Ilfracombe in Devon epitomizes the great British seaside resort which gained popularity during the Victorian days as a result of the expansion of the railways at that time and a desire of city folks to getaway for a holiday. The popularity of this seaside resort declined in later years when the railway line closed and when overseas holiday resorts became more accessible. However it is reassuring to see that there are now some excellent restaurants in the town and work being done on some of the housing to hopefully attract more visitors.
The parish stretches along the coast from ‘The Coastguard Cottages’ in Hele Bay toward the east and 4 miles along The Torrs to Lee Bay toward the west. The resort is hilly and the highest point within the parish boundary is at ‘Hore Down Gate’, 2 miles inland and 860 feet (270 m) above sea level.
The landmark of Hillsborough Hill dominates the harbour and is the site of an Iron Age fortified settlement. In the built environment, the architectural-award-winning Landmark Theatre is either loved or hated for its unusual double-conical design. The 13th-century parish church, Trinity, and the St Nicholas’s Chapel (a lighthouse) on Lantern Hill, have been joined by the Damien Hirst owned statue, Verity, as points of interest.
Ilfracombe has been settled since the Iron Age, when the Dumnonii Celts established a hill fort on the dominant hill, Hillsborough (formerly Hele’s Barrow). The origin of the town’s name has two possible sources. The first is that it is a derivative of the Anglo-Saxon Alfreinscoma – by which name it was noted in the Liber Exoniensis of 1086. The translation of this name (from Walter William Skeat of the department of Anglo Saxon at Cambridge University) means the “Valley of the sons of Alfred”. The second origin is that the name Ilfracombe was derived from Norse illf (bad), Anglo-Saxon yfel (evil ford) and Anglo-Saxon cumb (valley) perhaps from a Celtic source (compare Welsh cwm), thus ‘The valley with the bad ford’.
The manor house at Chambercombe in east Ilfracombe was recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as being built by a Norman knight Champernon (from Chambernon in France) who landed with William of Normandy. It is also said to be haunted.
Ilfracombe comprised two distinct communities; a farming community around the parish church called Holy Trinity, parts of which date from the 12th century, and a fishing community around the natural harbour formed between Capstone, Compass and Lantern Torrs. It is recorded that the lands by the church were part of the estate owned by Champernowne family, while those by the harbour belonged to the Bouchier family: Earls of Bath.
Because of the natural layout of the harbour, Ilfracombe became a significant safe port (registered port of refuge) on the Bristol Channel. It also had trade routes between Kinsale and Tenby, which made the port stronger. In 1208 it was listed as having provided King John with ships and men to invade Ireland; in 1247 it supplied a ship to the fleet that was sent to conquer the Western Isles of Scotland; 6 ships, with 79 men were sent to support the siege of Calais. Ilfracombe was the last disembarkation point for two large forces sent to subdue the Irish. The building which sits on Lantern Hill by the harbour, known as St Nicholas’s Chapel (built 1361) is reputed to be the oldest working lighthouse in the UK; a light/beacon has been there for over 650 years. The town was also home to the Bowen family. James Bowen was master of the HMS Queen Charlotte, the flagship of Richard, Earl Howe at the 1794 “Glorious First of June” battle. James Bowen was commissioned by Howe for his leadership in the battle, he rose through the levels – commander of the Argot, the Dreadnought, and in Georgian England titled “defender of Madeira”, led the fleet which rescued the British army at Corunna in the Peninsula war, and retired as a Rear Admiral, Commissioner of the Royal Navy. Captain Richard Bowen (1761–1797) James Bowen’s younger brother, a British naval commander on the ship HMS Terpsichore, served under Lord Nelson, and was killed at the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. John Bowen (1780–1827), son of James Bowen, a naval officer and colonial administrator founded the first settlement of Tasmania at Risdon Cove in 1803 – the settlement which later became known as Hobart. Lieutenant A E Down, was initially posted to Ilfracombe to lead a protection ship for the customs and excise, he married a local girl, rose through the levels to retire as vice Admiral, his son joined the navy aged 14 (his first navy kit is on display at National Maritime Museum Greenwich). In 1802 James Meek married Down’s daughter and settled in the town, James Meek was appointed the Comptroller of Victuals to the Royal Navy in 1832, he was knighted, and died in Ilfracombe 1852. (gentlemen’s gazette)
There was a wooden fortress overlooking the harbour, of this nothing remains except contemporary records and the area designated Castle Hill off Portland Street/Montepellier Terrace.
Authors James Allen and, his wife, Lily L. Allen lived in Ilfracombe. In 1902 Allen published his third and most famous book As a Man Thinketh. Loosely based on the biblical proverb, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” the small work eventually became read around the world and brought Allen posthumous fame as one of the pioneering figures of modern inspirational thought. The actor Peter Sellers first set foot on stage here, and the Collins sisters (Joan and Jackie) were evacuated to the town during the Blitz. Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, lived in Brittania Row for many years and is commemorated with a blue plaque. The artist George Shaw, short listed for the 2012 Turner Prize, lives in the town.
The artist Damien Hirst owns several properties in the town, as well as some farmland, and an art “factory” on a local trading estate. He is involved in several major local initiatives, and in October 2012 lent North Devon District Council the statue Verity, which is now positioned on the pier in Ilfracombe. Jason Twist, twice World Champion at 8-ball pool, lives in the town. The World and Olympic Champion triple jump athlete Jonathan Edwards lived in the town whilst his father was the vicar of St Philip & St James Church. He was one of a number of people who carried the Olympic Torch through Ilfracombe during the lead up to the 2012 Olympics. Edwards’ world record holding jump is celebrated by a mosaic on the seafront near the Landmark Theatre, which demonstrates the length of his jump. Edward Banfield, founder of Banfield in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was born in Ilfracombe.
Until the mid-19th century Ilfracombe’s economy was based around maritime activities: importing lime and coal from Wales; fishing for herring; and international trade, including to West Africa and the West Indies. In George III and the Regency period the town was home to many navy personnel – four admirals, numerous captains, and other commissioned and non-commissioned sailors.
The town gradually developed into a tourist resort served by ferries along the Bristol Channel. The opening of the railway accelerated this development. The population grew until the First World War, then stabilised at 9,200, now 11,000. The economy suffered throughout the 1960s as UK holiday patterns changed, and suffered further through the closure of the railway line in 1970.
In the last 25 years, major investment by private ‘light engineering’ companies has added to the economy. These companies include: Pall Europe – a filtration manufacturers with 700 employees on site; and the European headquarters TDK-Lambda, a subsidiary of the TDK Corporation, which manufactures industrial & medical power supplies. A number of light engineering firms provide additional employment and operate within a couple of miles of the town centre at Mullacott Cross. There are 3 deep sea fishing boats which sail from the port and several inshore boats which farm the local lobster, crabs and whelks. In a survey (2011) for EU funded Flag programme it was reported 90% of the local maritime catch is exported to France and Spain. There are many private charter, sea cruise, and coastal tour boat operators sailing from the harbour.
Verity is a stainless steel and bronze statue created by Damien Hirst. The 20.25-metre (66.4 ft) tall sculpture stands on the pier at the entrance to the harbour in Ilfracombe, Devon, looking out over the Bristol Channel towards South Wales. It has been loaned to the town for 20 years. The name of the piece refers to “truth” and Hirst describes his work as a “modern allegory of truth and justice”.
The statue depicts a pregnant woman holding aloft a sword while carrying the scales of justice and standing on a pile of law books. Half of the sculpture shows the internal anatomy of the pregnant woman, with the unborn baby clearly visible. The stance has been described as a reference to Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Edgar Degas, a work that previously inspired Hirst when he created Virgin Mother.
The sculpture was cast in stainless steel and bronze in 40 separate sections by Pangolin Editions. The sword, which gives the statue much of its height, and the upper left arm is one polymer-strengthened fibre glass piece. Before being cleared for erection the statue was subjected to tests in a wind tunnel to ensure that it could cope with high winds and spray from the sea. Measuring 25cm (10 inches) higher than the Angel of the North, Verity became the tallest statue in the UK when it was put into place.
Members of North Devon Council referred to the controversial nature of the statue as a potential boost to tourism. Local reaction was very mixed, with those critical of the work calling it “ugly” and stating that “it isn’t suitable for a Victorian seaside town”. Before they allowed planning permission the council received 100 letters from people who objected to the installation of the statue, and 177 letters supporting the application. In August 2013 councillors announced that the statue had a “tremendous effect” with people visiting the town solely to see Hirst’s work.
Hirst, who lives in Ilfracombe, has loaned the statue to the town for 20 years starting from its erection on 16 October 2012.
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