The name of Barnstaple probably derives from the Old English "Beardan Stapol" meaning the post (perhaps a trading post) of a man called Bearda. The first settlement was located on the east bank of the River Taw at the point where the estuary narrowed to a fordable width. By the 9th and 10th centuries, the settlement had become more important than the original hilltop dwellings and defences first created against the invading Danes at nearby Pilton.
Barnstaple, situated some seven miles from the mouth of the River Taw, is one of the oldest boroughs in Britain having received its first charter from King Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great. By Doomsday, in 1086, Barnstaple had a regular market and a coin mint. During the 12th Century, Barnstaple was walled and fortified against intruders, the castle mound, about 12 metres across, may still be seen opposite the Civic Centre. Further charters were granted in the reigns of Henry I, John, Henry VI, Mary and James I. During the Middle and Elizabethan Ages, the town was a major shipbuilding port with a thriving textile industry. Exeter, Plymouth and then Barnstaple were the richest and most important towns in Devon throughout medieval times. In the thirteenth century, much of the town belonged to the Tracey family, whose infamous ancestor was one of the four Knights who murdered Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
The first bridge was built across the Taw in 1437, with sixteen arches and a length of 213 metres, it has been renewed and widened many times since then. The stone piers supporting today's bridge are largely original. Legend tells that Tom Faggus, the Exmoor Highwayman who features in Lorna Doone, was trapped in the centre of the bridge by his assailants closing in from both ends, with a whispered command to his strawberry mare, they cleared the bridge parapet and both rider and horse swam safely away escaping their pursuers. For many years, until 1961, the bridge was managed by Trustees known as the Feoffees ('feoff' is an old English word meaning 'landlord' or a 'person in the possession of land'). With the onset of motor traffic, the trustees were obliged to apply a speed limit to the bridge in 1905,"No locomotive should exceed 2 miles per hour, any vehicle taking longer than 4 minutes and 19 seconds to cross the 253 yard length of the bridge would be liable to a fine of £10.00"!Eventually, new regulations, and the prospect of expenditure far beyond the Feoffees means saw the end of the long history of bridge trustees in Barnstaple.
In Elizabethan times, the town was prosperous through its textile industry and bustling port. In the 17th Century, the Great Quay was built to facilitate cargo handling from merchant ships, around the same period land was drained at the end of the bridge and, in due course, the formal square was created. Tobacco was imported from the New World, pottery, textiles and tools were exported. Such prosperity led to Barnstaple having its own theatre, one of very few in the West Country, in which William Shakespeare and his company played in 1605, for which he received a gift of ten shillings.
At the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, the town sided with Parliament, but was to change sides four times during the ensuing battles. The final battle for Barnstaple was commenced in April 1646, when a large detachment of Parliamentary forces laid siege to the town for five weeks before gaining a surrender from the Barnstaple Royalists, the rest of Devon was already occupied by Cromwell's Parliamentarians.
Pottery has been an important industry for the area since the 13th century, notably Barum Ware and Brannams Pottery. For centuries, Barnstaple was the centre of a thriving woollen industry. By the eighteenth century, the manufacturing had diminished to make way for importing Irish wool and yarns, which were manufactured into goods in the towns of mid-Devon. As the estuary silted up and became shallower, a lot of this sea borne trade passed to the port at nearby Bideford. A brief revival in foreign trade took place in the 1800's when bonded warehouses were established in Barnstaple trading with the Baltic, France, Spain, Portugal and North America. In the 18th Century, Queen Anne's Walk was built as a merchant's exchange.
There is still much evidence of historic buildings and fine architecture to be seen in the centre of Barnstaple. The Penrose Almshouses (1627) in Lichdon Street, Boutport Street, Queen Anne's Walk (1796), Butchers Row, originally built to house the town's 33 butchers in separate cubicles. The Pannier Market (1855) covers some 4200 square metres and is to be found between the High Street and Boutport Street, open Tuesdays and Fridays. For further insight into the fascinating history of this town, you will find a museum housed in the North Devon Athenaeum (1870) situated at the North end of the Long Bridge opposite the square. This fine private house, along with the land known as Rock Park, was given to the town by William Rock in 1888.The arrival of the railways brought increased prosperity to the town which was once the meeting place of five different railway lines. The first to open was the London & South Western from Barnstaple to Exeter line in 1854.
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The oldest church in Barnstaple is the Church of St Peter and St Paul. The nave, chancel and tower represent the original church dedicated 1318 by Bishop Stapledon. There is clear evidence of earlier stonework, the north and south aisles, constructed in 1670, probably replaced earlier buildings. The oddly twisted spire is attributed to a lightning strike in the early 1800's.
Today, Barnstaple is very much the shopping centre for North Devon and the administrative centre for North Devon District Council. There is a wide range of shops in the town, and at the Green Lanes Shopping Centre, there are also other well known shops situated on the outskirts of the town. Traditional shopping may be experienced at the Victorian Pannier Market or Butchers Row with its open fronted shops.
From June until September, "Barnstaple in Bloom" is a marvellous spectacle to behold, a riot of floral colour. Baskets and stands tend to go on display in early June, followed by the major floral displays in mid-July. The town has an impressive list of wins to its credit since the inception of "Barnstaple in Bloom" in 1990.
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The town is at the very heart of North Devon, with roads leading to Ilfracombe, Lynton, Taunton, Tiverton, Exeter and Bideford. The town's recent expansion has been aided by easy access from the M5 Junction 27 via the North Devon Link Road. From the Portmore Roundabout, on the outskirts of Barnstaple, the Atlantic Highway, A39, gives speedy access to the towns and villages beyond Barnstaple as you approach the border with Cornwall. These include Bideford, Great Torrington, Appledore, Westward Ho!, Clovelly and Hartland.
Work will commence shortly on a new Barnstaple Downstream Bridge, a major five span structure, over 400metres in length which will carry a new western bypass linking the A361 Braunton Road to the A39 Atlantic Highway. This will remove a great deal of the heavy congestion which can be experienced in Barnstaple today, this will further enhance Barnstaple's profile and accessibility as the centre of North Devon.
Places to visitThe Barnstaple Heritage Centre is housed in the listed Queen Anne's Walk building. Opened in 1998, the Centre tells the visitor much of the history of this ancient and prominent North Devon town. The Heritage Centre is open Monday to Saturday from 10am - 5pm from April to October, and Monday to Friday 10am - 4.30pm, Saturdays 3.30pm, from November to March.
Further insight into the history of this area can be gained by visiting The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, which is situated in The Square at the end of the Long Bridge. The museum is open all year from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4.30pm, with free admission.
Pannier Market: Tuesday, Friday & Saturday
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North Devon Leisure Centre
Barnstaple is an ideal base when discovering the picturesque Tarka Trail
The Tarka Line running through the scenic Taw valley, 39 miles from Barnstaple to Exeter. For further information go to www.wessextrains.co.uk
Famous Barnstaple People
John Wilson, a ship's captain taken prisoner by the Spanish prior to the "Armada". He was ordered to act as pilot for the Armada, but refused despite threats to his life. Eventually, he was freed by the King of Spain who was impressed by his staunch patriotism.
John Gay, born 1685, author of The Beggars Opera.
Sir Francis Chichester (1901 - 1972):
- In 1929, he became only the second person to fly solo to Australia in a Gypsy Moth plane.
- 1960. Winner of the first Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race in Gipsy Moth III, Plymouth to New York, June 11th-July 21st. His time of 40½ days was 16 days faster than the previous record crossing.
- 1962. In June, broke his own single-handed trans-Atlantic record by 7 days, crossing from east to west in 33 days 15 hours from Plymouth to New York
- 1967. 28th May 19.56 GMT completed voyage round the world at Plymouth Breakwater. 119 days from Sydney and a total of 226 days sailing time.