An ancient town and port on the River Taw, Barnstaple received its charter from the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan in 930. The pedestrian streets and alleys of the town centre are brimming with old landmarks like almshouses, a Norman castle mound and a quayside merchant’s hall, all on the Barnstaple Heritage Trail.
Barnstaple is a few miles off the western boundary of the Exmoor National Park, while the wild beaches of the North Devon coast like Woolacombe and Saunton are in reach.
One name you’ll keep hearing in Barnstaple is “Tarka”, for Henry Williamson’s beloved novel Tarka the Otter (1927), which was set here in the North Devon countryside.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Barnstaple:
1. Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon
You can get attuned to Barnstaple at this super local museum right on the Taw next to the Medieval Barnstaple Long Bridge.
This brick and stone building, with a lovely courtyard, dates to 1872 and has hosted the museum in different guises since 1888. There are military artefacts from three Yeomanry Regiments, along with local pottery, 17th-century pewter and furniture by the local Shapland & Petter company, which was in business for more than a century and a half up to 2016. One head-turning exhibit is a full-sized recreation of the front half of the Barnstaple Elephant.
This straight-tusked elephant was discovered in the town in 1844, and belongs to a species that died out in the UK some 115,000 years ago.
Fragments of tusks and bones from the original fossil are also on show.
2. Arlington Court
Five miles out of Barnstaple the late-Georgian country house at Arlington Court is an excursion that needs to be made.
Built at the start of the 1820s, this Neoclassical mansion has an austere granite facade that belies is its ornamented interiors.
This National Trust property is almost completely open to the public, so you can tour 16 rooms, from the boudoir with its silk hangings to the music room, dining room, drawing room and morning room.
The collections of the Chichester family are on display, and these include pewter plates and urns, model ships, some 3,000 shells and a supreme array of delicate fabrics and costumes.
When the National Trust took over in 1949, something wonderful showed up on top of a wardrobe in the housemaid’s pantry: An original pen and ink drawing, The Sea of Time and Space, by the poet and artist William Blake.
3. National Trust Carriage Museum
In the stable yard at Arlington Court is the National Trust Carriage Museum, one of the most important displays of historic carriages in the UK. There are more than 40 carriages here, ranging from luxurious coaches for state ceremonies to modest vehicles used by servants.
None of these carriages belonged to the Chichester family, who lived at this estate for more than six centuries; the collection was begun after a donation to the National Trust in 1964 by the 6th Marquess of Bute, and found a home in Arlington Court’s stables.
There are a few examples that deserve extra attention, like the Craven State Chariot, built for the Earl of Craven in the mid-19th century, or the Antrobus Travelling Chariot, which carried the diplomat Gibbs Crawford Antrobus all over Europe earlier that century.
4. Queen Anne’s Walk
This cultured colonnade and open space was conceived in the early 18th century as a meeting place for the town’s merchants, in a useful location next to Barnstaple Quay.
Queen Anne’s Walk is a reminder of the wealth that trade with American brought to Barnstaple in the 1600s and 1700s.
Thought to have been designed by William Talman, a student of Christopher Wren, Queen Anne’s Walk has a frieze/parapet sculpted with the garlanded coats of arms of the 13 members of the Corporation of Barnstaple.
At the centre is a statue of Queen Anne, commissioned just after the victory at the Battle of Blenheim (1704) and donated by the local Tory MP Robert Rolle.
Long owned by the North Devon District Council, Queen Anne’s Walk has a has had a few different roles in the last few decades and as of 2018 houses a new seafood restaurant.
5. Broomhill Sculpture Garden
Just outside Barnstaple, a magical, densely wooded valley is the venue for a first-class outdoor art exhibition.
Open all year, the Broomhill Sculpture Garden is in ten acres and features more than 300 works by some 60 sculptors.
The garden is in the grounds of a Victorian hotel and restaurant and has evolved over the last 20 years into something unmissable.
In the summer you can see the ten entries for the Broomhill National Sculpture Prize, an award launched in 2009 for UK-based sculpture students.
There is no set trail in the Sculpture Garden so you’re free to let curiosity guide you up the winding slopes, through a meadow and beside a lake.
6. Pannier Market and Butchers’ Row
A beautiful sight but also a valuable amenity, the Pannier Market and Butchers’ Row are fronted by Barnstaple’s elegant Georgian Guildhall on the High Street.
A vital regional market has been held in Barnstaple for well over 1,000 years since Saxon times.
New hygiene requirements in the mid-19th century created a need for a new market hall, completed in 1856. This splendid building has a twin row of iron columns supporting a glass and timber roof.
The market trades six days a week.
Shop here for general produce every day except Wednesdays, which is for arts, collectibles and books.
Monday and Thursday there’s also a craft market along with the food stalls.
On the south side of the Pannier Market is the charming Butchers’ Row, a terrace of ten permanent shops under an overhanging iron roof.
Once reserved for butchers, these now include bakeries, a patisserie, fishmonger, cafe and a grocer selling Devon clotted cream.
7. St Anne’s Chapel
Amid pedestrianised streets in the graveyard of the parish church between Barnstaple’s two main shopping streets, St Anne’s Chapel is a riveting Gothic monument from the start of the 14th century.
It was founded as a chantry chapel, a place of worship financed by wealthy people so prayers could be spoken for their souls.
Chantry chapels were outlawed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the building was acquired by the Mayor of Barnstaple a few decades later in 1585. For much of its life the chapel has been used as a grammar school.
After a restoration in 2012 St Anne’s Chapel is now hired out for events, but also makes for a photogenic sight in the centre of town.
8. Barnstaple Castle
Next to the public library there’s an abrupt hillock that can only mean one thing: This was the earthwork mound for Barnstaple’s Norman motte-and-bailey castle.
It’s a sign of the skill of Norman engineering that some 750 years after the castle was abandoned, its motte remains a landmark in the western part of Barnstaple.
There’s another layer of interest about the Castle Green, as the motte was built right on top of a Saxon graveyard, which might tell you something about the relationship between the town and its Norman conquerors.
The mound was landscaped in Victorian times and, ringed with trees, its summit has benches with pleasing views of the town and the Taw Valley.
9. Penrose’s Almshouses
On Litchdon Street, these functioning almshouses are a key stop on the Barnstaple Heritage Trail, well worth seeing from the outside.
This complex, now Grade I-listed, was built in the 1620s according to the will of John Penrose, Mayor of Barnstaple, with 20 dwellings around a courtyard (each unit has its own vegetable garden). On the street is a granite colonnade, and above the entrance is the inscription, “this howse was founded by Mr John Penrose, marchant, sometime maior of this towne.
Ano Do 1627”. Over the colonnade is a highly ornamented original lead gutter, embellished with castellations, Tudor roses and oak leaves.
Most days you should be able to sneak through to the courtyard to see the late-17th-century water pump, which is a Grade II monument in its own right.
10. Exmoor Zoo
In Barnstaple Borough, but ten miles from the town centre, Exmoor Zoo lies on the border of the national park.
The zoo is in an idyllic valley, and puts an emphasis on smaller animals and rare species not normally encountered at animal attractions in the UK. Among them are unusual cat species like sand cats, fishing cats, rust spotted cats and the only pair of black leopards in the UK. These are accompanied by crowd-pleasers like meerkats, cheetahs, capybaras, alpacas, howler monkeys and red-necked wallabies.
Where Exmoor Zoo stands out is in its many keeper talks and encounter sessions taking place all day long.
You can feed and pet wallabies, meet alpacas, hold snakes and spiders, feed tortoises and listen to a talk about the park’s unusual yellow-throated martens.
11. South West Coast Path
This 630-mile walking route tracking the peninsula of South West England has a reputation as the most challenging of the UK’s national trails.
And nowhere is this truer than on the 70-mile leg between Minehead, the northern trailhead, and Barnstaple.
If you’re up for the test, you’ll need at least six days to complete this walk, which leads you through the Exmoor National Park along the highest coastline in Britain.
And while six days may be too much it’s well worth walking a small section in Exmoor, especially during the autumn months when the heather’s purple flowers are in bloom and the feisty red deer stags are rutting.
For a much lighter walk on the South West Coast Path you can trace the Taw Estuary for a couple of miles down to Ashford, taking in waterfowl, water birds and little rocky beaches.
12. Saunton Sands
If you don’t mind going the extra mile there’s a profusion of phenomenal beaches within driving distance.
Saunton Sands is the closest of the most spectacular, but the rocky cove at Barricane Beach, the surf beach at Croyde and the widescreen sands of Woolacombe Beach also deserve your attention.
Seven miles down the Taw River, Saunton Sands has the same sense of spectacle.
There are miles of golden sands on this west-facing beach.
The ample room and long, slow rollers are a dream for surfers especially longboarders and newcomers.
There’s still plenty of space for families, and the light gradient gives children a lot of safe shallow water to play in.
Facilities seem sparse at this isolated beach, but there’s deck chair and beach hut hire, a beach shop and a hut selling snacks and drinks.
13. Barnstaple Long Bridge
Over the Taw in the centre of town, Barnstaple has one of the longest Medieval bridges in Britain, measuring 159 metres.
The exact date of this Grade I monument’s construction is a mystery, but its first mention is from 1276. Like many bridges of this age, the Long Bridge has been repaired and modified many times, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was widened and given a footpath.
The bridge has 16 spans of varying lengths, with cutwaters between each arch.
For another unusually long Medieval bridge, check out Bideford Long Bridge, ten miles away on the River Totteridge and also dating from around the 13th century.
14. Tarka Line
Named after the Henry Williamson novel Tarka the Otter, which is set in North Devon, the Tarka Line is a very scenic stretch of the Great Western Railway between Barnstaple and Exeter.
The 39-mile route weaves along the Taw and Yeo river valleys in gentle, lush countryside.
This branch line opened in 1854 and as well as being a scenic way to reach the cathedral city of Exeter, is also a safe means of reaching country pubs.
The Tarka Line rail ale trail is an itinerary with 18 (as of 2018) establishments on the route.
The historic market town of Crediton is a recommended stop, while Eggesford is the site of the UK’s first state forest, planted in 1919. Staying on the Tarka theme in Barnstaple there’s the Tarka Trail bicycle trail, which has its own bike rental centre based at Barnstaple Railway Station.
15. Heddon Valley
Within the borough, the Heddon Valley is a combe or river valley descending to the sea through dense oak woodland on the western fringe of the Exmoor National Park.
The valley is conserved by the National Trust and is an ideal first step into Exmoor from Barnstaple.
Close to the National Trust’s car park is Heddon’s Mouth, a small pebble beach where the rocky valley walls are precipitous and rise to more than 200 metres a short distance of the river.
You can venture out onto the moorland of the Hangman Hills, tracing miners’ paths to disused iron ore works at Blackstone Point, or take another steep path down to the cove at Woody Bay, a swimming spot dwarfed by massive cliffs.