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Victorian Ilfracombe

"The Grand", boarding house

Wilder Road

(Now part of the Dilkhusa Grand Hotel)

The coming of the railway to Ilfracombe in 1874 transformed what was a select watering place into a popular sea-side resort. Instead of wealthy families taking up residence for the season in one of the fine terrace houses, working people with no more than a week's or fortnight's holiday could reach Ilfracombe easily and cheaply by rail. As opposed to the day trippers who came over from Wales and other Channel resorts by paddle steamer, these people from Bristol, Birmingham or London needed weekly or fortnightly accommodation. Saturday became 'change-over-day' when dozens of trains brought thousands of holiday-makers into the town.

12K line-drawing

The need was met with a boon to building. The Ilfracombe Hotel of 1867 catered for the wealthy, their servants as well. More modest hotels sprang up along Wilder Road, but even these were too expensive for the majority of the new visitors. It was the day of the Guest House or Boarding House, providing full board for people who spent their holiday in Ilfracombe itself and came back for lunch and 'dinner'. The crowded beaches of Wildersmouth and Raparee shown in old photographs reveal how holidays were spent in and around the town itself. The large houses along St.Brannocks Road and Station Road were designed for 'taking in'. Guest houses tended to be more personal with the proprietor catering, boarding houses were almost hotels, larger and more impersonal. Such was the Grand in Wilder Road standing alongside the newly built hotels and close to Ilfracombe Hotel itself. Its name suggests its pretentions.

I confess that when I came across its photograph in the Museum archives I was at a loss to identify and place it, but both the building and its name live on in the Dilkhusa Grand, now an hotel, having incorporated the neighbouring guest houses to its right.

It has been altered and added to, but it is still recognizable. The fine polychrome brickwork has been painted over and only a portion of the ironwork balcony on the second floor survives. An extension on the ground floor replaces the original bays and entrance. This is substantial and not entirely out of keeping with the rest of the building as it now stands, but the focus of attention has been moved to the new entrance on its right. The sketch shows how it was intended to be seen as a building in its own right.

We can only guess that the original brickwork was in red and buff, now being re-introduced into 'post-modern' buildings of all kinds, but its use here must have been striking with strong mouldings linking the windows on the upper floors, echoing the bracketed cornice above and the balconies below. Note also how the pointed windows of the third floor (their surrounds again strongly emphasised with mouldings and brickwork) echo the gables of the dormers above. The bays on either side rise 'grandly' through the balconies, crowned with mock battlements, while the central windows, different on each floor, lead the eye down to the main entrance which, rather perversely, is just off centre. The magnificent gas-lamp over it is typical of many that appear in old photographs of the town in front of hotels and shops. The down-pipes at each side provide a frame, in contrast to the present plumbing which so disfigures the present facade (no doubt the price of 'en suite' rooms).

'Boarding House' suggests a rather modest and humble provision of accommodation, but here is a building that proudly offers it in 'grand' style.

Jim Bates - September 1997

Riversdale House, Torrs Park
The house was noted in last month's Focus - Since then restoration work has become evident. It has regained one of its fine Victorian chimneys, dog-tooth brickwork and tall chimney-pots included. In a town bent on ridding its roof-lines of chimneys this is no less than a miracle! We congratulate the owners and look forward to further restorations.

Created 20/4/99