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Fishing boats, colourful shops ... and racing sheep


Pannier Market
Burton Art Gallery and Museum
The Big Sheep
New Year's Eve
Back in the 16th century this was the third-largest port in Britain. Sir Walter Raleigh used to land here with cargoes of tobacco, after long voyages from the Americas. Despite the town's importance, it isn't actually on the coast - you have to follow the River Torridge a few miles inland to get to its quay.
The river chops the town in two. Until recently there was only one crossing: the Old Bideford Bridge, which was erected in 1535. Curiously, each of its 24 arches are a different size. The story is that each was funded by a different businessman, some of whom were wealthier than others.
Bideford's most famous resident was Charles Kingsley, a novelist from the 1800s. He wrote a book called "Westward Ho!", which is now also the name of a town three miles to the west. This is possibly the only known instance of a settlement being named after a book, rather than the other way round. Kingsley also came up with a nickname for Bideford: "the little white town". It might have been appropriate back then, but it isn't any more. Pastel-tinted shops crowd along narrow streets, selling fudge and local craft. The Pannier Market, a beautiful 19th century building with rows of skylights, opens Tuesdays and Saturdays.
A stone's throw from here is Bideford's heart and soul: the quay. It's still in regular use by cargo ships, fishing boats and pleasure craft. Ferries offer trips to Lundy Island, 14 miles away in the Bristol Channel.

Bideford Long Bridge taking traffic over the River Torridge and said to have been first built in the 14th century by Sir Theobald Grenville.
Photo Dave Hamster
Next door to the quay is Bideford's most well-used green space, Victoria Park. It was opened in 1912 to celebrate the reign of its namesake. In the century since then it has evolved into an activity centre for the entire community. Besides the colourful flowers there's a skate park, a children's play area and an outdoor paddling pool.
In the park's southern corner is the Burton Art Gallery and Museum, a sizeable exhibition space with 3 galleries, a craft display and a shop. The permanent collection includes 19th and 20th century paintings, ceramics and a scale model of Bideford Bridge.
This is clearly a maritime town, but there's agricultural land nearby too. That fact is celebrated at The Big Sheep, an attraction somewhere between a farmyard and a theme park. They have animal-shaped children's rides, live sheep dog trials and tractor safari rides. You can watch lambs being fed and sheep being sheared. The highlight of the park, though, is surely the infamous sheep races, where six clumsy, woollen contestants do their best to get over the finish line first.
Clearly, no-one can accuse Bideford of not having fun. There are events all year, including a folk festival, a regatta and a carnival. The climax of the local calendar, though, is right at its end, on New Year's Eve. The roads are closed and people take to the streets, in all manner of dress.
Visitor Information
Bideford Tourist Information Centre, Victoria Park, The Quay, Bideford, Devon, EX39 2QQ. Tel: 01237 477 676

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