Stepping Out in Tiverton, the Venice of Devon
Trudy Turrell works up an appetite walking around the streets and beside the waters in this unassuming Mid Devon town.
You have to cross bridges to get in to Tiverton. Bounded by the rivers Lowman and Exe and with leats running through many of its streets, it was water that powered its mills and made this cloth town once the wealthiest in Devon. The wool merchants certainly made their mark. In the 16th century John Slee bestowed a spectacular chapel at St Peter’s Church and almshouses that are still in use today, whilst clothier Peter Blundell founded a famous grammar school: the modern public Blundell’s School stretches across a campus just a mile or so beyond the town.
In the 19th century, inventor John Heathcoat brought huge bobbinet lace looms to Tiverton and built streets of model homes and a school for his workers. The Heathcoat factory still employs many people making cloth in Tiverton, so it is still an industrious town.
A walk around town rewards you with a wealth of fine buildings to admire and a fascinating history to absorb. With rivers always close by, there are inviting waterside walks and seats by the river where you can simply enjoy the view.
Get off to a good start
Easy to find off the M5, Tiverton is between Exeter and Taunton; just take the A361 off junction 27. It is well served by buses and trains; many of the trains from the mainline Exeter station stop at Tiverton Parkway, whilst buses run from the city every hour.
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Full of interesting independent shops, Tiverton is a wonderful place to hunt for unusual Christmas gifts, whilst exploring a truly historic town. Combine this with enjoying lunch based on local produce in a cosy restaurant or pub, followed by a stroll along the riverside or canal towpath to admire the autumn colour for a perfect day out.
Later this month there’s the chance to buy some truly local and inspiring crafts at the nearby National Trust-owned Knightshayes Court’s craft fair on 20th and 21st. On 26th you can follow the donkey to St Paul’s Church, the fabulous
venue for an evening Dickensian Fayre, with craft stalls, Victorian games, mulled wine, chestnuts and carols, plus the turning on of Tiverton’s Christmas lights – all guaranteed to make you feel festive!
The Tiverton Merchants Trail. Simply pick up a free leaflet at the Tourist Information Centre and follow the bronze medallions set in the pavements – a great way to keep children occupied! As you go, you’ll learn how the river water powered mills to full (felt and waterproof) the cloth woven on Tiverton’s 2,500 looms, see medieval weavers’ yards and the stepped tracks trodden by packhorses laden with cloth making the speedy six-day journey to London.
The crowning glory is St Peter’s Church, an already magnificent building when Tudor merchant John Slee added a chapel to one side. Carved stone ships, anchors, monkeys and winged horses adorn its exterior, with a promise of rich decorations inside. The building almost overshadows Tiverton Castle next door. Built in 1106, home of the Earls of Devon and besieged in the Civil War, the Castle is worth a return visit when it opens in spring.
The trail starts and ends at Tiverton Museum, whose exterior conceals 15 galleries of exhibits, which manage to house Heathcoat’s massive lace looms, a large collection of farm carts, including vast Devonshire ‘ship’ wagons, and the ‘Tivvy Bumper’, the engine of the last train to run along Tiverton’s railway line!
Shops and markets, ancient and modern. Walk in the footsteps of the Romans as you browse Tiverton’s beautifully revamped pannier market. Its entrances and exits exactly correspond to those of the Roman encampment on which it stands. There’s an array of very local produce on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, including fiery chillies from Mid Devon Chilli farm, Moonbeamsland sausages from free-range Old Spot pigs and heritage vegetables from Knightshayes Court’s kitchen garden. Come on a Monday and you’ll find the flea and collectors’ market, while on Wednesdays and Thursdays there are household goods and furniture.
Unknown to many locals, the Heathcoat Fabric Retail Shop is an Aladdin’s cave for dressmakers. Housed in the old Heathcoat School where workers’ children were educated, right next to the factory, the old schoolrooms are filled with bolts of material, buttons and sewing accessories.
You’ll find a refreshing variety of independent stores in Fore Street and Gold Street, including Alworths, with very familiar displays of ‘pick and mix’, pocket-money toys and useful household things. Part of a fast-growing chain of stores established by ex-Woolworth managers, Tiverton’s store takes over their original site and is appropriately opposite Phoenix Lane. As you pass you will hear the sound of water as it bubbles out of the ground beside the pavement. The 13th-century Coggans Well gurgles happily as shoppers stroll by.
Charming refuelling stops. If the winter sun shines, enjoy lunch or a latte under the old pear tree in the courtyard of Mad Hatters Caf�, or warm up with traditional puds such as sticky toffee pudding, hot ginger cake or spotted dick. At the other end of town, by Lowman Bridge, the flower-filled windows of Four and Twenty Blackbirds Tea Room adds to its old world charm, but it’s the table groaning with sponges, rocky roads and roulades which make a stop here so tempting!
The beautiful and productive kitchen garden at Knightshayes Court. Just a mile or two out of town is Heathcoat’s amazing house and garden. Although the house is not open in November, the grounds and 2.2-acre walled garden, restored in 2002, is packed with fruit and vegetables and is a picture all year round. The seasonal produce is used extensively in the National Trust restaurant, where the slogan is ‘food yards, not miles’.
Knightshayes Court, Tiverton 01884 254665
With a network of riverside walks, plus the West Exe Trail running through the town, it’s easy to take a walk beside the water. My favourite stroll has to be beside the canal towpath from the canal basin. There, you’ll find it curious to walk up a flight of steps to the canal that was built high above the town. Just follow the towpath to Manley Bridge and return along the disused railway line (route of the old Tivvy Bumper) for a flat 2� mile stroll with water all the way and fabulous views.
Enjoy the view
For an almost bird’s-eye panoramic view over Tiverton and the countryside beyond, my vote goes to the first glimpse from the top of the steps to the canal towpath. The canal beside you and the sweeping view below is a surprise and a delight, a feature in tune with this unassuming Devon town.
By road: Exit the M5 at Junction 27
By train: Many of the Exeter St David’s to London trains stop at Tiverton Parkway
By bus: Services 1, 1A, 1B, 1C to Exeter, plus others to local towns and villages
Sat nav ref: EX16 6LU