With rugged cliffs, handsome Victorian townhouses and villas, lanes that tumble down the hill to the sea, and a pretty harbour, Ilfracombe is a delightful seaside town.
This is a place to explore, with lots of independent shops, footpaths on the surrounding headland and amazing tunnels cut into the cliffs. Not to mention Damien Hirst’s famous sculpture and his bar and restaurant. Old-fashioned charm with a contemporary edge.
What’s there to do in Ilfracombe?
One of the real pleasures of Ilfracombe is wandering its streets, enjoying the delightful Victorian and Regency architecture and browsing the town’s many independent shops.
A perfect example of this is The Cotton Tree on Fore Street, which sells exquisite handmade toys and organic cotton clothing for little ones. It’s the ideal place to buy an utterly unique gift for a child or grandchild. Also on Fore Street, The Periwinkle is Ilfracombe’s first knitting café, which mixes the joy of knitting with a good cup of coffee and a slice of cake. The café runs workshops, helping visitors get to grips with basic granny squares, cable and beading and other knotty knitting issues. All accompanied by a large selection of teas, coffees and home-made cakes. And if you need to stock up on wool, the shop has a huge selection of yarns, sourced both locally and internationally. An Aladdin’s cave for both knitting experts and beginners!
If you’re after a more energetic experience and keen to explore the coast, then why not do it aboard a 10m RIB travelling at 20 knots? Ilfracombe Sea Safari departs daily between April and October, taking passengers on an exhilarating and fascinating journey up along the coast. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot seals, porpoises and even dolphins. But even if you don’t, you’re sure to enjoy the magnificent cliffs, headlands, beaches and coves.
Equally exciting, a day at Keypitts offers heart-stopping fun and, without doubt, a good splattering of mud! The farm is famed for its quad-biking and 4x4 experiences. Participants get full training from qualified instructors and are then able to get out on the trails and tracks. You can also go mountain biking on the farm. Hours of fun and a real adventure.
For adventures of a less heart-pounding nature, visit the Tunnels Beaches back in Ilfracombe. Excavated by Welsh miners in the early 1830s, the tunnels in question put inaccessible Crewkhorne Cove within reach of swimmers, helping turn Victorian Ilfracombe into a prime tourist destination. Swimmers were initially segregated for reasons of propriety but now it’s open for all to enjoy. Children (and adults) will love the sheltered tidal pool, refreshed twice a day by the sea’s advance, as well as the rock pooling. There’s also the stylish Café Blue Bar at the entrance to the tunnels, where visitors can sun themselves on the sheltered courtyard while their kids play in the outdoor and indoor play areas.
A final mention should go to Verity. Many art lovers head to Ilfracombe simply to see her and, once you’ve clapped eyes on this striking sight, you’ll understand why. ‘Verity’ is a huge sculpture of stainless steel and bronze created by Damien Hirst, which depicts a pregnant woman holding a sword aloft while carrying the scales of justice and standing on a pile of law books. Perched on the pier overlooking the harbour, she is a full ten inches taller than Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North and was, at the time of her installation, the tallest statue in the UK. Quite a sight.
Where are the best places to eat and drink in Ilfracombe?
From down-to-earth boozers to upmarket dining, Ilfracombe is full of treats.
If you’re visiting the Tunnels Beaches, a stop at The Café Blue is a must. Offload the children in the play area and relax with a coffee or tea on the sunny courtyard, or enjoy the all-day breakfast, lunch or cream tea. The menu is a mix of classic British and Mediterranean – expect to tuck into a smoky bacon bap, Greek salad or gourmet burger.
If you’re a fan of contemporary art, The Quay is a must-visit. You’ll be treated to stunning views of the harbour and sea, while dining alongside original works by artworld enfant terrible, Damien Hirst (who also happens to own the restaurant). The menu takes its inspiration from British and European cuisine and prides itself on sourcing produce as locally as possible. Enjoy a drink in the bar or on the outside terrace facing the harbour, before moving into one of two dining areas. A slice of metropolitan sophistication in North Devon!
By contrast, the Ship and Pilot is a more down-to-earth venue. A no-frills pub that only serves sandwiches, crisps and snacks, it nonetheless attracts a loyal following for its exceptional range of real ales and ciders. At any time, visitors can expect six ales on tap, which will have been carefully chosen from breweries in Devon and Cornwall – among them Exmoor, Otter, Wizard (in Ilfracombe itself), St Austell, Bays and Teignworthy.
Just three miles west of Ilfracombe on the South West Coast path, pretty Lee is a lovely village that sits in a wooded combe. Famed for its abundance of fuschia and Victorian planting, the village is also home to The Grampus Arms. It’s a welcoming pub set in an ancient building, parts of which date back to the 14th Century. However history isn’t the big draw here, but an excellent selection of local ales and organic wines – all of which are sourced from Spain – as well as the food. Expect a menu of hearty dishes that mixes British classics like bangers & mash with more European style mains, such as Hungarian goulash. The pretty garden is a lovely spot for lunch in the summer while in the winter, the pub becomes a hive of games – with backgammon, table-tennis, cribbage, darts and skittles among the many played. Walkers and their dogs are very welcome.