Woolacombe – A short history, by Sarah Prankerd

An area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance which it is desirable to preserve or enhance

Woolacombe is one of these. When you live in an area you often forget the breathtaking scenery and natural beauty that surrounds you. Living in Devon we have it in abundance, with the added bonus of fantastic beaches close by. With the daily grind it is easy to forget the spectacular landscape around us.

Woolacombe is steeped in history – a typical Edwardian/Victorian coastal resort town dominated by large villa style houses and grand hotels, it was first recorded in the Domesday book as Wolnecoma, literally meaning ‘Wolves Valley’. At the time the valley was thickly wooded and presumably wolves could be found. There were no inhabitants living in Woolacombe at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 – even the parish of Mortehoe was little more than a single farm.

Woolacombe Tracey, the medieval manor, is shown on the site of Woolacombe Farm on early ordinance survey maps, and medieval rubble has been found near this site supporting the possibility. Woolacombe Tracey was the seat of the Tracey family, Sir William de Tracey was said to have lived here after his involvement in the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170.

The 1840’s Tithe map for Mortehoe Parish shows Woolacombe as a small cluster of buildings located around the Beach Road junction with Sandy Lane. Some distance to the east could be found two settlements of similar size, being east Woolacombe and Over Woolacombe. At this time there was no development along the shoreline and Woolacombe was only a modest village or large hamlet – having no church of its own.

The Castle Hotel is the only listed building within the Woolacombe conservation area. Originally built as a private residence and built to resemble a Gothic folly as a castellated mansion, constructed of snecked rubble stone and ashlar dressings. The building is both grand and imposing, being located above The Esplanade and its gothic revival architecture is of high quality and design.

In the 1880’s a Barnstaple architect, Arnold Thorne, laid out Woolacombe for development as a coastal resort. Plots of land were set out and leased to individual developers for periods of 99 years by the Chichester Estate. The development grew at a slow pace, the seafront along the Esplanade being mainly a row of Victorian and Edwardian villas, with a rapid period of building from 1890, when maps show the Esplanade devoid of buildings, to 1905 when the shoreline frontage is mainly as it is today.

The main landscape features are clearly the beach and the two headlands, Morte Point and Baggy Point, which frame its sands. The beach is visible from the vast majority of points in the village and an increasing number of people get their first look at Woolacombe from the various paths and trails (including the Tarka Trail and the South West Coast path) which runs through Woolacombe from north to south. As such views from Potters Hill out over Woolacombe are important from the south, and the path out to Morte Point at the north.

Several buildings within the conservation area were constructed by the Chichester Estate, Hartland house was used as an estate office for several years and the next door Parade House was built for Dame Rosalie Chichester as a summer residence in 1890.

One of the most significant and imposing buildings in the village is the Woolacombe Bay Hotel. The hotel was constructed in 1887 when it applied for its first license, and was initially called the “Shakespeare Hotel”, although this must have been short-lived as the building is labelled as the Woolacombe Bay Hotel on the 1904 Ordinance Survey mapping.

Photographs showing the Hotel under construction show how, at the time, it was surrounded by empty fields for some distance, highlighting just how small Woolacombe was before the late 1800’s and how speculative these developments were.

Early pictures show that many parts of the existing building have retained their original features. The hotel has enjoyed a long and colourful history, and much of its traditional charm still remains today. In 1895, Rosalie Chichester of Arlington Court granted tenancy of The Woolacombe Bay Hotel to Arnold Perret, who bought the tenancy in 1899.

By 1919 the resort in Woolacombe had all of the services you would expect to find, including two banks, a post office, printers, golf course and 45 houses offering apartments of lodgings.

Like a number of British beaches Woolacombe Beach has always been privately owned, and when Lady Chichester died in 1949 it has been in her family’s possession for over 800 years. On her passing the Chichesters’ land in Woolacombe and Morethoe and the family estate at Arlington had been willed to the National Trust and the beach and surrounding land was purchased by Stanley Parkin, a family friend.

The Woolacombe Bay Hotel was sold to Cheltenham Brewery in 1932, and over the following nine years an extensive programme of renovation transformed the building. The original core of the building is of four storeys, with wings of three storeys. Constructed in a Tudor Revival style, the upper sections have mock timber framing while the lower portions are of exposed red brick. Balconies and bays, alongside a cupola and, on the older portions, chimney stacks add to the character of the building. This detailing makes for an impressive sight when viewed across the open space of its own extensive grounds, and makes it the perfect wedding venue for those seeking special photographs of their big day.

This work resulted in the Hotel appearing much as it does today and added several notable features – including the ballroom, which showcased the first sprung floor in the West Country. The hotel also retains large grounds facing towards the beach, with its own swimming pool and tennis courts, as well as a private path leading down towards the beach near the old Lifeboat House. In 2013 the swimming pool was renovated creating the Bay Lido – a very popular oasis of tranquillity where guests can relax, protected from the sea breeze.

John Phillips was a young boy living behind the hotel in the 30’s. He remembers the waiters in their long tailed morning suits and the chefs in their hats of varying heights according to their status! The Hotel had a Boiler House which housed four huge boilers – one was for central heating, two for the hot water and the other provided steam to the kitchen. Supervised by three men, they were not always attentive and consequently guests often went without hot water and the kitchen steam!

The gardens of the hotel were completely enclosed and supplied a lot of produce and flowers for the hotel – it was also where the young local boys ended up playing football, much to the annoyance of the gardener, Mr Tom Sollis!

In 1935 Miss Crowhurst was the new manager of the hotel and by 1939 the hotel had been enlarged to accommodate up to 180 residents, reflecting the increased number of tourists wishing to stay in Woolacombe in the heyday of British seaside resorts.  It was at this time that war was announced and the British army commandeered the hotel. It became home to the 4th County of London Yeomanry, who were based in Woolacombe to protect from invasion.

Another local boy, Brian Watts, remembers the day well – Sunday 3rd September 1939 was a beautiful autumnal day. Meandering back up the path from Barricane beach he encountered his older brother Jack, running down to meet him. “Tis terrible news, we are at war with Germany”. Upon asking what that meant he was given the reply “marg on your bread and no more shop bought jam!”

When the London Yeomanry arrived at the hotel John remembers three tanks rumbling past their house in Rosalie Terrace en route to Cowlers garage, which was located just behind the hotel. The sight and sound of these were pretty awesome for an 8 year old boy and the rest of the villagers, who couldn’t understand why they were kept in the garage every night – no one would have been able to steal them considering the infernal noise they made!

With the arrival of the troops barbed wire was stretched from one end of the beach to the other, 9 foot square posts were pile driven into the whole beach to stop aircraft landing, and tank obstacles were placed across the stream area. The beach toilets were converted into a machine gun post, trenches were dug everywhere and a 4.5 naval gun was positioned in the vegetable garden between Parade House on The Esplanade.

The London Yeomanry were not in Woolacombe long as they were sent to take part in a disastrous operation in North Africa where they suffered the loss of many men. In 1940 the Southern Command Weapon Training School occupied the building and set up a gruelling assault course covering the whole valley. They trained troops from all regiments to a very high standard and the final exercise was the confidence test where 40 men walked in a straight line and live ammunition was fired just in front and just behind them.

In addition to the army the Royal Air Force carried out practices of bombing targets anchored out on the Bay. Not a day went by during the war when there were not explosions going off in Woolacombe. The village, however, was extremely lucky in that on 15th August 1940 it had its first and only bombing by the Germans – fortunately resulting in the death of one cow (or unfortunately if you were that cow!).

As Woolacombe was deemed one of the safest places in the country, many evacuees from high risk areas were brought here. The majority of the evacuees came from Croydon in South London. Some complete schools were moved en masse – Bartram Gables School took up residence at the nearby Watersmeet Hotel in Mortehoe, Dagenham Girls School went to Belle View Guest House and Thornton Heath High School resided at the Rockham Bay.

In 1943 the British Army left Woolacombe to make way for the American Army where they set up their Assault Training Centre Headquarters. Woolacombe Beach was used for amphibious infantry landing practice involving hundreds of small boats – the long flat beach and the surrounding landscape were thought to sufficiently resemble Normandy as to make this realistic training environment.

The training for the Normandy landings on D-Day saw Woolacombe taken over by the Americans with huge camps, and those who were in the area at the time will remember how much better off the Americans were, as the British had been short of the good things in life for some time. The Americans arrived with everything including chewing gum, cigarettes, doughnuts, Brylcream, chocolate and Nylons – making them very popular with the local ladies and children! They also came with masses of equipment, landing craft, DUWKS jeeps, tanks, trucks and not forgetting the Glenn Miller Orchestra!

The locals had a phrase to describe the Americans – “overpaid, oversexed and over here!” Nevertheless, they become very fond of them and very much appreciated their hard work and dedication towards winning the war. Some Americans and locals are still in touch today and a stone memorial was erected on Greensward in Woolacombe in 1992 to commemorate those who were here during the war.

The soldiers remained in residence until the end of the war in May 1945 and the Woolacombe Bay Hotel was bought by Mr Bertie Johnson. Around this time Mr and Mrs Maxwell Lancaster purchased the Narracott Hotel just up the road.

The hotel was bought by the Lancaster family in 1978 and ran successfully by Roy and Rosemary until the year 2000, when their daughter Sally returned and took over the reins. Over the last 14 years Sally has taken the hotel to a new dimension, combining old world grandeur with new cutting edge design. In 2010 the hotel was awarded four stars by the AA which is reflected by its outstanding bedrooms, bathrooms, spa, food, facilities and of course the most personal service in the area!

One Comment on “Woolacombe – A short history, by Sarah Prankerd

  1. Does anyone have any information about the Rockham Bay Hotel. I stayed there in 1968 on a family holiday from Scotland. Visiting the area again 52 years later and interested to know if it still exists perhaps under a different name? Thanks.


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