Barnstaple

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Barnstaple (/ˈbɑrnstəbəl/) is a town and civil parish in the local government district of North Devon in the county of Devon, England, UK. It lies 68 miles (109 km) west southwest of Bristol, 50 miles (80 km) north of Plymouth and 34 miles (55 km) northwest of the county town of Exeter. It is sometimes called “Barnstable” which is a mis pronounciation, “staple” being an old word for market especially one for sheep. It is the main town of the district and claims to be the oldest borough in the United Kingdom. It was founded at the lowest crossing point of the River Taw, about 3 miles (5 km) from the Taw’s seafall at the Bristol Channel. By the time of the Domesday Book, Barnstaple had its own mint. Its size and wealth in the Middle Ages was based on it being within the staple, a staple port licensed to export wool, and its importance is still obvious in the town’s name. The wool trade was further aided by the town’s excellent port, with five ships being sent in 1588 to aid the fight against the Spanish Armada.

It was one of the boroughs reformed by the Municipal Reform Act 1835. Since 1974, it has been a civil parish with a town council. It has a population of c34,000.

Barnstaple has an eclectic and somewhat haphazard mix of buildings developed over hundreds of years with the 19th century probably now predominant. There are some remnants of early buildings as well as several early plaster ceilings. St.Anne’s Chapel in the central churchyard is probably the best of the ancient buildings to survive. Queen Anne’s walk and the Georgian Guildhall remain. The Museum has tessellated floors, locally made staircase and decorative fireplaces.

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Barnstaple’s population in the 1801 census was 3,748, in the 1901 census 9,698, and in the 2001 census, the population was 20,724. The town has swallowed the villages of Pilton, Newport, and Roundswell through ribbon development between the 1930s and the 1950s.

In 1989, the A361 North Devon Link Road was constructed, linking Barnstaple with the M5 motorway, approximately 40 miles (65 km) to the east. Because Barnstaple is the main shopping area for North Devon, retail work is a contributor to the economy. Many generic chain stores are located in the town centre which is very typical of the area and on the Roundswell Business Park located on the western fringe of the town.

Traffic congestion in the town used to be quite severe, but in May 2007, the Barnstaple Western Bypass was opened so traffic heading towards Braunton and Ilfracombe avoids travelling through the town centre. The bypass consists of 1.6 miles (2.6 km) of new road and a 447 yards (409 m) long, five-span bridge. It was expected to have cost £42 million.  As part of this work, the town’s main square is receiving a facelift as the entrance to the town centre, and it is planned to pedestrianise The Strand.

Barnstaple is still sometimes referred to as Barum. The origin of this name is obscure, but has been in use since pre-Saxon times and is probably of Roman origin. Mentioned by Shakespeare, the name Barum was revived and popularised in Victorian times, featuring in several novels of the time. The name is retained in the names of a football team, brewery, and several other local businesses. The former Brannam’s pottery which was sited in Litchdon Street was known for its use of “Barum” scratched beneath its interesting local pottery products.

The earliest settlement in the area was probably at Pilton on the bank of the River Yeo, now a northern suburb of the present town. Pilton is recorded in the Burghal Hidage (c. 917) as a burh founded by Alfred the Great, and it may have been the site of a Viking attack in 893, but by the later 10th century Barnstaple had taken over its role of local defence. Barnstaple had its own mint before the Norman Conquest.

The large feudal barony of Barnstaple had its caput at Barnstaple Castle. It was granted by William the Conqueror to Geoffrey de Montbray, who is recorded as its holder in Domesday Book. The barony escheated to the crown in 1095 after Montbray had rebelled against King William II. William re-granted the barony to Juhel de Totnes, formerly feudal baron of Totnes. In about 1107, Juhel, who had already founded Totnes Priory, founded Barnstaple Priory, of the Cluniac order, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. After Juhel’s son died without children, the barony was split into two, passing through the de Braose and Tracy families, before being reunited under Henry de Tracy. It then passed through several other families, before ending up in the ownership of Margaret Beaufort (died 1509), mother of king Henry VII. See Feudal barony of Barnstaple for full details.

In the 1340s the merchants of the town claimed that the rights of a free borough had been granted to them by King Athelstan in a lost charter. Although this was challenged from time to time by subsequent lords of the manor, it still allowed the merchants an unusual degree of self-government. The town’s wealth in the Middle Ages was founded on its being a staple port licensed to export wool. It had an early merchant guild, known as the Guild of St. Nicholas. In the early 14th century it was the third richest town in Devon, behind Exeter and Plymouth, and it was the largest textile centre outside Exeter until about 1600. Its wool trade was further aided by the town’s port, from which in 1588 five ships were contributed to the force sent to fight the Spanish Armada.

The developing trade with America in the 16th and 17th centuries greatly benefited the town. The wealthy merchants that this trade created built impressive town houses, some of which survive behind more recent frontages—they include No. 62 Boutport Street, said to have one of the best plaster ceilings in Devon. The merchants also built several almshouses, and they ensured they would be remembered by installing elaborate monuments to their families in the church.

By the 18th century, Barnstaple had ceased to be a woollen manufacturing town, but this business was replaced by the import of Irish wool and yarn, for which it was the main landing place; the raw materials were carried by land to the new clothmaking towns in mid- and east Devon, such as Tiverton and Honiton. However, the harbour was gradually silting up—as early as c. 1630 Tristram Risdon reported that “it hardly beareth small vessels”—and Bideford, which is lower down the estuary and benefits from the scouring action of the fast flowing River Torridge, gradually took over the foreign trade.

Although for a time between 1680 and 1730, Barnstaple’s trade was surpassed by Bideford’s, it retained its economic importance until the early 20th century, when it was manufacturing lace, gloves, sail-cloth and fishing-nets, it had extensive potteries, tanneries, sawmills and foundries, and shipbuilding was also carried on.

Barnstaple was one of the boroughs reformed by the Municipal Reform Act 1835. Between the 1930s and the 1950s the town swallowed the villages of Pilton, Newport, and Roundswell through ribbon development.

Since 1974, Barnstaple has been a civil parish governed by town council. It is represented in Parliament by the North Devon county constituency.

Barnstaple is the main town of North Devon and claims to be the oldest borough in the United Kingdom. It lies 68 miles (109 km) west-south-west of Bristol, 50 miles (80 km) north of Plymouth and 34 miles (55 km) northwest of the county town and city of Exeter. It was founded at the lowest crossing point of the River Taw, where its estuary starts to widen, about 7 miles (11 km) inland from Barnstaple Bay (or Bideford Bay) in the Bristol Channel. On the north side of the town, the River Taw is joined by the River Yeo, which rises on Berry Down, near Combe Martin.

The greater part of the town lies on the eastern bank of the estuary, connected to the western side by the ancient Barnstaple Long Bridge which has 16 arches. The early medieval layout of the town is still apparent from the street plan, with Boutport Street following the curved line of the ditch outside the town walls.

Barnstaple parish’s population in the 1801 census was 3,748, in the 1901 census 9,698, and in the 2001 census, the population was 20,724.

North Devon is some distance from the UK’s traditional areas of industrial activity and population. In the late 1970s Barnstaple gained a number of industrial companies due to the availability of central government grants for the construction of factories and their operation on low or zero levels of local taxation. This was only partially successful, with few of these lasting more than the few years that grants were available. One success was the manufacturing of generic medicines by Cox Pharmaceuticals (now branded Actavis), who moved in 1980 from their site in Brighton, Sussex. The most lasting consequence for the town was the development and expansion of the industrial estates at Seven Brethren, Whiddon Valley and Pottington.

Whilst the 1989 opening of the improved A361 connection to the motorway network helped in some ways to promote trade, notably weekend tourism, it had a detrimental effect on a number of distribution businesses. The latter had previously viewed the town as a base for local distribution networks, a need that was removed with an approximate halving of travelling time to the M5 motorway.

Because Barnstaple is the main shopping area for North Devon, retail work is a contributor to the economy. There are many generic chain stores in the town centre and in the Roundswell Business Park, on the western fringe of the town.

Barnstaple Fair begins on the Wednesday before 20 September each year and is of ancient origin. The ceremonial opening of the fair survives from ancient times and commences with a meeting of the town council in the Guildhall, where various formal toasts are drunk in a spiced ale which according to tradition is made from a secret recipe handed on from generation to generation. Whilst the toasts are being drunk, a form of sweetmeat known as “fairings” are handed around. At 12 o’clock a civic procession forms at the entrance to the Guildhall and the proclamation is read, at the start of which a large stuffed gloved hand garlanded with flowers, representing the hand of friendship and welcome to the visitors, is hung out of a window of the Guildhall. Today the fair consists of rides and amusements located in the car park of the leisure centre.

Barnstaple is twinned with Barnstable, Massachusetts in the USA, Uelzen in Germany, Trouville-sur-Mer in France, and Susa in Italy.

Barnstaple retains a mix of buildings from hundreds of years of construction, with the 19th century probably now predominant. There are some remnants of early buildings as well as several early plaster ceilings. St. Anne’s Chapel in the central churchyard is probably the best of the ancient buildings to survive. Queen Anne’s Walk was erected c.1708 as a mercantile exchange. The Georgian Guildhall also survives. The museum has tessellated floors, locally made staircase and decorative fireplaces.

A wooden castle was built by Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances in the 11th century, clearing houses to make room for it. Juhel of Totnes later occupied the castle and founded Barnstaple Priory just outside its walls. The castle’s first stone buildings were probably erected by Henry de Tracey, a strong supporter of King Stephen. In 1228, the Sheriff of Devon ordered the walls of the castle to be reduced to a height of 10 feet (3 m). By the time of the death of the last Henry de Tracey in 1274, the castle was beginning to decay. The fabric of the castle was used in the construction of other buildings and by 1326 the castle was a ruin. The remaining walls blew down in a storm in 1601. Today only the tree covered motte remains.

St Anne’s Chapel was restored in 2012. It was an ancient chantry chapel, the assets of which were acquired by the Mayor of Barnstaple and others in 1585, some time after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The deed of feoffment dated 1 November 1585 exists in the George Grant Francis collection in Cardiff:
“i) Robert Appley the elder, Robert Cade, Hugh Brasyer and Richard Wetheridge of Barnestaple to: ii) William Plamer, mayor of Barnestaple, Richard Dodderidge, Roger Cade, Symon Monngey, Robert Appley the younger, Robert Pronze (Prouse?), Roger Beaple, George Pyne, gent., Jacob Wescombe, Gilbert Hareys, Robert Marlen, Thomas Mathewe, James Beaple, George Baker, James Downe, William Bayly, John Collybeare, Robert Collybeare and John Knyll of Barnestaple; 1 Chancery and Chapel of St Anne lately dissolved in Barnestaple with 1 house with land belonging to the late Chancery and Chapel; also 1 house and land in Barnestaple which John Littlestone of Barnestaple, merchant and John Buddle, potter granted to (i).”

Barnstaple has been the major market for North Devon since Saxon times. Demands for health regulation of its food market in Victorian times saw the construction in 1855 to 1856 of the town’s Pannier Market, originally known as the Vegetable Market and designed by R D Gould. The building has a high glass and timber roof on iron columns. At 107 yards (98 m) long, it runs the length of Butchers Row. Market days are Monday – Crafts and General (April to December), Tuesday – General and Produce (all year), Wednesday – Arts Collectables and Books (all year), Thursday – Crafts and General (all year), Friday – General and Produce (all year) and Saturday – General and Produce (all year).

Built on the other side of the street at the same time as the Pannier Market, Butchers Row consists of ten shops with pilasters of Bath Stone, and wrought iron supports to an overhanging roof. Only two of the shops remain as butchers although the new shops still sell local agricultural goods. There is one baker, one delicatessen, two fishmongers, a florist and a greengrocer.

Attractions in and around Barnstaple include:

  • Museum of Barnstaple & North Devon
  • Queen’s Theatre
  • Barnstaple Heritage Trail
  • Barnstaple Town F.C.
  • Tarka Trail – The cycling and walking trails were established by Devon County Council, to celebrate Henry Williamson’s 1927 novel Tarka the Otter. The book depicts Tarka’s adventure travelling through North Devon’s countryside.
  • Arlington Court, 8 miles (13 km)
  • Lundy Island | Ferry sails from Bideford, 10 miles (16 km)
  • Watersmeet House 20 miles (32 km)
  • The South West Coast Path National Trail runs through the town, and gives access to walks along the spectacular North Devon coast.
  • Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, 15 miles (24 km)

In 1989, the A361 North Devon Link Road was constructed, linking Barnstaple with the M5 motorway, approximately 40 miles (65 km) to the east. Traffic congestion in the town used to be severe, but in May 2007, the Barnstaple Western Bypass was opened so traffic heading towards Braunton and Ilfracombe avoids travelling through the town centre over the ancient bridge. The bypass consists of 1.6 miles (2.6 km) of new road and a 447 yards (409 m) long, five-span bridge. It was expected to have cost £42 million. As part of this work, the town’s main square was re-modelled as the entrance to the town centre, and The Strand was closed to traffic.

Barnstaple railway station is near the end of the Long Bridge but on the opposite bank of the River Taw to the town centre. The town used to have several other stations but these have all closed since the publication of the Reshaping of British Railways (the so-called Beeching Axe) report in the 1960s. The surviving station was opened on 1 August 1854 by the North Devon Railway (later the London and South Western Railway), although a service had operated from Fremington since 1848 for goods traffic only. The station became “Barnstaple Junction” on 20 July 1874 when the railway opened the branch line through to Ilfracombe, reverting to just plain “Barnstaple” again when this was closed on 5 October 1970. It is now a terminus and much reduced in size as part of the site is now used for the Barnstaple Western Bypass.

The Ilfracombe branch line brought the railway across the river into the town centre. Barnstaple Quay was situated close by the Castle Mound. It was closed in 1898 and replaced by a nearby Barnstaple Town station at North Walk which was also the terminus of the narrow gauge Lynton and Barnstaple Railway until this closed in 1935. The narrow gauge line’s main depot and operating centre was at nearby Pilton. The station building still exists, and can be viewed on-line from a webcam mounted on Barnstaple Civic Centre.

A separate “Barnstaple” station, renamed Barnstaple (Victoria Road) in 1949, was opened to the east of the town in 1873 as the terminus of the Devon and Somerset Railway, eventually a part of the Great Western Railway. A junction was later provided to allow trains access to Barnstaple Junction and these ran through to Ilfracombe. It was closed in 1970.

The parish church of Barnstaple is dedicated to St. Peter. Its oldest parts are probably of 13th-century date, though the nave, chancel and tower date from 1318, when they were dedicated by Bishop Stapledon. The north and south aisles were added in c.1670. The church has a notable broach spire, claimed by W. G. Hoskins to be the best of its kind in the country. Inside the church are many mural monuments to 17th-century merchants, such as Raleigh Clapham (d. 1636), George Peard (d.1644) and Thomas Horwood (d.1658), reflecting the prosperity of the town at that time. The interior of the church was heavily restored by George Gilbert Scott from 1866, and then by his son John Oldrid Scott into the 1880s, leaving it “dark and dull”, according to Hoskins.

Other religious buildings in the town include St Anne’s Chapel (a 14th century chantry chapel, now a museum) in the parish churchyard; Holy Trinity, built in the 1840s but necessarily rebuilt in 1867 as its foundations were unsound—it has a fine tower in the Somerset style; the Roman Catholic church of the Immaculate Conception, said to have been built to designs supplied by Pugin, in Romanesque Revival style; and a Baptist chapel of 1870 which includes a lecture hall and classrooms.

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