PUBLISHED: 12:47 20 April 2010 | UPDATED: 10:45 28 April 2010
On the banks of the River Taw, Barnstaple is the bustling ‘capital’ of North Devon
These are momentous times for Barnstaple, which is being brought into the 21st century with a bang.
The towns Western Bypass and Downstream Bridge, which opened in May, is designed to keep traffic out of the bustling centre and a 1.75 million scheme to enhance the Square and Strand areas to make them more pedestrian friendly is due to finish in October 2007.
These are part of a 300 million investment in the future of Barnstaple, which also includes the re-development of the Queen Street-Bear Street area of the town centre. The interior of Barnstaples historic Pannier Market has also been renewed in time for the tourist season.
Barnstaple is an excellent shopping centre. There are big-name stores, malls containing very small shops, the ultra-modern Green Lanes shopping centre and the traditional Pannier Market.
Butchers Row, alongside the market, is a unique street of open-fronted Victorian shops some still butchers selling meats, laver, fish, organic produce and bread. Or wander around the Pannier Market which is filled with stalls, bargains and banter. Tuesdays and Fridays are days for local produce, Wednesdays for antiques, Thursdays are for crafts and Saturdays are a general market.
However, Barnstaple is much more than just a good place to shop. It is an historic market town with a Royal Charter dating back to 930 AD. Barumites the people of this town the Romans named Barum proudly claim that it is the oldest borough in the kingdom.
At one end of the Pannier Market is The Guildhall. Here, the Magistrates Court sat in those days when people were deported to the colonies, even for minor thefts. The towns impressive plate collection, along with a collection of model ships finely carved from chicken and animal bones by Napoleonic prisoners-of-war, will be shown to you on guided tours.
The Guildhall also once housed the courtroom and now contains some interesting rooms with portraits of the towns mayors painted by Thomas Hudson, one of Barnstaples talented sons. It is from the Guildhall that the opening ceremony of Barnstaple Fair is held each year on the Wednesday before September 20. The towns valuable collection of silver plates is laid out and spiced ale, brewed to a secret Elizabethan recipe, is ladled into loving cups to drink a toast to the success of the three-day event.
Stroll through the tranquil Parish Church Walk linking High Street and Boutport Street and look up at the curiously twisted spire of St Peters and down at the strange memorial stone to a man who died an unprofitable servant in 1774. The church is on a well-marked heritage trail of historic places including Church Lane Almshouses, part of which was a school founded in 1659 to care for 20 poor maids. And, at The Square, note the tall Albert Memorial Clock, the dials of which earned it the local name of the four-faced liar because they showed different times.
Also note the still-lived-in 17th century Penrose Almshouses in Litchdon Street, with an old pump in the cobbled courtyard which no longer draws water, but does attract lots of photographers! Even older is The Three Tuns in the High Street which dates back to the 15th century and is reputed to be the oldest hostelry in town.
The long Riverside Walk gives glorious views of the Taw estuary as it winds its way to the bay to join the River Torridge coming out of Bideford. Queen Anne stands in stone above a colonnaded walk on the Quayside where medieval merchants bartered when Barnstaple was a bustling port. They shook hands on their deals across the Tome Stone notice a name around its edge: Delbridge. Time has largely ignored the man whose ships sailed with cargoes of wool and pottery to America and the Bahamas where there are still a lot of North Devon surnames!
From the quayside ships left to join Sir Francis Drake to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Barnstaple and Bideford each claim to have sent the most. The age-old argument goes on, albeit in a good-humoured way!
If you think museums are stuffy old places, you should pay a visit to the North Devon Museum, where hands-on displays highlight the fascinating natural history and human story of the region. The famous book-turned-movie Tarka the Otter was written in North Devon by Henry Williamson. The otter is the areas symbol and there is a Tarka room in the museum. The kids will also enjoy the challenge of putting their hands through holes to guess what is hidden inside the feely boxes.
Also at the museum is an under-sea room decorated to look like an old shipwreck and the building houses the Royal Devon Yeomanry Museum with some fine memorabilia. The Tourist Information Centre can be found at the Museum too. Visitors also love the Barnstaple Heritage Trail. Information is available from the Tourist Information Centre. Pick up a booklet to guide yourself around.
The Saxons forded the river where the 14th century Long Bridge stands. It was built as a packhorse bridge just nine feet wide! Under its 16 arches you can still see some of the original stonework.
If interested in arts and crafts, pop into the Frame Warehouse Picture Gallery in Gammon Walk. You can see what is probably one of the largest selections of framed, unframed or mounted prints in the area, including a range of artist-signed limited editions. Choose from ready-made frames and mounts or take advantage of the framing service for your own pictures, photographs, mirrors, tapestries, certificates etc.
If youve got a sweet tooth you must tuck into delicious pieces of Rolys Fudge at Barnstaple Pannier Market. Rolys old fashioned recipe is made freshly every day. It is boiled in copper pans and hand-shaped on marble slabs. Varieties include vanilla, butterscotch and chocolate. Gift-wrapped boxes also make ideal take-home gifts.
Round off your day of shopping and sightseeing in Barnstaple with a visit to the Queens Theatre. Refurbished at a cost of more than 1 million, it stages all kinds of shows from modern plays to ballets and concerts starring top names and companies.
Also worth a visit, just five miles outside Barnstaple nestling amid the rolling hills, is Fishleigh Farmhouse. Quite belying its age, this typical Devon long house embraces a rich history held close to its heart for centuries. The tastefully renovated 16th century wing was built originally as the kitchen for the main house and retains its original features. Many a banquet and feast would have been prepared around its substantial fireplace possibly for Oliver Cromwell who was alledgedly a frequent visitor.
Todays scenes in this open plan kitchen/shop are of equal bustle and activity. Fishleighs renowned pasties are fashioned by hand and baked in the impressive Aga for all to see. A visit upstairs to the tearooms can whisk the imagination back across the centuries.
A light lunch (maybe one of those pasties) can be enjoyed amid the charm of the tearooms or why not try a traditional Devon Cream Tea on the garden patio, or select something from the farmhouse bakery whilst savouring the views.
For the more adventurous why not sample the ever popular Murder Mystery Dinners! Pit your wits during an Agatha Christie-style evening. Could you unravel the clues? Is everyone who they purport to be? A great fun evening with a licensed bar. For 14 years and over, bookings are essential.