The town of Lostwithiel was Cornwall’s ancient capital founded by the Normans. It housed a number of important Duchy of Cornwall buildings being a stannery town including the Duchy Palace and was the third busiest port on the south coast of England in the Middle Ages. The River Fowey, although now much silted up due to upstream mining activity, is still tidal to a point just above the town.
As the lowest crossing point on the River Fowey Lostwithiel has been of strategic importance to the defence of Cornwall for centuries. During the English Civil War the Parliamentarians were besieged in the area by King Charles I and his army who eventually forced them to surrender at Castle Dore in a great victory for the Royalists in 1644.
Its Tudor bridge continued to carry the main A390 Redruth to Tavistock road until a new bridge was opened in 1939 when a by-pass was built for part of the town. Thus when the threat of invasion arose in the summer of 1940 and the Bodmin Stop Line began to be built it was this new bridge that was the focal point of the town’s designation as an anti-tank island.
The George Ellis photo of the Wings For Victory Parade on 1 May 1943 shows some of the defences created in 1940. In my novel No Small Stir it is the construction of these the Major is inspecting when we first meet him in Chapter Two. There were lines of Dragon’s Teeth across the road in front of the bridge over the River Fowey. There was then a pillbox between the river bridge and the bridge over the Penzance to Paddington main railway line.
There was a further line of Dragon’s Teeth across the road just before the railway bridge. Both road bridges over the river – the old Tudor one and the new bypass bridge – would have been blown in the event of an invasion.
In Quay Street by the old Palace buildings was a roadblock. It consisted of vertical sections of rail inserted into 20 holes in the road. Only one hole remains visible today on the pavement by the archway. The roadblock was sited to prevent progress from the medieval and 19th century quays into the town and on to the bridges. The Invasion Planning stated that the town’s police constable would man the level crossing if there was an invasion. To the east of the town at Downend Garage there was another roadblock on the A390 consisting of concrete cylinders forming a tank trap and dragon’s teeth.
A Home Guard Company was formed and commanded in 1941 by Col Rashleigh and Major Williams. In 1943 Major Murray-Dixon of Penpillick House in Par was in charge. There were 70 men ready for action to defend the town. The Invasion Committee made their plans to co-ordinate the needs of the civilian population under the leadership of Mayor Spencer Brown.
The Royal Artillery moved into Lanwithan House just south of the town on the eastern side of the river and established the Headquarters for the Coastal Artillery units in Cornwall such as at either end of the Bodmin Stop Line at Padstow and Fowey and at places like Par, Looe and Newquay.
Alas, the invasion never came and although Lostwithiel did get raked by machine gun fire from tip and run raiders, the town emerged reasonably unscathed at the end of hostilities in 1945. For more details check out my video on the Bodmin Stop Line Part 4 – The Fowey Valley which includes a look at Lostwithiel. Lostwithiel makes for a pleasant visit with a stroll beside the river, its antique shops and quaint cafes, and a visit to its small museum in the old Corn Exchange in Fore Street (though be aware it closes for the winter on the 29th of October).