Bernard Cole discovers the delights of one of Cornwall's oldest towns, Wadebridge

PUBLISHED: 15:49 17 August 2010 | UPDATED: 16:01 20 February 2013

Join Bernard Cole as he discovers the delights of Wadebridge, one of Cornwall's oldest towns that has great shopping, architecture and the ever-popular Camel Trail

Join Bernard Cole as he discovers the delights of Wadebridge, one of Cornwall's oldest towns that has great shopping, architecture and the ever-popular Camel Trail

There's something about Wadebridge that encourages that glad-to-be-alive feeling. Just take a wander down the town centre's main street. Here, solidly-built Victorian houses vie for space with municipal structures, independent traders and professional premises. Then, as you move along the water's edge towards the downriver end of town, the atmosphere changes. Twenty-first century design, a greater emphasis on open space and a clever mix of residential, retail and service industry premises lend everything a relaxed, cosmopolitan air.

Wadebridge is one of Cornwall's oldest towns. One of its earliest recorded events was the granting of a charter in 1312 to hold a market and two fairs. Like many other towns, Wadebridge was probably first settled because of its geographical convenience. Set at the upstream end of the River Camel's tidal reach, it's at the river's highest navigable point for larger craft and almost at the lowest for fording - a strategic and commercially important factor not lost on the town's first settlers.

Before the first bridge was built, Wadebridge had the only crossing place on the river upstream from the estuary. Two riverside chapels - one to pray for a safe crossing and the other in which to give thanks - suggest the short journey was not always a safe experience. It wasn't until 1468 or thereabouts that John Lovybond, the then vicar of Egloshayle, started work on the first bridge.

When his task was completed, the new bridge was 9ft wide, 320ft long and was carried on 17 pointed arches. Over the ensuing years it has been repaired and rebuilt several times and by 1577 it was said to be the most travelled way in Cornwall. Such was its importance that in 1646, during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell secured it with 1,500 horsemen and dragoons to prevent a Royalist breakthrough. Even though it's been widened several times since and has even suffered the indignity of a modern rival taking most of its traffic, it's still the focal point of the town.

Though legend and myth suggest the original bridge was built on foundations of 'wool', this is unlikely. It was more likely built on the proceeds of the wool trade. But who knows? The one thing that is still certain is that if you want to cross the river from Rock or Padstow with a vehicle then, as travellers, traders and pilgrims have done for centuries, you still have to travel upriver to Wadebridge to cross to the other side.

For the visitor, one of the town's biggest attractions is its positioning on the Camel Trail. From high on Bodmin Moor, the trail wanders through some of Cornwall's most beautiful and little explored countryside before picking up the route of the long defunct Bodmin to Padstow railway line. When it opened in 1834 the Bodmin and Wadebridge was the first steam railway in Cornwall and the first in western Britain to carry passengers.

Little remains of the Victorian station and marshalling yards apart from a renovated Goods Shed and the old booking office and waiting rooms. These were converted some years ago into the Betjeman Centre in memory of the poet Sir John Betjeman who lived in the town and who drew much inspiration from its beauty. But in the rail heyday of the 1890s, it was possible to board the 'Atlantic Coast Express' at London Waterloo and later step out of the carriage at Wadebridge without having made a single change. Now, of course, it's the trail 'blazers' who travel this section of the old line. With ample car parking, several bike-hire outlets and a central position on the Camel Trail, the town has become a year-round attraction for nature lovers, walkers, runners, children, dogs and cyclists, all setting out to experience and enjoy one of Cornwall's main visitor attractions.

Two annual events that both attract great interest and which have helped place the town firmly on the map are the Royal Cornwall Show and the Wadebridge Folk Festival. The Show runs from 4-6 June this year (full coverage is on page 22) and has occupied its present site to the west of the town since 1960. Today, it is renowned throughout the county - and much of the country - for the range, quality and scale of the events and exhibits it stages. The Folk Festival also draws a large and dedicated following and it usually takes place in August each year. With singers, musicians and dancers from all over the country and from Europe, the town's streets, open spaces, pubs and halls are alive with the vibrancy and enthusiasm of performing artists and superb music. With its weekend of fun and lively entertainment for all the family, the festival is bringing more and more people to the town every year.

The vibrant, bustling and colourful town centre is always busy and always interesting, and shopping in Wadebridge is a pleasure. From wide, pedestrianised Molesworth Street to the newer shops clustered around the redeveloped riverside quay, there's something for everyone. Its eclectic range of independent shops and services keeps browsers occupied for hours and a stroll around the side streets and courtyards will turn up bookshops, intimate restaurants, music specialists, antiques dealers, lighting and cookware specialists and many others, including the full complement of high-quality butchers, bakers and household provision stores.

Though visitors come here year round, it's in summertime when the population really swells. From May to October the town centre is thronged with visitors queuing for pasties, browsing the shops or taking refreshment in one of the several pubs, cafs, restaurants and bistros that occupy the courtyards and terraces leading off it.

And if you need to keep the kids occupied or spend a few moments away from the crowds, walk upstream along the river's bank and you'll come across Anneke's bridge. Built in the 1980s as part of a TV show, this delightful footbridge crosses the River Camel to a lovely leisure park with riverside bowls, tennis courts and children's play area on the other side. As Janice Hyslop from Yorkshire, visiting Cornwall with her three young daughters, said: "Wadebridge has everything. Like this park, it's safe for the children, it's close to the beaches and there's a cracking cinema in town for a rainy day."

So, whether you're a resident or a visitor, this lovely country town, with its old and new bridges and relaxing lifestyle, is a jewel to be treasured. It's as proudly Cornish as any other town in the county and yet it has that something extra - a 'magical' and indefinable quality that many others have tried but failed to attain. ?

Nearby attractions


There are several major beaches within eight miles or so of Wadebridge. Some are great for surfing, others are more sheltered.

Pencarrow House

A private house built in the 1760s, with gardens and caf, a collection of pictures, furniture and porcelain. 01208 841369,

Camel Valley Vineyard

Award-winning vineyard producing Cornish wine on the Camel.

01208 77959,

Trelawney Garden Centre

An all-weather garden shopping experience inspired by the Southern Railway which steamed through the site a hundred years ago. 01208 893030,

Regal Cinema

For a special treat enjoy a film.

01208 812791,

The TIC at Padstow provides a full service for Wadebridge and the surrounding area. 01841 533449

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