Bideford’s architecture rivals any in the West Country.
Raise your eyes to the rooftops while walking through the town centre and you will see traces of all the differing styles through many centuries. Bridgeland Street is a good one to start with designed as the ideal model for other towns to emulate, wide and grand. At the Quay end, stands The Old Customs House (now under a different name, but the building hasn’t changed), built in 1695. Close by was a small creek, where the Excise Officer kept his boat, just about where the Post Office is now.
Walking up Bridgeland Street, on the left are houses built at the height of Bideford’s export trade for wealthy, ship owning merchants, designed in 1690 by the surveyor, Nathaniel Gascoigne. The large, sash type, small paned windows, moulded plinths and decorated eaves are typical of the period. Some of the houses had new frontages in Victorian times, but number 28, built of tiny bricks and with gilded drainpipes, still has the dates 1692 and 1693 hidden among the cherubs at the top. The Red house is appropriately named, being covered in reddish tiles – underneath are bricks, just like number 28, but when a brick tax came in from 1784 to 1850, the owner got away with it, as there was no tax on tiles! The Solicitor’s office next door is the same. Tax avoidance was also sought when the window tax came in at the end of the 18th century, and you can still see a few blind’ windows.
Modern shop fronts have robbed us of the original ground floor of some of the houses, and the Carpet Centre (built as a supermarket) replaces the very grand Victorian Music Hall, or Palace Theatre, demolished in the 1960’s. One of the oldest buildings is the Masonic Hall, which has had a varied career, and housed the Library until 1906 when the present one was opened. Lavington Church was built in 1689 in honour of Samuel Lavington, who set up the first Sunday School, and served his flock for 57 years in the ‘Old Meeting House’, and next door stands a very grand house, once a school for girls. There is so much more to tell, and if you are interested in learning about Bideford’s past and feel you could pass on what you know to others, why not consider becoming a Town Guide? Give Mike Day a ring on Bideford 478121, or leave your name with the Town Clerk.
[Additionally, you might be interested to know that the library moved first to Bridge Buildings from the Masonic Hall in Bideford Street it then moved to its present premises in 1906.]