Home of England's first municipal waste collection services, and visited in 1724 by novelist Daniel Defoe, Bideford has plenty of interesting history behind its steep streets and historic facades.
Drive into the town from the south, along the banks of the River Torridge and the first sight of any consequence is the Bideford Long Bridge. Said to be “built on wool”, it has 24 spans of varying sizes. This is because each of the local businessmen in this sheep-rearing area underwrote one span. The size of the span was according to the patron's wallet, so some were wide and expensive and others were more modest!
The original stone bridge was built in 1535 and has been widened several times since, before the main flyover bridge was built further downriver in 1987. The original Long Bridge is on the site of an ancient mediaeval causeway which would have been particularly dangerous at high tide or when the river was in full flood. It links Bideford with its suburb, known as East-the-Water, where it's worth ordering a drink at the bar in the Royal Hotel to see the Kingsley Room with its oak paneled walls and ornate ceiling.
Things to do in Bideford
Stroll along Bideford Quay and you may find bands performing and a few fishing vessels tied up alongside. This is where the MS Oldenburg sails from in the summer, taking tourists and supplies to the remote Lundy Island. At the end of the Quay is Victoria Park, with a grand statue of Bideford's most eminent local resident, Charles Kingsley. He was a minister and author of many novels including “Westward Ho! which gave the name to the nearby beach resort.
Come rain or shine there is always a cream and red ice cream van parked here, selling creamy Hocking's ice cream. It has been made locally by generations of the family since 1936 and still wins awards at the National Ice Cream Competitions. Try one of the ice-cream-filled oysters with a chocolate and coconut edge ‐ it's hard to limit yourself to just one!
Climb the steep High Street lined with local family shops and businesses. Turn left along Grenville Street to arrive at the old Pannier Market which is worth a walk around on market days. Beautifully restored, it once housed the fish market, corn market and the arcaded Butcher's Row. Farmer's wives would sell their eggs and produce straight from their basket panniers, hence the name Pannier Market. Along with the indoor market and maritime-themed café, it now houses a pretty shopping arcade selling arts and crafts.
Another steep street rising from The Quay is Cooper Street, once home to the local barrel-making industry. The large wooden barrels, known as “hogsheads”, were used to store and ship tobacco as well as spirits. Bideford in its heyday was one of the busiest ports in England. At this time the town was particularly filthy and in an effort to smarten it up, the Mayor ordered hogshead barrels to be placed around the town for locals to dump their waste, which the town corporation then disposed of. This was the forerunner to the national municipal waste collection service we take for granted today.
Parallel to Cooper Street is Bridgeland Street with its fine houses built by local merchants in the 1690s. Checkout number 12, now the Masonic Lodge, and number 28/28A, the oldest original building on the street.
If you know Bideford as a frequent visitor or a local, perhaps you can tell us what we've missed. We'd love to hear about your favourite shop, restaurant or feature of this charming coastal town in the comment box below.