The situation of Parracombe is described in a 1930s guide-book as “between hills so steep that a new road has been made to miss them.” It is the largest Devon village on Exmoor, and is situated in the upper Heddon valley, some 12 miles from Barnstaple and 6 miles from Lynton.
In addition to the compact village centre, mainly extending northwards from the steep valley bottom, there are the physically detached hamlets of Bodley, Churchtown and Prisonford. All are included within the Conservation Area; one of the largest in the National Park; and are reached from two narrow lanes leading from the A39. Like the former Lynton to Barnstaple Railway, closed in 1935, this road diverts around the village approximately following the 250 metre (800 feet) contour.
The inherent character of Parracombe is that of an upland community, historically with a compact pattern of settlement of plain vernacular buildings, including some good farm groups. Heddon Hall, the former rectory, is of Regency date, and the grandest domestic building. The late 19th to early 20th century saw the development of a scattering of detached villa-style houses, with subsequent infill of local authority houses and some 1960s bungalows. Over the past few decades, planning restrictions have increased and additional development has been very limited.
Parracombe is recorded as Pedrecumbe in the Domesday Book, and was held after the Conquest by William of Falaise who became “a powerful tenant-in-chief in Devon and Somerset” (Pevsner). Hol- well Castle 300 metres south-east of the village is a strongly defended motte-and-bailey earthwork which almost certainly dates from this time.
There is no clear definition of the source of the name of the village. It may simply derive from the Old English pearr “enclosure.” The Oxford Dictionary of Place Names refers to peddera cumb, also Old English, meaning “the pedlars valley”. Other sources suggest that it is a corruption of “Petrock’s Combe” based on the dedication of the original parish church. St. Petroc is a Cornish saint better known in the Bodmin and Padstow area. There is a tradition that St. Petroc built a small church of cob and wattle with a straw roof almost 1500 years ago. The locality is certainly rich in evidence of early settlement, with the Iron Age enclosures of Voley Castle and Beacon Castle; whilst further east on Parracombe Common are several well-preserved Barrows, a ring cairn, and a linear group known as Chapman Barrows.