Barnstaple. Report from the Buildings Section

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Author(s): Wilson. Helen; Year published: 2014; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): buildings; Location(s): Barnstaple

The greater part of Barnstaple lies on the north-eastern side of the lower reaches of the River Taw. It is connected to the south-western side of the river by the medieval Long Bridge, designated not only a grade I listed building, but also a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The early medieval layout of the town is still evident in the street plan and names. Its role as a port is reflected in the naming of Boutport Street, which follows the line of the former town walls. A castle existed here since the 11th century, built first in wood and later in stone, but a ruin by 1326, and now merely a tree-covered motte.

The majority of the listed buildings in Barnstaple lie in a belt running from Newport in the south-east, through the town centre, to Pilton in the north-west. Newport and Pilton were once separate villages, the latter probably pre-dating Barnstaple as a settlement, but both are now suburbs. In Newport, South Street presents a pleasing array of 18th and early to mid-19th century houses, many listed grade II, from Clarence Place in the south through to the probably 16th century Rose and Crown. Turning into Newport Road, there are many good examples of early 19th century houses and a thatched building known as the Old Dairy, which dates from the 17th century or earlier. Further down, Newport Terrace is a notable group of 12 early 19th century houses.

The road continues into New Road and past Rock Park, opposite which is Union Terrace, a row of fine c. 1810 houses with tiered verandas and interesting symmetry. To the north, lies Holy Trinity church (grade II*), noted for its fine tower and William White exterior work. At the end of New Road, Taw Vale follows the river, and there is a group of good early and mid-19th century town houses, culminating in one from 1800, now incorporated into the Imperial Hotel. Litchdon Street to the north presents again some pleasing grade II town houses, but the real interest lies in Penrose Almshouses completed in 1627. This grade I courtyard complex has its own chapel and an entrance porch flanked by nine-bay colonnades. Next door is the former Exeter Inn, probably 17th century or earlier, now converted into flats. Also of interest is Litchdon Pottery, with its pale cream and red brick banding and terracotta detail, dating from at least 1830, possibly from the 17th century.

At The Square, there stands a Clock-tower, erected in memory of Prince Albert in 1862 and restored in 2009. From here, there is a good view of the Long Bridge and, across the other side of The Square, a red brick building of 1872 that was originally a house and is now the Museum of North Devon. Continuing down river, one comes to Queen Anne’s Walk, described by English Heritage (EH) as “an exceptional survival of Barnstaple’s flourishing mercantile history” and listed grade I. It was built as an exchange, richly decorated, around 1706, and was originally a single colonnade facing a quay, now filled in, robbing it somewhat of its context. Attached is a brick building listed grade II, the former public baths.

The main shopping area starts at the bottom of Boutport Street. As in most of our towns, older listed buildings are often masked by 19th century or later shop fronts. Such is the case with many grade II buildings in the Boutport Street and High Street area, where wealthy Barnstaple merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries built themselves impressive town houses that are now disguised by more recent frontages. One that has escaped better than most, and therefore listed grade I, is 62 Boutport Street. It dates from 1620 and was re-fronted in the early 19th century, but retains three fine original ceilings. including one that EH describes as “probably the best piece of urban plasterwork of its period in Devon”. From an even earlier period is 39 High Street, a shop with rooms over that is listed grade II*, parts of which date from the 14th or early 15th century, including the roof structure. It is thought that the rear wing was an open hall, in which case, EH says, this is “a medieval urban house type not known elsewhere in the county”. Another grade II* building in the shopping area is 8 Cross Street, built in 1635 and retaining many original internal features, including a Tudor arch. Also worth visiting in the shopping area is Butcher’s Row, once 22 butchers’ shops, now amalgamated to form 12 shops, and the 1855 Pannier Market.

In this central area is the parish church of St Peter and St Paul (grade II*), which dates probably from the late 12th or early 13th century and incorporates the Dodderidge Library of 1667. Also grade II* are the Guildhall in Butcher’s Row (1826), Paige’s Almshouses in Church Lane (1656) and Horwood’s Almshouses in Paternoster Row (1674). What some consider to be the best ancient building in Barnstaple is St Anne’s Chapel, a chantry from probably the early 14th century, which is listed grade I. It was later a grammar school and is now a museum.

Moving north towards Pilton, one encounters the bridge and causeway crossing and skirting the River Yeo, dating from 1451, but with the bridge rebuilt in 1678 and both widened by 3m in 1821. In Pilton Street, one can immediately appreciate that this was once a wealthy area with its own identity. The Street is lined with handsome houses dating from the early 19th century back to the 17th century or earlier. There is a row of six alms-houses from 1860 and Pilton House, built in 1746 but probably on the site of an earlier dwelling. At the top of Pilton Street lie Feoffee Cottages and Church Cottage, a charming row of alms-houses “enlarged and rebuilt by the Reverend Thomas Boweller, 20 May 1849” according to the wall plaque, but probably 17th century in origin. Behind is the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, grade I listed, formerly part of a Benedictine priory. The present church is 13th and 15th century, with some repair and rebuilding in the 17th. To the left of the alms-houses is Bull Hill, where there are a number of interesting buildings, including grade II Pilton Abbey, never part of a monastic site, built c. 1840, probably with an earlier core. Bull House is probably 15th century, enlarged and partly rebuilt in the early or mid-16th century, and merits grade I listing. Venturing outside the town centre to see this area of Barnstaple will reward the effort.

Helen Wilson

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