Situated on the dramatic and rugged North Devon coastline, the cosmopolitan seaside town of Ilfracombe is a traditional holiday favourite. A pretty fishing harbour surrounded by towering cliffs, it provides beautiful coastal scenery for walkers and cyclists as well as boasting a great selection of attractions, including the Victorian Tunnels Beaches and the award-winning Ilfracombe Aquarium. Now an up-and-coming culture and foodie destination with a varied selection of art galleries, Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’ statue, and fantastic local dining options to discover, Ilfracombe’s strapline of ‘curious coastal charm’ explains why everybody now wants a slice of this fascinating harbour town.
The area hosts a plethora of events and festivals throughout the year and there is always something happening at the bustling quayside or in the popular Landmark Theatre on the seafront. Beachgoers will be spoilt for choice with Ilfracombe’s wide stretches of sand as well as a plethora of hidden coves, perfect for picnics and rock-pooling when the tide goes out. Read on to discover why you should choose Ilfracombe for your next escape.
About the town:
This little town, sitting on the North Devon coast, is quite rightly popular with both summer holidaymakers and weekenders. Its Victorian architecture and unspoilt charm give an old-fashioned vibe, with many independent stores having been in the same family for generations. Discover The Lanes, a mix of sometimes hidden lanes and passageways off the High Street, a nod to Ilfracombe’s smuggling past. It is said that you can cross the town via these lanes, without having to use the main road. Try it and see!
Not to worry though if you like a touch of modern, there are enough little coffees shops, clothes shops and restaurants to make you feel that you haven’t left civilization behind altogether. Make sure that you take a stroll down to the harbour and along the quay to visit Ilfracombe’s most famous resident, Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’ – an ‘opinion divider’ of a statue if there ever was one!
Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating attractions of Ilfracombe has to be the unique Tunnels Beaches. Steeped in history, the four tunnels, hand carved in the 1820s, lead to sheltered beaches and a tidal Victorian bathing pool. Rated ‘3rd best beach for rock pooling in the UK’ by BBC Wildlife Magazine, kids will have no end of fun exploring or playing in the tidal pool while adults sit back and have some well-deserved ‘me' time. A popular location for weddings, you may even see a radiant bride or two as you soak up the sun.
If you can bear to drag yourself away from this historic delight, there are other noteworthy beaches including the sand and shingle Hele Bay to the east of the town, also a great location for swimming and rock pooling or the delightful Combe Martin, a few miles further on.
Family adventures are top of the list at Ilfracombe. Explore a world of curiosities at the fascinating and eclectic Ilfracombe Museum, eight rooms full of treasures from all over the globe. One of the top-rated museums in the county, kids won’t be bored here with shrunken heads and pickled bats to discover as well as creepy spider and insect displays. To give them some fresh air, Larkstone Café and Leisure Park is the perfect place for a bracing walk or if that isn’t your thing, grab your racquets and head for the grass tennis courts. There are also lawn games such as putting and croquet to watch or take part in, or if you prefer something a little less strenuous, just sit back and watch little ones burning off all their energy in the play area.
Just along the road towards Hele Bay, the seasonal Hele Corn Mill is a unique working watermill dating from 1525, offering guided tours by the mill family. Children can join in the ‘find the mice’ and ‘count the millstone’ challenges while adults learn all about the fascinating history of the mill and mishaps of the millers! You can even take home a cake from the gift shop, made with flour from the mill. Those without a nervous disposition should take a visit to Chambercombe Manor, one of the UK’s most haunted houses. Dating back to the 11th century, it has been featured on Living TV’s Most Haunted series – not one for the easily spooked!
During the summer, hop aboard the graceful MS Oldenburg where, if you are lucky, a playful pod of dolphins will follow you out on the two-hour boat trip to Lundy Island. Once there, there are a whole host of things to do – birdwatching, diving (experienced divers only), walking or taking part in some Lundy letterboxing - a treasure trail of hidden wooden boxes that you can find following a fun set of clues.
The events and festivals:
Ilfracombe hosts a fabulous selection of events and festivals held throughout the year. The Landmark Theatre, near the beach, is famous for its unusual double conical design, and is locally known as ‘Madonna’s Bra’ because of its shape. With talents such as Ed Byrne and Jason Manford having trodden its boards, it has a great varied programme of events throughout the year including music, drama, films and festivals.
Summer days and evenings will have you heading for the quayside at the historic harbour where you will be sure to find something to watch or join in. Annual events such as the regatta and yacht racing including the Lundy Yacht race are great spectator sports, or join in community events like The Big Lunch and sparkling Christmas bonanzas.
There are some fabulous events throughout the summer including a Grand Victorian and Steampunk Festival in June, the Ilfracombe Carnival and Beer, Food and Music Festival in August, as well as Mini Madness and the Sea Ilfracombe Maritime Festival and Ilfracombe Bike Show in September. Some of these are annual events and some not, so check for dates. For a bit of fun, watch crazy aviators throw themselves off the end of Ilfracombe Pier into the icy waters below at the South West Birdman. A charity event, it also includes live music, food and craft stalls and children’s entertainment – just be careful to not sign up for next year’s Birdman after too much of the local ale!
Keen walkers will love all the options that this beautiful area offers. Coastal walks along the South West Coast Path from Hartland in the west to Lynmouth in the east offer over 40 miles of spectacular views along its rugged cliffs out to the Atlantic and across to Wales. With the sheltered valley of Combe Martin and the Valley of the Rocks with its ancient geology and herd of wild goats, you will see some of Devon’s most beautiful landscape. For gentle walks, take a stroll around Capstone Hill (see below for some quirky things to see there) and for more robust walks, explore the moorland hills of Exmoor National Park just out of the town.
Pop into Ilfracombe Tourist Information Centre at the Landmark Theatre which has lots of maps and leaflets, some written by locals, to help you decide which routes are best for you. Recommended walks are the Hillsborough Circular Walk via Berrynarbor which takes in some of the attractions mentioned above such as Chambercombe Manor and Hele Corn Mill and the Torrs Circular Walk which zigzags above Ilfracombe to delightful ocean views.
If you like your walking followed with a bite to eat, Larkstone Café and Leisure Park is your best bet. Go in the afternoon to sample their wonderful cream tea or enjoy a sunset dinner on the lawns overlooking some of the most picturesque coastlines in Britain. On winter days, retreat inside to dine next to the log fire. Our advice is to wait for the incredible sunsets.
We have a great selection of holiday cottages in Ilfracombe including family-friendly properties, spaces to get away with friends and cosy boltholes for romantic weekends. From contemporary apartments and houses with sea views to old watermills and stone retreats with swimming pools and hot tubs, you will find somewhere amazing to base yourself while you explore everything Ilfracombe has to offer.
The food and drink:
Known as the gastronomic capital of North Devon, some of the best chefs in the area are based here, a few having opened their own restaurants. Using locally-sourced ingredients including fresh fish and seafood from the harbour, delicious Exmoor meats and tasty cheeses, they are sure to offer something unique to the area that you haven’t tasted before.
For comfort food, the tea room at Hele Corn Mill offers a scrumptious selection of cakes and scones freshly baked at the mill, and Nelly May’s Parlour, a traditional olde-worlde tea room on the High Street is just the place to sit back and rest awhile with one of their exquisite cakes. Thomas Carr is a big name in Ilfracombe, with a Seafood and Grill to his name as well as the Michelin-starred Thomas Carr @ The Olive Room, nestled amongst the historic fishermen’s cottages on Fore Street and offering fine dining in a typically relaxed Devon environment.
For a quick bite before heading to one of the great pubs, head to Wards Bistro or Relish Bar & Bistro, the latter housed in a beautiful heritage building located at the end of Ilfracombe’s oldest street. Fish and chips by the harbour is a must before leaving Ilfracombe – walk along the quay and find somewhere to unwrap some of the best local fish on offer while tasting the salty sea air.
Locals will tell you that it is always windy at Windy Corner. Regardless of the conditions elsewhere, there is always a breeze at this far north-west corner of Capstone Parade which wraps around The Capstone. See for yourself – on a calm day, take a walk out and feel the wind blow in this unique microclimate. The sea off the Parade also seems to be strangely choppy when other areas aren’t - observe some interesting sea life including seals and porpoises as they fish here for dinner.
Heading south between Capstone and Wildersmouth Beach, there is also a decorative circular paving area which looks like a helicopter landing pad, known as The Clapping Circle. Stand in the centre and clap and listen as your clap echoes back at you but as a squeak – nobody knows why!
Last but not least is the Ilfracombe Elephant, known locally as the sleeping elephant. Look over to Hillsborough Nature Reserve from the Pier car park and you will see a large sleepy elephant in the rock formation. You might not see it at first but once you know it’s there, you will see glimpses of it everywhere you go. As we said, Ilfracombe really does have a curious coastal charm!