Having seen this on some documentary called Unique British Holidays (or something like this), I was keen to visit the town of Clovelly. Tucked away in the crevices of the cliffs of North Devon, this seafaring town still hark back to the days of old. With cobbled stone streets and no cars allowed on it steep hills, houses lean against each other both for support and to protect themselves against the very cold, blustery wind that was blowing the day we visited. It was early February of course, what did I expect?
We had driven to Clovelly using our Sat Nav, which had taken us literally through the back roads of Dartmoor, and the back roads of farmland used by tractors and locals. For a while there, I thought my Garmin had truly failed us. I checked the settings to make sure it was set to ‘shortest route’ and ‘fastest time’. In the end, always trust your Sat Nav, it got us there, probably by only about 10 minutes faster than the highway which would have taken us through a very roundabout way. Pretty though the back roads were, we were having to stop and start constantly as we navigated our way through. So I think, the highway is easiest sometimes.
Clovelly is a fishing village that is still privately owned. So basically, there are tenants and the tenants pay rent to the landlord, which in this case is the Hamlyn family. In the entirety of its history, the village has been owned only by 3 families. It was also recorded as a town existing in the Doomsday Book, a book from the time of William the Conqueror. Think of it like a modern-day census book to collect taxes. Owned by the Cary family for 11 generations, it was sold into private ownership – the Hamlyn family – in 1738, as basically the family had died out with no issue to pass on.
I’ve not read Water Babies or Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, though I will now that I know that those stories were written in Clovelly. Charles Kingsley spend part of his childhood in Clovelly, and it always remained a favourite place of his.
Clovelly is truly tucked away. As you drive on the road above, you wouldn’t know there was a village down the cliff. They lived like that for centuries, rather isolated from the outside world, so a lot of their buildings and structures are truly quaint and rather untouched (except for Christine Hamlyn’s renovations and restorations) by buildings through the ages. I think the town opened up to tourism in the 19th century as Victorians (in the age of travel in Britain) were truly curious to see this unique village that time had preserved.
On this cold and blustery afternoon, with rolling grey clouds in the distance, we rocked down to the village. There weren’t many people about as we were touring out of season. I’m told in summer, the place is heaving with tourists. If you’re visiting, don’t go on a Friday. That is the village’s “day off”. All the little souvenir shops, cafes etc are closed. Not that you want to buy stuff from the souvenir shop. A lot of it looked terribly old and dusty, and expensive, even for a girl who’s now used to paying London prices for things. A souvenir shop had a ‘For Sale’ sign up. It wasn’t open of course. But as I peeped through the window, all the stuff were ‘not my taste’. Hmm, guess I won’t be living in Clovelly. Not that we could. I suppose they would aim to keep the population relatively … shall we say, ‘homogenous’ and in keeping with tradition.
People still lived in all the houses lining the pathway as we walked down. No one was around, I suppose they were at their day job. In summer, if the doors were open to let in a cool breeze, apparently tourists sometimes walk straight in, thinking its a little museum or something. I would hate that, all the people peering in through the windows. But I suppose its the price you pay for a quaint little life.
As with any village, there are a couple of pubs, and B&Bs, though we were past the time the pub would stay open for food. We wandered through a couple of museums, including an old fisherman’s cottage. It was all very cute and small. Compact, I think is the right word. It also felt very cold. I’d imagine that in the old days, most of the cottages would be quite smoky inside, with little wood stoves or coal fireplaces going. With the wind outside, it must be freezing. Seemed like a hard life, going out to sea fishing for kippers, and of course, many fisherman died at sea, as is the case for most fishing village life around the world.
The place reminded me of a very English version of Santorini, but much cleaner. I think it was the donkey poo. Donkeys are still used from time to time to cart stuff up and down. Mainly they use a sled to cart stuff over the cobblestone. It’s actually a lot more efficient than it sounds.
We didn’t walk all the way down to the harbour. The reason is that it was already a steep climb to the half way point, it was starting the rain, it’s a steep climb back up, and we were cold and hungry. Not great combinations for happy hubby and child. We stood at the village meeting square, which is this teeny tiny bit of ‘park’ with a couple of benches bordered by cliff on one side, a house on the other, and a bit of road/path going down the cliff. Courtyard would probably be more accurate. The view from here is lovely, and you can see all other to see, with coves of beaches up and down the coast.
Oh yes, Clovelly was a place smugglers also used, because it’s so isolated and tucked away and customs officers had difficulty trying to spot the smugglers. There’s smugglers coves, and tunnels about the place, but we didn’t explore those for said reasons above. It’s all so Enid Blyton. For me, it’s what makes these little side trips interesting for me. It’s seeing a little bit of the world in real life that I had read so many stories about.
We stopped off at the visitor centre above, and managed to grab some afternoon tea, which is just lovely. A couple of warm scones, clotted cream and jam, with tea and hot chocolate and pasties. The scones were the best afternoon tea we had and was a mere GBP3.95. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was as good as all the other posh places I’d been to. Actually, it was better, given the price I paid.
Clovelly is definitely off the beaten track. Not a place to visit if you still have tons of things to see in the UK, but lovely as a side trip in North Devon. If you’re organised about it, I think it would be nice to book into the B&B and stay there a night. You’ll have more time to explore and just soak in the atmosphere. And go in spring or summer. February is definitely not the best time.