I seem to recall eating a Knickerbocker Glory in Barnstaple as a kid. A rare treat. But otherwise I have no memory of North Devon’s ancient capital.
The River Taw with the old bridge in the background.
I arrive in the city after an hour’s train journey from Exeter, following the timeless gentle river valleys of the Yeo and Taw. I pass charming rural train stations sporting tubs of petunias and aubretia, and spot pheasant in the rolling green fields. Barnstable’s centre is approached via a bridge that goes back to the early 13th century. It has 16 stone arches, 13 of them medieval and the other three, at the town end, replaced in 1589.
I take the riverside path toward the new bridge downstream. The old quay area along the way was filled in during the early 19th century when ships got bigger and the river silted up. It was from here that five ships sailed to join Sir Francis Drake’s fleet to fight the Spanish Armada in 1588. I pause awhile to imagine the scene.
A little way on is the imposing façade of Queen Anne’s Walk, built as a mercantile exchange in the very early 1700′s, and topped with a statue of the eponymous queen (poor Queen Anne, with her 17 pregnancies but no surviving children; and morbidly obese to boot).
Queen Anne’s Walk, Barnstaple, c. 1708
Next I pass the old Barnstaple Town railway station, which operated between 1898 and 1935. The station has since become a school. I arrive at the new bridge, opened since 2007, designed to bypass the town centre. It affords glorious views of the Taw Estuary, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a habitat for otters, badgers, bats and barn owls.
The bridge gives a great viewpoint of the marshes and wetlands framing the estuary as is curves toward the sea. The sandbanks that spelled the end of Barnstaple as a port are clearly seen.
The new bridge, 2007
The Taw estuary from the new bridge
Before taking the train back to Exeter I do a quick recce of the centre. The Penrose Almhouses, completed in 1627, are delightful, a remarkably attractive collection of dwelling places. Also notable is the 19th C. Pannier Market, with its high glass and timber roof on iron columns.
The Guildhall and Pannier’s market
Tour guide and town crier Tom Evans in Pannier Market
Clock tower, Barnstaple
Detail of the clock tower, Barnstaple
Penrose Almhouses, 1627
I plan to go back, to continue the walk from Barnstaple along the Tarka Trail to Braunton, a village which boasts the largest sand dune system in England and Saunton Sands beach, glorious and often deserted…