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Victorian Ilfracombe

The Gables

Belmont Road

One of the most picturesque villas in Ilfracombe stands opposite the Lych Gate of our ancient Parish Church. It bears the name 'The Gables', and it is these that strike one coming from any approach, for it is designed to be viewed from any angle. In this it differs from many Ilfracombe houses which present an impressive frontage but leave their backs unconsidered and unadorned.

The Georgians eschewed gables, hiding their roofs behind parapets, as one can see in our terraces, concentrating on a well proportioned facade, but the Victorians, ever romantic, looked back to the Middle Ages for inspiration when pinnacles, pointed arches and steep roofs soared heavenwards. There is something very ecclesiastical about the Gables (even to cross shaped finials) and one wonders whether it was designed for a clergyman, conveniently handy for mattins and evensong. Old maps, however, give it names that are anything but ecclesiastical. Banfields map of 1865 calls it Sunnycote, and a 20th century Ordnance Survey, Corinella. The name 'Gables' is rather crudely painted on a gatepost, but it now carries an attractive sign: 'Toad Hall - Day Nursery'.

Since it does not appear on the 1845 Banfield map (which shows other individual buildings in the area) one can date it 1860 - 1870, at the height of the Gothic Revival. It avoids the popular brick, which appears everywhere at this time in Ilfracombe, using exposed stone rubble walls (seemingly local shale, laid horizontally). Earlier builders would have covered this with stucco, but here we see the influence of John Ruskin who insisted on honesty in building and condemned concealing the material used in the structure.

The quoins (corner stones), windows and door frames are all in free-stone which can be cut and carved precisely in a way that shale cannot. This has been painted white at some recent stage, giving a doll's house effect, but losing the subtle contrast between the two types of stone used.

The stonework, however, sets off superbly the most striking feature of the villa, the gables and their barge-boarding. Barge-boards protect the joint between the edge of the roof and the wall which otherwise would let in the weather, but as well as serving a useful purpose, they offer an opportunity for decoration which has been more than fully taken up here. There are at least three different patterns in the woodwork of the gables, each one elaborately decorative. In bright sunlight they throw deep patterned shadows on the stonework below. Not only are they examples of ingenious invention but of exquisite craftsmanship, and we can only be grateful that they have been so carefully preserved. I have one slide, taken after the 1990 storms which shows a major barge-board missing. This has been replaced.

The Victorians also brought chimneys into prominence, making them an integral part of the design. That is why it is such a tragedy when they are thoughtlessly removed. Here three splendid chimneys stand in a row along the line of the main roof. Another tall chimney over the front porch has been replaced by a dormer, not in keeping with the other windows of the house. On the upper floors of the house these are all sharply pointed and rather oddly divided down the centre to provide opening casement windows. This is most 'un-Gothic'. Domestic windows in the Middle Ages rarely had glass (making do with shutters) and glass was a leaded fixture. Casement windows came in during Elizabethan times when glass was cheaper and domestic windows square headed.

Placed as it is on the spur between the two Wilder streams, The Gables is visible from almost every viewpoint. With the Parish Church it dominates and enhances this part of the town. All the more reason to be thankful that it remains almost as its architect intended. I have not found out who he was, can anyone enlighten me?

Jim Bates - April 1997

Created 18/4/99