A history of East-the-Water (part 9)

Second World War

The Second World War saw many evacuated to Bideford, whilst in East-the-Water the Home Guard began to plan for the possible German invasion. They decided where to site their roadblocks and, to support covert resistance should that be needed, they set up several hidden depots, including one at Cleave Mine.

Quite early on, there was an outbreak of diphtheria in the town, with those infected conveyed to the local isolation hospital. This stood “just outside Sentry Corner.” Old maps show the hospital on the site that is now occupied by Broomhayes, a complex more recently used by the National Autistic Society.

In the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk HMS Bideford lost much of her stern. This ship, one of several to have born the town’s name, had been launched in 1931 at Devonport, however, at Dunkirk, it was the heroic towing of the gunboat HMS Locust that ensured she sailed another day.

June 1943 saw Bideford Bay pretending to be Normandy (which it quite resembled) for rehearsing the D-day landings. By that time so many American service-men were in the area that an American Red Cross club was opened for them near Chudleigh Fort. Old cine footage has come to light showing Churchill and Eisenhower visiting the area to view the preparations.

In 1945 a Royal Canadian Airforce Wellington bomber, “P” Peter, flying from Chivenor, suffered engine failure and crashed in a field near Round Hill (south of the community). Colliding with a stone hedge in the process, some of the crew were killed and one airman was seriously injured. A simple monument stands beside the Tarka Trail to recall the event.

At this time Bideford’s shipyards were focused on producing new military vessels, but some of the old wooden East-the-Water built boats also found a military function. One such was the George L. Muir (a ship of 64 tons built by Restarick's yard as Cholmondeley). She was converted to serve as one of the 'Q' ships, armed decoy vessels used to entrap enemy submarines.

Severing links

27 March 1963 saw the publication of Beeching’s report “The Reshaping of British Railways,” which made the closure of the rail line to Bideford one of its recommendations. Thus, 2 October 1965 saw the last passenger service leave Bideford Station, severing a major artery into the town. As some demand remained for occasional freight specials, the odd train still used the line, primarily for the transport of clay.

On 9 Jan 1968 the two halves of Bideford were effectively severed when flood-water in the Torridge caused the collapse of the western end of the Long Bridge. A casualty of this incident was one of the main transatlantic telephone cables. In 1963 AT&T had laid their third transatlantic telephone cable (TAT-3), which appears to have run through East-the Water, across the Long Bridge, and on to plunge below the Atlantic at Widemouth Bay, it continued in service until 1986.

Initiatives to improve the area

1976 saw Braunton Burrows established as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, because of its internationally important role in conservation. Ecologists have become increasingly aware that the viability of a reserve depends upon the pattern of land use in their hinterlands, so the reserve was subsequently expanded in 2002 to create buffer zones around it, thereby bringing Bideford within the scope of the reserve. The overall aim is to foster an area where quality of natural environment sustainably co-exists with that of human life.

In 1982, the Pollyfield Community Centre opened its doors for the first time. Over the years it has grown as a community resource and, despite a difficult patch in 2004-9, now seems well on the way to recovery. An existing BMX track on the site was upgraded to Olympic-size in 2010 and in 2013 work began on an Olympic legacy funded boxing and fitness centre.

Linking north-west Devon in

The Long Bridge had never been built to handle the size of traffic now on our roads, so in 1986-7 the A39 took a different route. To do so required the building of the Torridge Bridge, an award winning pre-stressed concrete structure, which holds its 300m spans high above the river. This imposing structure is visible from many parts of East-the-Water. Whilst it no-doubt diverted passing trade from Bideford town centre, it removed the reliance on the old bridge. The new bridge, together with the ambitious North Devon Link Road project (which opened in 1989), meant significantly improved road communication between Bideford and the rest of the country. Providing an impetus for the town’s subsequent rapid expansion.

In 1988 the Bude Area Tourist Board realised that this improved route into the west could do with some promotion and introduced the concept of calling it The Atlantic Highway as a marketing device. The idea proved popular and the name has stuck.

1987 saw the destruction of a carpet warehouse in East-the-Water due to a fire.

Tarka becomes a trail.

In 1982 the rail transport of ball clay through East-the-Water finally ceased. Then, in 1987, the Taw/Torridge Country Park was established using the disused railway line between Barnstaple and Bideford, the line having been purchased from British Rail for £515,000. That was somewhat more than it cost Devon County Council to buy the remainder of the line to Meeth (at the grand total of £1). The section from Barnstaple to East-the-Water opened as a foot and cycle path in 1991, with the remainder forming the Tarka Country Park. By 1994 the whole had been re-branded as part of the Tarka Trail and in 1997 the foot and cycle path was extended to Meeth. As an amenity attraction the Tarka now contributes significantly to the local economy.

The Kathleen & May

The last few sailing coasters to grace our shores all operated out of the Taw and Torridge ports. Of these, the last schooner was the Bideford registered Kathleen & May. After ending her working life in 1960 and then passing through a succession of other owners, she was bought by Bideford businessman Steve Clarke, who lovingly restored her. Re-launched in 2001, she moored at Restarick’s Yard, functioning as a tourist attraction, and becoming something of a symbol of the community. Eventually she was sold again, but her legacy lives on in the logo of the local primary school and in the naming of the developments at Kathleen Grange and May Court (were the original signage from Brunswick Wharf has been re-erected as a memento)..

In 2009 another May, this time the popular TV presenter James May, was putting East-the-Water in the spotlight. As part of James May's Toy Stories series May attempted to reconnect the former Bideford station with Barnstaple Junction using an OO scale model train. Unsuccessful on that occasion, May returned in 2011, to complete the challenge with the help of the German model railway attraction Miniature Wonderland.

Continued growth

Since 1991, when the population of Bideford was 13,006, the town has seen sustained and rapid growth, reaching 15,000 in 2001, 17,070 in 2011, and an estimated 20,073 in 2020. A significant share of this growth has been in the form of new estates in East-the-Water, with the community expanding rapidly. These include areas such as those centred on Ayres Close, Eastridge View, Biddiblack Way, Watkins Way, and Fulford Close. The 17 May 2001 saw the opening of Manteo Way, an industrial link road, providing access to support the eastward spread.

With growth there is inevitably increased pressure on the local resources, including the natural ones, so it is timely that, in 2012, North Devon was chosen as one of twelve pilot Nature Improvement Areas. This project aims, amongst other things, to further improve the water quality of the river Torridge.

2015 saw an ambitious project to run a new gas main under the Torridge to replace the one that runs under the Long Bridge. It also marked the launch, by Bideford Bay Creatives, of the Way of the Wharves Project, to explore and celebrate the history of Bideford wharves, with an emphasis on those in East-the-Water. The project is now maintained as a heritage-based charity.

In 2020-21 work started on the long-overdue re-development of Brunswick Wharf (and several adjacent wharfs), complete with a restored quay wall and riverside walk, several residential blocks, and a plaza with shopping units.

2021 saw the publication of the first local history book to focus specifically on East-the-Water.

Whilst the re-development of East-the-Water's wharves yet to materialise, significant development continued along Mines Road and near Pollyfield. Whilst, toward the end of the year the Brunswick Wharf Project was launched by Bideford Bay Creatives, with a view to exploring the past and present significance of the wharves.