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Victorian Ilfracombe

Excelsior

Torrs Park


W.M. Robins (as Michael Laithwaite says in his "Victorian Ilfracombe") is something of a mystery. He operated as an architect in the town from from 1878-84 and nothing is known of him before or after, but he left us a legacy of exciting buildings, at least five in Torrs Park, most of Church Street including Alpha House, The Royal Clarence facade and the bookshop in the High Street and his own very original house, Brookdale Lodge. From these one can see how varied were his designs and how he revelled in using colourful materials (sadly painted over in some cases). Three of his villas stand together in Torrs Park, Excelsior, St Martins and Fern Bank, but the contrast in style makes it hard to believe they were by the same architect.

Excelsior, now a hotel, was designed as two semi-detached villas, Uplands and Sutherlands. After World War II a Methodist family made it into a guest house, giving it the very Methodist name, Epworth. A little too Methodist maybe, for those who chose its present name.

K line-drawing

Here, in contrast to Gould's Seven Hills and Abbeydale, we have an exercise in symmetry, each house being a mirror image of the other. two bold barge boarded gables, each with a slender chimney stack (sadly now gone), flank a central block which rises above them with its pavilion roof crowned with an ironwork railing (also gone). In the apex of each gable is an early example of half timbering which cleverly echoes the sweep of the curved support for the oriel bay below. On either side the entrance wings jut out with deep roofs down to the second floor, and half hip overhangs over the side walls were there are stepped windows matching the steep hillside.

There is a wide variety of fenestration, square and triangular dormers, segmentally headed windows on the second floor with pointed windows on the first and ground floor. All these have generous surrounds in brick and stone. The oriel bays in the gables cleverly echo the straight sills of the window above with their roof line while they sweep down between the pointed arches below with their supports. Balconies once the gables on the first floor with the central veranda below. The removal of these, has left the French windows, both here and on the side balconies, stranded. Unusual corner bays are tucked between the gables and the central block. Are these for staircases?

Robbins' delight in a variety of materials is evident here. The main walls are of a greyish pink stone with Marland buff brick binding. Window surrounds are in red brick and freestone (now painted). The roof would have originally been in slate (now in rather heavy concrete tiles), and with the iron and woodwork, the whole building offers a rich and colourful ensemble. It has survived in good shape with only minor losses. The wooden balconies and ironwork crown could be replaced to great advantage, and the conservatory room on the first floor balcony on the right, is a pleasant addition.

The Civic Society, with the Residents and District Council, is at present working on a project to restore something of the original character of Torrs Park, tidying up odd corners and replacing the ugly concrete street lamps with ones more sympathetic to the area. Torrs Park offers a fascinating architectural study in itself and an attractive approach to the Torrs. It is one of the most valuable assets that Ilfracombe possess.

Jim Bates - September 1998



Created 20/4/99