What’s interesting about Ilfracombe – History

What’s interesting about Ilfracombe: History

Picturesque Ilfracombe is nestled close to award-winning beaches and sea cliffs of Exmoor National Park. Besides landscapes and authentic city vibe, Ilfracombe is also well-known for its rich history which dates back to the iron age.

The origin of the town’s name has two sources, some say it means the ‘Valley of sons of Alfred’ (latin Alfreinscoma) (Bowring, 1931), others state that is ‘The Valley with the bad ford’ (Norse illf (bad, Anglo-Saxon yfei (evil ford), and Anglo-Saxon cumb (valley)) (Ilfracombe Official guide. 1935), and they can be both right since there is no clear evidence that states which one is legitimate!

Historical Port

Ilfracombe historically was a significant port on the Bristol Channel, which was first registered as a port for refuge. In 1208, King John found help in Ilfracombe in his quest to invade Ireland, whereas in 1247 Ilfracombe supplied ships and man-power to conquer the western isles of Scotland.

114 years later on Lantern Hill by the harbor, St. Nicholas Chapel was built, one of the oldest working lighthouses in the UK. Pay a visit to this fabolous historical architecture and you will be amazed by the views you can catch there.

Thanks to Welsh Miners

The city was also home to James Bowen, royal navy officer who led the fleet which rescued the British Army at Corunna in the Peninsula War (Bell, 2009). In 1820 four tunnels were man-carved by Welsh miners to allow for easy access to the beaches by both horse and foot.

But what happened next was even more interesting, the tunnels turned to tidal pools that were used for bathing during the Victorian era. One of the most fascinating destinations in Ilfracombe lies in the same place today and is known as Tunnels Beach.

Ilfracombe Hotel and the Barnstaple-Ilfracombe Railway

In front of a building which today is known as ‘the landmark’, in 1867 Ilfracombe Hotel was built on a 5-acre site. Ilfracombe Hotel inspired Ilfracombe architecture and is linked directly to the growing popularity of the town as a Victorian tourist resort (today you can still see the Victorian architecture in place).

However, Ilfracombe would not develop as a popular seaside resort if it wasn’t for the Barnstaple-Ilfracombe railway.  The railway opened in 1874 and ran all the way to Waterloo Station London. It opened as a single-track line, but due to popularity, it was upgraded to double-track 15 years later.  It was because of this line of railway, Ilfracombe welcomed tourists from all around the country and became a favorite tourist attraction of the time. The railway was officially closed on 5 October 1970, with the last train being on 3 October.

The Tidal Wave

In 1910, Ilfracombe was washed by a huge wave, one of a kind, they called it tidal wave. Witnesses say that it was up to 20 feet in height and it swept away almost everything that came into the way. There are several stories about the tidal wave, but the most detailed story comes from Ilfracombe Gazette and Observer souvenir pamphlet containing eyewitness reports and photographs. At Ilfracombe,

a tremendous tidal wave swept over the Capstone Parade, and the Ropery Meadow, breaking upon the Promenade shops with terrific force. . . . Practically the whole of the damage was done by a huge tidal wave. . . . It is a rather remarkable fact that although this was nearly an hour after high tide comparatively little damage was done till then. The huge wave broke upon the shore with almost incredible force. It carried everything before it. The lampposts on the Parade were about the first to go. These were snapped off like fragile reeds. Heavy seats and big blocks of masonry were carried upon the crest of the wave, which swept over Ropery Meadow at a height estimated at from 15 to even 30 feet [approximately 4–9 meters] high, leaving ruin and wreckage in its path. The wall of Ropery Meadow yielded before it, and the masonry and the Parade seats were hurled with tremendous force against the Promenade shops. The Promenade was immediately a rushing torrent. Several people narrowly escaped injury. On seeing the huge wave approaching they turned and fled for their lives. Two or three were unable to reach a place of safety before the wave reached them, and were knocked over like ninepins. Others fell in their hurry to get out of danger. It seems remarkable that no one sustained serious injury. (IGO, 1910)

Survivor of Titanic Disaster

The history of Ilfracombe would be empty without Miss Alice Frances Louisa Phillips, who came alive from the Titanic catastrophe, not the movie but the real ship. Alice and her father Escott held 2nd class tickets and sailed from Southampton to New Brighton. Lately, we experienced the inauguration of Damien Hirst’s stainless steel and bronze sculpture named Verity, loaned to Ilfracombe city for 20 years. Together with the harbor, they have become unique destinations for travelers.

Ilfracombe has many other things to offer, so stay tuned for more relevant articles coming next.


1.Bell, David A. Napoleon’s Total War. 1 ed., Paris, 2009.

2.Bowring. Ilfracombe. 2 ed., vol. 16, London, 1931.

3.IGO [Ilfracombe Gazette and Observer]. 1910a. Souvenir of the Great Storm at Ilfracombe on December 16th, 1910. Ilfracombe, England: Ingram Clark & Co.

4.Ilfracombe Official guide. 1 ed., Ilfracombe, Ilfracombe Forum, 1935.

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