Barnstaple has a fantastic history, the oldest borough in England that dates back as far as 900ad. The town evolved as a trading port with significant wealth generated from the export of wool from as early as the 14th century.
The town was unusual in that the merchants of the period claimed that the town was a ‘free borough’, an interesting term associated with a number of towns that traded in wool during the period. The ‘free borough’ allowed the merchants of Barnstaple far more autonomy than other towns where the local lords effectively controlled the economy and therefore the growth and prosperity. The free merchants of Barnstaple were more dynamic in their trading and built up extensive routes worldwide through the centuries that allowed the town to prosper and grow quite rich in comparison with other towns.
The growth in trade also changed the town itself, wool became less important and the river silted up so that it was impractical to use the town as a port, especially as nearby Bideford offered much better shipping channels. The town remained the prominent trading and commercial centre with the railway network converging on the town from several lines in the area.
Barnstaple did suffer a relative period of depression in the 1970’s as did many towns. The majority of the railway network was closed and without a major manufacturing or economic base and with a very poor road network compared to the rest of the country.
The major change for the town was the opening of the North Devon Link Road in 1989 that transformed road links between the whole area and the rest of the country. Prior to the road opening, tourists visiting the area had to undertake arduous journeys along twisty roads that were slow and getting increasingly busy. For example, the majority of travellers from the north would access North Devon via Exmoor and during school holidays, this was an arduous journey.
The opening of the link road allowed tourism to once expand again and made short term trips to the area far more feasible and opened up the attractions to a wider audience. The main attraction being the beaches and water sports such as surfing suddenly became far more accessible and changed the structure and face of tourism as we see it today!