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Ilfracombe: A Visitors Guide

Updated on August 17, 2018

Ilfracombe Harbor

Ilfracombe Harbor as seen from the harbor car park.
Ilfracombe Harbor as seen from the harbor car park. | Source


Up until just a couple of years ago I'd never even heard of Ilfracombe let alone visited it. I'd been to Devon before of course, but to far more familiar places such as Torquay and Paignton. But a wedding invite changed all that. You see, a friend of my mother’s announced that they were getting married down there, and while I wasn’t invited to the wedding itself. My mother invited myself and my girlfriend along basically for company. I rarely turn down the chance to get away so was happy to tag along and thank goodness I did, because once I’d landed there for the first time I found it hard to return home.

Ilfracombe is approximately 3 and a half hours away from where I live in Birmingham and is one of many small harbor towns that line the North Devon Coast. North Devon and Devon as a whole belong to a region of England known as the Southwest, and encompasses Somerset and Cornwall. North Devon is probably the least known part of this region and I remember the first time I looked at a map of the area, and whilst I’d heard of places such as Bideford and Barnstaple, there were many others that left me shaking my head at my own ignorance.

Where is Ilfracombe?

Ilfracombe, UK

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How To Get There?

Getting to Ilfracome is actually a fairly challenging process, and if, like me you’re driving a considerable distance, it will require a stop off or two. The challenging aspect of it is not necessarily the distance, but the duration of the journey. England’s southwest peninsula you see, is almost entirely devoid of motorways so you have to make do with often windy A roads which adds time onto your journey.

If you’re coming from the north, then the best bet is to get onto the M5 in the West Midlands and literally just follow it for as it goes. The journey down the M5 is fairly smooth, until you reach Bristol, where all of a sudden you hit heavy traffic and come to a grinding halt. I’ve never quite worked out why this happens, but its probably a combination of Bristol being a major city, and the fact that it acts as meeting place for two of England’s great motorways, the aforementioned M5, which brings visitors from the north and the M4, which brings visitors from the east (London) and the west (Wales). Getting through the Bristol gridlock is often the most exhausting part of the journey and I often take the liberty of stopping off at the nearest service station once I’m clear of the chaos.

Once clear of Bristol, continue to follow the M5 through Somerset, right down into Devon itself. You’ll pass by towns such as Taunton, before finally exiting at junction 27 near Tiverton. From here follow the A361 into North Devon and eventually into Ilfracombe itself.

The Royal Britannia Hotel

The Royal Britannia Hotel as seen from the harbor car park.
The Royal Britannia Hotel as seen from the harbor car park. | Source
Ilfracombe harbour lit up at night as seen from Room 33 in The Royal Britannia.
Ilfracombe harbour lit up at night as seen from Room 33 in The Royal Britannia. | Source
The harbour in daylight, again from Room 33 in The Royal Britannia.
The harbour in daylight, again from Room 33 in The Royal Britannia. | Source

Where To Stay?

Unless you’re fairly local, then I would never recommend visiting Ilfracombe for a day out. The distance is just far too great and you need at least a couple of days to simply unwind and take it all in. My own personal recommendation would be The Royal Britannia Hotel situated right by the harbour. It was originally known as just as The Britannia Inn, but in the 19th Century the future Edward VII spent a night there and gave it the Royal seal of approval.

Admittedly, if you’re searching for peace and quiet, then it may be difficult to find in Ilfracombe, especially during the summer, but oddly the sounds and smells of the harbour have a peaceful quality all of their own. The Royal Britannia Hotel has a rustic charm to it, and whenever I set foot in it, I feel like I’ve travelled back in time 200 years. Some of the rooms have interesting names, on my last visit I stayed in Lady Hamilton’s room, whilst right next door was Lord Nelson’s room. I’ve yet to determine for sure whether either historical figure actually stayed there.

The Royal Britannia is a friendly establishment, with its own bar and restaurant. They are dog friendly, although bear in mind that dogs aren’t allowed in the bar area, but there’s plenty of places both outside and in, where you can eat and drink with your canine buddy. The rooms are reasonably priced, starting at £50 a night, and if you become a regular then you can join their Members Club, which offer discounts of 30% on rooms, food and drink. Bear in mind that you have to live more than 20 miles away from Ilfracombe to qualify though.

Its worth bearing in mind that due to the small size of the town, that parking is not possible right outside the hotel. Instead, the best option is to seek out the long stay car park, which is found by travelling down St James Place until you get to a T-Junction where you then turn right down Broad Street. If you glance to the left, you’ll notice the Royal Britannia, but continue to follow Broad Street around to the left past Adele’s Cafe. On your left, will be the harbour itself, but continue to follow the road until you see the parking bays on your right. The rates are fairly reasonable with £4.60 being the maximum charge during the peak season, which is good for 24 hours. Make sure that you display your ticket clearly though, as my girlfriend once ran afoul of a parking attendant who penalised her on account that the ticket had moved so that the time and date were not clearly visible.

Where To Eat And Drink?

If you happen to chose the Royal Britannia Hotel as your place to stay, then you easily just eat and drink there. I can personally recommend both their steak & ale pie and beef lasagne. However, if you fancy expanding your culinary horizons, then there are multitude of options almost within arms reach.

For breakfast, then I personally recommend Adele’s cafe, its only a tiny place though, so I would advise you not to leave breakfast too late, as it does get busy. Whilst there, you can kick back, read the paper, enjoy a cuppa and sample a full English breakfast. My own personal favourite is a cup of tea, alongside a bowl of porridge and a sausage sandwich.

For evening meals, apart from the Royal Britannia, there are a wealth of fish and chip/fries establishments. including my two favourites, The Dolphin, found along The Quay Road and Maddys Chippy, found along St James Place. There are a great number of pubs and bars within close proximity of the harbour, although my own favourites are The Sandpiper Inn on the corner of Capstone Road and The Quay. Its a favourite purely down to its name, but they do serve good beer. My other favourite is a restaurant called Alfie and the Kaiser on St James Place, it’s a restaurant with an interesting story.

The story behind Alfie and the Kaiser was first told over 100 years ago as a local folk tale. Basically the tale goes that a young Kaiser Wilhelm was throwing stones at huts on Raparee Beach, Ilfracombe that belonged to young Alfie’s family. Alfie was understandably aghast at the future German monarch’s behaviour and confronted him. Kaiser Wilhelm told the young lad to back down, reminding him of his status and his proficiency at boxing. Undeterred Alfie refused and threatened ‘it will be worse for you,’ if the Kaiser didn’t cease. The Kaiser refused to comply, so Alfie punched him squarely on his nose, knocking him to the ground and causing it to bleed.

The Kaiser’s minders supposedly paid Alfie 30 bob or £1.50 in today’s money to keep quiet about the incident. However, the Kaiser’s felling was witnessed by Alfie’s father Philip and his brother in law Tom Gibbs and the story soon became local folklore. Later it would evolve into a poem by W.H. Coates called ‘Why the Kaiser Hates England’. This poem was widely distributed amongst the British troops fighting on the Western Front in The Great War, and even today the plaque outside the restaurant asks the question about whether young Alfie and the Kaiser fired the first shots of the Great War.

The Best of North Devon

Looking out to sea from the top of Capstone Hill.
Looking out to sea from the top of Capstone Hill. | Source
This is not the Caribbean, this is Woolacombe Beach in North Devon. I've been lucky enough to visit it twice on days that the weather has been glorious.
This is not the Caribbean, this is Woolacombe Beach in North Devon. I've been lucky enough to visit it twice on days that the weather has been glorious. | Source
The natural harbor on Lundy Island. If you look closely enough you can see the MS Oldenburg moored up.
The natural harbor on Lundy Island. If you look closely enough you can see the MS Oldenburg moored up. | Source
A closer shot of the MS Oldenburg at Lundy.
A closer shot of the MS Oldenburg at Lundy. | Source
A photograph of Verity and the MS Oldenburg again this time moored up at Ilfracombe.
A photograph of Verity and the MS Oldenburg again this time moored up at Ilfracombe. | Source
A photograph of Lynmouth. I was especially enchanted by the forested hillside.
A photograph of Lynmouth. I was especially enchanted by the forested hillside. | Source
A photograph taken by yours truly in Clovelly. The cobbled path down to the harbor was probably the most challenging walk I've ever done.
A photograph taken by yours truly in Clovelly. The cobbled path down to the harbor was probably the most challenging walk I've ever done. | Source

Things To Do?

There’s a never dull moment in Ilfracombe, so without any further ado, I shall go through a few of the things that you can do within the confines of the town and a few of the nearby places worth visiting.

Walk up Capstone Hill: I highly recommend a walk up the windy trail that is Capstone Parade right to the top of Capstone Hill, which offers tremendous views of the Bristol Channel on one side, and the entire town of Ilfracombe on the other. On a clear day, you can see for more than 30 miles right across to the southern coast of Wales. At the hills summit, you’ll come across the statue of a young girl with a tragic tale. On the 19th July 2000 a 13 year old Russian girl studying English in Ilfracombe walked up nearby Hillsborough Hill and got lost in thick fog. Tragically, Ekaterine (Kate) Frolov fell to her death and her parents erected the statue in her memory. The first time I saw the statue, I could not help but be moved by this story, as Kate was born on the 23rd December 1986, almost exactly a year after my own birth and I cannot help but think what sort of life she would be leading now as a 30 something woman had she not tragically died. I was always make a point of saying ‘hello’ to Kate whenever I go back and pass by the statue.

Visit Tunnels Beaches: Tunnels Beaches is probably one of the most stunning places in the UK or anywhere else to tie the knot. Hand carved by Welsh miners in the early 19th century, it is credited with transforming Ilfracombe from being just another fishing village into a tourist destination. The beaches themselves are a haven for those interested in rock-pooling. But its the weddings that make it special. Couples can hire out a private beach with golden sand and stunning sunset views. There’s simply no better place on Earth to declare your undying love for someone.

Visit Lundy Island: Lundy is a small island 12 miles off the North Devon coast. It covers an area of just 1100 acres and yet is home to a treasure trove of wildlife, including breeding Manx shearwaters, Atlantic puffins and Northern gannets. The seas surrounding the Island are officially a Marine Conservation Zone, meaning they are protected from the fishing industry. As a result healthy populations of grey seal, dolphin, jellyfish and corals can be found there. Getting to Lundy is easy, all you have to do is book a place on Lundy’s supply ship the MS Oldenburg. The booking office is found at the end of The Quay Road in Ilfracombe and the MS Oldenburg is usually moored up in the harbor, so its within easy walking distance. You can stay on Lundy in one of 23 holiday properties or alternatively you can just go for the day.

Gaze at Verity: Verity is the name given to a rather bizarre statue erected in 2012 at the mouth of the harbor by famed local artist Damien Hirst. The statue is of a naked pregnant woman pointing a sword skywards in what is supposed to symbolize justice. However, the one side of Verity’s belly has been cut away to reveal the baby inside. Its one of those statues that triggers either admiration or disgust. Personally I didn’t really like it, but according to some of the locals I chatted to, she’s actually rather popular.

Visit Woolacombe Beach: Ilfracombe does have beaches, but they are mostly rather small and pebbly. If you want a nice long golden sanded paradise, then Woolacombe is the place for you. What I found particularly great about Woolacombe was that I can take my dog, something that isn’t possible at nearby beaches such as Croyde, as I found out to my cost. On a hot summers day, Woolacombe is a clear rival for anywhere in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. It can get crowded though, but most people tend to stick fairly close to the car park and refreshment booths, so I personally recommend taking a walk, you’ll soon find yourself in quieter parts, where you can either have a swim, sunbathe or engage in a spot of beach-combing. Be careful of the jellyfish that often get swept to shore though as they are slippery if you should happen to step on one, other than that they are harmless.

Visit Lynton & Lynmouth: About 12 miles up the coast from Ilfracombe are the charming villages of Lynton and Lynmouth. They are connected by a cliff railway line, as Lynton lies at the top of the cliff, whilst Lynmouth is the harbor village at the base. Lynton is ideal for people looking to browse for gifts. I would personally recommend visiting The Old Coach House cafe, as their food and drink are superb. Lynmouth can be reached by train via the cliff railway or by simply driving down. Here you will find a picturesque pebbly beach, a quaint harbor and a shopping village where there are no shortage of souvenirs to buy and places to eat and drink. If you have a dog with you then I recommend dropping into The Coffee Mill, where the friendly lady will gladly serve your pooch some doggy ice cream. Apparently its in such a high demand that she struggles to order enough to satisfy the punters.

Visit Clovelly: Approximately 30 miles down the coast from Ilfracombe is the unspoilt fishing village of Clovelly. Parking up at a modern looking visitor centre, you then venture down a traditional but very steep cobbled path that is treacherous even for the youngest and fittest of visitors. Along the path are tiny cottages, cafes and gift shops. Eventually, providing you avoid breaking any bones you come to the harbour, where you can gaze out at Bideford Bay or turn back and marvel at the forested hillside like I did. Vehicular access is impossible at Clovelly, apart from Land Rovers that offer a ferry service back to the top of the hill for weary visitors. Traditionally donkeys shouldered the burden, but they have long since been retired. Interestingly, any deliveries for Clovelly have to be made by pulling a sledge from the car park at the top, and rubbish has to be collected by pulling the sledge down to a vehicle waiting in the harbor.

So that’s Ilfracombe. Hopefully I’ve inspired a few of you to pay it and the surrounding area a visit. If any of you do visit, then I’d love to hear about your experiences, so feel free to comment below or drop me an Email.

© 2018 James Kenny


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