Thursday, 3 October 2013


Not much happened while on the Cotswolds, except a visit to my elderly aunt. And a day with Angie, which I'll leave up to her to write about (see Angie's Aspirations).

I next shifted to North Devon, staying as usual with Phil and Ann at Higher Darracott Farm, in quiet countryside a couple of miles outside of Great Torrington. It's a great base for getting about anywhere between the Atlantic coast at Bude and the heather-clad expanses of Exmoor. As was usual on this holiday the weather was cloudy, always threatening heavy rain. I never did walk any of the fine beaches in the area, not wanting to get soaked in a sudden downpour. But I got around quite a bit, and from time to time the sun did peep out. And even if it was overcast, you couldn't say it was cold.

One day I went into Ilfracombe. I'd already been into busy and commercial Barnstaple (where I heard the happy news that baby Matilda had been safely born) and this was the the contrasting afternoon's entertainment: a stroll around a laid-back and low-key Victorian coastal resort, a classic of its type. In breezy sunshine too.

Ilfracombe has struck me for years as being stuck in a time warp. It has gradually tarted up itself up, with a new theatre for instance, known apparently as Madonna's Breasts! And tucked away somewhere on the outskirts is a Tesco (although I haven't seen it). But the town centre - perched high above the ice-creamy, fish-and-chippy, pubby and gift-shoppy harbour - is a throwback to another decade. The place is no longer the haunt of the elegant or stylish. It's not for the big spenders. It needs a fresh new look with modern shops and eateries. It's a century past its heyday, old-fashioned, individual, quaint in parts, run-down in others, and generally in need of a comprehensive facelift - although applying any such thing wholesale would destroy the Victorian look and feel, all that traditional atmosphere that residents and repeat visitors alike must find so appealing. Here are some shots:

It sounds as if I'm criticising Ilfracombe for carefully conserving its core assets. Not at all. I'm just saying that I prefer towns that offer less tatty facilities than this one does. And I will heartily recommend Ilfracombe for its awesomely wild and cliffy seafront, where the big waves of the Bristol Channel dash themselves against rugged rocks:

Really, so long as you don't hanker after swish boutiques and state-of-the-art coffee shops, or a decent department store, it's an OK place with a lot going for it, including very friendly locals. And it is most certainly one of the best-preserved Victorian holiday resorts left. So I was intrigued when I went down to the harbour and saw this Colossus-of-Rhodes statue raising a defiant sword against the sea:

Getting nearer, I could see it was a giant bronze statue of a young woman. She was naked. She was standing on a pile of thick law books, holding the scales of Justice behind her back, but thrusting the sword of Truth aloft. I didn't know it at that point, but her name was Verity, which means 'truth'. The artist's attention to fine detail was meticulous. True to reality, you might say. Thus far, the 'message' seemed to be simply 'I have raised myself up using the Law, but I can't get Justice, and will trust instead in the Fighting Sword of Truth.'

I approached her left side. An unexpected feature appeared - she was heavily pregnant!

Well, that was fine - certainly in the context of a public artwork in the twenty-first century. Pretty girl too. The artist seemed to have gone for total realism. And really there was nothing but beauty in that big pregnant belly.

The only thing, Ilfracombe's self-image was years behind the times. So were the mindsets of some holidaymakers. I overheard a sharp intake of breath from one uptight woman in her fifties (i.e. ten years my junior!). 'Disgusting' she said, rather too loudly. What? This bronze girl, proudly showing the unconcealed truth of her condition, and raising a noble sword that should inspire all women to shake off the shackles of prejudice and false modesty - the inventions, after all, of pious and pompous men with personal problems - was going to be dismissed with an ignorant and appalled 'disgusting' from a silly member of her own sex? I felt that if I had been heavily pregnant, I would have bared my belly in salute - perhaps a throng of us would have. Let's have the naked truth and nothing less, and let red-faced town officials and indignant matrons with closed minds burst a blood vessel if they want!

I walked around to her other side.

Oh! That is a bit shocking! Muscle and sinews and bone and peeling skin, and a cutaway womb. I still got it: it was another type of truth, that even young girls in the full ripeness of pregnancy look like this underneath their oh-so-thin outer envelope. The meticulous rendering of detail - no mere hint of the inner physicality, but a frank anatomy lesson - was pure unarguable truth, and we mustn't shy away from it. Literally the other side, or the inner side, of the pretty face. I didn't like it, I felt that this gory detail wasn't necessary for Verity to succeed as an artwork, but I saw the point being made. Perhaps there was something else too. The peeled-back skin suggested flaying alive, a horrible punishment from ancient times. Was the artist saying that this young woman's unashamed, unconventional defiance might end in martyrdom and a dreadful death, even as fresh life was about to spring from her?

Well, who was the artist? Another woman, admiring the statue as I did, told me it was none other than Damien Hirst. The one who had been responsible for some highly visceral and controversial works over the last decade. See, and in relation to this work, Mr Hirst lived in the town. He had business interests there too. Snide comments made out that just as Padstow had been taken over by Rick Stein, the celebrity chef of 'Padstein', so Ilfracombe would be taken over by Damien Hirst the celebrity artist of 'Hirstcombe'. Sigh. I have no idea what I would think of Mr Hirst if I met him, but this all seems over the top and unjustified. And although he may have a weird and possibly bizarre fascination with skulls and dead sharks, there's no denying that Damien Hirst is a first-league artist.

Whether Verity is 'right' or 'suitable' for Ilfracombe is another question. But if she brings the tourists in, as she apparently has since erection in October last year, well, there is surely no more to be said.


  1. I love the architecture in some of those pictures, I have a thing about building architecture. Not sure I would have looked at the woman's statue in the same way as you describe, won't say more on that one.

  2. Verity has, I feel, a very clear message - that Ilfracombe has given up on attracting families. She's obviously designed to shock, and if the nudity doesn't get you and the pregnancy doesn't get you, then the exposed womb probably will.

    But perhaps the bards of Ilfracombe are right. They can't equal Newquay for its beaches or a hundred and one fishing villages (including Padstein) for their quaintness, to why not appeal to the artistic ones? Personally, give me Barbara Hepworth's round holes in square block any day.


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