Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Those who have holidayed on the North Devon coast may be familiar with the small resort bearing the only place name in the country with an exclamation mark: Westward Ho!  For bookworms, meanwhile, the name will call to mind a 19th century novel by the author Charles Kingsley about an expedition to the Spanish Main.  Confusingly, the early part of the novel is set, not in the eponymous resort, but in nearby Bideford, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.   Property developers of the time who were planning to build a resort around the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company decided to capitalise on the success of the novel by christening the resulting village Westward Ho!  The “Ho!” part of the name derives from an expression used by water taxis on the Thames, who used to yell “Eastward Ho!” or “Westward Ho!” to indicate where they were going.

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Bideford from Seven Oaks. Photo by Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons

The main inspiration for the story was drawn from the exploits of the Elizabethan corsair Amyas Preston, whose name was changed to Amyas Leigh in the novel.  Preston set sail for the New World with such luminaries as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.  Probably his best known exploit occurred in 1595 when he led an expedition alongside naval hero George Somers – known as the Preston Somers Expedition or the Capture of Caracas.  The expedition members made an arduous trek through the mountains of the Spanish-held Province of Venezuela before capturing Caracas from the Spanish forces.  It was this expedition which formed the basis of the Westward Ho! story.

Bideford is described by Kingsley as “the little white town of Bideford, which slopes upwards from its broad tide-river paved with yellow sands”.  Nowadays the white is interspersed with more recent red brick buildings, such as the Town Hall built in 1850 and the Police Station.  Kingsley recalls how the port “furnished seven ships to fight the Armada”.  A reminder of that time exists in Victoria Park, where eight cannons known as the Armada Guns are on display.  The guns were discovered when the quay was being widened in 1890, having been used as mooring posts.  In Chapter XII Kingsley turns his attention to the Bideford bridge, which he describes as “the very omphalos, cynosure, and soul, around which the town, as a body, has organised itself”.  The bridge was begun in 1280 as a wooden structure graced with two chapels and a large cross in the centre.  The bridge was subsequently rebuilt in stone and widened, and now stands at 677 feet long with 24 arches.  In 1968 a part of the bridge collapsed, causing much disruption due to the diversions which had to be put in place.

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Bideford Old Bridge. Photo by John Spivey, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the main characters in the novel is Sir Richard Grenville, a local nobleman, who is the godfather of the main character.  He is described as looking Spanish more than English, with “the nose long, aquiline, and delicately pointed”, and with “the mouth fringed with a short silky beard”.  The real life Sir Richard Grenville was born at Buckland Abbey in Devon, but evidently grew up in Bideford.  There are a number of reminders of him around the town, such as a housing development known as Grenville Place and a whitewashed building known as the Grenville Manor House.  There used to be a Grenville College, but it closed in 2009.

Visitors to Bideford who want to find out about the town's history should look in on the Burton Art Gallery and Museum, which has displays on the town's heritage.  Other attractions in the town include the day trips to Lundy Island and the Pannier Market

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River Torridge by Victoria Park. Photo by Steve Daniels, via Wikimedia Commons

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