Walk - Torridge Ships & Shipbuilding

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2021. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. From the bridge end of Bideford Quay, with your back to the medieval Long Bridge and its 24 ill-assorted arches, walk straight ahead along the quayside. Carry on through Victoria Park, continuing along the South West Coast Path at the far end.

Across the park stands the Burton Art Gallery and Museum. Established in 1951 by local businessman Thomas Burton and successful artist Hubert Coop, the gallery was opened to commemorate the untimely death of Burton’s daughter, Mary. In a letter to the Bideford Gazette, Coop wrote: ‘It’s a happy chance that two old townsmen have come together to make a last effort to leave the town richer than they found it. The gallery should be a peaceful haven where one may take a quiet look at beautiful things'. Among the 'beautiful things' on show is a detailed scale model of the many transformations of Bideford Bridge (see the Torridge Estuary Walk).

  1. Approaching the high Torridge Bridge, bear right after the small roundabout to go under the bridge. Go straight ahead past the cottage and along the stone wall to return to the riverside, following the Coast Path waymarkers. Turn left at the river to walk along a low cliff at Lower Cleave and past the old Cleave Quay. Carry on along the road ahead and straight on along the Coast Path when another path crosses yours. Here the Coast Path heads inland again, around the backs of riverside houses, before carrying on through woodland above the river.
  2. Bear right onto Windmill Lane. If the tide is low you can cross the dyke ahead, but otherwise you will need to take the detour to the left. As you approach the shipyard, the Coast Path turns left to follow the fence around its landward side, coming out on the Wooda Road.

Torridgeside has a maritime history going back through many centuries. Sixteenth-century Devon adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh was said to have landed his first consignment of tobacco at Bideford. His distant cousin, Richard Grenville, was Lord of the Manor of Bideford and admiral of the Elizabethan fleet responsible for establishing a military colony off the coast of North Carolina in 1585. Building on the 1272 town charter granted to his ancestor, also Richard Grenville, he created the Port of Bideford in 1575, transforming it from a quiet fishing town to a major trading centre.

The area's shipbuilding tradition also goes back many centuries. Traveller John Leland noted in his 1540s 'Journey through the South Western Counties’ that Bideford had an entire street of ‘smiths and occupiers for ship crafts’. The earliest recorded vessel built by Bideford shipwrights was a 250-ton ship, made in 1566 for an Exeter merchant.

Like many of the creeks and rivers around the south west in medieval times, the hills flanking the Torridge valley were covered in oak woodlands. This provided the curved timber for the frames and outer planking of early ships; while the elms and pines growing a little further inland were ideal for the keels, masts and spars.

The last wooden merchant ship to be built here was launched in 1912, when the earliest riveted wrought-iron vessels were constructed in Appledore's 'Iron yard'.

The First World War brought an urgent demand for ships to replace those sunk during the hostilities. Later, during the Second World War, there was a need for wooden mine sweepers, as steel ships were vulnerable to the magnetic mines now being used. The Torridge was an ideal place for the testing of top secret weapons and equipment, and the shipyards were kept busy, building, repairing and modifying craft for the Admiralty.

Orders kept coming in from both the Admiralty and NATO, even after the second World War, as well as from the private sector, which wanted motor fishing vessels and commercial and leisure craft. Between 1946 and 1964, more than 80 ships were launched in Appledore by shipbuilders PK Harris. Nearby a smaller specialist yard was kept busy with the construction of replica ships such as a Roman galley, a Viking longboat and Sir Francis Drake's 'Golden Hinde'.

Appledore Shipbuilders was founded in 1965, with Europe's largest covered yard, built over a massive dry dock. In the next four decades, nearly 200 registered vessels were built here, including tankers, container ships, ocean survey ships and tugs.

  1. Turn left on Wooda Road and walk a short distance to take the public footpath opposite, signed between the gateposts. As the drive curves to the right, the footpath turns left and follows the left-hand hedge through the field, turning left again at the far end and following the next left-hand hedge to come out on the left-hand side of the house ahead, on Pitt Hill.
  2. Turn right and walk down the road to the main A386 road into Appledore. The bus stop for the return to Bideford is on your left once you reach the main road; but to visit the Maritime Museum first, turn right instead to walk the short distance to Odun Road, opposite, following the brown signs to the museum.

The seven exhibition rooms of the North Devon Maritime museum present a wonderful tale of Second World War beach landing experiments, smugglers and shipwrecks, sail and steam vessels. The museum is open most afternoons from Easter until October, with extended opening hours during the high season. For further details see www.northdevonmaritimemuseum.co.uk

Nearby refreshments

In Bideford and in Appledore

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