Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The stepped streets and hidden undercurrents of Devon’s Clovelly


Bideford Bay, Devon
      The cobbled streets of Clovelly tumble into England’s Bristol Channel near Bideford Bay. Whitewashed cottages, piled one above the other, cling to the sheer Devon cliff face, forming a picture-postcard village so cloyingly perfect, you suspect you’re in an olde worlde re-creation purporting to show the life and times of a bygone era.
      If you hanker after ragged ranges and sweeping veldt, then Clovelly’s chocolate-box charm may not be your cup of tea. But there’s no denying, it is quaint, cute and oh so sweet.
      Listed in the Doomsday Book, circa 1100AD, this fishing village stands on the site of an ancient Saxon settlement. Now preserved and protected for future generations by the Clovelly Trust, the settlement is a living relic of a time when life was measured by the ebb and flow of tides, by sunrise and sunset.
      When I arrive, late on a summer afternoon, Clovelly exudes an air of tranquility. The stepped streets, staggering steeply down to the harbour, are virtually empty of the usual pedestrian hordes. A few red-faced and out-of-puff stragglers struggle up the main street, which climbs 150m in half a kilometer. My descent into the village, an official car-free zone, promises to be crush-free as the throngs of tourists have already retreated for the day.
      I mince gingerly down, taking dainty steps suitable for this cute little toy town. The cobblestones, hauled from the beach to pave the main thoroughfare, called Up-along or Down-along, depending on which direction you’re walking, can be precariously slippery.  I’m terrified the leather soles of my sandals will skid, sending me helter-skelter down Down-along. And it’s not even raining. In fact, it’s a scorching 26 degrees.
      Being Britain, summer rain is always on the cards. A smattering of drizzle or even a fine sea mist must turn the cobbles into skidpans for the unwary. Goodness knows how the daily busloads of pensioners escape uninjured. Rubber soles are a must but not rubber slip-slops, which make exploring side alleys arduous, as will tottering along in high-heels. A young Britney clone looks decidedly uncool crawling on all fours, mini skirt barely covering her rear, after a humiliating cobblestone tumble.
Clovelley's main street
      Taking it slowly, I reach the 17th century New Inn, its William Morris style decor sumptuously elegant for what was once a humble seafarer’s watering hole. I daren’t have one for the road. It’s too steep. The extreme incline renders Clovelly inaccessible to cart or carriage, so guests’ luggage is delivered to the Inn by sledge. Traditionally, all heavy deliveries - mail, groceries, furniture, beer - were slid down the cobbles. Donkeys bore the loads back up as recently as the 1990s, when animal welfare issues ended the practice. Today, donkeys are restricted to giving rides to children and posing for photographs, or left to roam freely in the top meadow.
      I continue down Down-along. Flower-decked cottages, some half-timbered or decorated with stones from the beach, line the road. Some residents show off chintzy interiors bursting with ornaments and book lined shelves, others hide behind filmy lace curtains.
      Although you could call the entire village a museum, two cottages are open to the public as museum exhibits depicting the past life of the village. The Fisherman’s Cottage recreates 1930s scenes from a typical fisherman’s family home. Next door, the Charles Kingsley exhibition shows the style in which the famous Victorian author and social reformer lived. The museum’s voice-over recites Kingsley’s 1851 poem, The Three Fishers, about three fishermen’s wives waiting through the night for their husbands to return.

‘Three corpses lay out on the shining sand,
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and ringing their hands
For those who will never come home to the town.’

      As a child, Kingsley lived in Clovelly where his father was rector from 1830 to 1836. Charles Kingsley’s experiences there inspired his children’s classic, The Water Babies.
Kingsley later returned to Clovelly where he wrote his historical novel, Westward Ho! The town of that name, complete with exclamation mark, lies just along the coast.
      Reaching the Look-Out, a stone-walled plateau on the cliff’s edge where villagers watched for returning fishing boats, I’m reminded that Clovelly is not just a pretty face. It’s a place of underlying grief.
      At Temple Bar, the street passes under an archway containing a resident’s kitchen and dining room. I find a place to perch and gaze across the estuary. From here I can rest while admiring the scenery, but for Clovelly’s fisher families, it was another place to gather to scan the sea for homecoming boats.  
      The life of the ancient mariner envelopes Clovelly and wherever you scratch the surface, hidden undercurrents are revealed. The village’s delightful veneer hides the tragedy that often befell a community waiting in vain for the boats to come home. Such tragedies drew the villagers together and, today, that strong spirit continues. As a working fishing village, the danger of sea, storms and squalls are ever present. Yet these elements also unite a community where tenants must apply for residence and agree to contribute to village life. The result is tenants working towards common goals, keeping the village shipshape and themselves happy.
      Since 1738, the Hamlyn family has owned Clovelly and they are responsible for renovation and restoration. If you balk at paying the entrance fee, bear in mind, maintaining a unique living and breathing village is a costly duty. Traditional craftsmanship and materials such as oak and slate aren’t cheap.
     Clovelly is steeped in brine and the smell of the sea saturates the air, pickling every stone and wooden beam. This is especially true of Clovelly’s oldest cottage, called Crazy Kate’s after a fisherman’s widow, who watched her husband drown as he fished in the bay. The sea literally laps at Kate’s doorstep, and one day in 1736, Kate Lyall, clothed in her wedding dress, walked out her door and into the sea to join her husband.

Clovelly harbour and Red Lion Inn
      The harbour, with its 14th century quay, is a rewarding conclusion to a precarious walk. I’ve glimpsed the coastline, notorious for shipwrecks, smuggling and piracy, throughout my descent, but when the harbour appears in all its glory, it’s a revelation. Small, compact, akin to a movie set waiting for a piratical Johnny Depp to swing into shot, the harbour is picture perfect. Actually, pictures don’t do it justice.
      Clovelly harbour is testament to the substantial fishing fleet, which once thrived on huge shoals of herring in winter and mackerel in summer. Today, dark patches of fish dart and dive in the deep green transparent sea. On this day, only one brave child, belly sucked in with trepidation, treads one-step-at-a-time into the icy water. A shrill squeal signals the plunge into deeper water. Sea birds wheeling overhead, though momentarily silenced by the intrusion, soon resume their eternal cries.
      The Red Lion Hotel, built on the quay during the 17th century as a beer house for fishermen and villagers, today provides respite for tourists in need of fortification to face the arduous climb back up UpAlong. A recent renovation, although architecturally sympathetic, inevitably means some of the inn’s original charm has been lost with the twelve new ensuite rooms. In the Snug bar, still with remnants of the original building, the barman, a local, recounts tales of storms and killer waves breaking over the quay, and the need for lifeboats, in service in Clovelly since 1870. Seduced by his West Country burr, I drink a pint of heady local cider.
      To my relief, I discover there is also an easy way back to the cliff top in the form of a summer Land Rover service. All too quickly, I’m whisked around the village outskirts. Along a narrow back lane, beneath dark canopies of oak and ash, we roar in first and second gears. I’m deposited near Clovelly Court, the estate manor house and gardens. The manor supplies locals with flowers, fruit and vegetables which flourish in the maritime microclimate caused by the warm Gulf Stream.
Wildflower meadow, Clovelley
      I clear my head in the salty air with a coastal walk through woodlands draping the cliff tops. Birds sing and butterflies flutter amongst the summer wild flowers. I take time to savour the impossibly pretty views of the bay, thankful I’m not scanning the horizon for a late returning boat.


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