Meet… 'Sergeant Steve' from Pendennis Castle
6 December 2023
Situated on a headland with breathtaking views out to sea, Pendennis Castle is one of Henry VIII's finest coastal fortresses. The castle has defended Cornwall since Tudor times, and played a vital role during the two World Wars.
Dressed in WWII costume, the volunteers at Pendennis Castle offer tours, gun firing displays, and a warm welcome to visitors. Very knowledgeable on the castle’s history, they really help bring it to life – often cited as one of the ‘best bits’ of a visit to Pendennis. We meet 'Sergeant Steve' to learn more about his role as part of the visitor experience at Pendennis Castle.
What inspired you to become a volunteer at Pendennis Castle?
It was in January 2018 that my wife showed me an advert from English Heritage asking for volunteer tour guides at Pendennis Castle, specifically focussing on WWII and to fire the guns. As she put it “This is all your Christmases come at once!” My inspiration was that I have always loved history, particularly WWI and WWII military history, and I love to talk about it. I thought that if I can talk to visitors at the castle about a topic which I’m passionate about it could be very exciting to try and bring the history to life.
Pendennis Castle is steeped in history. Could you tell us a bit about it?
Pendennis Castle was built in 1540 as a deterrent against invasion. With its sister castle at St Mawes, it protected the river Fal which, up until then, could easily provide an enemy with many places at which to land an army. The castle, or fortress, remained an operational coast defence installation right up until 1956, when it was finally de-militarised. The castle is sited on the prominent headland of Pendennis, with far reaching views across the bay which gave the defenders a huge advantage. It is no surprise, therefore, that potential invaders steered well clear of the area, presumably put off by the huge firepower that existed at the castle.
For those who haven’t yet visited, could you describe the typical visitor experience at Pendennis Castle?
Pendennis Castle is a big dog-friendly site, with plenty of open space to walk around and enjoy the impressive views on all sides. The original Tudor keep is quite a small part of the site. It is a circular gun tower, made of granite with very thick walls. You can see all the openings where guns once stood on different levels, providing a huge amount of firepower. Visitors can walk up a narrow staircase to the roof of the castle which provides stunning panoramic views. You get a real sense of the commanding position the castle has and why this spot was chosen to build it on in 1540. Often there are guided tours of the keep, given by volunteers, which will add to the experience and further a visitor’s knowledge and understanding of the castle.
The other buildings on the site were constructed at different times over the centuries as more defences and guns were added. For example, the dry moat was cut out many years after the original keep, during Elizabeth I’s reign. As a visitor, once you are inside the castle grounds you are surrounded by this huge defensive feature. Other significant buildings are the Gatehouse and Guard Room, the Storehouse, the Royal Garrison Artillery Barracks, completed in 1902 and the Half Moon Battery which was originally built in 1793 in response to a possible French invasion and modified greatly in the late 19th century and at the start of the Second World War. Visitors are required to walk through two tunnels to reach the Half Moon, which is exciting.
Can you describe a particularly memorable historical event related to the castle that you’ve shared with visitors?
Despite the threat of invasion over the centuries and the worry that the enemy might try to land troops somewhere in the Fal estuary, it was not until WWII that any shots were fired in anger at the enemy, twice in 1943 and twice more in 1944. On those occasions the guns of the Half Moon Battery opened fire on suspected German torpedo boats, known as ‘E’ boats, as they neared Falmouth Bay. On all four occasions the ‘E’ boats were successfully seen off by the gunners of the Royal Artillery. Working closely with women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (The ATS) and the local radar stations, the Royal Artillery engaged the suspected ‘E’ boats beyond the horizon without being able to see them. The night sky would have lit up as the big coast defensive guns roared into action. For the local people of Falmouth hearing the guns and seeing the huge orange flashes would have been quite a spectacle.
Volunteers play a crucial role in bringing history to life. What do you find most rewarding about sharing the history of Pendennis Castle with visitors, and what impact do you hope to make on their experience?
I am a uniformed tour guide who conducts tours of the Half Moon Battery in character. Each time I put on the 1940s uniform of a sergeant in the Royal Artillery and meet a new group of visitors to the castle there is an air of excitement and anticipation, as I never know in advance anything about the visitors. It could be a just one person or a group of more than fifty. To be able to meet hundreds of people each year, from all over the world, is a privilege. I get into the zone and talk as if we are in 1944, with the war in progress, to share the history of the castle and explain what went on during World War II in detail, acting the part as I go, is a thrill every time. The reward is when visitors seem genuinely interested and really pay attention to what I am saying and showing them. The icing on the cake is if they then ask questions to further their understanding and knowledge. By doing tours in character, I hope to bring the history to life and make a real impression on them, both visually and verbally.
How do you prepare for your role as a volunteer guide? Are there any specific aspects of the castle’s history that you focus on?
Initially, when I first started at Pendennis, before I did any guided tours, I had to learn a lot of facts and information about the whole site and in particular the Half Moon Battery. I was very nervous, as this was all new to me and I didn’t want to forget anything. It was a bit like being back at school and revising for an exam. I started off with the basic story which, over time, I have added to by carrying out my own research. I am an amateur military historian anyway, with huge interest in WWI and WWII, so reading up about Pendennis Castle’s role during the war was a pleasure and it was fascinating.
In preparation for each tour, I inspect my replica 1940s sergeant’s uniform, provided by English Heritage, checking every detail, e.g. I polish my boots and brass badges, iron a neat crease in my trousers. The uniform is kept in the volunteer mess room in the barracks which is where I then put the uniform on. After a quick look at myself in the mirror to make sure I look convincing, I set off outside to gather up any visitors, or ‘troops’ as I call them, for a tour. As I have previously mentioned, my tours are all about WWII and the role of the Half Moon Battery, so that is the part of Pendennis that I focus on. I know all the facts and information now, so I don’t worry about forgetting anything, but I do psych myself up before every tour, rather like an actor does before going on stage, or at least that’s how I feel.
What are some of the most common questions or reactions you receive from visitors to the castle?
Because I am always dressed as a WWII soldier, I draw attention to myself almost immediately I step outside the barracks. Often visitors want to take my photo and children want to come up to me and salute while other visitors regularly tell me about their own military experiences or those of family members who fought in the war, which is great and surely wouldn’t happen if I was not wearing the uniform. Perhaps the most common question I’ve been asked is “Is that uniform comfortable to wear?”, which tells me that they are interested straight away, and I have an audience. When the tour begins, and I am making my way down to the Half Moon Battery via the two tunnels, I can often hear what people are saying behind me as they follow. A common reaction is that they can feel the atmosphere and history as they hear my hobnail boots on the concrete. I also like to give visitors time to reflect and think about those who were at the castle in days gone by.
How can individuals interested in history and volunteering get involved, and what kinds of roles are available?
We have an English Heritage volunteer co-ordinator at the castle who would be very happy to hear from anyone who would like to volunteer. To put your name forward you can go on the English Heritage website, which has a volunteer page, phone the castle direct or come and see us and explain to the staff on the gate that you’re a budding volunteer.
There are several volunteer roles available. If you would like to become a tour guide there are two main roles we are looking for: Tours of the Tudor keep and tours of the Half Moon Battery. English Heritage will provide replica uniforms for, male and female, for WWII tour guides. Other roles include meeting and greeting, running the second-hand bookshop, decorating the keep at different times of the year, and staffing the craft table during special events.
Visitors to Pendennis Castle often seek immersive experiences. What types of events are typically held at the castle, and what can we look forward to in 2024?
There are lots of visitor experiences throughout the year including tours of the Half Moon Battery as a regular feature, though as they depend on volunteers, not every day. This tour is immersive as you are transported back to 1944 and it includes a visit to the underground magazine which is only available to the public on one of these tours and has an extra surprise feature, which I’m not going to divulge now! If you want to experience this tour it is best to phone the castle and ask when the next HMB tour is going to be or if you want me, ask when Sergeant Steve is on duty! From Easter to October is best for this. Sometimes during the Spring and Summer we fire the WWII guns, which is quite a spectacle. You can check with the castle when that’s likely to happen too.
Throughout the year, we have an action-packed programme of events – with Knights’ Tournaments, Legendary Jousts, Halloween quests and more! These are very popular and great fun for families. To keep informed of events for 2024, I would suggest looking at the Pendennis Castle website. Dates and times of special events will be posted as soon as they are available. Also watch out for the latest news on the Pendennis Castle’s Facebook page.
With thanks to Steve Tribe (Sergeant Steve), Volunteer Tour Guide, Pendennis Castle, for sharing his passion for his role at Pendennis Castle and for bringing to life the history of the castle.
You can book your tickets to visit Pendennis Castle here, with 10% off when booked online.