Londoners took their cue and have been busily investing in Ilfracombe’s shops, galleries and holiday cottages, while the town’s once-tired hotels are being spruced up or turned into self-catering apartments.
Prices here are tempting. You can get a 16th-century fisherman’s cottage on historic Fore Street for £150,000 to £300,000, or a seven-bedroom detached house overlooking the harbour for £275,000 to £325,000.
A 17-bedroom guesthouse in need of renovation went on sale for £350,000 while artists and writers priced out by London can rent a flat with a studio to work in for £500 a month. Hirst spent many childhood holidays in North Devon and bought a farmhouse in Combe Martin for the surfing at Woolacombe and Croyde. His children go to local schools and he loves Ilfracombe — offering Verity on a 20-year loan to help support local regeneration projects.
'The Damien Hirst factor has helped attract visitors, but part of Ilfracombe’s charm is that it is an old-fashioned working coastal town with real people in it'
The Tunnels Beach area — a 19th-century spa cut into the rocky coves — has been redeveloped as safe tidal bathing pools, plus a bespoke beachfront wedding venue. Nearby, artist Kirstie Jackson and her husband, designer furniture maker Paul, have renovated the Quarry (bighousedevon.co.uk), a panoramic seven-bed Victorian villa, for holiday lets.
Hirst is not the only famous resident. Artist George Shaw, nominated for the 2011 Turner Prize, has bought a house on the high street.
Nestling on the coast at the edge of Exmoor and near suburban Barnstaple, Ilfracombe was famous in the 19th century as a bathing location. It has avoided the worst aspects of urban renewal and retained the architectural trappings that came with bygone wealth. Huge houses on the hilly approaches to the harbour are blessed with cast-iron balconies and colourful brickwork. The imposing detached Victorian villas on the Torrs — the hills and cliffs to the west of the town — go for around £360,000.
Certainly Hirst has become an astute property developer. First he bought a deserted pub on the harbour front and turned it into a £1 million restaurant called The Quay, decorated with his trademark butterfly paintings. Now he has bought four adjoining buildings. In June he opened his Other Criteria gallery and shop, selling painted skulls, butterfly pictures, iron-on spots and art books. He is said to be planning a Damien Hirst museum — to rival Tracey Emin’s Turner Contemporary at Margate.
Part of Ilfracombe’s charm is that it combines old-fashioned seaside appeal (fish and chips, tattoo parlours, crazy golf) with more metropolitan touches — funky tea rooms, delis and a farmers’ market. In the last month four more art galleries have opened.
As for visitor attractions, there’s the Landmark Theatre with its twin cones, dubbed “Madonna’s bra” by the locals, a cinema and museum. The harbour-side aquarium was opened by former London Zoo worker Lawrence Raybone in a deserted lifeboat station. “You get these very dramatic walks and peace and quiet,” said Kirstie. “It’s still very unspoilt.” Ex-London management consultant Victoria Wills spotted a neglected Grade II-listed mansion house with 14 bedrooms for £730,000 six years ago and has converted it into the luxury weight-loss retreat, Nu Beginnngs (nubeginnings.co.uk).
“It’s an amazing bargain,” she enthused. “When friends visit, they start looking in estate agents’ windows and jumping up and down, because if you compare the prices with Cornwall, never mind London, Rock is three times the price of Ilfracombe, which is on the water and just as lovely. There’s the art quarter, then up on the Torrs you have the boutique B&Bs.”
Meanwhile, Hirst is developing 500 eco-homes, with hidden wind turbines in the roofs, solar panels and state-of-the-art insulation. A new medical centre, primary school, community gardens, sports fields and a small business district are also proposed.
There are still gritty bits. The town declined after the closure of the railway to London in 1970, and the high street has empty shops. Comedian Bill Bailey once jokingly referred to Ilfracombe as “10,000 alcoholics clinging to a cliff”. But the town is on the up again, partly thanks to the thousands of tourists who have visited since Verity arrived. Eclectick, a rooftop restaurant and wine bar overlooking Fore Street, has created a Verity cocktail. Not that the statue’s reception was universally popular. Some critics declared her an ugly blot on the landscape.
You’ll find her at the end of the pier, looking out to Lundy Island. “If you’re coming in by boat, it’s like going to any of the best harbours in Europe,” said photographer Jane Perrin, who opened The Great British Tea Shop on St James’ Place last year. It sells cupcakes and boiled egg and soldiers, with lashings of tea and ginger beer. In high season the tea room is full of tourists debating the statue. “It’s lovely, just like art school,” laughed Jane.
Fiona Hoggard, a charity fundraiser who bought a Victorian terrace house 10 years ago for less than £50,000 as a holiday let (laundry-cottage.co.uk), has seen many changes. “The Damien Hirst factor has helped attract visitors, but part of Ilfracombe’s charm is that it is an old-fashioned working coastal town with real people in it,” she said.
“The North Devon coastline is stunning, the beaches are clean and there is loads to do. It’s hard to get to, but when you are here it’s another world. You won’t want to leave.”