I recently had a fascinating tour of some of Barnstaple's oldest surviving buildings: the almshouses in Church Lane.
Almshouses date from a period when individual parishes were responsible for what we now call ‘social care’. Although times have changed, the Trustees of Barnstaple Municipal Charities continue to manage these buildings as 'dwellings dedicated to the poor and needy of Barnstaple'.
They were built between 1629 and 1665 and replaced some even older homes on the site which had fallen into disrepair.
The money for the buildings was provided by benefactors: Thomas Horwood, a Mayor of Barnstaple; Elizabeth Paige, consort to another Mayor; and Thomas Harris, a local businessman. They originally established four almshouses, but eight more were built on the site some time later.
Subsequent alterations have reduced the total to the eight almshouses we know today: four houses and four flats. The houses surround a cobbled courtyard and the whole area provides an important insight to Barnstaple’s past history, while they continue to function as intended when first built.
Another similarity with the buildings' origins is that Barnstaple Municipal Charities still relies on contributions, donations and grants to keep the service going. This can be a challenge, and during the visit I heard more about the fundraising work that's going on.
It's especially relevant at the moment, because an impressive preservation and improvement project is being undertaken. The aim is to sympathetically restore the homes so that they each have their own entrances and there are no longer any shared facilities.
I was privileged to meet one of the longest-standing residents who is looking forward to moving into one of the renovated homes very soon. He could not speak highly enough of the work of the charity.
These almshouses are not only a fascinating part of Barnstaple's history but also a real asset to the town today, continuing to provide a valuable service nearly 400 years after their foundation. I would urge you to take a look, and especially any local businesses who would like to consider supporting this excellent project can find out more at the website: http://www.barnstaplealmshouses.co.uk