Saturday, 20 May 2017


Ilfracombe from Hillsborough

Ilfracombe has surprised us by apparently being the foodie capital of North Devon: we have noticed a number of good restaurants, including one with a Michelin star. The town perhaps isn't as good architecturally, but it is still very interesting and worth a walk around. It began as a fishing port and attempts to turn it into a seaside holiday resort began in the 1830s. Real success came only after a branch railway line from Barnstaple opened in 1874. There are many houses and hotels from the late Victorian period.

We started our walk at the dismal Imperial Hotel with the Landmark Theatre opposite. It was built to replace The Pavilion Theatre, a Victorian building partly destroyed in a fire during the 1980s and later demolished. I was surprised to learn this because I had guessed that the towers must be some sort of historical survival (kilns of some sort perhaps) which had been incorporated into a new theatre. The architects were Tim Ronalds Architects and the building won a RIBA regional award. Their website picture shows a much whiter building than currently greets the eye. Sadly, the website of North Devon Theatre Trust, a charity which runs it and a theatre in Barnstaple, announced in February this year that it had gone into administration.

Off to the left, in a wonderful position overlooking the sea, is this apartment block. I thought at first that with its three different styles of tower it must be some Victorian extravaganza, but on closer inspection I would guess that it is a modern building on the site of a Victorian hotel.

We headed off along Wilder Road in the direction of the harbour. There was a lovely terrace of two-storey houses with cast iron columns and ceramic tiles depicting the signs of the zodiac.

The last building in the terrace is about 1900 with nice art nouveau glass in the main window.

We passed the church St Philip & St James (1856) and winced at the signs calling it "Pip and Jim's". Trying too hard. Who on earth shortens Philip to Pip nowadays?

Now we detoured via Capstone Road to pass the former house of Henry Williamson, of Tarka the Otter fame. I confess to never having read the book, but as a large section of the Coast Path coincides with the Tarka Trail, we felt some affinity with Tarka and his author.

We then walked along the key noting the inner harbour with its surprising sandy beach. It is evidently used for sunbathing in the manner of Mousehole in Cornwall.

The outer harbour consists of just one jetty along the seaward side with the bulk of Hillsborough over to the right.

On the quay to the left is a rather extraordinary statue: Verity by Damian Hirst. The statue shows Verity pregnant holding a sword aloft and standing on a base of legal books. The figure's stance is taken from Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Edgar Degas. The statue was installed in 2012 and has been loan to the town by Damien Hirst who lives in nearby Combe Martin.

On a hill above the harbour is the lighthouse. It is part of the small Chapel of St. Nicholas on top of lantern hill. The chapel was built in 1320 and a light has been shown from the building since 1650. It is said to be the oldest lighthouse in the country.

From the harbour we headed up Fore Street, an attractive winding street which seems to be the centre of the gourmet district.

At the top is the High St. It is still the main road through the town and so not pedestrianised. It is not an especially distinguished street, although I did like the former United Reformed Church of 1818 with its iron columns to the two side doorways.

Now down Northfield Road to pass the Masonic Temple (1899) ...

... and next door The Old Picture Hall, now apartments. I can't find out anything else about it unfortunately.

At the bottom is the neo-classical Tunnel Baths of 1836. Off to the right is the entrance to the tunnel which leads through the cliffs to a secluded bathing area. Sadly it has just closed so we never did find out what exactly was at the end.

This was the end of our walk. There is clearly lots more late Victorian architecture to see.

Conditions: bright and sunny.

Distance: a couple of miles.

Rating: four stars.

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