The parish stretches along the coast from 'The Coastguard Cottages' in Hele Bay toward the east and 4 miles along The Torrs to Lee Bay toward the west. The resort is hilly and the highest point within the parish boundary is at 'Hore Down Gate', 2 miles inland and 860 feet (270 m) above sea level.
The landmark of Hillsborough Hill dominates the harbour and is the site of an Iron Age fortified settlement. In the built environment, the architectural-award-winning Landmark Theatre is either loved or hated for its unusual double-conical design. The 13th-century parish church, Trinity; and the St Nicholas's Chapel (a lighthouse) on Lantern Hill, have been joined by the Damien Hirst owned statue, Verity, as points of interest.
Ilfracombe has been settled since the Iron Age, when the Dumnonii Celts established a hill fort on the dominant hill, Hillsborough (formerly Hele's Barrow). The origin of the town's name has two possible sources. The first is that it is a derivative of the Anglo-Saxon Alfreinscoma - by which name it was noted in the Liber Exoniensis of 1086. The translation of this name (from Walter William Skeat of the department of Anglo Saxon at Cambridge University) means the "Valley of the sons of Alfred". The second origin is that the name Ilfracombe was derived from Norse illf (bad), Anglo-Saxon yfel (evil ford) and Anglo-Saxon cumb (valley) perhaps from a Celtic source (compare Welsh cwm), thus 'The valley with the bad ford'.
The manor house at Chambercombe in east Ilfracombe was recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as being built by a Norman knight Champernon (from Chambernon in France) who landed with William of Normandy. It is also said to be haunted.
Ilfracombe comprised two distinct communities; a farming community around the parish church called Holy Trinity, parts of which date from the 12th century, and a fishing community around the natural harbour formed between Capstone, Compass and Lantern Torrs. It is recorded that the lands by the church were part of the estate owned by Champernowne family, while those by the harbour belonged to the Bouchier family: Earls of Bath.
Because of the natural layout of the harbour, Ilfracombe became a significant safe port (registered port of refuge) on the Bristol Channel. It also had trade routes between Kinsale and Tenby, which made the port stronger. In 1208 it was listed as having provided King John with ships and men to invade Ireland; in 1247 it supplied a ship to the fleet that was sent to conquer the Western Isles of Scotland; 6 ships, with 79 men were sent to support the siege of Calais. Ilfracombe was the last disembarkation point for two large forces sent to subdue the Irish. The building which sits on Lantern Hill by the harbour, known as St Nicholas's Chapel (built 1361) is reputed to be the oldest working lighthouse in the UK; a light/beacon has been there for over 650 years. The town was also home to the Bowen family. James Bowen was master of the HMS Queen Charlotte, the flagship of Richard, Earl Howe at the 1794 "Glorious First of June" battle. James Bowen was commissioned by Howe for his leadership in the battle, he rose through the levels - commander of the Argot, the Dreadnought, and in Georgian England titled "defender of Madeira", led the fleet which rescued the British army at Corunna in the Peninsula war, and retired as a Rear Admiral, Commissioner of the Royal Navy. Captain Richard Bowen (1761–1797) James Bowen's younger brother, a British naval commander on the ship HMS Terpsichore, served under Lord Nelson, and was killed at the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. John Bowen (1780–1827), son of James Bowen, a naval officer and colonial administrator founded the first settlement of Tasmania at Risdon Cove in 1803 - the settlement which later became known as Hobart. Lieutenant A E Down, was initially posted to Ilfracombe to lead a protection ship for the customs and excise, he married a local girl, rose through the levels to retire as vice Admiral, his son joined the navy aged 14 (his first navy kit is on display at National Maritime Museum Greenwich). In 1802 James Meek married Down's daughter and settled in the town, James Meek was appointed the Comptroller of Victuals to the Royal Navy in 1832, he was knighted, and died in Ilfracombe 1852. (gentlemen's gazette)
There was a wooden fortress overlooking the harbour, of this nothing remains except contemporary records and the area designated Castle Hill off Portland Street/Montepellier Terrace.
The town's first lifeboat was bought in 1828 but a permanent service was not available until the Royal National Lifeboat Institution built a lifeboat station at the bottom of Lantern Hill near the pier in 1866. The present station at Broad Street dates from 1996.
Miss Alice Frances Louisa Phillips (b. 26 January 1891 at 85 High Street, Ilfracombe) and her father Mr Escott Robert Phillips (b. 1869 Cardiff) held 2nd Class Ticket #2 on RMS Titanic, and set sail from Southampton on 10 April 1912 heading for New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Alice was rescued in boat 12, her father was lost in the disaster.