Explore Bidefords Maritime History
Bideford became famous in the Victorian era as the “little white town” of Charles
Kingsley’s book Westward Ho! But this North Devon port by the River Torridge has
a rich and much older maritime heritage. Bideford was once one of England’s
greatest ports, with trades and people that made the town wealthy. They include
a great Elizabethan adventurer, fishermen who braved the ocean off Newfoundland,
and settlers and merchants who linked Devon to the New World.
On this walk you can discover hidden stories of cod and clay, tobacco and taxes,
pottery and pipes, sailors and smugglers, death and disease. Along the way you
can explore Bideford’s obvious and unusual connections to nations competing in
the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The walk begins and ends at the Burton Art Galley and Museum in Victoria Park.
The route is just under a mile and a half long with 18 stops along the way.
Directions 1 – From the front of the museum, walk towards
the river and stop by the statue of Charles Kingsley.
We begin at the statue of Victorian writer Charles Kingsley who was born in
Devon in 1819. Like his father he was a clergyman while his mother came from
a line of Barbadian sugar plantation owners. Kingsley became a prolific novelist
and was also a professor of history and a social reformer; both are reflected in
his writings. His best-known work is The Water Babies but this statue was built
here because of the popularity of another of his books, Westward Ho!
Westward Ho! is about the adventures of a young man from Bideford who
follows sixteenth century explorer Sir Francis Drake to sea. It is a tale of adventure
about the “Spanish Main”, South America and “The Inquisition”. Kingsley dedicated
the book to James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak (part of present-day
Malaysia) and George Selwyn, the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand.
In the first sentence of Westward Ho! Kingsley describes Bideford as
“the little white town, which slopes upwards from its broad tide-river paved with
yellow sands, and many-arched old bridge.” The book was very popular and large
numbers of tourists came to visit where it was set. When a town developed on the
coast nearby it was named Westward Ho! after the book. It remains the only town in
Britain to have an exclamation mark in its name.
Directions 2 – Walk a few metres to the edge of the Quay.
Take care here at the water’s edge, especially of children.
Stop when you have a good view of the stone bridge over
From here you can see the River Torridge. Bideford’s attractive Long Bridge has
spanned the river for over 700 years. It stands close to the lowest point the river
could be crossed by a ford. This ford gave the town its name: Bideford derives from
By-the-Ford. The stone Long Bridge is 190 metres long and has 24 arches.
Look carefully and you will see that the arches are different widths. It was constructed in the fifteenth century by encasing an original wooden bridge in stone and the arches probably reflect the widths of the original timber spans.
Directions 3 – Walk along the Quay towards the bridge,
and stop just after the Lundy Island Ferry terminal building.
Bideford’s sheltered harbour opens out into the Bristol Channel just over three
miles to the north. To land boats would originally have been grounded on the
sloping bed of the river but this limits what and when goods can be uploaded.
Thus a quay was built in 1663 and over the years it has been raised, widened
and lengthened. Goods from around the world have been transported here to Bideford Quay. One of the town’s early trades was importing wool from Spain and Ireland for the weavers of Devon.
Later there was a big fishing and tobacco trade which we will hear more
about later. In addition pottery was sent to Ireland and the United States and
timber imported from Canada for shipbuilding. Oak bark was also once sent to
tanneries in Ireland and Scotland.
Bideford still operates as a port and you may see cargo ships moored here.
Ships arrive and depart on the high tide and because the Bristol Channel has
the second highest tidal range in the world Bideford can take vessels with up to
five metres draught on spring tides. Shipping is an international business and
ships visiting Bideford recently have been registered in Russia, Malta, Gibraltar
and Cyprus. They have had masters and crew from Russia, Ukraine, Estonia,
Poland and the Philippines. Ships regularly leave Bideford destined for Spain or
Finland with cargos of clay. Devon is one of the few places in the world with
deposits of fine plastic “ball clay”. This is very valuable in pottery making and
over 80 per cent of the ball clay extracted in Devon today is exported.
Ships also leave Bideford loaded with spruce logs for Wismar in Germany.
Directions 4 – Continue along the Quay and cross over the
road to the building with The Rose of Torridge sign. Stop outside.
The Rose of Torridge is named after the heroine in Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!
It was originally one of four pubs that lined the Quay. It then became the
Newfoundland Hotel and it is now a fish restaurant. Both these later uses hint at
Bideford’s fishing trade. At the end of the fifteenth century the Italian navigator
John Cabot discovered the great cod fishery we now know as the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Fishermen from Portugal, France and Spain were
quick to exploit it. They had cheap supplies of salt which they used to process and
cure their catch while still at sea.
The lack of a ready supply of salt put English fishermen at a disadvantage.
They resorted to drying and lightly salting fish on the shore. After the defeat
of the Spanish Armada in 1588 however, Spanish and Portuguese fishing declined.
Their trade was taken up by the English and cod became the foundation of
Bideford’s wealth. A triangular trade developed with fishing gear, clothes and
provisions taken from Devon to Newfoundland; from there dried cod was shipped
to European ports in Italy and Spain; in turn their products such as olive oil,
wine and dried fruit were brought back to England. Salt cod influenced the cuisine
of many countries around the Atlantic. In Portugal it is known as Bacalhau
which is eaten on special days. It is also the basis of the Jamaican national dish,
ackee and saltfish. You can order cod and chips at the Rose of Torridge
but you will have to add your own salt!
Directions 5 – Take the narrow passage between the Rose of Torridge
and the Kings Arms next door and turn left into Allhalland Street. Stop in a
few metres by the passageway into Chapel Street on your right.
Before the quay was extended the gardens of the houses on the east side
of Allhalland Street stretched down to the river. This narrow street was therefore
the main thoroughfare from the bridge to the High Street. You should be able to see
a cul-de-sac here called Chapel Street which passes under one of the houses.
A French Huguenot congregation was set up in Bideford in 1695 and this lane
lead to their church. The Huguenots were French Protestants inspired by
John Calvin in the sixteenth century.
Huguenots suffered religious persecution which caused about 200,000 of them
to leave France. They settled in non-Catholic European countries such as
the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and even as far as Russia.
Many went to settle in the colonies on the East coast of America and the Dutch East
India Company sent a few hundred to the Cape to develop the vineyards in South Africa. An estimated 50,000 Huguenots came to England with perhaps 10,000 later
moving on to Ireland. They settled in London and across the South and
West of England. They were the first group of people to be called ‘refugees’ –
the word comes from the French refugier, which means ‘to take shelter’.
The Huguenots brought skills with them, in particular silk and cloth weaving,
lace making and tapestry. The famous English diarist Samuel Pepys may once
have visited Bideford. He married Elisabeth de St Michel who was born here
and was the daughter of a Huguenot exile.
Directions 6 – Continue to the end of Allhalland Street and stop at
the junction with Bridge Street. Look across the road at the Town Hall.
The Town Hall across the road was built in Tudor style to commemorate the
Elizabethan era when Bideford grew into a major port as we heard about earlier.
Here is also where Bideford’s most famous and influential resident, Sir Richard Grenville, is thought to have had a town house. Bideford was a small fishing
town until the sixteenth century when Grenville obtained a new charter that
gave Bideford borough status. Grenville was a great adventurer and went to
Hungary to fight the Turks. He later fought in Ireland where he owned an
estate with his father-in-law but it was Grenville’s involvement in America which
was to have the biggest impact on Bideford. Grenville’s cousin, Walter Raleigh,
had obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth to colonise North America.
On Raleigh’s behalf, Grenville sailed to Virginia where he established a
small garrison on Roanoke Island in modern-day North Carolina.
A year later he returned with supplies only to find the men had gone.
Sir Francis Drake had stopped by on his return from a voyage to
South America just a few days earlier and the men had decided to return
to England with him.
Grenville left another 15 men to keep a claim to a colony alive but when merchant
John White arrived the following year he found no trace of them. Nevertheless White
left around 115 settlers on Roanoke to form a colony. Grenville prepared to send
supply ships but these were requisitioned to fight the Spanish Armada. It was three
years before anyone returned to Virginia and there was no sign of the ‘Lost colony
of Roanoke’. Grenville went on to command the ship ‘Revenge’ which plundered
Spanish treasure ships off the Azores. He was wounded in a gallant fight at the
Battle of Flores and died a few days later.
Directions 7 – Cross over Bridge Street and follow Church Walk
up to St Mary’s Church. Stop outside the church.
The tower of St Mary’s Church dates back to the thirteenth century but the
rest of what you see today was rebuilt by Bideford’s wealthy merchants in the 1860s.
Inside is the tomb of Richard Grenville’s great grandfather and monuments to many
of Bideford’s merchants. These include John Strange who helped the town during
the plague before succumbing himself. In the church porch you can see the records
of a Native American of the Wynganditoian tribe. He was brought to Bideford by
Sir Richard Grenville who named him Raleigh after his cousin and adventurer but
sadly he died of a cold the following year.
Directions 8 – Leave the churchyard by the top gate and
walk to the top of the steps. Turn left into Buttgarden Street
and stop when you reach St Mary’s flats on your left.
For a step free route to Buttgarden Street, you can return to
Bridge Street and turn left up the hill.
Buttgarden Street dates from 1670 when Bideford had a large tobacco trade with
the settlers who had followed Richard Grenville to Virginia in America.
The quayside was too damp to store tobacco and the buildings opposite are thought
to have been tobacco warehouses. Tobacco smoking came to Europe after
Christopher Columbus discovered it in Cuba in 1492. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to
have taken up smoking and popularised it within the Elizabethan Court in the 1590s.
In the first half of the seventeenth century Bideford merchants imported more tobacco
in their ships than any other port in England except London. Over the 10 years to 1731 nearly eight and a half million pounds of tobacco landed at Bideford Quay.
Great quantities were re-exported to European countries, particularly the Netherlands
but also to Ireland, Norway, Spain and Germany.
Port records give us some idea of the goods sent back to Virginia in return.
A ship called the ‘Dove’ owned by Bideford merchant Thomas Smith arrived in
June 1714 from Virginia with a cargo of tobacco. It returned in November with mixed merchandise that included rugs, hats, stockings, textiles, haberdashery, books, paper,
shoes, nails, ironmongery, wrought pewter, brass work, wool cards, leather chairs,
a chest of drawers and even a looking glass.