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The Benefits of Sea Bathing In Bygone Days

Sara Hodson - Former Manager Of The Ilfracombe Museum Writes About The Benefits of Sea Bathing In Bygone Days

This charming photo from Ilfracombe museum’s archive seemed the perfect choice for a health and fitness theme. The Tunnels beaches have for a long time been a focal point in Ilfracombe for healthy outdoor activities, and in fact the development of the Tunnels baths in the 1830s had a big influence on the growth of Ilfracombe. The growing fashion in the 19th century for ‘taking the waters’ for one’s health also led to Ilfracombe growing into a prosperous seaside resort.

So we have a lot to thank the fresh air and clean seas we still have around us for– they made Ilfracombe what it is today.

In the early 1800s the rise in ‘bathing culture’ amongst the wealthy English led to a form of tourism that involved spending weeks at a fashionable Georgian spa such as Cheltenham or Bath. Here, as well as taking hot or mineral waters said to cure many ailments, families would socialise, and important marriage contracts would be negotiated. Ilfracombe had a fledgling spa resort, although it couldn’t provide natural mineral water, the Tunnels bath -house laid on heated seawater baths from the 1830s, and in its fashionable Assembly Rooms in Coronation Terrace, the well-to do could mingle.

Spacious suites of rooms could be rented at the newly-built terraces overlooking the harbour. Medicinal sea-bathing was never going to make Ilfracombe into a huge success however, it was just a bit too cold on the north coast, and a bit too long a journey here, by steamer or coach, for many. Where Ilfracombe really managed to succeed was in capturing the growing Victorian passion for all forms of outdoor pursuits and entertainments. Victorian Ilfracombe offered promenades, outdoor theatres, coach and boat excursions and donkey rides to its visitors, plenty of opportunities for fresh air. There was even a roller skating rink here for a while, and during a cold winter, ice- skating was provided. And of course, swimming.

With the construction of the Ilfracombe Hotel the town gained a sea-water swimming pool. It also had a flamboyant swimming master, Professor Parker, who, drawn to Ilfracombe by its reputation as a prosperous resort, claimed he could teach anyone to swim. He held classes at the Hotel and the Tunnels baths ‘to impart instructions in swimming to Ladies and Gentlemen’. Regular swimming galas were held at the pool and at ‘’Pip and Jim’s’’ school, headmaster Mr Lord taught all his young pupils to swim in the harbour.

Tunnels beaches Ilfracombe

In order to see off the competition from other resorts and to gain as many visitors as possible who were looking to improve their wellbeing, Ilfracombe’s town council adopted the motto ‘Ilfracombe strong for health’ in 1894, along with a coat of arms. In the days before free national heath-care, and when many worked in poor industrial conditions, the idea of coming to the north Devon coast for a few days wasn’t just for a bit of leisure, but to get a boost to one’s immune system.

Sara Hodson. Former Museum Manager Wilder Road, Runnymeade Gardens

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