It was the river that defined the location of East-the-Water. The Celts named it Torridge, meaning ‘turbulent stream,’ and, as it rises on the western moors, heavy rainfall can certainly make it live up to its Celtic name. But it is not rain alone that accounts for the strong currents in the Torridge estuary, for it also experiences some of Britain’s larger tides.
At Bideford a deeper water channel winds across the sea-flooded valley, providing a navigable artery for larger vessels. Where this channel touches the shore it provides ideal locations for quays, but the Torridge is a fickle river and from time to time the channel has shifted, carrying with it the fortunes of Bideford’s merchants.
The Torridge presented a significant natural barrier to land-based travel, but it is unclear when Bideford first became significant as a crossing-point. Yet the earliest records and even the name Bideford, testify to the existence of a ford from an early stage. The ford probably ran from the East-the-Water shore somewhere to the south of the bottom of Torrington Lane to some point near Ford House on the Western bank.
Early travellers were attracted to good crossing places, and at Bideford the sandy bottom of the Torridge was (according to an 18th C. report) firm enough to enabled carts and wagons to cross with ease. The catch was that, due to the high tidal range, a crossing was only possible once the water ebbed sufficiently. Travellers must frequently have had to wait to cross, and where travellers halted, settlements grew up to service their needs.
Speede’s map of 1610 shows another crossing, the map is far from precise, but it would have run from somewhere near Westleigh (possibly by Westleigh Hard) to a point on the Northam shore (possibly near Windmill Lane or a point below Bidna House). This would have been on the direct route from Barnstaple to the ancient settlement of Northam (which was once a more significant place than Bideford). If Speede was not mistaken, then this may have been a near-defunct crossing, for later maps omit it. The inexorable sinking of the Torridge valley (by possibly a meter since 1066) was bound to shift favoured crossing places upstream over time and render downstream fords unusable.