Case Study 3).  Many of the artworks in this case study do, therefore, show us, in detail, the state of the coastline at a particular point in time, and may illustrate change to a lesser or greater degree.  However, for the precise sites on which cliff castles are located, and the remains themselves, no artistic images could be found, and, therefore, photographs present the most useful alternative for study.  For surface or buried remains, their investigation and analysis is best served through examination of the extensive collections such as those to be found within the Historic England archive (, Britain from Above ( and England’s Places ( 

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

An examination of past and present day images contained in this case study demonstrate the exceptional skills of artists both in terms of architectural illustration, but also paintings of the open coastline.  However, views of ruined cliff castles or their remains and, indeed, the sites of buried features rarely feature in the paintings of the leading topographical artists, although some antiquarians did provide excellent detailed images, often contained in antiquarian books or local publications.  The case study emphasises the importance of the photographic resource alongside the artistic resource, in support of our understanding and management of the risks to sites such as the Cornish cliff castles. 

Figure 17.1: ‘St Mawes Castle, Cornwall’ by John Chessel Buckler.  Watercolour.  1821. 

Image Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Figure 17.2: ‘St Mawes Castle’. 

Image Courtesy of Commons Wikimedia.

Figure 17.3: St Mawes Castle.

Image Courtesy of Commons Licence.

Figure 17.4: ‘St Mawes Castle’ by Charles Napier Hemy RA (1841-1917). Oil on Canvas.

Image Courtesy of Elford Fine Art, Tavistock, Devon

Figure 17.5: ‘Porth Curnow’ by John Brett.  1880.  Oil on Canvas.   This view shows Treryn Dinas painted from Treen Cliff overlooking Porth Curnow Bay.  The famous Cliff Castle, with its jagged outline, is seen across an expanse of wet sand, with a vista of sea and sky beyond.  The present day view can be seen in Figure 17.6.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 17.7: ‘Towards Land’s End’ by Charles Naper.  Oil on Board. c.1940.  This view includes the site of Carn Les Boel. 

Image Courtesy of Penlee House Art Gallery and Museum, Penzance. 

17.8: Site of Carn Les Boel near Land’s End. 

Photograph courtesy of Palden Jenkins (

Figure 17.9: ‘Golden Prospects, St Catherine’s Well, Land’s End’ by John Brett.  1881.  Oil on Canvas. 

Image Courtesy Nottingham City Museums and Galleries (Nottingham Castle).

Figure 17.10: ‘View from Maen Castle’ near Sennen. 

Image © Graham Horn/Creative Commons Licence.

Figure 17.11: Gurnard’s Head.  Photograph.  c.1920.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection. 

Figure 17.12: Gurnard’s Head. 

Photograph Courtesy of Tony Atkin/Creative Commons Licence.

Figure 17.13: Trevelgue Head, Cornwall.  Photograph.  c.1900. 

Figure 17.14: Trevelgue Head near Newquay showing the hill fort site.

Figure 17.15: ‘Tintagel Castle, Cornwall’ by William Trost Richards.  c.1890.  Watercolour. 

Image Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Figure 17.16: ‘Tintagel Castle’. 

Image Courtesy: Creative Commons Licence. 

7.         References

  1. Royal Haskoning, 2011.  ‘Cornwall and Isles of Scilly SMP2’