The only town in Britain whose name ends in an exclamation mark sits on the North Devon coast. Nearby is the beautiful little town of Bideford, perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have visited in recent years. It was here in the 19th century that the novel Westward Ho! was written by novelist Charles Kingsley. Kingsley wrote about English heroes, and contrary to current thinking there are many, Kingsley writing about Hereward the Wake etc.. This novel set initially in Bideford during the reign of Elizabeth I, Westward Ho! followed the adventures of Amyas Leigh, an unruly child who as a young man follows Francis Drake to sea.

At the time Kingsley wrote his book there was little development at the town that became named after his novel. Barely developed this beautiful spot on the coast was enjoyed by a few people but seaside holidays boomed with the growth of the railways. When the novel came out it developed into perhaps one of the first realisations of commercial development exploiting the popularity of a book when a consortium of entrepreneurs invested in developing a grand hotel. So Westward Ho! is a hamlet that developed into a purpose-built holiday resort, the exploitation starting around 1860. It has a stunning beach and because its position in the mouth at the end of a bay it has superb waves for those learning to surf so it has retained the popularity it enjoyed in Victorian times, whilst the book is forgotten – who wants to read about English adventures these days….

Having arranged to come down to Devon to collect a beautiful new print that I have bought from Merlin Chesterman, my partner insisted that I break the drive, not go down and back quickly. I used to go to Torquay or Taunton and back in a day when an external assessor for the colleges in Devon.  Obediently I decided to spend some time in hotels along the way. Breaking the journey I went to visit a childhood school in Wroughton in Wiltshire, where I had passed the 11+thanks to inspired teaching. The next day I moved on to stay just outside Bideford in a new hotel. My partner and I had previously come down to Devon to ‘house sit’ for a little while and had really enjoyed it and as a thank you I took the owner of that house to dinner, and she chose Westwood Ho! as the place to dine.

Beach Bunnies

Curious and arriving early I walked the sea front with the camera. The vistas are stunning with a superb view out to Lundy across the Bristol Channel, big skies, and a beautiful sandy beach so as you look seaward all is gorgeous. The sea front itself is developed at the town end with modern blocks looking like seaside blocks anywhere in the world, but as you move away from the town you get into chalet land and unfortunately the development here has not been so well mastered, and the results looks slightly like a refugee camp with holiday homes and little wooden huts and cabins scattered densely along 1/2 mile stretch of coast.

Like the South coast in Sussex the sea erodes the land, revealing rock formations and the stumps of petrified oaks reckoned at 6,000 years old. The chalet town has seemingly grown organically, with beach huts as well as more sophisticated ‘mobile home’ type accommodations. The views from them are superb, the view of them not so good, their variety and difference of scale testament to the way in which tourism has grown here.

The beauty of the location shines through, and the developments along the coast continue, with Devon having to receive a mass of new undistinguished housing estates as well as seeing its beautiful green fields disappear under ugly solar panel ‘farms’. What would Kingsley and his heroes, Drake, Hereward and the Hood, have made of the mess of England our generations have made of this beautiful land? Westward Ho! and its views and beaches endure despite ‘civilisation’ encroaching.

I drove back in one go, and it was a good drive….