Discovering that Devon’s Ilfracombe offers old-fashioned charm in a stunning cliffside setting

The trusty 1930 Travellers Guide To Great Britain And Ireland declares that ‘Ilfracombe on the Bristol Channel is now a fashionable seaside resort.

‘The mild climate, its beautiful setting, the number and variety of excursions in the neighbourhood, are rapidly making it the most popular resort in Devon’.

But 90 years on, it’s fair to say that Ilfracombe receives mixed reviews. In 2021, it was voted both the second best (by Samsung) — and the seventh worst (Which?) — resort in the UK.

My first visit was in 1982. My father had just taken early retirement and a week in North Devon was his treat for the family. The Falklands War was raging. Chas & Dave were riding high in the charts with Ain’t No Pleasing You. I remembered a handsome, thriving town, full of attractions and amenities, and endless games of mini-golf.

Magnificent setting: Neil Clark explores the Devonshire town of Ilfracombe, pictured above

Magnificent setting: Neil Clark explores the Devonshire town of Ilfracombe, pictured above

But what’s it like in 2023?

In common with most seaside towns, Ilfracombe has had a tough time. Walking up Wilder Road, you pass a succession of boarded-up hotels and guest houses, the collateral damage of Covid lockdowns. 

The Dilkhusa Grand, once filled with coach parties, now houses asylum seekers. But what cannot be changed is its camera-friendly cliffside setting. ‘Beautiful’ says my 1930 guide. ‘Magnificent’ would do just as well.

The 1930 Travellers Guide To Great Britain And Ireland declared Ilfracombe as a 'fashionable seaside resort', Neil reveals

The 1930 Travellers Guide To Great Britain And Ireland declared Ilfracombe as a ‘fashionable seaside resort’, Neil reveals 

Neil praises Ilfracombe's 'camera-friendly cliffside setting'. Above is its pretty Tunnels Beaches

Neil praises Ilfracombe’s ‘camera-friendly cliffside setting’. Above is its pretty Tunnels Beaches

Above is Damien Hirst’s Verity, a 66ft-high statue of a pregnant woman brandishing a sword and the scales of justice

Above is Damien Hirst’s Verity, a 66ft-high statue of a pregnant woman brandishing a sword and the scales of justice

Sheltered Wildersmouth beach lies in a cove, once popular with smugglers, that cuts all the way into town. It never fails to stir the imagination, especially on stormy days when waves crash against the rocks below high-sided cliffs.

With a backdrop of well-kept public gardens and benches, it’s hard to think of any other resort where you get this mix of wildness and tranquillity. A walk around Capstone Hill leads to the town’s pretty harbour. Ilfracombe developed into a busy port between the 14th and 16th centuries. Its fishing fleet is diminished today, yet there’s still plenty of interest.

Not least for modern art fans. There’s Damien Hirst’s, Verity, a 66ft-high statue of a pregnant woman brandishing a sword and the scales of justice, while standing on a pile of law books. It might look incongruous anywhere else but at the harbour entrance has a certain Statue of Liberty appeal.

Sheltered Wildersmouth beach lies in a cove, once popular with smugglers, that cuts all the way into town. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons

Sheltered Wildersmouth beach lies in a cove, once popular with smugglers, that cuts all the way into town. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons 

Maritime excursions are another plus. From March to October, deep-sea fishing trips are available. There are also day excursions to the island of Lundy, a bird-lover’s favourite, ten miles out at sea.

From the harbour, I walk up Lantern Hill to St Nicholas Chapel, which dates from 1322 and incorporates Britain’s oldest working lighthouse. It has splendid views over to Wales.

And the good news is that the 17th-century Royal Britannia by the quayside is still serving pints. A sign in the foyer states that Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton ‘used’ the inn, (one can guess what for), while Edward VII also stayed the night aged 15, giving the inn its ‘royal’ appellation.

From Ilfracombe, head on a day excursion to the island of Lundy (above), a bird-lover’s favourite that's ten miles out at sea

From Ilfracombe, head on a day excursion to the island of Lundy (above), a bird-lover’s favourite that’s ten miles out at sea

Ilfracombe's Landmark Theatre, above, has been nicknamed 'Bill And Ben The Flowerpot Men’s Upside-down Home' and 'Madonna’s Bra' by locals

Ilfracombe’s Landmark Theatre, above, has been nicknamed ‘Bill And Ben The Flowerpot Men’s Upside-down Home’ and ‘Madonna’s Bra’ by locals 

Neil walks up Lantern Hill to St Nicholas Chapel (right), which dates from 1322 and incorporates Britain’s oldest working lighthouse

'Although many hotels have gone, thankfully the Imperial (above), which dates from 1898, remains, and rates are reasonable,' writes Neil

‘Although many hotels have gone, thankfully the Imperial (above), which dates from 1898, remains, and rates are reasonable,’ writes Neil

Walking the town’s steep streets is a delight and independent shops still feature on the High Street. Holy Trinity Church, its tower dating to AD 1000, has been a listed building since 1951. Its stained glass windows are superb.

A more recent and controversial addition is the Landmark Theatre. Local nicknames for the conical sea-front edifice are: Bill And Ben The Flowerpot Men’s Upside-down Home and Madonna’s Bra. I, for one, rather like it.

Although many hotels have gone, thankfully the Imperial, which dates from 1898, remains, and rates are reasonable.

A number of famous folk have left their footprints in Ilfracombe, some literally. Olympian Jonathan Edwards, who still holds the world record for the triple jump, lived in the town, and you can test your hop-skip-and-jump skills on a special seafront mosaic.

I would recommend hopping and skipping along to Ilfracombe. Somehow, for all its changes, it remains the same.


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