Case Study Site 21 – Ilfracombe

Case Study Site 21 – Ilfracombe

1.         Location

This case study covers the Ilfracombe town frontage, a distance of approximately 3km from Torrs Park eastwards to Beacon Point. 

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

Ilfracombe is an example of an important seaside town with a range of interesting architecture set within a dramatic coastal location.  There is additional heritage interest with a promontory fort at Hillsborough, together with other recorded sites of note. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

The geology of the Ilfracombe area comprises mudstones, slates, limestones and sandstones of the Torbay and Tamar Groups of the late Devonian Period.  The town is built on steep slopes that rise from a shore of rocks and coarse grey sand.  The high cliff line is generally resilient and contributes little to sediment for beach material.  However, Jurassic rockfalls can occur from the cliff faces, often on a large scale, and the frequency of such events is likely to increase as a result of sea level rise and coastal change.  There are no current proposals to extend the coastal defences along this frontage. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

The risks to heritage assets along this frontage are low, although likely to increase slowly.  The Case Study was selected to illustrate the merit of artworks in terms of depicting developmental changes.

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

Heritage sites located on or buried close to the north Devon clifflines are likely to be affected eventually by cliff retreat, although it is recognised that this process is slow.  The severe storms of 2013/14 saw wave heights of up to nine metres at Ilfracombe, resulting in structural and flood damage.  St Nicholas Chapel and lighthouse on Lantern Hill, overlooking Ilfracombe Harbour and the open sea, is a Grade I Listed Building, whilst Ilfracombe’s promenade pier (MDV69991) is recorded in the Devon and Dartmoor HER.  These structures and the patterns of development at Ilfracombe over time are illustrated through numerous artworks, many of which are shown below.  Apart from indicating the proximity of heritage sites to the sea coast, they provide a continuous record of the changing patterns of development that have taken place in this important seaside resort over the last two centuries. 

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

The images contained in the Ilfracombe case study provide a comprehensive depiction of the changes that have taken place along the town’s frontage since the early nineteenth century.  They provide detailed depictions of the coastal geology and landscape, as well as showing the gradual development of the town and the changes that have taken place at the harbour and along the seafront over that time.  The case study also contains highly detailed watercolour drawings of the coastal landscapes and these offer direct comparisons with photographic images.  Examples are provided (as was the case with the previous case study at Clovelly) of the meticulous work of Victorian artists, who provided images that, in some cases, matched the quality of present day colour photography.  Bearing in mind that colour photography did not become widely used until the 1920s and 1930s, such representations provide the only colour images of the south-west coast of England right through the Victorian and Edwardian periods. 

Figure 21.1: The rugged and beautiful North Devon coastline is captured in this detailed watercolour by Frederick Jones, c.1860.  The developing town with St Nicholas Chapel (Grade I) overlooking the harbour entrance was also a lighthouse and important landmark.

Figure 21.2: ‘Beacon Point, Ilfracombe looking eastwards from Capstone’.

Both images courtesy of © Bristol Culture (Bristol Museum & Art Gallery).

Figure 21.3: A fine mid-nineteenth century lithograph by W. Spreat showing Ilfracombe’s natural harbour, which is sheltered further by the jetty.  St Nicholas Chapel dominates the skyline with Hillsborough (the hill on the right) being the site of a Promontory Fort. c. 700BC-42AD (MDV 2210).

Figure 21.4: ‘Lantern Hill and Harbour’ by Alfred Robert Quinton, watercolour c.1920 shows the harbour before it was extended with a concrete structure in 1958. 

Image courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 21.5: shows the same view today.

Figures 21.6 and 21.7 provide two further highly detailed ‘geological views’ of the entrance to Ilfracombe Harbour in the 1860s (a further fine watercolour of this subject is held by Ilfracombe Museum).  Frederick Jones’ views date from the mid-1860s and show exactly the nature and condition of the harbour arm and the Chapel (see also Figures 21.1 and 21.2).  Figure 21.8 (bottom) shows the view today from the end of the harbour.  The chapel on Lantern Hill has been a lighthouse since at least 1852 and was later used as a Summer Reading Room.  Figures 21.6 and 21.7 © British Culture (Bristol Museum & Art Gallery).

Figures 21.9-21.11 show three views of Capstone Hill at Ilfracombe, a local landmark, viewed from the west.  Figure 21.9 is a lithograph c.1840 and shows a signal station on the summit of the hill.

Figure 21.10 was engraved in about 1850 and shows the developing resort also looking eastwards.

Figure 11: An early 20th century photograph showing Capstone Hill with the path cut across its cliff face allowing access round the headland.

Image: Wikimedia Commons Licence.

Figure 21.12 shows the Ilfracombe Hotel and Wildersmouth Cove in the late 1860s; the hotel was the largest in the town and opened in 1867.  The hotel had its own Esplanade and seawater baths.

Figure 21.13: In this view by Alfred Robert Quinton the Ilfracombe Hotel occupies a grand position overlooking the dramatically portrayed rocky beach at Low Water.  This watercolour was painted c.1920 and also shows the Granville Hotel, which opened in 1891.

Image courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 21.14: The present day view showing the site of the former Ilfracombe Hotel, which is now occupied by the Landmark Theatre.

Figure 21.15: This pair of views illustrate the photographic accuracy that could be achieved by some of the best nineteenth century artists such as Frederick Jones (Fl.1860s).  Such detailed portrayals of cliff faces allow not just qualitative but also quantitative assessments to be made of cliff and coastline change.  These views show Hillsborough, which includes a promontory fort on its summit (MDV2210).

Image (top) courtesy of © British Culture (Bristol Museum & Art Gallery); image (bottom) courtesy of Steve Daniells/Wikimedia Commons Licence.