Print of the Ladies Bathing Cove at Ilfracombe

Print of the Ladies Bathing Cove at Ilfracombe

The Science at the Seaside project aims to celebrate and spread awareness of the rich history of scientific and literary writing about the North Devon coast.  Our aim is to highlight a neglected aspect of south-west heritage; namely, the growth of seaside science and environmental tourism in North Devon during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.


The research which drives the project includes investigating:


  • The growth of seaside science and environmental tourism in the Victorian period, asking what were the attractions of the seaside in particular as a place for science and why scientific literature was so popular.
  • The way that space conditions knowledge, or the way particular spaces and regions are defined and produce an embodied form of popular scientific knowledge (not abstract in the way that enlightenement science often posits), asking why did so much scientific and literary writing emerge from North Devon in particular, for instance was its relative remoteness part of its appeal, and what effect this landscape had on the literature.
  • The relationship between George Eliot as a literary author and her practices of popular science and naturalist’s fieldwork.

The project grew from a confluence between John and Kyriaki’s research.

Dr Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi on how she arrived at these research questions:


I am a specialist on George Eliot, who wrote her first collection of short stories, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), while accompanying her partner, George Henry Lewes, to Ilfracombe to gather material for his work, Sea-side Studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, the Scilly Isles, and Jersey (1858). The North Devon sea-shore was not the most obvious or accessible location for two metropolitan intellectuals to holiday in 1856, who would have to travel by rail and then coach for many hours to reach Ilfracombe. Intriguingly though, the more I looked into it, I found that Eliot and Lewes were far from alone as an increasing number of genteel tourists made their way to North Devon.


Natural history was obviously a popular Victorian leisure pursuit.  The rock pools, beaches and marine biodiversity of North Devon attracted a disproportionately large number of individuals, literary and scientific, local and distinguished. In addition to Eliot and Lewes, these included well-known writers such as Charles Kingsley, and the naturalists Philip Gosse and Reverend George Tugwell, all of whom published accounts of their explorations. Kingsley, for example, published Glaucus: Or, The Wonders of the Shore (1856), Gosse published, A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (1853). Other titles included Charlotte Chanter, Ferny Combes: A Ramble after Ferns in the Glens and Valleys of Devonshire (1856) and Rev. J. G. Wood, Common Objects of the Sea Shore (1857). Popular science publishing was a fast-expanding genre, helping to create a new focus on the space of the sea-shore and of North Devon.The rich history of writing about the North Devon coast played an important national role in the growth of popular science in the Victorian period. An underlying question is to what extent the very ‘marginal’ nature of North Devon was part of its relatively exclusive appeal. Another key thread that runs through the project is the way that space conditions knowledge, or rather, the way particular spaces/regions get defined and produce an embodied form of popular scientific knowledge that is not abstract in the way that enlightenment science often posits. The issue of literature and popular publishing is key for us as creating the type of liminal seaside space that so fascinated Gosse et al.  The school workshops we have been organizing are really meditations upon writing and place, getting pupils to reflect on their own local environment.