At a ford on the River Torridge, the area has been settled for over 2000 years. The estuary is tidal was an important route for early traders from the Mediterranean in search of tin, copper and lead. The Vikings used it to attack coastal settlements in the C9th. Domesday Book records fisheries and salt pans here. The estuary was also used by ships to shelter from or repair damage from Atlantic storms.
The first bridge was built across the estuary in 1290. This prevented sea going ships from travelling further upstream and Bideford became established as a major port below the bridge with river barges reaching settlements further up the river.
The port grew rapidly in the middle ages and, for a time, was the third largest port in Britain until being overtaken in importance by Bristol. From the C15th it was one of the main ports for departure to the fishing grounds off Newfoundland. In the C16th and C17th it was one of the main ports for the colonisation of the Americas and also import of tobacco.
Originally, early vessels would have grounded on the sloping bed of the river and unloaded their cargoes onto the river bank. Narrow streets and alleys referred to as ‘drangs’ carried goods to and from the water front. The market place was at the bottom of High Street.
The quay was first developed in 1663 for the rapidly increasing trade with the American colonies. The ships carried locally made pottery and woollen goods to the colonies and returned ladened with tobacco. Trading links were also developed with Northern Europe and Ireland where good quality Maryland tobacco was traded for other goods.
By the C18th, the port began to decline in importance. It is still a working port with exports of ‘ball clay’ along with timber and aggregates being shipped out. The Lundy Ferry also sails from here and takes day trippers from April to October.
Bideford is still a thriving market town serving the local area. The town centre has survived the arrival of the large supermarkets and also a large out of town retail outlet offering reductions on well known brands.The main shopping area is along High Street and the narrow, pedestrianised Mill Street retains many small family owned shops. Some even retain their original frontages with curved glass.
Bideford was granted a Market Charter by Henry III in 1271. Originally on the riverside at the bottom of High Street, it moved to its present position at the on Granville Street in the C16th, when the quay got too busy. This was an open market for both goods and animals. By the C19th traders were demanding better conditions and the present Pannier Market was built in the late C18th to house a fish market, butchery stalls and corn exchange. Traders were still transporting their goods by packhorse in large pannier baskets, hence the name. Farmer’s wives came to sell butter, cream and eggs and there were separate areas for the meat and fish stalls. A separate livestock market was built.
Butcher’s Row on the ground floor retains its traditional Victorian appearance and houses craft workshops including stained glass, wood carving and pottery. Some shops still retain the old meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. Upstairs is the market hall with cafe, and varied stalls selling everything from crafts, plants, home made produce to second hand books.
The Market is open Tuesdays to Fridays from 10-4. A free shuttle bus runs a 20 minute service between the Pannier Market and Victoria Park.
The Long Bridge was first built in 1280 from wood and is still the longest arched bridge in Devon, joining Bideford with East the Water. It had 24 arches of differing widths, probably indicating where the original builders could secure pillars. A chapel was originally built at each end of the bridge. The wood bridge was encased in stone in the early C16th. This was the lowest bridging point of the river and carried all the traffic on the busy A39. It was renovated and widened in 1925, retaining its character.
In 1968, heavy traffic caused the collapse of two of the arches, bringing chaos to the area as all traffic had to be diverted with local traffic carried by ferry across the river. A new bridge was built further downstream and opened in 1987.
Victoria Park at the northern end of the town was opened in the early C20th to celebrate the reign of Queen Victoria. It is an attractive park with trees and flower beds as well a bandstand, open air paddling pool, skateboard park and children’s play area. The C16th ‘Armada’ guns were discovered in the late C19th during work to widen the quay. They may have come from a Spanish ship captured by Sir Richard Grenville on his return from Americas in late C16th.
Burton Art Gallery & Museum in Victoria Park includes the Tourist Information Centre. The building dates from the mid C20th and was built to commemorate the death of Mary Barton, a talented local artist. it still displays work of local artists and has permanent and touring exhibitions of art as well as displays of ceramics and pottery. The museum has a section on history section. There is a gift shop and cafe.
At the end of the Long Bridge is the Town hall, an ornate red brick building dating from the mid C19th, with the mayor’s parlour, court room and council chambers. Next to it is the library which was added in 1905 when the town received a grant from the millionaire library benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, to fund a library.
Near the Town Hall is “St Mary’s Parish Church”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/churches/england/south/southwest/bideford/index.html . This is the third church to be built on this site. Nothing is left of the original cob and wattle Saxon Church which was replaced by a stone church in the C13th. By the C19th this was in a very poor state of repair and was demolished apart from the tower and a new nave and chancel were built. It is a very large church, reflecting the wealth and importance of Bideford at the time. The church is kept locked and only open for services or if there is a prayer meeting.
Bideford is an attractive town to walk round with streets of large well maintained houses. Booklets of a “Hertage Trail”:http://www.bidefordheritage.co.uk/heritage-trail/ around Bideford are available from Tourist Information. Alternatively, details of town trail can be found “here”:http://www.discoveringbritain.org/content/discoveringbritain/walk%20booklets/Bideford%20walk%20-%20written%20guide%202015.pdf .
There is also a very good free “Town Guide”:http://www.bideford-tc.gov.uk/images/stories/2017_Files/Town_Guide/Bideford_Town_Guide_17_18.pdf with lots of information about the town and surrounding area.
Bideford is proud of its heritage and holds an annual Manor Court when members of the public can bring local issues to be considered by the town council and also ideas or projects to make Bideford a better place. There is the Mayor’s Parade in early June after a new mayor has been appointed. In December there is Signing the Lease marking the Town Council taking over the lease of the Pannier Market, when the Mayor and Councillors dispense mead and mince pies.
The town is popular with tourists, either day trippers or those staying longer. But be warned there are a lot of steep hills! It has a frequent bus servie to other towns and villages in the area. It is a vibrant place buzzing with activity throughout the year. There is a regatta, water festival, carnival and Bideford Fair. Turning on the Christmas Lights is marked by Rudolf and his reindeers along with a street market and fair. New Year’s Eve celebrations include a fancy dress party on the quay followed by a firework display. You don’t need to wait until then as the quay is lit up by lights all year after dark.