Barnstaple, an ancient market town on the Taw River and about six miles
from the North Devon coast, holds the distinction of being one of
England's oldest boroughs. Historically, the designation "borough" is a
status the monarch grants by royal charter to certain towns and cities,
conferring on them the right of self-government. Barnstaple was
sufficiently well established by Saxon times to have received such
status, which carried with it permission to mint its own coins.
It is thought that Barnstaple probably started as a small settlement at
a ford. Over time, many theories have surfaced as to where Barnstaple
got its name. Long ago there was a small settlement in the area
belonging to a family called Bearda. They may have been the guardians
and caretakers of the ford, as well as of the area's main productor
"staple"which at that time was wool. "Bearda" and "Barn" hardly seem a
perfect match, but place names often evolve over centuries, and this
explanation for the name of Barnstaple tends to be the most popular.
At any rate, Barnstaple's position on the Taw was ideal for boats coming
from the Bristol Channel and easy for local producers to reach, making
it a convenient trading place for both land-dwellers and mariners.
So by a useful quirk of geography, the town was a busy port. It was in
the late 16th century that ships sailed from Barnstaple to aid in
England's legendary successful encounter with the mighty Spanish Armada.
By the end of the 16th century, the tobacco and wool trade with the
Americas had also made the town's fortune. As a result, some of the
wealthiest merchants turned to philanthropy and as a testament to their
generosity, there are no fewer than three groups of 17th-century
almshouses surviving there today.
As trade grew more sophisticated, it moved away from Barnstaple towards
bigger harbors and its heyday as a port was over. However, the wool
trade remained valuable. In addition, a pottery known as Barnstaple
Brownware, which had been produced there since the 15th century, along
with the town's ship building industry, were still thriving. Unlike many
towns, Barnstaple has held on to unusual features like Butchers Rowa
parade of open-front shops still occupied by bakers and fishmongers.
Architecturally, much of present-day Barnstaple was completed by the
late 19th century with the construction of the Square and the Pannier
Market, so named because of the panniers of goods that horses and
donkeys used to bring to market. Though some light industry remains,
Barnstaple's principle wealth-making industries have mostly disappeared
due to changing economic forces. The town's importance now is more as a
regional commercial center, making the Barnstaple enjoyed by today's
visitors an appealing mix of the very old and the very new.
To learn more about Barnstaple and North Devon, visit: www.devonfirst.co.uk.