With a granite-built townscape that exudes respectability, Bodmin owes its appearance to Cornwall’s tin-mining boom in the 19th century.
This was also Cornwall’s county town until the late-19th century, and buildings like the Shire Hall and the ominous silhouette of Bodmin Jail point to that former status.
Bodmin Moor is a haunting landscape of granite hills, marsh and heathland, littered with prehistoric monuments.
Award-winning wines are grown in the Camel Valley, which is also on the route of a scenic 18-mile cycling trail following the route of abandoned 19th-century railway lines.
And on the town’s fringes are sophisticated country houses and the ruins of a circular Medieval castle.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bodmin:
1. Lanhydrock House
An awe-inspiring Victorian country house, Lanhydrock was mostly reconstructed following a fire in 1881. There are elements from the building that had stood here since the 1620s, like the 35-metre Long Gallery (see the Steinway piano and plasterwork on the ceiling), the front porch and the gatehouse.
One of many reasons to fall in love with Lanhydrock is in the contrast between “Upstairs and Downstairs”, where you can browse the preserved kitchens and servants’ quarters, as well as well as the grander family home and its tasteful dining room and bedrooms.
The estate covers 1,000 acres, with landscaped parkland, woods and paths beside streams and the River Fowey.
You may be caught off guard by the heartrending views of the valley landscape.
In spring the garden is awash with the blooms of cream and white magnolias, numbering 120 different species.
2. Bodmin Jail
Bodmin Jail is closed for six months to finish a new £8.5million immersive visitor attraction, due to re-open in May 2020
Still a menacing sight nearly a century after it closed, Bodmin Jail throws you into the life of a Victorian prisoner.
The jail was built in 1779 during the reign of King George III, using 20,000 tons of granite from the Cuckoo Quarry on Bodmin Moor.
And although the building looks forbidding from the outside, it came with a sophisticated heating and cooling system, while the wood-panelled Old Chapel (now a restaurant) feels very refined.
Bodmin Jail was secure enough to safeguard state papers, the Domesday Book and the Crown Jewels during the First World War.
You can make your way across six levels, entering the desolate cells and imagining the grim life of a prisoner in the 1800s.
It gets even grislier in the Execution Shed and hanging pit.
There’s no spookier place than Bodmin Jail to watch a scary movie, which you can do on Thursday nights, combined with a late-night tour of the passageways with a “medium”.
3. Cornwall’s Regimental Museum
The Keep (1827) at Bodmin’s old Victoria Barracks has hosted the Cornwall Regimental Museum since 1929. This charts the 300-year history of The Light Infantry, the Duke of Cornwall’s light infantry (separate concepts) and volunteer militia.
One member of the regiment was Harry Patch (d. 2009), the longest-surviving combat soldier of World War I, who has a small exhibition in his honour.
There’s an exciting collection of weapons and more than 80 uniforms, all going back to the Napoleonic Wars.
Sir John Moore (d. 1809), Founder of the Light Infantry and known for his innovative training methods, is remembered with an exhibition that features his ceremonial Order of the Bath silk mantle and a collection of personal memorabilia.
One piece of special interest at the museum is the Washington Bible, printed in 1712 and used by George Washington at a Masonic ceremony.
4. St Petroc’s Church
Cornwall’s largest parish church is also one of its oldest.
St Petroc’s dates from the turn of the 1470s, but includes architecture from an older Norman building like the tower on the north side.
Inside, the highly decorative baptismal font was fashioned in the 12th century.
There’s also a tremendous degree of workmanship visible in the 15th-century woodwork found at the pulpit, reredos, wall panelling and chancel screen.
At some point, the misericords from the same period were removed from the choir stalls and fixed to the lectern.
In one of the images there’s a man with five fingers and a thumb!
5. Bodmin Moor
You can’t talk about Bodmin without bringing up the 80-square-mile granite moorland in the town’s back garden.
Bodmin Moor contains Cornwall’s two highest peaks, Brown Willy (420m) and Rough Tor (400m), looming above moody sweeps of heather and marshes.
This stark, rugged environment has been used as a shooting location for BBC’s Poldark TV series and is peppered with prehistoric moments like standing stones and the remnants of Iron Age settlements.
King Arthur’s Hall is a Neolithic or Bronze Age ceremonial site made up of 56 stones in a rectangle bordered by an earthwork bank.
Some sites around the moor have UNESCO World Heritage status as they relate to a mining industry that goes back 4,000 years, while the absence of light pollution makes for crystal clear night skies.
6. Bodmin and Wenford Railway
At Bodmin Parkway station you can board the Bodmin and Wenford Railway for an evocative 6.5-mile ride on a train pulled by a steam locomotive.
The railway uses sections of the Great Western Railway branch line (1887) and a junction line that opened a year later to link with the Bodmin And Wadebridge Railway (1834). The principal station is further down the line at Bodmin General, and there are services from February to December, with train rides available every day of the week from May to October.
When the trains are running you can go inside the old workshops at Bodmin General to check out the engines and carriages.
The railway organises themed rides for children and grown-ups, and for something special you could board the luxury Cornish Belle coaches for one of the regular Cornish High Tea or dining services.
7. Bodmin Beacon
Towering over Bodmin’s southern reaches there’s a 162-metre granite hill at the heart of a nature reserve.
Presiding over the town from the top is the Beacon (1856), an obelisk 44 metres tall, commemorating the British Army officer Sir Walter Gilbert who spent nearly all of his career in India.
After scaling the hill and gazing over Bodmin, you can ramble through the reserve’s meadows and newly planted community woodland.
8. Shire Hall Courtroom Experience
Jury duty may not be something you’d look forward to on holiday, but that’s exactly what awaits you at Bodmin’s early-Victorian Shire Hall.
You’ll be met by a court usher, who will start by giving you the history of this solemn monument.
He or she will also tell you about the Victorian-era case of Matthew Weeks, who in real life was accused of the murder of his girlfriend Charlotte Dymond and was soon executed at Bodmin Jail.
You’ll then attend the trial, which uses bit of audiovisual trickery and animatronics to present the ins and out of the case.
At the end you’ll get to decide if Matthew Weeks was guilty of murder, before descending to the Shire Hall’s dingy holding cells.
9. The Camel Trail
Bodmin is on an 18-mile cycle route between Wenford Bridge to the north and the coastal town of Padstow to the west.
The Camel Line is on the former North Cornwall Railway (1899) between Padstow and Wadebridge, and the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway from Wadebridge to Wenford Bridge (1834). The very nature of these railway lines, which were devised to avoid tight turns or steep inclines, makes them perfect for gentle family bike rides.
Practically the whole route is on the disused line so you won’t have to contend with much road traffic.
If you don’t have a set of wheels there are hire centres in Bodmin, like Bodmin Bikes & Cycle Hire, only 400 metres from the trail.
The trail encapsulates the best of the North Cornwall countryside, inland on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and in the wooded, ravine-like Camel Valley on the way to Padstow.
10. Pencarrow House and Gardens
The seat of the Molesworth family since the 16th century, Pencarrow is a splendid Palladian mansion in formal gardens on the cusp of Bodmin Moor.
The approach to Pencarrow is pretty dramatic, along a mile-long drive leading you through an Iron Age hillfort.
Tours are given of the house from Sunday to Thursday between March and September.
There are lots of precious things to savour as you go, like paintings by Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Scott, Meissen, Worcester, Sèvres and Kangxi period porcelain.
The finest piece of porcelain though has to be the Qianlong-era famille rose bowl.
On top of all this there’s a set of glass pens from the Great Exhibition (1851), invaluable 18th-century furniture and displays of antique toys, costumes and a rare portable shower from 1840. The grounds are open seven days a week and have a sunken Italian garden, palm house, ice house, deep woodland and an early Medieval Cornish cross.
11. Camel Valley Vineyard
This vineyard on the tall south-facing slopes of the Camel Valley was first planted in 1989 and has gradually caught the world’s attention.
In 2005 one of its wines won an International Wine Challenge Gold Medal, and in 2009 Camel Valley won best Traditional Method Sparkling Wine ahead of Bollinger and Roederer in Verona in 2010. On a sunny afternoon you can visit the terrace to sip Camel Valley’s wines, but there’s also a choice of two tours in summer.
Monday to Friday you can take the “Guided Tour”, which explains the life of the vines in a year and how their grapes are turned into award-winning wines.
The “Grand Tour” takes place on Wednesday evenings and is led by a winemaker, answering in-depth questions and leading a wine-tasting session.
You’ll get to try at least five of Camel Valley’s wines, including its signature Cornwall Brut.
12. Cardinham Woods
At the southwestern gateway to Bodmin Moor, Cardinham is a blissful mixed woodland, much loved by walkers, cyclists and people on horseback.
There are four main waymarked trails, ushering you deep into the woods and up to viewpoints.
The Lidcutt Valley Walk has a climb that will work your calves but reward you with vistas of the Lady Vale.
The 1.5 mile Lady Vale Walk is less of a challenge, and brings you to the Lady Vale Bridge on the site of a 12th-century chapel.
Finally, you can follow the Wheal Glynn Walk to find the ruins of an old lead and silver mine, where the engine house and chimney stack are still standing.
13. Bodmin Town Museum
There’s lots to get stuck into at the Town Museum.
Set on the lower ground floor of the handsome Public Rooms, these galleries take you back to the town’s origins.
You’ll see artefacts recovered from what is thought to be the 6th-century Monastery of St Petroc, together with earlier Neolithic and Bronze Age finds.
There’s an exhibition on Bodmin’s very own spy school, the Joint Services School for Linguists, which trained its students to become fluent in Russian.
In the 18th and 19th century Cornwall had a high reputation for its clock-making, and there’s a fine example by the local brand, Belling of Bodmin.
You can enter a recreation of a traditional Cornish kitchen and a blacksmith forge, and learn the story of Private James Henry Finn, who earned the Victoria Cross in the First World War.
14. Restormel Castle
Near the village of Lostwithiel there’s a Medieval castle with a perfectly circular layout.
Restormel Castle is on a spur over the River Fowey.
Although it has been a ruin since the 16th century the castle’s 13th-century circular shell keep still encloses the remains of its principal rooms.
In the 14th century this was a luxurious property and was twice visited by the Black Prince, the son of Edward III. One of the best things about Restormel Castle is the Wall Walk.
This takes you around the battlements for a guard’s perspective of the Fowey Valley, as you ponder what castle life might have been like in the in courtyard below.
The castle mound is a joy in spring when the daffodils and primroses in flower.
15. Pinsla Garden and Nursery
This pocket-sized artist’s garden is in just 1.5 acres around a fairytale 18th-century cottage.
Pinsla Garden draws on Bodmin’s mysterious prehistory with a decorative stone circle enclosing bulbs, a variety of grasses and wildflowers.
A mix of perennials and annual means that there’s a constantly evolving display of colour and texture, while the shaded edge of the neighbouring woodland is planted with golden yews, small-leaved rhododendrons, bamboos, ferns and acers.
The accompanying nursery is free to enter and has succulents, perennials, acers, scented geraniums and a host of shade plants for sale.