48 Hours in Tiverton
PUBLISHED: 16:20 24 October 2007 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013
Both a market town and a mill town, with a mix of buildings from the medieval to the modern, Tiverton is the largest and most varied settlement in Mid-Devon and makes an ideal base for exploring this tranquil area of the county
Well situated in the beautiful Exe valley and surrounded by green hills, Tiverton began life as the Saxon settlement of 'Twyforde', meaning two fords, as it lies at the confluence of the Exe and the Lowman. The town's wealth was built on the wool trade, for long Devon's chief industry. Wealthy Tiverton wool merchants bequeathed the town some of its finest historic buildings, including Blundell's Old School, the Greenway and Slee Almshouses, as well as the splendid South Porch and Greenway Chapel at St Peter's Church.
Leicestershire lace manufacturer John Heathcoat took over one of Tiverton's last mills in 1816. The factory he founded remains the town's core industry, and is surrounded by streets of workers' houses reminiscent of northern England. Knightshayes, the Heathcoat-Amory's Victorian Gothic mansion, stands in a handsome park overlooking the town and is open through the National Trust.
Tiverton also has a grandiloquent Victorian town hall, a medieval castle and the Grand Western Canal, now a linear country park. It offers a good variety of shops and a lively Pannier Market through the week.
A six-mile drive north along the Exe Valley leads to Bampton, an attractive, stone-built town with an historic church and castle. Four miles downriver is Bickleigh, with its 16th-century bridge and two riverside inns. The restored watermill is a noted rural shopping and dining attraction next to the popular Devon Railway Centre.
Exploring the town
Tiverton's main sites are within easy walking distance and marked with informative blue plaques. Walk uphill from the Tourist Information Centre, Phoenix Lane. Turn left into Fore Street. Walk past the handsome town hall. Bear left into Bridge Street for a classic view of the Exe. Retrace your steps. Turn right into St Andrew's Street.
Tiverton Museum of Mid-Devon Life (tel 01884 256295) has displays covering agriculture, industry, transport and domestic life. Favourite exhibits include the 'Tivvy Bumper', a GWR locomotive, the Bolham Roman Bowl, farm wagons, local clocks and grizzly mantraps. Recently redeveloped, the museum is open Monday to Friday 10.30am-4.30pm and Saturdays 10am-1pm from February to Christmas.
Retrace your steps and continue into St Peter's Street, the most charming in the town. Chilcott School (1611) stands opposite the Great House and Slee Almshouses, built by wealthy Tiverton wool merchant, George Slee, in the early 17th century.
St Peter's handsome tower is 15th-century. Clothier John Greenway funded the splendid south porch with its remarkable frieze of armed merchant ships and the Greenway Chapel in 1517. The brass candelabrum (1709) is the largest in Devon. Note also the Tudor and Stuart monuments and the fine Victorian stained glass.
Until 1539, Tiverton Castle was the main residence of the Courtenays, created Earls of Devon in 1335. It was 'modernised' in the 16th and 17th centuries. An exploration of the gatehouse, tower and domestic range (open Sundays and Thursdays to the end of October) reveals its long history.
Cut back to Fore Street via the Market Place. Regular markets offer a rich taste of local life: on Monday an antiques market is held; on Tuesday and Friday there is a general market; and household goods and furniture are sold on Wednesday and Thursday. The Farmers' Market is the third Wednesday of every month and the Boot Fair every Sunday from 2pm.
Turn left into Fore Street. Continue into Gold Street to the Greenway Almshouses. Cross Lowman Bridge with its Edwardian clock tower and walk on to Old Blundells, where Peter Blundell founded his public school in 1604. RD Blackmore was one of several famous pupils and Lorna Doone opens with a fight in the playground. Blundell's School now thrives in more modern buildings.
Stop for a bite to eat
Tiverton offers a number of well priced places to eat, strong on traditional menus. Try Four and Twenty Blackbirds (tel 01884 257055); Mallards Restaurant and Tea Rooms (tel 01884 252258) or Mad Hatters Cafe Bar and Restaurant (tel 01884 252365), a family business offering an eclectic menu that changes through the day.
For something exotic, head for the Gate of India (tel 01884 252380), voted the Best Indian Eating House in Devon in 2001, with a certificate from Good Food UK. Proprietor Chand Ali prides himself on his freshly ground spices, good food and good service.
Outside the town, Bickleigh Mill's Bistro and Bar (10am-5.30pm daily, plus Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings) offers a wide choice, from homemade cakes to paninis and open sandwiches, salads and main courses based on meat, fish and vegetarian recipes.
Bampton has a variety of eating places, including the 14th-century Swan Hotel and Restaurant (tel 01398 331257), which offers coffee, snacks, light lunches and three-course meals, all reasonably priced and prepared from local ingredients. Also good value with freshly prepared food is Blackberries (tel 01398 331842). The wide-ranging menu includes nearly 50 items.
Three things to take home
Lantic Gallery, 38 Gold Street (tel 01884 259888) exhibits work from a variety of artists, selected for their fresh and individual approaches. Exhibits are constantly changing, but include ceramics, paintings, sculpture, jewellery and glassware.
Dane T's Dolls House Miniatures in Angel Hill (tel 01884 251112) has a fascinating range of houses in stock. Specialising in 1Ú12 scale, Dane T's offers everything to furnish miniature houses and gardens, from horses to hats, dolls and even tiny DVD players.
Bickleigh Mill (tel 01884 855419), open daily, is an Aladdin's cave for Christmas gifts. Browse through fashions, pottery, glassware, kitchenware, handbags, walking sticks, jewellery, toys and more besides. Watch Stuart Duncan (left) throwing pots on the wheel and see the waterwheel and mill machinery in action.
What to do in and around the town
Knightshayes Court at Bolham (tel 01884 254665) has a huge garden with extensive walks, lovely through the seasons, not least in autumn. Designed by William Burges, the interiors are colourful and imaginative, a mix of medieval romanticism and lavish Victorian decoration.
Although Knightshayes officially closes on 4 November, it offers several special events through the month, including the Craft Fair on 13/14 November. Book in advance to see the house 'put to bed' on 25 November; learn how to make wreaths, garlands and table sprays on the 26th; or take the children to meet Father Christmas on the 28th from 12 noon-3pm.
For a breath of fresh air, make for the Grand Western Canal, designated as a linear country park. Stroll or cycle along the canal towpath and enjoy fine views over the rolling hills of Mid-Devon and on to the Blackdowns. Usually visitors can see the Tivertonian moored in the canal basin; this traditionally built and decorated horse-drawn narrow boat now provides trips (April to October, tel 01884 253345).
Water birds, including swans, ducks, geese and dippers abound, as do water-loving plants. There is also a good deal of historic interest, including bridges, milestones, limekilns and wharves on the Grand Western.
The canal was first planned in 1792 to cut across the Westcountry isthmus and thus save shipping freight by the long and dangerous Land's End journey. However, only the 11-mile section from Tiverton to Lowdswells Tunnel was built as a barge canal. The arrival of the Bristol and Exeter Railway (today's main line) in 1844 took away most of the canal's business.
Although Tiverton lost the Exe Valley line in 1963, much railway memorabilia is preserved at the town's museum and the delightful Devon Railway Centre at Bickleigh's old station (tel 01884 855671). The handsome station house and engine shed have been restored to prime condition and packed with railway memorabilia. Track has been laid around the site and visitors enjoy unlimited rides on the narrow and miniature gauge railways - Bickleigh has the largest narrow gauge collection in the West.
Equally impressive is the new model village and the 15 model railway layouts. The period detail is remarkable. Each layout is controlled by its own push button.
Although the centre closes on 28 October, it re-opens for the popular December Santa Specials weekends on 15th and 16th, 22nd and 23rd.
Tourist Information: Phoenix Lane, tel 01884 255827
Parking: Long stay at Phoenix Lane multi-storey, Wellbrook Street or Westexe South. Short stay at Beck Square, Market Place and William Street
National Rail Enquiries: tel 08457 484950.
National Express Coaches: tel 08705 808080
Tiverton Carnival is scheduled for Saturday 24 November. The Christmas Lights Switch-on will be at 7pm, followed by the colourful procession with floats, the Carnival Queen, Father Christmas, live music, dance and fireworks