Lynmouth, like its immediate neighbour, is characterised by steep cliffs and enclosing hills. The coastal situation, small harbour, and twin rivers meeting at the bridge give an overwhelming sense of the presence of water. The West Lyn descends steeply down a ravine over a series of falls, the East Lyn less so, down the longer Watersmeet Valley. A 1907 guide-book describes the locality as “eminently picturesque.”
The population of the parish, which includes Lynton was estimated at 1,658 in 1998. The name Lyn (river) mentioned in Assize Rolls of 1282 is probably from the Old English hlynn “torrent.” Lynmouth, together with Lynton still retains a sense of the unique and remote qualities the Victorians especially sought. The A39 route between Minehead, 18 miles to the east, and Barnstaple, 22 miles to the south-west, crosses the East Lyn river here. No route into Lynmouth is entirely exempt from steep gradients or hairpin bends, and several require crossing the high moors.
There is mention of a flood in 1607 when “many of the houses were swept away.” Within living memory the disastrous flood of 1952, as well as causing tragic loss of life, also led to the eventual demolition of many buildings damaged beyond repair. The resulting changes including construction of the Lyndale Bridge, a re-routing of part of the course of the river and construction of Riverside Road. Although much has changed visually, Lynmouth retains an intimacy of scale and sense of enclosure enhanced by the steep sided valleys and wooded slopes that surround the settlement on three sides.
The original small fishing port has medieval origins. An early mention of Lynmouth as a settlement, is in the Subsidy Rolls of 1330. Fishing had been a staple industry of Lynmouth for about 300 years since the middle of the 16th century. Thomas Westcote was a writer during the reign of James I, and referred to an extensive herring fishery which exported to Holland among other countries. Another writer mentions that the fish were so plentiful in the years prior to 1797 that they were used as manure. Even so catches could be irregular and were sometimes greatly diminished. Another local industry was the manufacture of warp, a soft textured hand-made fabric also produced in Lynton.
The locality with its unrivalled setting would have first acquired a wider reputation among fashionable people when the Continent was closed to English visitors during the Napoleonic Wars. Around 1810, William Litson, a Lynton wool trader, encouraged the building of the first hotels, which were speedily patronised by the wealthy. Mr Thomas Coutts, the banker, and the Marchioness of Bute are known to have been early visitors. The reputation of the locality also spread among poets, artists and writers. Robert Southey was an early visitor and eulogised about the natural beauty. Shelley rented a cottage with his young bride at Lynmouth around 1812 and stayed for a year. Some of his pamphlets were considered to be of a seditious nature and the authorities ordered his arrest, but a local boatman assisted in an escape to Wales. William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge also stayed. Reputedly the natural beauty almost persuaded them to settle. Thomas Gainsborough is also thought to have spent time here.
From the 1830’s road acccess was gradually improved and regular coach services introduced such that from the mid 19th century, Lynton and Lynmouth came to special prominence as a holiday destination of the Victorian middle class, by meeting all the requirements of a romantic landscape setting that were then especially sought. Other writers, for example Charles Kingsley became associated with the area, and the setting of R.D. Blackmore’s novel Lorna Doone with its mixture of fact and fiction remains a magnet for visitors.
George Newnes the publisher loved the area and before moving into Hollerday House, high above Lynmouth, in 1893, had been largely responsible for building the Cliff Railway, which opened in 1890. It climbs at a gradient of 1 in 1.75 and is little changed from the original cable driven water displacement method of operation. Black’s Guide of 1898 feared “it would flood the place with a class of excursionists for whom there is little accommodation, and on whom, for the most part, its characteristic beauties would be thrown away.” In fact it has long provided an essential link between the twin settlements and is used by both residents and visitors. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner mentions the German flavour of Lynmouth in the Rhenish tower, the conifers, and the “Zahnradbahn” up to Lynton, when journeys up the Rhine to the Black Forest were becoming popular.
The abundance of water led to Lynmouth becoming one of the first localities in 1890 to produce hydro-electric power. The original plant, built by local inventor, Charles Green, was situated on the East Lyn river below Watersmeet Road. It was severely damaged in the 1952 flood. A new plant opened at Glen Lyn on the River West Lyn in 1962. It was completely renovated in 1985, and as well as continuing to produce electricity is also a visitor attraction.