Ilfracombe - Victorian Uniqueness
14:15 20 April 2010
There was a time when Ilfracombe suffered from a reputation for being down at heel but not any longer. The Pier has been refurbished with new landing stages and the High Street has been given a facelift, making it more pedestrian friendly. Famous artist Damien Hirst has developed a classy restaurant on the quay and there is even talk of a breakwater to create a marina and ferry service to Wales and maybe even Ireland.
Now the resort is promoting itself as a destination for conferences. John Fowler Holidays has built a 1,200-seater conference centre as part of a 20 million redevelopment of its holiday park in the resort. It will be available for local and national bookings after the summer season and has already played host to the Celebrate Conference for Christians, run by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Group.
Elsewhere in the resort, developers are falling over themselves to build high-class apartments and local businessmen are talking about Ilfracombe rivalling the success of Rock and Padstow in Cornwall, made famous by TV chef Rick Stein.
Although Ilfracombe has a new-found confidence in its future, it is also immensely proud of its past. Many Victorian buildings have survived the years to give the resort a uniqueness which it marks each year with an annual Victorian celebration, in June, which draws visitors from around the world. The whole town turns back the clock! People in beautifully made costumes promenade on the sea front and shopkeepers sport striped aprons. There are bands, suffragettes, bathing belles and a host of fun events.
Ilfracombe is very much a family holiday resort the biggest on the North Devon coast. It has pleasure boats, the big ships Waverley and Balmoral call regularly, fishing trips can be booked from the pier and there are amusement arcades, a bandstand, shops, restaurants and cafes.
A major feature of its appeal is the grandeur of the scenery and the inner harbour, which fills up with bobbing boats during the summer. Lantern Hill overlooks the pier and harbour and is topped by a chapel, ancient even in Victorian days. Built in 1320, it is dedicated to St Nicholas patron saint of sailors and doubles as a lighthouse. And then there is Capstone Hill. A path zig-zags 200 feet to the top for a panoramic view thats well worth the effort.
Bicclescombe Park has good outdoor sports facilities plus a water mill in working order with waterfalls, lakes, tea rooms and gardens. Ilfracombe High Street is a joy to shop in and its proud of its many individual family businesses which have long traditions of personal, friendly service.
Ilfracombe Museum houses some 20,000 exhibits which offer a fascinating look at the towns past. It is also a brass rubbing centre fun for the kids if its a wet afternoon!
Bucket and spade holidaymakers head for the Tunnels Beaches (once segregated for men and women). The passage through the cliff was hewn by Welsh miners. In fact, a network of hand-carved tunnels lead to unique sheltered beaches and a tidal Victorian bathing pool. Whether on a historical evening stroll or a family day out, the Tunnels are a must-see attraction, whatever the weather.
On Ilfracombes outskirts is lovely Hele Bay with its small beach and rockpools and a paddling pool that fills with seawater at high tide. The beach is so lovingly cared for by local residents and business people that it is entitled to fly a flag for cleanliness. A few minutes drive from Hele is Watermouth Bay, a natural anchorage for boats. The cliffs around the bay give lovely views and places to picnic.
Hele Valley Holiday Park offers a bit of peace and tranquillity. The family-run haven is a peaceful place with no clubs or bars to spoil your restful stay. Its also within walking distance of Ilfracombes harbour and beaches.
Also, Ilfracombe Aquarium is definitely worth a look. Its an award-winning, all weather, family attraction and provides a fascinating insight into the aquatic world around North Devon. The aquarium houses a growing collection of local aquatic life (currently over 100 species) in beautifully recreated natural habitats.
The exhibits follow a unique zoned journey from the source of an Exmoor stream, down river to an estuary, local rock pool, the harbour, coast, to Lundy and its marine reserve. There is a small caf, convenient parking, toilets, sheltered outside seating and disabled access but no dogs are allowed. Visit the website www.ilfracombeaquarium.co.uk for more information, opening times and admission charges.
Spectacular marine wildlife coastal cruises are available aboard the Ilfracombe Princess, a new passenger catamaran licensed for 100. Sailing through a Marine Conservation Zone, there are frequent sightings of seals, porpoises and dolphins. There is a commentary, toilets and three viewing areas. Telephone bookings are taken on (01271) 879727.
With all this to offer its not surprising that Ilfracombe is called the jewel in North Devons crown. As a Victorian postcard puts it:
I am quite taken with this place.