North Devon Coast

National Landscape

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Ilfracombe & Lee

Ilfracombe and its surrounding area has it all: dramatic natural scenery, plentiful wildlife, an idyllic medieval harbour and historic tales of bravery, fame and tragedy. It has both Georgian oppulance and Victorian grandeur; a place that is beautiful, fascinating and truly unique. More recently, the town has attained strong artistic connections, puts on whacky local events and is a great spot for foodies. The area also has a multitude of local walks for all abilities and a National Cycle Route – all with beautiful views around almost every corner.

Nature and Landscape

The spectacular unspoilt coastline around Hele, Ilfracombe and Lee is crammed full of wonderful wildlife habitats from windswept coastal heath to ancient woodland. But it’s not just on land that nature flourishes. The foreshore around Ilfracombe is great for spotting sea anemones, periwinkles, prawns, crabs, limpets and blennies are just a few of the animals that can be closely observed in the pools.

The waters off the coast are also a valuable habitat for all cold water corals, porpoises and seals. In fact, the coastline is so special that it is designated as a North Devon Voluntary Marine Conservation Area (VMCA). Stretching from Combe Martin to Croyde to an offshore depth of 20m, the VMCA helps to make sure our sea creatures can continue to call North Devon home. Trips along the coast and to Lundy Island on MS Oldenberg, and wildlife watching trips on smaller vessels both regularly depart from the harbour.

With such diverse wildlife in residence, it’s no surprise that this landscape is carefully managed. Ilfracombe contains areas officially recognised as: RIGS (Regionally Important Geological Site), Wildlife Site, CWS (County Wildlife Sites), SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), Ancient Woodland and LNR (Local Nature Reserve) as well as being part of the North Devon Coast AONB.


Historic Ilfracombe parish stretches for four miles from Hele in the east to Lee Bay in the west. The town gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Alfreincoma’, which means ‘small wooded valley of the sons of Alfred.’

One of Ilfracombe’s most well loved places to take in the views, lies on its northern edge between the harbour and Hele Bay: Hillsborough Local Nature Reserve – also the site of an Iron Age Hillfort some 2,000 years old. Ancient artifacts and archaeological sites show human life in this area stretches back further still – to the early Bronze Age. Standing stones at Lee and tumuli (ancient circular earthworks) are still evident on many hilltop locations around the area . These high places are worth a visit, if only to take in the views. Hore Down Gate, just a couple of miles inland, is the highest at 860 feet (270m).

In its heyday, Ilfracombe was a very popular Victorian seaside resort. The coast’s distinctive Tunnel Beaches were cut by Welsh Miners during the mid 1800s. In Victorian days, the tunnels led to separate pools for male and female bathers. If one tried to visit the other, a special attendant would blow a bugle to keep the unwelcome visitors at bay. Paddle steamers from south Wales provided enhanced transport links, as did the railway line which serviced Ilfracombe from 1874 right up until 1970. Both allowed tourism to flourish. One of the last surviving paddle steamers, ‘The Waverley’ still visits Ilfracombe harbour. The railway route is now part of the Tarka Trail and National Cycle Route 27 – great for exploring the area on foot or on bike.

On first appearance, most could be forgiven for thinking that Ilfracombe owes its place in history to the Victorians. While it’s true that the Victorians did shape a large part of this town, if you look beyond the grand hotels, the curious tunnel beaches and the classic cosiness of the seaside B&Bs you’ll find a far older medieval heritage; radiating around the harbour and the 13th century Holy Trinity parish church. Historic Fore Street houses several buildings from this time, including a public house, whilst St Nicholas’ Chapel, built in 1361, is unique in that it is perched at the top of Lantern Hill, overlooking the harbour. There are also two surviving watermills to be seen in the area. They are proof of Ilfracombe’s agricultural past. One still grinds flour at Hele and the other is now a lovely cafe at the popular Bicclescombe Gardens – close to the parish church.

For a fun way to find out more about the area’s past visit Ilfracombe Museum tucked away behind one of Ilfracombe’s most distinctive modern buildings – the Landmark Theatre. Love it or hate it, the Landmark has won architectural awards for its unusual double-conical design. It’s handy to know that it also houses the area’s local Tourist Information Centre.

Arts and culture

Author Mary Anne Evans, otherwise known as George Eliott, visited Ilfracombe and nearby Lee around 1856. Mary wrote influential novels such as Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. During her stay in North  Devon she wrote a journal of her time here. See links for further information.

Victorian naturalist Philip Henry Gosse moved to Ilfracombe in 1852.  Whilst here he wrote ‘A naturalist’s rambles on the Devonshire coast’, published in 1853. This work brought the science of marine biology to the public for the first time, contributing in part to the rock pooling craze of the mid-Victorian period. A few years later he was instrumental in the development of the first aquariums.


Walking and wildlife spotting Ilfracombe is a stunning place to stretch your legs. What better way to take in the local landscape? Use our interactive map to help give you some ideas. Why not follow some of the Linked Points on the top right of this page to get you started.

Picnicking and rockpooling Why not print off the guides in our Resources section and visit one of the areas Rocky Beaches for the day. There are plenty within walking distance or a short bus journey from Ilfracombe. Ilfracombe aquarium at the harbour is also a must for amateur marine biologists!

History hunting Either at Ilfracombe museum or in the huge outdoor museum provided by this historic area and landscape

Sailing and fishing For those of a more sporting disposition, Ilfracombe harbour is the spot for sailors and sea anglers alike, or if you simply want to find out more about our seas – why not visit the local aquarium in the harbour!

Local events

  • Devon Coast to Coast Trek, June. An annual charity event stretching 150 miles from Ilfracombe to Plymouth
  • Victorian Celebration, June. This is the highlight of the year. It’s when the whole town celebrates its Victorian heritage and dresses up in the costume of the day. Expect horse drawn carriages, steam engines, Punch & Judy shows, street entertainment, brass bands and boat trips. No visitor goes home disappointed.
  • Birdman, August. Something for the inventor in you. Or the fool. This massively popular event sees brave and misguided men and women trying – and failing – to fly from Ilfracombe’s pier.
  • Rescue day, August. Something for the big kid inside all of us. This is the UK’s biggest rescue services day. Choppers, burgers, fun, frolics, heroes, daredevils, the lot.
  • The National Trust also run regular events and activities in this area. For further details please visit see the National Trust link on the right for the page. And look out for opportunities to join one of the rock pool rambles held in the spring and summer.