Ilfracombe

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Ilfracombe (/ˈɪlfrəkuːm/) is a seaside resort and civil parish on the North Devon coast, England with a small harbour, surrounded by cliffs.

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. The architectural award-winning Landmark Theatre is either loved or hated for its unusual double-conical design; it is distinctive and, with the St Nicholas’s Chapel on Lantern Hill, a major landmark in the town..

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 or bottom), 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 was 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 those by the harbour to the Bouchiers, 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 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, retired as a Rear Admiral, Commissioner of the Royal Navy. Captain Richard Bowen (1761–1797) James Bowen’s younger brother, a British naval commander, ship HMS Terpsichore, served under Lord Nelson, killed at the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. John Bowen (1780–1827), son of James Bowen, a naval officer and colonial administrator; in 1803 founded the first settlement of Tasmania at Risdon Cove, later named 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.

The novelist Fanny Burney stayed in Ilfracombe in 1817. Her diary entries (31 July – 5 October) record early 19th century life in Ilfracombe: a captured Spanish ship; two ships in distress in a storm; the visit of Thomas Bowdler; and her lucky escape after being cut-off by the tide. A few years later in the 1820s a set of four tunnels were hand carved by Welsh miners to permit access to the beaches by horse-drawn carriage as well as by foot. Previously access was gained by climbing the cliffs, rounding the point by boat, swimming or at the lowest tides clambering around the rocks of the point. These tunnels led to a pair of tidal pools, which in accordance with Victorian morals, were used for segregated male and female bathing. Whereas women were constrained to a strict dress code covering up the whole body, men generally swam naked. The tunnels are still viewable and are signposted as Tunnels Beaches.

In 1856 writer Mary Ann Evans (pen-name George Eliot) accompanied George Henry Lewes to Ilfracombe to gather materials for his work Seaside Studies published in 1858.

The town’s first lifeboat was bought in 1828 but a permanent service was not available until the Royal National Lifeboat Institution built a lifeboat station at the bottom of Lantern Hill near the pier in 1866. The present station at Broad Street dates from 1996.

Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, lived in Brittania Row for many years and is commemorated with a blue plaque.

The town lies within the Parliamentary constituency of North Devon, and the European Region of South West England.

The three councils which govern activities in the town are Devon County Council, North Devon District Council, and Ilfracombe Town Council. The Town Council, which has 3 wards and 18 members (7 from West and Central Wards and 4 from the East Ward) acts as the watchdog to the other two councils whilst also developing local initiatives owning and managing the Ilfracombe Centre and supporting many community associations and activities. Following the success of the town council’s development of the Ilfracombe centre, the council has in 2010 developed and published a comprehensive review of the town development strategy outlined in the Strategic Action Plan created by the Ilfracombe Community Alliance. The town council’s new document, available on the council’s website, gives the framework within which it will lead the future regeneration of the community through to 2025.

Ilfracombe is twinned with Herxheim in Germany, and Ifs in France.

Ilfracombe overlies slates formed from sedimentary rock that underwent geological stress (creating faults and folds), towards the end of the Carboniferous Period, around 300 million years ago. These are known as the Ilfracombe slates. Ilfracombe lies within the North Devon Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which is renowned for its dramatic coastal cliffs and landscape. Hillsborough, lying close to the town centre is a local nature reserve, The Cairn, and around the town are many other havens for wildlife. The coast itself is part of the North Devon Voluntary Marine Conservation area because of its diverse and rare species.

During the boom times of tourism in the 1950s there was not a large enough local workforce to service the needs of the tourism industry during the summer months. Many local businesses advertised in Northern cities like Manchester and Liverpool to alleviate this problem. At its peak over 10,000 holidaymakers used the railway each Saturday during peak season, and passenger ferries brought still more. When the tourism market faltered with the arrival of cheap foreign package holidays in the 1960s, and the closure of the railway, unemployment levels rose. This ‘inward migration’ caused social problems and friction between these people and those with a long history of residence.

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.

Employment Research conducted by MORI in 2005 for the Transform (UK government neighbourhood management project), and by Roger Tym & Partners for the Ilfracombe Community Alliance showed:-The service sector (includes hotel and catering) at 76% is 2 x higher than the North Devon (40.1%) or Devon average (33.7%). 51% of businesses by number are within the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector.12.8% are within the banking, finance and insurance sector.11.9% are within public administration, health and education.

The High Street continues to thrive, despite the arrival outside the area of supermarket stores by large retailers. High Street businesses in 2010 include the major banks and building societies and small branches of many national or regional shop chains, but it still has traditional hardware stores and local butcher’s, baker’s, and florist’s shops, which to some extent maintain its traditional individual character.

In 2010/2011 North Devon+ hosted a number of public meetings with a view to establishing a forum to represent businesses as there was no active organisation representing the entire business community. As a result, COMBEbusiness, a not-for-private-profit company, was established in April 2011 with the aim of promoting business around Ilfracombe, Woolacombe and Combe Martin. COMBEbusiness holds business events on the first Wednesday of each month and represents the town’s businesses in dealings with councils, government and other bodies.

Ilfracombe is at the southern end of the A361, the longest 3-digit A-road in England. The A361 finishes on the A5 at Kilsby on the Northamptonshire-Warwickshire border near Rugby. This road is the town’s main connection with the South West England motorway, the M5.

From 1874, Ilfracombe was served by the Ilfracombe railway line that ran from Barnstaple, but this closed in 1970.

The first steam packets arrived at Ilfracombe in 1823, and soon a regular service between Bristol and between Swansea developed. On 16 May 1873, a wooden promenade pier was opened to allow the pleasure steamers to berth at all tides. On 23 June 1894, it was reported in the Ilfracombe Chronicle that over 2,500 people arrived in no less than seven boats, it describes them as ‘commodious and well-appointed vessels with an excellent reputation for speed and comfort.’ As well as holidaymakers, the boats carried workers, live and dead stock, and other merchandise to and from the town. The PS Waverley first arrived in Ilfracombe in 1887, after her owners Messrs P. and A. Campbell brought her to Bristol as their first pleasure steamer to work the Bristol Channel. Deterioration of the wooden pier and part demolition during World War II mean that a new pier was required. The wood was replaced with reinforced concrete and car parking space was increased. The new pier was opened on 6 July 1952.

A seasonal passenger ferry, operated by MS Oldenburg, runs from the harbour to Lundy Island. Pleasure boats, including MV Balmoral and PS Waverley, operate cruises from Ilfracombe, including crossings to Porthcawl. However, due to rising fuel costs these services are under threat. A catamaran-based ferry service from Ilfracombe to Swansea has been proposed, but as of July 2011 this service has not commenced because adequate landing and berthing facilities in Swansea have not been forthcoming.

The town’s educational needs are served by three schools: the Infants, the Junior and the Comprehensive school – Ilfracombe Arts College. Each of these schools are amongst the largest of their type in Devon. The college serves the needs of Ilfracombe residents and those across the coastal North Devon area as far as Lynton and Lynmouth on the Somerset county border. It is a nationally recognised centre for Media Studies and was in 2004 awarded Media Arts Status. Upon completion of a new Art block in 2007, the college’s specialist status became simply Arts. Further educational courses and vocational courses are run by Ilfracombe Arts College.

Ilfracombe Museum was opened in 1932 in Ilfracombe Hotel’s Victorian laundry and contains attractions from around the world including pickled bats and the two-headed kitten. It also contains items and photographs of local railway interest including one of the concrete name boards from the now closed Ilfracombe railway station, which can be seen on the front wall of the museum; and a collection of pieces of Victorian wedding cakes. It also has oak panels salvaged from the wreck of HMS Montagu.

There are churches in the town serving various denominations of the Christian faith. The main Anglican church is the parish church ‘Holy Trinity’ which is the mother church to St Peter’s on Highfield Road.

Despite the hilly terrain, Ilfracombe is at the northern end of National Cycle Network route 27, known as the Devon Coast to Coast Cycle Route, which starts from the pier (clock-in station at the Pier Tavern) and ends in Plymouth. There is another coastal trail suitable for cycling which starts at the pier which heads eastwards towards Minehead (defined as ‘arduous’). A new event in 2010, organised by North Devon Wheelers is a giro cycle race round the town held as a prologue to the annual carnival. In September 2011 the first Ilfracombe triathlon was held on “the mother of all short courses” 400m sea swim, 22 km cycle, 5 km run – described as “lumpy”.

The South West Coast Path connecting Minehead in Somerset to Dorset, via Land’s End, passes through the town from Hele Bay to Lee Bay via Ilfracombe Harbour.

Swim Ilfracombe to Swansea The first person to swim the 30.5 nautical miles (56.5 km; 35.1 mi) from Ilfracombe to Swansea was Gethin Jones, who achieved the record on 13 September 2009, taking nearly 22 hours.

From 2001 there was an economic regeneration programme led by the Ilfracombe & District Community Alliance MCTI, a community interest company designed to encourage social entrepreneurship. After widespread community consultation this programme developed a community economic strategy for the next twenty years published in 2005.

The town council working with and North Devon District Council is formulating plans for the town’s economic and physical structures. Proposed developments are: the enhancement of the harbour area; A large extension (500 dwellings) to the town on high ground to the south. There is long term development of the derelict bus station site based on plans developed by Terence O’Rourke; and the creation of better youth support and recreation facilities at the Larkstone eastern side of the harbour area.

The town council – working with GOSW, SWRDA and NDDC, supported by the Alliance and Transform – developed the council offices into a community training resource in the town centre: ‘The Ilfracombe Centre’. In 2006, major leisure industry developments by John Fowler, a local holiday camp operator, are expected to help shift the local economy back to tourism. This combined with investment by patrons such as Damien Hirst (who with his partner Mia recently funded a restaurant owned by Simon Brown, No 11 The Quay, on Harbour Quay Road, is developing a boutique guest house on the Torrs, as well owning other properties within the town) and the introduction of high quality accommodation should make Ilfracombe a more attractive destination for food lovers and tourists.

Each year, the residents and school children of Ilfracombe celebrate their heritage. These celebrations include six carnivals – a May Day, led by a “green” man walking celebration, it is a successor to the May Day events held for centuries until suppressed by the church in the 19th century because of riotous, licentious, and drunken behaviour; Ilfracombe Victorian Celebration , a week-long programme of events held annually in June to celebrate a time of the town’s prosperity; a large street carnival procession during August, organised by the St John’s Ambulance service; the “sea ilfracombe” festival in September and the Lighting of the Lights held during November; and at Christmas, a Christingle.

A farmers’ market is held regularly in the Lantern Community Centre on High Street. By the Landmark Theatre there is a small museum, housed in the buildings of the laundry of the former Ilfracombe Hotel. For those of literary intent there is an Ilfracombe authors’/writers’ group.

The town hosts eight small art galleries, including the exhibitions displayed by the Art Society in the crypt of Emmanual Church on the seafront, the foyer of the Landmark Theatre, the Quay and in “Number Eleven, The Quay” within which there are many Damien Hirst works, including butterflies, pharmacy, small statues and wallpaper designs. The town is home to many artists who work with Damien Hirst (winner Turner Prize for contemprory art 1996), of significance the 2011 short listed Turner Prize artist, George Shaw, has a studio and now lives in the town.

Two other charitable events are organised each summer by Ilfracombe Round Table. Both make use of Ilfracombe Pier as a display area. The first of these is the annual “South West Birdman” contest which involves entrants seeking to ‘fly’ from the pier in home-made flying machines. The second event is “Rescue Day”, an opportunity for members of the public to learn about the activities of the emergency services. The highlight of the day is a simulated air-sea rescue involving the launch of the Ilfracombe RNLI lifeboat, a Sea King helicopter from RAF 22 Squadron, Exmoor Search and Rescue team and local Fire, Ambulance and HM Coastguard services.

During the early 1990s, the team of the popular English reality TV show Challenge Anneka relocated the redundant old wooden library from the Hermitage site, to ‘Burnside’ in the heart of the Slade Valley estate for use as a community owned centre.

The Great Fire of Ilfracombe started at 12:40 am on the night of 28 July 1896 in the basement of Mr William Cole’s ironmongers and furniture shop on the corner of Portland Street and Fore Street. The local volunteer fire brigade had it under control by the following morning. The fire brigade’s entire equipment was a manual Merryweather engine, a hose-reel cart and one telescopic ladder on wheels. In total thirty five houses and business premises and their contents were destroyed. Later that year the fire brigade crew were presented with medals and £2 each at a dinner in their honour at the Royal Clarence Hotel. The damage was estimated at the times at between £80,000 and £100,000.

The same area of the town was struck by fire twice during the 1980s. First on 12 December 1981 Draper’s paint store in the upper story of the building on the corner of Portland Street and Fore Street, this fire was contained quickly, however fumes from the burning paint meant much of the local area was evacuated during the night. The second much larger fire started at 2:30am on the night of 2 September 1983 in the shopping arcade under the Candar hotel. In this fire one life was lost. Both of these fires drew parallels to the Great Fire in the media of the time. The Candar Arcade site became the Candar sheltered residential apartments (the opening of Candar apartments was the last public engagement performed by Charles and Diana, as the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1992.

Other fires in Ilfracombe include: On 17 May 1985 the Beacon Castle was devastated by fire. On the 5 August 1991 the Mount Hotel was destroyed by fire. On 24 January 2001 the Hotel Cecil; 14 January 2004 the arcade on the seafront near Susan Day Residential Home was destroyed by fire. On 17 November 2004 and 13 February 2005 the Cliffe Hydro suffered from fires.

Shortly before 19:00 BST on Wednesday, 8 August 2006, a fire broke out at the derelict Montebello Hotel in Fore Street, Ilfracombe. Twenty fire engines were required to put out the blaze including a number rushed to the scene from Woolacombe, Barnstaple and the bordering county of Somerset. Specialist equipment was brought in from as far afield as Exeter, and according to the local radio news 85 firemen were involved at the fire. The fire spread to three neighbouring properties and showered debris over a wide area. The six-storey hotel was completely gutted, with only the front wall, chimney stacks and remains of the lift shaft frame surviving the blaze, and the fire was still being damped-down the following day. Fore Street was closed for some period due to the difficulties of demolition.

The building was eventually demolished when it was determined that the fire had left it structurally unsound. This caused additional headaches for the emergency services as curious members of the public ignored safety barriers in an attempt to see the remains more clearly. The site is to be redeveloped as residential accommodation, although, as of August 2009, no work has been started on the site.

On the evening of 3 April 2008 the Blazing Sounds band hut in the grounds of Ilfracombe College was gutted in a blaze. The wooden structure was destroyed, along with many instruments, music and trophies. This was attributed to arson at the time, but the culprit(s) were never caught.

This history of Ilfracombe’s large fires has to be taken in the context of the number and antiquity of many early Victorian jerry built hotels. A comprehensive display in the museum shows whilst the size of buildings may be large, the frequency of such conflagrations is low and the justification as to why Devon and Somerset fire and rescue authority transferred the large extension ladder from the Ilfracombe station to Barnstaple.

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