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Victorian Ilfracombe

Alpha House

Church Street

A corner site presents both an opportunity and a challenge to an architect, especially when it is in such a prominent position as that between Church Street and Wilder Road. Here W. M. Robbins has risen splendidly to the challenge with a building that confronts every visitor coming into the town from the A361.

10K line-drawing

When Wilder Road broke into what was almost an enclosed square in the 1870's the chance came to re-develop the whole area including Church Street, and so we have fine Marland brick houses with bay windows and rich iron-work on both north and south sides of the square. The west end was developed as a memorial garden in the 1920's which provides a fine approach to the ancient parish church, but the east side is very inadequately occupied by the bleak tarmac of a petrol station which replaces the demolished Elephant Cottages, though it does reveal the dramatic backs of the houses high above.

Alpha House, originally Alpha Private Hotel, is still impressive, though not as Robbins intended. He built it (about 1880) in the reddish brick you can still see in the Northcote Buildings in Church Street, relieved by brickwork patterning in other colours and Bath stone facings. In fact Alpha House and Church Street were designed as a unity which recent painting and rendering have spoilt. One can still detect the variety of materials and patterning under the paintwork, but the colourfulness has been lost for good.

Robbins has emphasised the corner with a circular tower which rises through three storeys from an open, pillared porch (with a fine flight of steps) to a pointed roof that is almost a steeple. He has chamfered off the corner of the building to give a flat surface from which the tower projects, bringing the roof-line down so that the upper part of the tower stands clear. Strong gables flank the tower on either side with chimneys tucked in to add variety to the roof line. The side windows are pointed, suggesting a Medieval castle and in Church Street there is a delightful oriel (a projecting bay) on the first floor. The porch is supported on double columns bound together by extravagantly large annulets (or shaft rings), with capitals to match, which would look bizarre anywhere else but here.

No doubt in this very exposed position the brickwork must have become grubby but covering it with paint has lost both the texture and colour the architect intended us to enjoy. In 1993, however, a major renovation took place and the present discreet deco is a great improvement on the previous pink. With this renovation the oriel was restored, but the chimneys removed. The bold lettering "ALPHA HOUSE" carries on a Victorian tradition that can be seen in old photographs of Ilfracombe's boarding Houses and Hotels.

Jim Bates - May 1997

Created 18/4/99