Walk around the narrow streets of Launceston and you get a real sense of the town’s ancient history. Up on the hill is a Norman castle and nearby prison, where notables including George Fox of the Quaker movement was imprisoned. Overlooking the rolling countryside, you can see remains of the defensive wall that once circled the town, there’s a 14th century gatehouse into the old town and tucked away below the castle is a row of grand houses that Sir John Betjeman described as the loveliest Georgian street in Cornwall.
Still a hub of activity, Launceston serves the local agricultural community who come to the town from miles around, so you’ll find traditional butchers and bakers along with independent shops selling everything from second hand books to pet supplies. The indoor Friday Market at St Mary’s Hall selling locally produced food, plants and an assortment of crafts and the market held in the Town Square every month give a window into rural life in Cornwall that stays traditional and friendly.
What’s going for it? Pretty market towns full of life and loveliness are 10 a penny between Cornwall and Devon, so those even a little off the beaten track are in danger of being ignored. Folly. True, you have to seek it out: Launceston is not a spot for even the most ambitious commuters or weekenders. It is not conveniently within reach of anywhere but itself, isn’t a quick nip to the beach and, like much of this part of the country, is not blessed with public transport. It compensates big time, though, with a fabulously romantic townscape: a hilltop castle straight out of The Hobbit; a centre of overhanging eaves, slate-tiled walls and granite pavements; and a Tudor church carved from floor to roof. Launceston will never be one of the new breed of artful and knowing market towns such as Totnes or Lewes, but it’s a beautiful place in which to lose yourself, deep in the folds of the Tamar valley’s hills.
Well connected? Not its forte. Trains: bizarrely, no station for miles, just the ends of local lines at Okehampton (12 miles north-east), and Gunnislake (10 miles south). Roads: you’re on Cornwall’s Route 66, the A30: half an hour to Okehampton and Dartmoor, 45 minutes to Plymouth, the same to Cornwall’s north coast at Boscastle.
Schools Primaries: St Catherine’s CofE and Windmill Hill are “good”, says Ofsted, with St Stephens Community “outstanding”. Secondaries: Launceston College is “good”.
Hang out at… The Arundell Arms at Lifton for posh. In town, the Number 8 Cafe is nice for coffee and lunch; La Bouche Creole is “Cornwall’s first Creole restaurant”… and, er, only?
Where to buy The town has a nice line in Victorian villas, detached and semis, as prim and pretty as a Dickensian governess. Look south on and off Western Road and Tavistock Road – Windmill Hill, Dunheved Road especially. Northwards, poke around St Stephens Hill and up to the swallowed-up village of St Stephens.