Haemangioblastomas of the CNS are a cardinal feature of von Hippel–Lindau (VHL) disease, a dominantly inherited multisystem familial cancer syndrome caused by germline mutation of the VHL tumour suppressor gene. We investigated the frequency of VHL mutations in 188 patients presenting with a single haemangioblastoma, no family history of VHL disease and no evidence of retinal or abdominal manifestations of the disease at the time of diagnosis. We found that ∼4% of patients had a detectable VHL mutation and all of these cases presented age 40 years or less. Although the identification of a germline VHL mutation has important consequences for the patient (e.g. risk of further CNS and extra-CNS tumours) and their relatives, four patients had germline VHL missense mutations [C162Y, D179N and R200W (two patients)] that may represent haemangioblastoma-only and/or low penetrance mutations. Approximately 5% of patients without a detectable VHL mutation subsequently developed a further ‘VHL type tumour’ (in most cases a further CNS haemangioblastoma). These findings suggest that a subset of patients with apparently sporadic CNS haemangioblastoma will have a germline VHL mutation but may not be at risk for developing classical VHL disease and a further group may be mosaic for a germline VHL mutation that cannot be detected in blood cells.