How Victorian bathers came to take the health-giving waters at Ilfracombe
Today my old friend, Wools, and I visited Tunnels Beaches in Ilfracombe; a shameful first for both of us – it must be said, more so for him, as he has lived in this area for far longer than have I. It was an unseasonably warm day, the temperature reaching 19°C in mid-afternoon, and schools are closed for the week, so there were plenty of families enjoying themselves on the sand and rocks. The rock pools here are purported to be amongst the best in the UK.
The beach is accessed by around 200m of tunnels which were carved through the rock in the early 1820s by a huge team of Welsh miners, then a Bath House was built at the entrance which provided hot and cold saltwater pools for the use of the public. Tidal pools were also constructed on the beach itself, one for ladies and one for gentlemen; the ladies pool still survives, but the men’s pool has been destroyed by storms over the years. Bathing machines (movable beach huts) would be pulled down to the sands in the summer so that ladies could discreetly change into their bathing attire before taking to the waters, and swimming instruction was available. Of course privacy was guaranteed by sentries who stood guard around the pool perimeter and sounded a bugle if any errant male was seen attempting to peep. In 1905, after 82 years of segregation, the owners relaxed their straight laces, and mixed bathing was introduced. I expect the relatively recently deceased Queen Victoria was turning in her grave. …click on pic to enlarge…
Today there is a fee charged to enter the tunnels (£2.50 for adults) and a snack bar, beach shop and toilet facilities are available. The men’s beach, with it’s function room and terrace, is sometimes closed to the public in the event of a wedding (as it was today), but there is plenty of fun to be had on the ladies’ side. The beach is a mixture of coarse black sand and flat pebbles, which proved ideal for skimming across the surface of the pool, and the atmosphere is quite enchanting; the high cliffs all around hide any sight or sound of modern life, and it was easy to imagine oneself living in another era entirely.
While we were in the town, we also visited St. Nicholas’s Chapel, which was built in 1321 on a mound overlooking the harbour. It was originally intended as a place of worship for harbour folk, but has also served as a family home, a reading room and laundry, as well as a lighthouse. It is still a working lighthouse today, and is believed to be the oldest in the country. Ilfracombe has acquired a bit of a reputation over the years; the once glorious seaside resort of the Victorians has suffered somewhat from neglect and the rise of the continental package holiday, but there are some hidden gems to explore and lots more reasons to visit. A regeneration project has seen an injection of cash into the municipal funds and there are lots of improvements evident such as the harbour area (which is always buzzing with visitors), art galleries, installations and top-notch eateries.