The railway used to stretch from Waterloo to Ilfracombe.
The pleasure craft used to ply their trade from Swansea across the Severn taking factory workers for a day out.
On a bleak, pouring with near horizontal rain soaked Bank Holiday Monday the promise of “curious coastal charm” is wholly absent from this faded seaside town. It is replaced by a witless “Jeeeezus: what a depressing place” that – on a day like today – would appear to have a great future behind it.
You're thinking: My my. What a travel snob Mr Beer has become. Let me expand my thoughts.
Growing up in Swansea, Ilfracombe was visible of an evening with its twinkling streetlights in the far distance across the Bristol Channel. Well, I say visible. It sometimes was when it wasn’t raining. So let’s settle on occasionally glimpsed. Of course, that’s when the world was in black and white and there was only one Severn Bridge. Ilfracombe offered the promise of a little English class so far away across the sea. A better kind of seaside. The kind that my Grandparents used to take the paddle steamer across to in a brief escape from grimy, nose-to0the-grindstone industrial South Wales. [Side note: grwoing up in Wales, it was assumed that everywhere else was somehow a bit better. England for example. It turns out that this outright lie was perpetrated very effectively. Possibly by the shadowy English Pomposity Council. A bit like Spectre in the ‘Bond movies, only with Morris dancers and cream teas.]
I’m forty-two – BTW I still don’t know what question is – and despite living for many years in line of sight with the place it’s my very first time in Ilfracombe. I was a little excited. A quick peek at www.visitilfracombe.co.uk reckons you can “enjoy… in all seasons.” Well dear reader, today we’ve had rainy season and I’ve comprehensively failed to enjoy.
Pasties from bakeries and ice-cream on the harbourside punctuate the otherwise shapeless soul sapping gloom.
Standing under awnings to avoid the incessant Bank Holiday deluge, whilst waiting for the family who are dawdling around tat shops, leads one to furtively people watch. This is, of course, great fun in almost any weather and leads me to observe many a wee moment.
- The park’n’ride bus driver arguing with the motorist on the gridlocked quayside.
- The loud meat-headed bodybuilders with sunburn – Sunburn? How? Where? – eating infeasibly large ice-creams as they stride down the middle of the road in vests. In the rain.
- So very many females smoking.
- Another “lady” bawling at one of a mini-bus’ worth of kids (faaaag in ‘and).
- Multifarious amateurishly scribed tattoos on seemingly random body areas. Inappropriate Hawaiian board shorts clashing with vulgar branded urban wear avec shoes (fat laces undone).
- Window displays that were state of the art in an era that never really existed and haven’t been dusted/rearranged since.
- (Why do seasdide shops in Britain sell so many knives?!)
- A pensioner with handbag in a mac’ and – I swear – a velour skirt with one leg somewhat bigger than the other. Important detail: a man pensioner.
- (Or a spectacularly blokish lady.)
I fear I am hallucinating. Somewhere between Jacobs Ladder – the disturbing 1990s Tim Robbins Vietnam “chemical experiments on GIs” flick – and the terrifying first nightclub scene in Blade.
A momentary respite is offered by a lucid, fit and strong looking elderly gent engages me in conversation as we shelter from a squall on the Capstone headland. With a delightful north-eastern accent he tells me that he’s been watching the brace of tourist mackerel boats bobbing around just offshire for a some time. “Thuv cort thuree fush in ann oohurrr. Ah reckon thatz foo-urr quid uh Mack-er-ell.” To help me with my maths he points out it’s “twulv quid uhh pursun” to enjoy a spot of fishing. Cheaper from the ‘monger then if not quite as fresh but then you don’t get sodden. I bid him good day and wonder about his life story: such an interesting face…
All is not lost when we bag Mrs B a reasonable Frothacinno at a stand-out cafe called The Quay. (What was their address again?) But the quaintness of the harbour is washed away by the rain and the pitiful dreariness of the high street with it’s Monday afternoon pub goers skulking in street doorways to smoke.
I swear I can feel my patriotic Olympic halo dissolving just standing here in the rain. The crumbled fabric of the once splendid victorian High Street is still visible if you look above the godawful shop frontages. Even the ones that aren’t vacant. Although, mind the speeding cars as you do so. It’s yet another one of those small town streets where the motorist rules whether by jamming or speeding.
[August Bank Holiday is reputed to be the weekend when half of the cars in the UK are on the roads. If they are in search of the olde charm of rural Britain, they won’t find it here.]
Ilfracombe in a word? Fugly.
I didn’t want it to be like this. I wanted curious coastal charm. Honestly.
And all this on the weekend when the Paralympics start. Any evidence of this in Ilfracombe? Well, there is the Jonathon Edwards Jump where you can compare yourself to the Triple Jumpers’ exploits: he lived here once dotcha know. (How lame is that: he lived here once…) As for the poplulation on this day, we are approximately a million miles from the “Faster Higher Stronger” ethos. Unless you are one of the enthusiastic mutts who are belting around the harbour beachfront. The same hounds who then crap in plain sight of their tourist owers. Who then obviously fail to bag-it-and-bin-it as they stand there smoking in leisure wear.
So we leave.
Where to? We head back to our preferable rainy campsite and a damp, falsely secure sanity in our tent of course. It comes to something when a canvas in a muddy field is relief from a town. I promise to reserve proper judgement on the town to a sunnier day.
Until then (to mangle the railway heritage metaphor) I reckon that Ilfracombe used to be a mere branch line away from classy. It’s now an irregular bus service from the end of the line. Followed by a long walk down a dark alley that smells of wee.
Right now, you’d have to pay me to go back.
Note to graphic department: Insert bleak rain scarred dystopian street scene image here. If you haven't got one, any old battleship grey tat will do.