Walk 175: Ilfracombe ‘Madonna’s Bra’ Town Trail

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 4.3 miles (6.9km)

Time to walk: This is a walk for wandering, stopping to take pictures, maybe have a paddle & a definite stop at the wonderful Devon Pasty Shop. Needless to say it took us 2.5 hours!!

Difficulty: Easy & all on hard paths

Parking: We parked in the large pay & display Pier car park on the Quay, postcode EX34 9EQ

Public toilets: Several in cafes etc all around the walk & public ones near the Aquarium

Map of the route:

It had been over 40 years since we’d visited Ilfracombe so we thought we’d better go back & see what had changed

We were pleasantly surprised & it was clear that this Victorian seaside town had received some healthy investment.

Ilfracombe has been settled since the Iron Age, when the Dumnonii (the Roman name for the inhabitants of the South-West) established a hill fort on the dominant hill, Hillsborough. The origin of the name is thought to mean the “Valley of the sons of Alfred”. The town comprised two distinct communities; a farming community & a fishing community

We’ll pick up on more as we go so…

Let’s Walk!

1. Our walk around this seaside town begins at the Tourist Information Centre which is located in The Landmark, which also contains the town’s theatre. The cafe makes a great ‘flat white’ too.

Loved & loathed by the locals in equal amounts, the design is known locally as Madonna’s Bra!

Facing the ‘Bra’, turn right & walk along towards the beach…

2. Look at the ‘sculpture’ on the grass…I love this! One of Ilfracombe’s best know sons is triple jumper Jonathan Edwards whose jump record stands at 18.29m

This extremely long mosaic was designed to commemorate Edwards’ phenomenal, unbeaten feat at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg. Each mosaic circle indicates the points for each part of the hop, skip and jump & the whole piece of art is a fitting tribute to the man who lived in Ilfracombe from 1976 to 1987.

Go on…stand at end, have a run up & see how well you do in comparison – it is quite unbelievable

3. Continue along past the beach & bear left up the coast path…

There’s another large circle here known as the ‘Clapping Circle’. If you stand in the middle of the paved circle on the waterfront and clap your hands loudly together, you can hear a high-pitched pinging echo from multiple different directions

4. Follow the path left as it climbs & winds around Capstone Hill. There’s some lovely views across the beach back towards the ‘Bra’

As it bends right around the headland an information board tells you you’re standing at ‘Windy Corner’

Look across to the right…you might just be able to make out Lundy Island. Also on the horizon are the hills of the Gower Peninsula & Swansea. If you see smoke, it’s likely to be the steelworks of Port Talbot

5. Continue around the headland on the path known as Capstone Parade. Look ahead to see Lantern Hill, with the chapel on top & the entrance to the harbour…it started raining at this point!

We’ll be heading towards the harbour shortly, but in the meantime at the end of the headland the Parade bears right back towards the town again…

…& then left along Capstone Road which is rather lovely

6. Have a look at No. 4 on the right which has a plaque showing it to have once been the home of Henry Williamson who wrote ‘Tarka the Otter’

At the end bear right & then left onto the Quay…

7. There’s lots to explore on this street but, if you fancy a bite to eat we can highly recommend the Devon Pasties from ‘Joey’s’ on the left – you’ll probably need to join the queue

Opposite’s The Royal Britannia Hotel which was granted ‘royal status’ when King Edward VII stayed here for one night as a boy of 15. Other guests here have included Lord Admiral Nelson & Lady Hamilton

Slightly further on, on the same side’s ‘Smugglers’ restaurant which was previously called ‘The Quay’ & was co-owned by artist Damien Hirst. Spot the mural near the door

8. Across the road’s the harbour. If the tide’s out it’s a great little beach to give a dog a run off the lead – just be careful of the mud nearer the water’s edge though…

Continue past the Yacht Club

9. As you approach then end of the Quay look up to the left. There on the top of Lantern Hill, behind the Harbour Master’s Office is St Nichols’ Chapel…

The chapel dates back to 1321 & from the middle ages has operated as a lighthouse for the harbour. It’s still a working lighthouse today & thought by many to be the oldest in the country. St Nichols’ stopped being a chapel following Henry VIII’s demolition of the monasteries

10. You can’t miss what you’re walking towards now…it’s ‘Verity’ a 2012 stainless steel and bronze statue created by Damien Hirst. The 66.4 feet tall sculpture stands on the pier looking out over the Bristol Channel. It’s been loaned to the town for 20 years. The name of the piece refers to “truth” & Hirst describes his work as a “modern allegory of truth & justice”.[1]

The photo does not do it justice as it is incredible. The statue depicts a pregnant woman holding aloft a sword while carrying the scales of justice & standing on a pile of law books. Half of the sculpture shows the internal anatomy of the pregnant woman, with the foetus clearly visible. This is pretty typical of Hirst’s work & having attended his controversial exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago, he is definitely ‘Marmite’


11. Walk back along the Quay. On the right’s the Aquarium & we met some people who were really singing its praises. Although it only looks small, it’s deceptive & extends back into the rock. It also concentrate on ‘local’ species including those that can be found on Exmoor

We can highly recommend the cafe at the front which is separate from the Aquarium. The building is actually the original lifeboat station

12. Continue back down the street & turn left after the Royal Britannia Hotel into Broad Street…

Have a look at the various fibre glass panels built into the walls on the left – you may have to cross the road to get the best view. They were once part of the Market Arches near the High Street

13. Turn left at the end of the wall towards the harbour again…

On the right’s the Lifeboat Station which has operated here since 1996

14. Walk down the narrow alley on the right side of the station & cross the road up lovely Fore Street, with some very old pubs & 25 listed buildings…

First up’s the Prince of Wales which was built around 1280. Be sure to duck your head if you go inside!

Almost next door’s Ilfracombe’s oldest pub, the George & Dragon, dating back to 1360. It does have some resident ghosts

15. Have a diversion down the slope opposite & walk along the alleyways of Albert Court…

Here you’ll find some of the old original cottages from the town that have remained unchanged over the years

16. At the end turn left & walk up the hill to join Fore Street once more. Now turn right & continue up the hill towards the High Street…

Pass the clock tower…

17. The High Street is typical of many in the country & the usual facades hide the beauty of the lower levels of the properties. It’s only when you look up that you realise how stunning some of these buildings are…

…including the former Royal Clarence Hotel, which was originally called ‘Suttons’. The name changed in 1827 following the visit of Princess Adelaide, who married the Duke of Clarence

18. The High Street bends left & on the right’s the attractive Lantern Centre, which was originally the United Reform Church built in 1728…

Continue as the road sweeps down the hill & becomes Church Street

Note the Flemish-style gables on the properties along here in the picture above, many of them dating back to the late 1800’s

19. The other attractive properties on the right are called the Northcote Buildings & date from 1880…

At the bottom of the hill, directly ahead are some gardens which house the War Memorial

To the right up the hill, should you wish to visit, is Holy Trinity Church which has links dating back to 1263

20. Turn round to see the turreted Alpha House, which was originally built as a hotel in 1880. Today it’s flats…

Turn left up Church Street…

There’s a wonderful terrace along here

21. Walk to the end of the road. Directly opposite’s The Bath House, which is now a hotel. It was actually built as a replica of the Athenian Treasury at Delphi…

Look to the right to see the entrance to the famous Tunnels Beaches. There’s a small admission charge to the tunnels & please be aware that, when you get there, dogs are not allowed on the beach

22. The four tunnels were carved by Welsh miners during the 1820’s in the days when there was separate bathing. Today one of them is an exclusive wedding venue…

Follow the tunnels down to arrive at the secluded beaches

23. Come back out through the same route & turn left, passing the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea…

The church was built in a gothic style in the 1890’s

Turn left. Ahead of you now’s the imposing spire of Emmanuel Church which was built in 1898…

24. Go into & have a look at the attractive gardens on the left. You can see ‘Madonna’s Bra’ coming into view again

Behind the gardens is Ilfracombe’s Museum which opened in 1932 & contains over 28,000 objects in its collection including shrunken heads. There is an admission charge

Walk round the corner to The Landmark & where this walk began. So that’s the end of our stroll around this seaside town & it’s definitely worth a look if you’re in the area

Go Walk!