The story behind the place names


There is no denying it, Ilfracombe is blessed with some very strange sounding names, and some of them are not too easy to say!


Here's a quick guide to some of the strangest names, including how to say them...



Combe is pronounced cooom as in 'moon' rather than 'umm' as in 'come'.


There are several place names on the coast which include 'combe' in some way. This is because 'combe' means valley and we have lots of those because we have lots of hills!


Woolacombe, for example, means Valley of the Wolves. Combe Martin means Valley of the Martin family - who were hopefully significantly less scary than the Woolacombe wolves.


The Harbour in the days before they worked out how to attach motors to boats.


There are two main ideas about how Ilfracombe got its 'Ilfra'. The first is that it was 'Alfred's Valley', Alfred being a very lucky local landowner. The second is that it is that the 'Ilfra' meant 'bad ford' in Old English. As both Alfred and any sign of a ford, bad or otherwise, are long gone, we may never know.


Hele is pronounced heel, like the bottom bit of your shoe.


Again focussing on its position in a valley (were the Anglo Saxons obsessed with valleys?!?), Hele is from the old English word 'healh' which meant sheltered valley. 




Our 'Sleeping Elephant' resting by the Harbour, is formally known as Hillsborough. The name is thought to come from 'Hele's Barrow', a barrow being an earth or stone mound next door to Hele. 


Hillsborough, Ilfracombe's Sleeping Elephant





Larkstone and Laston (another name which features around here) are both thought to have come from the same roots. Both were thought to mean a ship's ballast possibly suggesting that Larkstone Beach was a place where incoming ships dumped their ballast to make space for picking up cargo in the Harbour.




Rapparee probably comes from the word rapary which was a half-pike weapon - basically an iron spike on a staff. You wouldn't have wanted to be on the wrong end of it! These were carried by a particular band of seventeenth century bandits from Ireland who were known as the Rapparees. It is said that they attempted landing at Rapparee after the Monmouth Rebellion during which they had failed to oust James II. The bandits were  chased away and went instead to Exmoor. We must have been very proud of this successful intervention to name Rapparee Beach after the vanquished bandits.




It is possible that the Torrs name comes simply from a place of hills as tor is an old English word common in the South West for a hill or rocky outcrop. There are certainly plenty of both on our Torrs. 



Wilder is pronounced will - duh, rather than while - der.

In the days when no-one was allowed into Ilfracombe without a suit and a straw boater.


The East Wilder and West Wilder Brooks run through Ilfracombe to the Wildersmouth beach - and thus it is named as the mouth of the Wilder streams.


Wilder is an archaic word meaning to lead astray or bewilder. Perhaps the course of the stream was confusing? It certainly is bewildering now as it constantly disappears and reappears on its journey through the town!


Following the East Wilder Brook from source to sea - a video by Sandpit72




Norse Sea Raiders, desperate to get their Scandinavian clutches on the island, called it Lundy - an old Norse word for puffin. It is said these raiders wanted the island as merchant ships were passing by Lundy with boatloads of fancy goods to trade in Bristol, merchant ships which could be lured onto Lundy's rocky coast and pillaged. I'm sure that can't have been the case though, the Norsemen probably just wanted to sit and watch the cheeky little puffins.

There is still a very lively puffin presence on Lundy with up to 400 nesting on the island. Photo: Charles J Sharp



A ropery is a place where ropes are made. It is also an archaic word for banter and trick-playing.  A short spell on the Harbour will no doubt make your mind up about which meaning is most appropriate here...




A cap stone is traditionally a stone capping a mound or hill which suggests that capstone had some sort of topping. There was a Coastguard semaphore signal mast erected there to warn ships about all our rocks. Now, the Union flag flies in its place.




Combe means there is another valley reference here - this time the Lords of the Manor were the the Champernon family. Champernon's Combe was conveniently shortened to Chambercombe over time.

Chambercombe Manor, dating from the 12th Century. Photo: David Seale,