Located on the North Devon coastline, Woolacombe has been a popular destination for holiday makers for many generations.
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.
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 (above). 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.
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, Stanley Parkin bought the beach and the Greensward in 1948. When Lady Chichester died in 1949, on her passing the Chichesters’ land in Woolacombe and Morethoe and the family estate at Arlington was willed to the National Trust. Parade House was left to her housekeeper, Rllan Smale. The land we know today as Marine Drive was left to Devon Country Council for them to construct a coast road.