Spend The Weekend With The Tudors

Historic buildings aren't just there to be admired by day-trippers. Now you can stay the night. Sankha Guha spends the weekend at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall. It's one of six properties that have been given a stylish makeover by English Heritage, the new boy on the holiday-cottage scene
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The Independent Travel

Stonehenge is an English Heritage site and I am reminded that we are heading (snailishly) for Pendennis Castle - another site run by it, in Cornwall. English Heritage exists to preserve England's past. It is now going into the holiday cottage business, offering "the opportunity to stay at some of our finest historic buildings".

Heritage schmeritage. Setting aside the rose-tinted memories of childhood holidays taken by the English seaside, what for example, might an honest heritage package to Cornwall contain? As far as I am concerned, any such tour of England's westernmost county should include mandatory lashings of rain, five-mile tailbacks in single-file country lanes, clifftops splattered with what the locals call "grockle boxes" (caravans), dank, over-priced accommodation, and the worst case of bungalow blight this side of Connemara.

Back in Wiltshire it's not getting any better. The bank-holiday pixies prance on, smugly turning and turning in a widening circle as we slouch westwards. The seven-hour forced slog from London is not an ideal start to the weekend, though the drive is softened somewhat by the sainted Morrissey - another English monument if ever there was one - on the car stereo. "I will see you in far-off places," he trills. Does he mean Falmouth?

It is dark when we arrive at Pendennis Headland but we get a bright welcome from Andy Bennie (by day the catering manager at the castle, by night something closer to Igor - "the keeper of the keys"). He swings open the drawbridge gates to let us in. Yes, this holiday cottage has a drawbridge. I tease the car through the gatehouse into the deserted grounds and make out the battlements of Henry VIII's original fort. The squat tower has a menacing presence against the night sky and seems quite capable of unleashing five centuries of phantasms to my racing imagination.

The air is particle-charged by the wraiths of olde Albion - and beyond the ramparts, the currents that shaped this sceptred isle still gnaw at the rocky shores of the Fal estuary. Here the yeomen soldiers of the Virgin Queen waited, peering into the sea mists for the Spanish Armada to materialise, and here decades later some Royalist diehards held out for five months during the Civil War.

You don't have to be particularly suggestible to experience the odd goose bump in such company, especially in the dark when the drawbridge gate shuts with a theatrical thunk behind you. We are marooned in movie clichéland, somewhere between a Hammer horror and Citizen Kane.

The hallucinations end abruptly when Andy ushers us to our billet - the Custodian's Cottage. The cottage is a no-nonsense Victorian addition, a functional stone L-shaped building braced against whatever the Atlantic weather might throw at it. The interior is a shock. All is light, modern and almost painfully tasteful. Greys, oatmeal and "natural" tones abound - the living room is three shades of grey, the hall is mushroom, while the bedroom is duck-egg blue. The colour palette is chosen with exquisite care, we learn, from a range created specially by "The Little Greene Paint Company". The results are so easy on the eye that I am almost willing to forgive them their twee little name.

The kitchen is deliciously over-specced. All the appliances (Siemens, natürlich) are stainless steel and purposeful. Worktops are built to design in creamy cool Corian. The joinery in the kitchen cabinets looks as expensive as it is impressive - drawers shut with a cushioned sigh. Not a trace of Ikea in the crockery or the cutlery - even the garlic crusher and basting brush are posh brands. English Heritage has not simply chucked out the chintz, it has donned steel toe caps and is marching with the boot boys of design fascism.

Furniture is neither flatpack in origin or the usual holiday cottage staple of knackered old tat from car-boot sales - every piece is sourced from English designers. The living room is open double-height to the rafters; the assertion of uncluttered space is decidedly un-English, owing more perhaps to Danish heritage.

The "cottage" could easily have been designed to provide accommodation for a family of five, but it sleeps just two. The pièce de résistance is the bathroom - large enough for a chukka of polo played on pygmy ponies - it has a wallow-friendly bath and a roomy walk-in shower. In the morning we discover that all the rooms (including the bathroom) have glorious views of sandy-beached Gyllingvase Bay stretching in a crescent towards the sea and sky.

Hair-shirt heritage this is not. But the danger of such luxurious accommodation is surely that, over a weekend, it will be a struggle to get beyond the front door. The national monument on the doorstep could easily take on the aspect of an obligation. In the event, we venture out somewhat furtively at about midday, but even then more out of a sense of duty than delight.

By day, the Tudor tower appears less menacing. Up close, the Henrician Castle, as it is now called, looks pretty slight within the ramparts. The simple two-storey circular structure, built from local granite, is solid but it hardly looks substantial enough to gamble the defence of the realm on. In the 1540s, however, it represented a credible deterrent, along with its sister fortification at St Mawes on the far side of Carrick Roads - which is, in fact, a stretch of water leading inland to Truro. Between them, the two towers commanded the traffic in and out of Falmouth Haven. Henry VIII had them built in a hurry to counter the invasion he feared after falling out with the Pope.

Inside the tower, the architectural principle of "form follows function" is bleakly evident. The octagonal rooms were built as gun platforms pure and simple. The interior is short on basic comforts let alone any fripperies. The thick defensive walls are pierced by embrasures to fire through, and within, the gunners would have operated in cramped conditions, deafened by their cannons, choking on the acrid fumes of gunpowder. In such conditions, it seems doubtful they could have hit a barge at six yards let alone a speck of a warship bobbing about in the estuary.

As we enter the upper gun room, without warning a voice barks orders and a cannon "fires" to the right of us. Smoke issues from the barrel and curls through the room. There is more shouting from the direction of another gun, a flash and then another bang. Our entrance, picked up by sensors, has set off a tableau vivant. It may bring history to life, but it could also bring on an episode of myocardial infarction in a visitor unlucky enough to suffer an undiagnosed heart condition.

On the roof we find the look-out post of the turret from which the Spanish Armada is thought to have been spotted in 1588. From here, too, you get a clear idea of the accretions of history that have attached themselves to Henry's original fortification over the centuries.

The tower is not the largest building within the ramparts - that distinction belongs to the Royal Artillery barracks built in 1902. And the Tudor gun tower looks merely decorative these days in comparison with the firepower of Half Moon Battery just below the ramparts on Pendennis Point. For military nerds, the proud 6in guns dating from the Second World War are the stuff of wet dreams. The battery has been reconstructed as it was when last used in anger to engage German U-boats - a reminder of the strategic importance of this headland into modern times.

The other must-do in Falmouth is the National Maritime Museum - a draw as much for the building itself as the engrossing displays it contains. The London architects Long and Kentish (who built the British Library) won the design competition for the proposed museum out of a field of 76 that included some of the biggest names in the world. The panel that made the decision decided not to go for a Bilbao Guggenheim-style show stopper and rejected the big reputations with their promised "signature" statements. What they wanted, as they put it, was a building that was "attention grabbing - not attention seeking".

The result is a museum uniquely tuned to its environment and purpose. Instead of choosing gleaming glass and steel - which would have taken a beating from the salty, damp Cornish air - the architects, taking their inspiration from a motley assortment of timber boat repair sheds scattered around the harbour, clad the whole project in more than 100 tons of green oak. The wood is arranged in shiplap and feather-edge patterns by local shipwrights and carpenters.

The maritime theme continues in the flourish of a 30-metre-high "look-out" tower that mimics an old-fashioned lighthouse. Visitors from within have a vantage point on to the third deepest (or third biggest depending on what you read) natural harbour in the world, and, with the help of interactive displays, can monitor the comings and goings of craft - much as Henry VIII's shivering foot soldiers did from the top of Pendennis Castle 450 years ago. Unlike the soldiers, visitors here can take a lift down to the "Tidal Zone" in the basement where, through a giant 80mm-thick laminated glass wall, the ebb and flow of the tides can also be monitored.

The exhibits are based around a fleet of 120 small boats, originally collected by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The significance of many of the boats is lost on someone as nautically adrift as me - suffice to say they are beautifully displayed in soaring three-storey high galleries with ramped walkways up the walls so the boats can be seen from a variety of angles.

Some of the exhibits, however, do a poor job of selling the joys of the open ocean to hydrophobes like me. One such is a 9ft dinghy that saved the Robertson family in 1972 after their yacht was sunk by killer whales; all six of them survived, but not before enduring 38 days adrift. And then there is an all too vivid exhibit about that nut Tony Bullimore, who spent five days in the dark, freezing upturned hull of his racing yacht before his miraculous rescue from the murderous southern ocean.

It occurs to me as I set my compass back for London that Cornwall, too, is attempting a small miracle, rescuing itself from the upturned hull of bucket-and-spade holidays to something more ambitious. Heritage does not have to be an albatross. The past can be revivified with style and imagination. And my weekend ends on an up-beat - I see no pixies on the long voyage home.

A three-night break in the Custodian's Cottage costs from around £330 through English Heritage (0870-333 1187; english-heritage.org.uk/holiday cottages).

My top walk

Start just up the coast from Newquay at Watergate Bay, which has just suffered the indignity of having another Fifteen franchise thrust upon it by Jamie Oliver. Ignore the mockney self publicist's hyped-up restaurant and stride boldly out on to the fabulous two-mile sands, setting course southwards to Porth. At low tide - be sure the tide is out - the beach is wide and you are flanked by wild Atlantic breakers to the right and towering cliffs to the left.

My top stopover

An ideal stop on the long haul to or from Cornwall, Combe House in Gittisham (01404 540400; thishotel.com) is a 15-bedroom Elizabethan manor house that has not been destroyed by a boutique makeover. The interior is lived-in and has daft but endearing touches like the amateurish bird murals in our room painted by some ladyship. Wish-fulfilling for those who might fancy the odd house party but don't have a manor to call our own.