The island of Guernsey is known for its wealth of neolithic monuments and for its role in World War II. However, visitors may be less familiar with the intervening period, particularly the medieval era. One place where you can discover some of the history of the island, from the middle ages to the present day, is at the museums and gardens of Castle Cornet, St Peter Port.
An Island Fortress
Castle Cornet occupies a tiny island close to St Peter Port, the main town of Guernsey. At one time it was separate from the mainland, but a connecting road was built in the 19th century.
The castle is imposing. It dominates St Peter Port, and is the main landmark for visitors arriving by sea. In fact, the castle is such a feature of the town that I “heard” it before I saw it: as I walked through St Peter Port for the first time I was startled by the sound of the gun that is fired each day at noon!
History of Castle Cornet
The island was chosen for its strategic location: from here you can see the islands of Sark and Herm, and Jersey in the far distance. Castle Cornet was built here in the 13th century, intended as Guernsey’s main defensive fortress. (The name “Cornet” came from a prominent local family.)
The castle was needed as a defence against the French, because possession of the Channel Islands was always disputed. In fact, the fortress was briefly taken by French invaders on a number of occasions, although subsequently lost again. It also played a part in the English Civil War: the castle was on the side of the Royalists, while the rest of Guernsey supported the Parliamentarians.
In later centuries Castle Cornet served variously as a residence for the Governor of Guernsey, a prison, and a barracks. Today it is a visitor attraction, with museums, historic gardens and sea views. In the summer it also hosts open air concerts.
The Castle and its Museums
Many visitors are content just to explore the castle, with its narrow passages, steep stairways and hidden gardens. There are also historic cannons, including the noonday gun, which is fired every day during the tourist season. However, for those who want to learn more about the history, there are five different museums within the castle.
The Story of Castle Cornet tells the history of the castle from the 13th century to the present day. And the Maritime Museum and Art Gallery looks at the long relationship between the island and the sea. The other three museums – Royal Guernsey Militia Museum, Royal Guernsey Light Infantry Museum and 201 Squadron (RAF) Museum – showcase aspects of Guernsey’s military history.
Castle Cornet also has four historic gardens. While these can be enjoyed for their own sake, they also give an insight into different periods and aspects of the castle’s history. The oldest is the Sutler’s Garden, dating from the 16th century. This was partly a kitchen garden (the sutler was responsible for provisioning the castle), and partly a pleasure garden for the soldiers stationed in the castle.
Lambert’s Garden was built by a prisoner in the 17th century and included herbs grown for food and medicinal purposes. Whereas the 18th century Governor’s Garden is a more formal space based on an earlier knot garden tradition. The most recent – The Master Gunner’s Garden – was laid out in the 19th century.
Visiting Castle Cornet
- The current (2020) adult admission charge is £10.50. If you are in Guernsey for more than a few days you might want to buy a Discovery Pass (£18), which allows re-entry to the castle, and admission to three other museums on the island.
- Due to the age and design of the castle it is not wheelchair accessible. If you have mobility issues note that there are steep steps and uneven surfaces in some places.
- If you want to explore the whole castle and all of the museums allow at least half a day for your visit.
- Guided tours are available every day at 10.30 am. There are also occasional garden tours in the summer.
- There is a café and gift shop inside the castle.