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Bideford: The little white town with a colourful history

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 11, 2013

  • The Long Bridge has 24 arches, all of different sizes, possibly because it was built on randomly sited large stones in the river

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Becky Sheaves discovers the attraction of the North Devon port town of Bideford.

In the past, Bideford has been known as Byddyfrod, Bedyford, Bytheford and Biddeford. Whatever the spelling, the town's name means "by the ford", and dates back to the time before there was a bridge here across the River Torridge estuary in North Devon. During low tide it is still possible (but probably not advisable) to wade across the river here.

The original Long Bridge, connecting the east and west banks of the river, is said to have been first built out of timber in 1286. In 1474 a masonry arch bridge was built here and still stands today. It has 24 arches, all of different sizes, possibly because it was built on randomly-sited large stones in the river.

According to the Domesday Book there were 30 villagers, eight smallholders and 14 slaves in Bideford in the 11th century. Today, the town has just over 17,000 inhabitants and the population is growing fast – it is expected to expand by another 10,000 by 2026.

Thanks to its long history as a port town, Bideford's past is a fascinating one. It was Britain's third largest harbour in Elizabethan times and it was here that Sir Walter Raleigh first landed tobacco from America.

Bideford also played an important role in World War Two, playing host to American GIs in preparation for the D-Day landings.

This area of North Devon was home to the Victorian author Charles Kingsley, who wrote The Water Babies. His 1855 adventure novel Westward Ho! was such a success that local entrepreneurs decided to name a seaside hotel near Bideford after the book's title. The village that grew up around the hotel is now called Westward Ho! and is the only place in Britain to have an exclamation mark in its name.

Charles Kingsley is also responsible for naming Bideford "The Little White Town", thanks to its tradition of white-washed buildings.

Today, the large sandy beach of Westward Ho! is a favourite with Bideford's surfers. For those in search of calmer waters, the nearby village of Instow offers safe sailing on the estuary from its yacht club.

Bideford is one of the two places (the other is nearby Ilfracombe) where you can catch a ferry to the beautiful island of Lundy, 22 miles out to sea.

As well as water sports, Bideford is a favourite for walking and cycling. The Tarka Trail passes through the town along former railway branch lines, and the South West Coast Path also comes through Bideford.

Bideford Black is a unique pigment that was mined for 200 years here, up until 1969. Made of 350 million year old carbon deposits, it was used as an artist's paint and in Max Factor mascara. There are still a number of places where evidence of this mining can be seen, such as the old mine entrances off the Barnstaple Road.

These days, Bideford has grown to cover land on both sides of the Torridge. The newer area located east of the river is known as East-the-Water and these days large three-storey period homes on both sides are much sought-after by house hunters.

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2 comments

  • Gabber  |  November 12 2013, 3:12PM

    The arches were not built in one go, many were wooden and they were only replaced as and when they failed I understand. There's a good model of the bridge, showing its evolution, in the Burton Art Gallery for anyone who's interested to take a look ...

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  • burwood  |  November 11 2013, 11:52AM

    At school we were told the size of each arch reflected the contribution to costs from local groups?

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