Learning by Being There: Famous Artists & the Victorians at Ilfracombe Harbour & Tunnels Beaches

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

We parked on the Harbour car-park at Ilframcombe which is the furthest point possible from Tunnels Beaches but allows you to walk through the town and enjoy the sites. I am super glad we did park there because what we didn't know was that there is an amazing sculpture by the Turner Prize-winning artist, Damien Hirst.

We had recently learned about the Turner Prize and had actually picked Damien Hirst as one of the artists to talk about so it was great to find this incredible sculpture and show the children who still remembered all the details about the artist. If you plan to make this a learning trip, I would recommend learning about Damien Hirst before you go.

Verity was erected in 2012, after Hirst, living close by, responded to the town’s tourism drive and offered work on a twenty-year loan. Verity provoked extreme reactions in the locals and art world commentators when it first went up. Even now, it divides opinion. But what it has done, is drive tourism. You will have to judge it for yourself. Personally, I loved it.

From here you can get ferry tickets over to Lundy Island, but we didn't do that as we had planned the day at Tunnels Beaches instead. Walk out of the car park and enjoy the boats in the harbour, perhaps even some fresh chips whilst you do, because here is where you find all of the trinket shops, cafes and fish and chip shops. You might even fancy a bit of crabbing with the kids if you have the time.

Eventually, you will come to the main centre where you will find a small fair for the kids and an arcade across the road, much to the delight of my children. From here, Tunnels Beaches isn't very well signposted. You will need to keep to the pavement that runs along the main road going past the theatre until soon, you do come to a signpost for the victorian Tunnels Beaches.

It costs just £10 to enter for a family of four, in fact, considering this place is a tourist destination, I found everything reasonably priced, even the items in the shop and cafe and the deckchairs are only £2.

Before you go in, take the time to read the fascinating history which adorns the white-washed walls as you go through the tunnel. The information about the etiquette between boys and girls back then is quite fun to read.

The tunnels leading to the ladies and gentleman's beaches were hand-carved in the 1820's and lead to the natural sheltered beaches below, although the gentleman's beach is often closed for private weddings. There are toilets where you can also get changed (use either 1 or 5 for space!), a small cafe and shop where you can also hire deckchairs for just £2.

Local entrepreneurs helped to transform Ilfracombe from a small fishing village in North Devon into an extremely popular seaside resort by employing a team of hundreds of Welsh miners to hand carve 6 tunnels, leading to 3 tidal bathing pools. Four tunnels are still in use today, with the coastline virtually unchanged from the 1800s, but it is now an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and marine conservation area.

Before the tunnels were carved, the surrounding coves and caves were known to be used by smugglers, and one was even the site where famous Knight William De Tracey hid after the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170.

The Tunnels took two years to build, with 950 cubic metres of rock removed by the Welsh miners and you can still see the pickaxe marks today all throughout the tunnels.

This is a great opportunity to teach your children about the huge differences between victorian times and modern times, particularly when it comes to etiquette. I thoroughly enjoyed telling my young men how boys used to treat girls, with a lot of respect!

You won't find golden sandy beaches here. Instead, a coarse black fine stone which I actually really enjoyed the feel of beneath my feet. People either set themselves up here or climb over the rocks to find a little snug for the day. There's a lovely natural pool for swimming and floating around on an inflatable in, lots of rocks to explore, and even stone skimming if you fancy it. What a great opportunity to combine fun and learning! You can come and go as you please, just show your tickets to get back in. I highly recommend Tunnels Beaches and the lovely seaside harbour of Ilfracombe.

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