A weekend in Bideford

In the 16th century, Bideford was Britain's third largest port. Now it is North Devon's only remaining commercial port and is also a prime centre from which to explore this gorgeous area.

The Victorian novelist Charles Kingsley brought Bideford to the attention of the wider world when he affectionately described it as 'the little white town - which slopes upwards from its broad tide river'. More than 140 years have passed since he penned that description while writing his famous work Westward Ho!, but it is probably true to say that Kingsley would still recognise much of his beloved town today. His statue gazes out from the quay across the River Torridge onto a scene that hasn't greatly changed in the intervening years, though just to the north the new Torridge Bridge is clearly modern.

Dominated by the 24 stone arches of the Long Bridge that spans the Torridge River, Bideford today belies its Victorian façade with its convoluted streets hiding a treasure trove of modern-day shopping and architectural treats.

The town is also a gateway to the delights of the surrounding North Devon coast, which continue to attract hordes of holidaymakers. Bideford truly has something to offer everyone.

Hit the downtown

Bideford has long been immortalised in the verse of Edward Capern (1819-94). Known as the 'rural postman of Bideford', he walked his beloved town's hilly streets delivering the post and finding much inspiration for his poetry.

Bideford is still very much a working port and a thriving market town. The daily ebb and flow of the Torridge is a constant reminder of the river's importance to this busy port, and the town's recently modernised quay is always bustling with activity at high tide (and is the location for the town's New Year's Eve fancy dress festivities with fireworks). At the northern end of the quay is Victoria Park, watched over by the imposing presence of Charles Kingsley's statue. The Tourist Information Centre is also conveniently located here.

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One of the most charming and historic parts of the town can be found around the Pannier Market in Grenville Street, which is also home to Butchers Row. The market trades on Tuesdays and Saturdays and is a favourite with locals and visitors alike. A short stroll away is the impressive St Mary's Church, the third church to have been built on this site. There is a great concentration of antiques shops, second-hand bookshops and suchlike here, which makes this a rewarding area in which to browse for a couple of hours.

Branching off from the steep High Street is Mill Street where the main shopping thoroughfare can be found. A mixture of familiar high street names and quirky stores, pubs and cafés abound here, all just a short stroll from the river.

Stop for a bite to eat

Café Life (01237 424259) opposite the quay has a heated al fresco seating area and is an excellent spot to sample their Fairtrade coffees and teas and watch the world go by. They also make a huge range of soups, sandwiches, paninis and cakes along with smoothies and freshly squeezed juice.

For the more rustic touch you could try The Thatched Inn (01237 471321) in the quiet village of Abbotsham. Just a few miles from Bideford, this 15th-century building is, as the name suggests, snug under a thatched roof and prides itself on its seasonal menu and homemade dishes.

For the truly health-conscious, the Energy Bar juice bar and café in Mill Street (01237 470093) is Bideford's newest contemporary café, serving a mouth-watering selection of healthy breakfasts, fruit juices and smoothies. Their 100% natural soups are very popular and a three-course lunch is available for £6.

For a taste of the Mediterranean in Bideford, Cafecino Plus (01237 473007) is very popular with locals. The bistro restaurant is fully licensed and offers a warm welcome and relaxed environment. As well as a lunchtime menu, Cafecino has just launched a new evening menu and currently have three specials boards - Chef's, Manager's and Veggie.

Where can we stay?

Set in a commanding position on the eastern end of the Long Bridge, the Royal Hotel (01237 472005) is rich in history. Charles Kingsley wrote much of his novel Westward Ho! here, and it's an ideal location for anyone wishing to combine a sense of the past with modern-day comforts.

The Durrant House Hotel (01237 472361) is situated slightly further out of town, to the north of the Bideford bypass. This large and very well appointed hotel is perfectly placed for anyone wanting to explore the surrounding area. Its two restaurants serve completely different menus from their award-winning chefs, and there is a fitness room and outdoor pool to burn off those calories.

On a somewhat smaller scale is The Mount at Bideford (01237 473748). This charming Georgian building is set in the peaceful haven of its own private walled garden, yet is only a few minutes' walk from the centre of town. The Mount's eight bedrooms are all en-suite and well equipped with colour TV and radio. They have recently added a ground-floor bedroom for the benefit of wheelchair-bound guests or those for whom stairs are a problem.

Three things to take home

Deco World (01237 422355) in Granville Street sells a fascinating array of Art Deco home furnishings, from bedroom furniture to jewellery and kitchen utensils.

Atlantic Surfboards (01237 474900) is owned by Mike and Hayley Peet and is directly opposite Deco World. Mike has more than 15 years' experience of making surfboards and they cater for any standard of surfer, from beginner to advanced. Mike is also one of the few people in the country manufacturing wave skis.

The delightfully named Happy Pasty (01237 470340) in Allhalland Street sells a bewildering range of pasties baked fresh on the premises daily.

What to do in and around the town

Bideford is arguably a perfect touring base for all of North Devon and offers something for everyone, from those seeking peace and quiet to extreme adrenalin sport fanatics.

The Pannier Market in Grenville Street is open for trading on Tuesdays and Saturdays for those with an eye for a bargain. The MS Oldenburg (01271 863636) sails to the island of Lundy from the quay at Bideford - check in their office for sailing times. Victoria Park is an oasis of calm where you'll find the Burton Art Gallery (01237 471455), built in 1951 by Thomas Burton in memory of his daughter, Mary, a talented local artist. This recently refurbished building houses a museum, craft gallery, shop and coffee shop.

Those who love wide-open spaces shouldn't miss the big open expanse of Northam Burrows Country Park, which flanks the mouth of the Taw/Torridge estuary and stretches south-west

to Westward Ho!

Tapeley Park Gardens (01237 860897) at Instow is an intriguing mix of stately home, farm and formal gardens open to the public and is an exercise in ecology.

Bideford Bicycle Hire (01237 424123) probably offers the best means of exploring the 180 miles of the Tarka Trail that extends through North Devon.

The North Devon Maritime Museum (01237 422064) in Appledore is well worth a visit and gives a fascinating insight into the maritime history that has shaped this area.

Approximately 15 miles west of Bideford is the dramatic headland of Hartland Point. With its precariously perched lighthouse and swooping cliffs, this is North Devon's coastline at its breathtaking best.

No trip to this area would really be complete without a visit to Clovelly. This unique fishing village with its improbably steep traffic-free street (known as up-a-long and down-a-long) is one of North Devon's particular treasures. Contact the visitor centre on 01237 431781.

On the outskirts of Bideford is Atlantic Village (01237 422544) ). This attraction offers both a covered shopping mall with over 35 stores, together with the Atlantis Adventure Park, four acres of nautical themed adventure park for the kids. A theme park devoted to sheep seems an unlikely proposition but is a reality with The Big Sheep (01237 472366). Acres of sheep-orientated attractions are guaranteed to keep both youngsters and adults amused and bemused for much of the day. On a final adventurous note, Skern Lodge (01237 475992) is the premier outdoor activity centre in the area and offers a wide range of activities, which can be booked in advance by visitors.