River Torridge at Bideford
Make Bideford your base and you’ll be ideally situated for exploring North Devon and Exmoor, but Bideford has more going for it than that. To start with Bideford is a historic port town spanning the estuary of the River Torridge; it is also home of the Grenville family, who were so influential in British history.
The Grenvilles were lords of the manor of Bideford; they played a major role in the town’s development over the years and were instrumental in the development of the port into a major centre of trade. Admiral Sir Richard Grenville, cousin to Sir Francis Drake, is probably the best known of the Grenville clan, although his father Sir Roger Grenville was the Captain of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose when she sank in Portsmouth Harbour in 1545.
Richard began his career as a 20 year old member of parliament, but turned to soldiering and distinguished himself in the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian’s war against the Turks fought in Hungary in 1566.
In 1569 Grenville arrived in Ireland where, among other things, he served as Sheriff of Cork.
In 1574 Grenville submitted a proposal to the Privy Council to take a single ship to plunder Spanish treasure ships and plant colonies in South America and from there to sail across the ‘South Sea’ in hope of finding a short cut to the Spice Islands and ‘terra australis incognita’.
In 1585, Grenville was admiral of the seven-strong fleet that brought English settlers to establish a military colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern North Carolina in North America. He returned to Roanoke in 1586 to find that the surviving colonists had departed with Drake. Grenville left 15 of his own men to defend Raleigh’s New World territory.
In 1588 Grenville again distinguished himself, this time in the fight against the ‘invincible’ Spanish Armada.
In 1591 Grenville was appointed Vice-Admiral of the Fleet under Thomas Howard and was charged with maintaining a squadron at the Azores to waylay the return to Spain of the South American Spanish treasure fleets. He took as his flagship HMS Revenge, a ship of new design, later considered to be a masterpiece of naval construction. The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson in his work The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet romanticised the last of Sir Richard Grenville’s battles: “Out-gunned, out-fought, and out-numbered fifty-three to one“, Grenville was said to have wished to blow up his ship rather than give up the fight.
But enough of Grenville’s personal history. By the 16th century Bideford had become Britain’s third largest port. Sir Walter Raleigh landed his first shipment of tobacco here, although, contrary to popular belief, he was not the first to import tobacco to England. Bideford was heavily involved in the transport of indentured servants to the New World colonies and was also heavily involved in the Newfoundland cod trade; some 28 Bideford vessels with a combined tonnage of 3860 tons were involved in this practise in the year 1700.
East the Water is less commercial than the main part of the town on the west of The Torridge and is well worth a look. I particularly enjoyed the waterfront.
East the Water
A bridge spanning the River Torridge and connecting the East and West of the town was said to have been built out of timber in the year 1286. In 1474 the original structure was replaced by the masonry arch bridge, known as The Long Bridge, seen today.
The Long Bridge
West Bideford retains many charming aspects from its past, including some very narrow streets, alleys and wynds. Something else I found charming was the number of independent shops that have survived in the town. Oh yes there are some chain stores, but even they have, for the most part, retained the traditional flavour of the town.
Shopping in Bideford
Shopping in Bideford
Bideford also has a few remarkable administrative buildings; the Town Hall in particular caught my eye.
Bideford Town Hall
To appreciate Charles Kingsley’s description of “The Little White Town which slopes upward from its broad river tide” make sure you approach this ancient port and market town from “East the Water” and cross the ancient Long Bridge which spans the River Torridge… you’ll be glad you did.