Bideford Heritage Trail
The Heritage Trail explains Bideford's development as a port and market town, telling colourful and surprising stories that have made it the fascinating place it is today. In recent years the town has grown and through economic necessity has moved away from its reliance on trade through the port. However, the town's character and architecture reamin and are a legacy to its vibrant past.
The first settlers were the Celts, followed by the Saxons. With Normam dominance the land passed from the Saxon Lord Brirtic to Matilda, William the Conquerers Queen. Over the next 500 years Bideford continued to grow and was ideally positioned to benefit from Elizabethan prosperity.
We focus on the Elizabethan and later maritime trading activities that saw Bideford grow into a bustling port, a booming town and an important link to the New World colonies - thanks to the vision, courage and endeavour of the Elizabethan entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Grenville, who may have founded the first English colony in North America.
This guide has been based mainly on Peter Christies book "Exploring Bideford".
Bideford is situated at the lowest practical crossing of the navigable River Torridge. Tradition says that the earliest crossing was a ford a little upstream from the Long Bridge, although few traces have ever been found.
The Long Bridge has spanned the Torridge for over seven-hundred years and has played a key role in the development and everyday life of Bideford. The bridge, which is believed to have been built around 1280, consists of 24 arches of differing widths. As few details are available as to its construction the reasons for these variations are unknown.
In 1968 heavy road traffic caused the collapse of two arches. The resulting widespread disruption prompted the commission of a new bridge which can be seen downstream. This opened in 1987.
--> With the river on your right, head along the Quay
At this point the Torridge forms a natural sheltered harbour and would have been an obvious choice as a port settlement by ocean going people.
In the early days vessels would have been grounded on the sloping bed of the river and cargo unshipped to the river bank.
About 75m from the Long Bridge, near the Kings Arms public house, there is a marker in the pavement indicating the southern end of the Old Quay in 1663. At that time the area between the Bridge and the marker consisted of buildings with gardens running down to the river, effectively blocking direct access from the Bridge to the town.
Since then the Quay has been widened, extended and raised several times, significantly changing the location of the river frontage.
Make sure to take some time to pet our permanent resident of the Quay, Tarka the Otter.
--> Cross the road at the pedestrian crossing for stops three and four of the heritage trail
The step down to the front door shows how much the quay has been raised since Elizabethan times.
The Rose of Torridge, named after the heroine in Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho! is another of the four public houses. Built in 1626 as a private dwelling it became the Newfoundland Hotel in the early 19th century, an indication of how important the fishing trade from the Newfoundland Banks was to Bideford.
--> Head to the ally between the Kings Arms and The Rose of Torridge (see 5. Conduit Lane)
Conduit Lane was an alley, or ‘drang’, running from the southern end of the Old Quay through to Allhalland Street. It follows the course of what was once an open drain.
--> Follow Conduit Lane to the end and turn left onto 6. Allhalland Street
This was the main route to the High Street and the old market place when buildings and private gardens lined the river bank from the Bridge to the Old Quay. In effect, the main entrance into the town.
The original street width can be seen part way down where two houses, set back from the roadway, are evidence of an unsuccessful attempt at widening.
At first-floor level No.15 has a blind window which bears a metal plaque, a fire mark. This window was blocked up to avoid paying the Window Tax of the 18th and early 19th centuries. A fire mark indicated that the owner had insured the house with a particular insurance company – it also advised the company’s private fire brigade whether they should attempt to save the burning house or leave it to its fate.
Off Allhalland Street is the cul-de-sac Chapel Street probably the site of a French Huguenot chapel. It is likely that the diarist Samuel Pepys worshipped there whilst courting his wife, whose family were Huguenots from Bideford.
--> Continue along Allhalland Street.Stop at the junction with Bridge Street which is Bideford’s steepest thoroughfare – a very different street now from the one Charles Dickens described in his short stage Message from the Sea.
Facing you to the left is the Town Hall. The Corporation, as it was then called, was formed in 1574 then replaced in 1836 by the first formally elected Council. Initially this Council met in a building on the site immediately opposite, on which can now be found the Bridge Building.
Although it appears as early Tudor, the Town Hall was opened in 1851, its style being chosen to honour Bideford’s glorious Elizabethan heritage. The building was extended in 1906 when the Council purchased and removed a chemist shop situated on the corner – that had contained a number of skeletons, probably French Napoleonic War prisoners.
To the right is the ‘Tavern in the Port’ occupying a prominent corner site that used to house a building called ‘Old Place’ that was possibly the town house of Sir Richard Grenville.
Sir Richard Grenville was an eminent Elizabethan sailor and entrepreneur and his achievements made him as important as his cousins Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. A driving force for change and growth, he obtained a charter for the town in 1574, thereby playing a major role in the transformation of Bideford from small fishing port to significant trading centre.
A great adventure, amongst his many achievements was the establishment of the first English colony in North America. In 1587 he sailed with English settlers and established a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern North Carolina. In 1590 when an English ship returned to Roanoke they found the colony deserted and no clue as to what had happened to the settlers. This was the beginning of the still unanswered question of what had become of ‘The First Colony’. DNA testing is underway seeking links that would prove that the first English colonists were from Bideford and North Devon.
Sir Richard fought alongside Sir Francis Drake in the Spanish Wars and died a hero’s death in 1591 aged 48. Instead of escaping he chose to face 53 Spanish galleons with a single ship. He and his crew fought off the Spanish for 12 hours, badly damaging 15 enemy vessels. Eventually overwhelmed, Grenville died of his wounds several days later.
--> Take the lane between the Town Hall and the ‘Tavern in the Port’ into Church Walk.
Until the mid-18th century this was the only burial ground in Bideford. Serving all denominations, there was enormous pressure on the available space. The paths are not sunken – rather the ground on either side of the paths has been raised by the vast number of bodies interred over at least 600 years.
St. Mary’s graveyard was extended in 1803 but the extra space was soon used and in 1841 a new graveyard was opened in Old Town. St. Mary’s closed in 1849.
The first Native American to come to Britain was brought to Bideford by Sir Richard Grenville and was for a short time part of his family. He was encouraged to adopt the Devonshire way of life and he gained the distinction of being the first of his race to be baptised a Christian. Sadly, within a year, he died of a cold.
Unfortunately, in the mid-1980’s, during a clean-up of the graveyard, the location of his last resting place was lost forever.
St Mary’s in the mother church of Bideford and has been on the site close to the heart of the town since at least the 14th century. Because it’s at the foot of a steep hillside there’s a fair depth of soil – a necessity for a graveyard.
The oldest part of the church is the tower which dates from around 1260. The rest of the church looks old but in fact it is relatively modern, having been rebuilt and enlarged between 1862 And 1865. This was at a time when church and chapel congregations vied to have the grandest place of worship in town. This was also a period of great prosperity in Bideford so there was no shortage of wealthy church going families willing to contribute to the then huge rebuilding cost of £5,250. The main benefactors are immortalised by the carved heads around the exterior of the church.
Before leaving the churchyard take a look at the magnificent yew trees, some of which are over 200 years old.
--> Follow the path, keeping the church on your left, until you see a set of stairs leading upwards. Climb these stairs to the entrance of 10. Tower Street
This is a very early example of a pedestrianized street and has some varied and interesting architectural styles and miniature gardens.
Near the top there is a fork, take the left branch and stop at the junction with Buttgarden Street. The curiously shaped triangular house on the right is a good example of how houses were built on every practical site.
--> Follow the hill up Tower Street. Climb the stairs to enter 11. Buttgarden Street
The street dates from 1670 and it is believed that it owed its development to the lucrative tobacco trade that Bideford once enjoyed.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Bideford’s very strong links with the new American colonies led to tobacco becoming a major import. By the end of the 17th century Bideford was home to a whole fleet of tobacco ships and, between 1722 and 1731, 3.86m kilos of tobacco passed through the port. Storage became a problem. The Quay, already heavily congested, was also too damp for the storage of this valuable cargo. A drier site was needed and Buttgarden Street was chosen.
A number of the double fronted houses on the street, such as the one opposite St Mary’s flats, are traditionally considered to have been tobacco warehouses.
Before you leave the street take a look at the art nouveau lady in the doorway of No.15.
--> When you reached top of Tower Streets stairs you wil have seen a large orange bricked building. Make your way to this building (The Pannier Market).
The charter granted to Bideford in 1574 allowed the town to hold a weekly market. Originally this was held on the High Street but as the port grew the area became too congested and in 1675 the market moved to this site. The Pannier Market was built in 1884 and takes its name from the wicker baskets once used by farmers to bring their goods to town.
Running through the middle of the market building is Butcher’s Row, while around the market a range of interesting buildings can be seen. On slightly higher ground is Victoria Terrace, still boasting its original railings. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, used to preach on the corner of Market Square and Silver Street.
--> After visiting the Pannier Market, leave the Pannier Market from the lower side of the building, turn left and continue along Grenville Street. Heading downhill this will lead to the towns High Street
The High Street has a wide range of building styles with many shops showing how shopkeepers over the years have changed their approach to attracting customers. The newsagent at No.7 is a typical example of an Edwardian shop front.
--> Heading downhill, stay on the righthand side of the street and head to the bottom of the High Street. The last building on your right on the corner of the High Street and The Quay (Latte and Lunch) is where you will find 14. Tome Stone.
The bottom of the High Street was where the medieval market was held and set into the wall of the corner building on the right is a curiously shaped stone that may be a tome stone where merchants created a legal agreement, a tome, by putting money on it.
The town pillory was also sited here and the nearby market would have provided an ample supply of unsold fruit and vegetables to be thrown at anybody unfortunate enough to be sentenced to public disgrace!
--> Go a short way back up the High Street and turn right into Mill Street
Mill Street has been an important commercial area for many centuries and has kept it character and charm despite the many changes over the years. Above the ground level fronts of the shops many of the older original facades have survived. Mill Street runs parallel to the Quay and may have been the earliest Quay with the gardens and warehouses of its properties running down to the ancient riverside.
--> Head along Mill Street. Take the first right available, this is 16. Cooper Street
Cooper Street, as the name confirms, was the barrel making centre and it was here that ‘hogsheads’, large wood barrels used to transport and store tobacco, were made for the trade with the American colonies.
In the 1673 the Mayor of Bideford decided that the town had become untidy and dirty and needed cleaning up. The corporation placed a large number of empty hogsheads at strategic points around the town and the Mayor decreed that the townsfolk should put the rubbish littering the streets into them. The Corporation would then remove them and provide empty replacements. It worked and Bideford had created the first municipal rubbish collection.
--> Continue down the street to the small square at the bottom (Jubilee Square)
King and Queen Streets, which run into the landward end of the square are today little more than lanes but the substantial and impressive buildings in both of the streets show how important they once were. They mark the edge of an earlier quay and their large windows, doors and entrances would have originally looked out onto the river.
A number of the buildings still have stone-built sail lofts on their top floors which would have been used for cleaning, repairing and storing the canvas sails whilst the lower floors would have been warehouses for general goods.
--> Turn left down the small side street (Queen Street) which leads off of Jubilee Square
This is the next street along the Quay and is considered by some to be the grandest and least changed street in the town. It was a speculative development in the 1690’s shortly after extension of the Quay and it became home to the richest merchants in Bideford.
In 1724 Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, described Bridgeland Street as being ‘a spacious, broad, well-built street inhabited with wealthy merchants who trade to most parts of the trading world’.
The Masonic lodge, No.12, is considered to be one of the grandest houses in Bideford. Nos.28 and 28a date back to 1693.
The street has more examples of the tax avoiding blind windows, along with a further ploy to avoid paying another tax. The Red House, No.26, and its neighbour look as though they are brick-built but they are, in fact, faced with tiles to avoid paying the Brick Tax of 1784-1850 when tiles were not taxed.
--> Turn left and walk along Bridgeland Street. 19. Lavington Chapel is on the right hand side as you walk along Bridgeland Street
Lavington Chapel, with its two unusual Gothic spikey towers, was opened in 1859 and replaced the earlier Grand Meeting House, built in 1696. It remains testimony to Bideford’s non-conformist past.
--> Continuing along Bridgeland Street the road will curve to your right. Take the next right, leading onto Willett Street.
Willett Street, sadly now mostly demolished, was the centre of the Bideford potteries that produced clay ware such as bread ovens, pitchers, plant pots and pipes.
The potteries were very important to the town, particularly in the 17th century when they were in great demand in the new American colonies as well as Europe and were popular for provisioning ships. In 1683 140,000 parcels of Bideford earthenware were exported to Ireland to be used for marketing butter.
--> Continue down Willett Street and at the bottom turn right
Rope Walk takes its name from the industry located here for over 250 years. Being alongside the port and shipbuilding yards, the rope makers were well placed to satisfy a constant demand for their product.
On one side of the Walk stood a long, narrow shed. Here strands of hemp were laid to be plaited and dried as a rope, a vital requirement for sailing ships – the longer the better. A British Naval Rope was 305m long, even a small trading vessel could easily require 3km of rope.
--> At the end of Rope Walk turn right, you are now outside the former 22. Custom House
On the right at the end of Rope Walk is a café called ‘Pannier Pantry’ that was built in 1695 as the Custom House. It was from here that revenue men rowed out to meet incoming ships to check their cargoes and search for contraband.
The Custom House was originally at the seaward end of Bideford Quay, being the first building that visitors arriving by river saw as they approached the town.
The Trail ends here.
On this trail you have been seen a number of Bideford’s many fascinating buildings and read just a handful of its intriguing stories. There is a great deal more to discover about Bideford’ fascinating past and a good start point is the Burton Art Gallery and Museum.