For most of the year this small market town of just under 7,000 people caters for the needs of the local rural community, but during the summer months an influx of visitors to the South Hams brings people into the town, not just to stock up on provisions, but also to take a look around this pleasant settlement at the head of the Kingsbridge estuary.
The reason I’ve referred to it as a settlement is because Kingsbridge actually consists of two separate medieval towns – Kingsbridge and Dodbrooke, and even though Dodbrooke was the more influential of the two originally, it was Kingsbridge that swallowed up Dodbrooke rather than the other way around.
Like many other towns in South Devon, Fore Street is the main street and is a fairly steep climb from the town quay to the top of the town, so as I’ve called this post Wandering around Kingsbridge, I’ve decided to start at the top of the hill and wander down, rather than stagger up.
It has to be said that Kingsbridge isn’t the entertainment capital of the South-West, but that’s how people around these parts like it. If you’re looking for attractions to keep you amused, then you’re better off looking elsewhere; the local museum is about as interesting as it gets, and as it’s at the top of the town you may as well pop in there anyway, if only to get a feel about how the local area has traditionally gone about its business.
The Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum is named after William Cookworthy who was born in the town in 1705 and influential in the development of British porcelain and the China Clay industry.
He was a pharmacist with an interest in producing porcelain to the quality that the Chinese had been producing for thousands of years.
Some of this high-quality Chinese porcelain had found its way into the grand homes of the English landed gentry, but the majority of tableware was made from rustic pottery.
In his search for the ingredients to replicate the Chinese he went to Cornwall and discovered decomposed granite which he was able to separate into a fine powder to use as the main ingredient in his Plymouth Porcelain Factory.
Not only was this good news for his business, but also good news for the area around St Austell, which now found itself sitting on the world’s largest deposit of China Clay.
As strange as it may seem, apart from a few pieces of tableware on loan from Plymouth Museum, there isn’t an awful lot about William Cookworthy and the China Clay industry in the museum. For that you’ll need to head down to Wheal Martyn near St Austell. In fact, if it wasn’t for Mrs. Evelyn Northcott who persuaded English China Clays Ltd to help out, there probably wouldn’t be a museum here at all.
The museum is housed in the former Boy’s Grammar School and has a varied collection of exhibits of local interest, including a wide variety of farm implements on display in the Walled Garden.
Now I’m no farmer – never have been, never will be – but when I was living in the area I had a bit of a passion for collecting these sort of things, but of course when I moved on I had to get shot of it all, and I gave them to somebody who I thought would value them. Whatever happened to the person I gave them to or the farm tools I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that some of the stuff has ended up here. I sincerely hope so.
After leaving the museum head down Fore Street and look out for The Shambles, an old market hall standing on raised Elizabethan pillars, and the Old Town Hall (now housing a cinema) with its distinctive three-sided clock on top: if you can believe local gossip, the fourth side was left blank to deter the inmates of the workhouse from clock-watching.
If you’re a shopaholic and time is of little relevance, then wandering downhill will provide you with an eclectic mix of individual shops selling things that you may well not be able to find anywhere else, but probably don’t need anyway.
Before you know it, you’ll be at the bottom of the hill and at the town quay where there’s a friendly Tourist Information Centre providing a wealth of information about the South Hams.
There’s no King’s Bridge in Kingsbridge – there used to be, but that was many moons ago. In fact, the stretch of water that laps around the town quay (and sometimes over it) isn’t even a river, but a drowned river valley, or ria. To most people though it’s the Kingsbridge Estuary.
The Estuary comprises of several creeks that all combine to form the stretch of water that meets the sea at Salcombe, but the head of the estuary is generally regarded to be here at Kingsbridge, where it’s called Creek’s End.
For a waterway of its size it may be surprising that it has never been blighted by industry, and although it’s true to say that Kingsbridge did have a small shipping trade during the 19th century, the estuary is far too shallow to accommodate boats of any size, and almost everything you see on the water these days is connected with the leisure industry, especially sailing.
One of the pleasures of Kingsbridge is to walk alongside the creek to the Crabshell Inn which has to be the perfect end to a wander around Kingsbridge, but if you want to see more of the estuary, then just beyond the Crabshell is the home of the Rivermaid Kingsbridge-Salcombe Ferry which does several different boat trips throughout the summer.