Gardens, coastal walks & hidden beaches in North Devon

Fans of gardens and stunning coastal walks need look no further than Ilfracombe – and there is something to see to suit every age, ability and taste.

Whether you like colourful and long-established gardens, or wild coastal walks, there is a huge variety in the town and surrounding area, from a simple promenade stroll to a hike down the coast to Lee or even Woolacombe for the more adventurous.

Our charming seaside town saw an explosion of activity in the Victorian age as our ancestors set about beautifying the landscape with amazing gardens bursting with colour.

They even changed the coastline so many more people could enjoy it, from cutting new footpaths to carving rock steps and tunnels at popular beaches.

When you stand on the Torrs and look south, the coastline seems to go on forever, with a different mood and stunning vista every day – from sunrise to sunset and in between, the sea and its coast are ever-changing.

Every season is special, but summertime in Ilfracombe has to be the highlight of the year, with a riot of colour at every turn with planters, boats and baskets cascading with flowers planted by Ilfracombe in Bloom who were awarded Gold by South West in Bloom several years running, the planting has now been taken over by Ilfracombe Town Council. The town and its nearby coastal walks have a profusion of wildflowers in every hedgerow and on every meadow.

Those who prefer a more sedate pace are not left out – there is something very special about Runnymede Gardens on the seafront in the summer, with its packed flowerbeds and gentle landscaping, set around the seafront bandstand, which features regular summer performances from local bands and musicians.

It is easy to see why the Victorians loved this place and why so many flocked to the town in the 19th century when railways made it possible.

It isn’t hard to imagine elegant Victorian ladies flowing along the paths at Runnymede, while their nattily dressed gentlemen friends strolled smartly along beside them. And if you visit Ilfracombe during its June Victorian Week, you will see just that!

Bicclescombe Park is on the outskirts of town but still within easy walking distance of the town centre.

Formerly Bicclescombe Pleasure Grounds and opened in 1911, the park is a great place for families, with a children’s play area, duck pond, boat pond, tennis courts and the charming Old Mill House and Tea Rooms.

Venturing further afield, since Victorian times walkers have enjoyed some amazing routes around Ilfracombe and beyond, including the nearby hillsides of the Torrs, the Cairn Nature Reserve and Hillsborough Nature Reserve, site of an Iron Age hillfort and known as ‘the Sleeping Elephant’ because of its outline as seen from the harbour.

Tramping the Torrs and Ilfracombe Viewpoint

The National Trust land at the Torrs offers a variety of short or longer routes to while away an hour, or a whole day walking the coastline.

Free parking is at the car park at the top of Torrs Park Road. Follow the path and South West Coastpath signs and you will be overlooking the sea within minutes.

At the car park, you can follow the upper path near its entrance, which will take you up to the viewpoint via the zigzag path carved into the very rock by the Victorians. The view is fantastic and completed with a toposcope plinth (noting the directions and distances to notable locations).

The lower path from the car park will also take you to the viewpoint, via a lovely winding walk along the flanks of the Torrs, before going upwards. This path will also give you access to the secluded White Pebble Beach.

When you stand on the Torrs and look south, the coastline seems to go on forever, with a different mood and stunning vista every day – from sunrise to sunset and in between, the sea and its coast are ever-changing.

From the coastpath at Torrs, walkers who fancy a real hike may continue to the village of Lee, or even beyond to Mortehoe and Woolacombe. The walk is easily possible in a day, but a reasonable level of fitness is advised.

Climb the Cairn

The Cairn Pleasure Ground & Old Railway (where the trains once arrived in Ilfracombe!) is a lovely woodland full of history and is now the Cairn Woodland Local Nature Reserve.

There are various paths around and up to the top of the Cairn, which as you’d imagine also offers amazing views of the Bristol Channel, looking across to Wales and as far as Combe Martin.

The southern end of the Cairn, the top of Baileys Cleave, gives a panoramic view to the north and east, which many people think is the best in Ilfracombe.

Some 250 species of flowering plants have been catalogued at the Cairn and depending upon the time of year, you may see carpets of bluebells, early purple or common spotted orchids or even lesser butterfly orchids.

The bird life is prolific, foxes, badgers, small mammals, toads, slow worms, grass snakes, adders and hundreds of varieties of insects, moths and butterflies all make their home on the Cairn.   

You can pick up a map featuring easy, medium and hard walking routes at Bicclescombe Mill and the TIC.

Hillsborough – in the footsteps of the Iron Age

At the entrance to Ilfracombe on the Combe Martin road, visitors will see rising before them the shape of Hillsborough, which in fact dominates views in the town from many locations, including as the famous ‘Sleeping Elephant’ when viewed from the pier and harbour.

Hillsborough offers plenty of walks, from the side at Hele or from the swimming pool/Larkstone side of town.

Walkers will enjoy the coastal views from the viewpoint as well as the seasonal wildlife and flowers also found elsewhere on the town’s walks, but Hillsborough’s biggest claim to fame is its large Iron Age hillfort.

The fort is thought to have been occupied from around 300BC to 50AD and must have been an inspiring sight in its heyday.

It sits atop the cliff on a promontory at 375 feet above sea level. For an Iron Age fort in this region, it is thought to have been particularly large, with the banks and ditches on the landward side running to more than 900 feet in length.

It is now a scheduled ancient monument and although overgrown, the earthworks can still be found if visitors care to look.

The fort must have dominated the landscape in ancient times and it certainly conjures up the vision of Iron Age warriors standing vigilant against potential invaders from land or sea.

Gardens to die for

Those wishing to get out and about beyond Ilfracombe during their visit are spoilt for choice when it comes to visiting North Devon’s many well-established gardens that are very much open to the public.

Marwood Hill Gardens is a quite magical hidden gem just a 15-minute drive from Ilfracombe and set within 20 acres, including three lakes.

Created by Dr Jimmy Smart in the 1950s, this private garden welcomes visitors and is a truly relaxing place, with a profusion of stunning flowers and an impressive collection of plants, shrubs and trees. The gardens has one of the largest Camellia collections in the country plus hosts the National Collection of Astilbes which are a riot of colour during the summer.

The garden has its own highly-regarded tea room plus plant sales too.

A trip to Rosemoor

For a longer trip out, visitors are invited to RHS Garden Rosemoor, one of the Royal Horticultural Society’s jewels and approximately a 45-minute drive from Ilfracombe.

Set in the beautiful Torridge Valley between Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, RHS Garden Rosemoor makes for the perfect day out, combining discovery and inspiration. Gifted to the RHS by Lady Anne Berry in 1998, and known for its many garden ‘rooms’, RHS Rosemoor now spans 65 stunning acres.

There is so much to see at RHS Rosemoor and it is constantly changing, with seasonal creations added regularly, so no two visits are the same.

Rosemoor also has its own restaurant and gift shop plus hosts live music, theatre and performance events throughout the year as well as themed periods such as its impressive Glow winter event before and after Christmas.

Numerous talks from visiting experts as well as a wide range of horticulture and gardening workshops are held throughout the year.

Art and gardens at Broomhill

Some 20 minutes from Ilfracombe on the Barnstaple road is Broomhill Estate and Sculpture Garden, which combines extensive gardens with a hotel, restaurant and some incredible artwork.

Throughout the gardens are striking, thought-provoking, interesting and just downright bizarre sculptures from some of the country’s best artists.

Each year Broomhill hosts the National Sculpture Prize, open to the nation’s up and coming sculptors, with one area of the estate set aside for the current exhibits.

Many works are for sale and the exhibition is constantly evolving, so there is always something new to see.

Docton Mill Gardens

Docton Mill, gold medal award winning flower gardens are situated on the Hartland Peninsular around 1 hours’ drive from Ilfracombe.  Set in 9 acres of woodland in a steep valley surrounding a mill pond and river meandering through the garden.  With interest throughout the season with magnolias and vast swathes of narcissi, bluebells and rhododendrons in Spring.

Open April to October, there is also an awarding winning tea room.

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