We debated long and hard over visiting Clovelly. Internet research led us to believe it would be over-touristed and cliché. How could a town require an entrance fee just to walk its streets, after all? In reality, we decided to skip it, but when an alternate route took us within a few miles, we changed plans. We’re very glad we did! Nestled into the face of a 400-foot cliff, this once-bustling fishing village is as unique as it is picturesque. Clovelly is a living village, not just a recreation, and we thoroughly enjoyed making our way down the cobblestoned street, meandering amongst the 300-year-old, whitewashed cottages.
Nearing the town, signs guide all vehicles to the car park at the visitor’s center. The one main street of the village is steep and cobblestoned, leading to the whole place being pedestrianized. After paying the entrance fee, most of which goes to maintaining the village, the first stop is an orientation film. We were the only ones in the small, basement theater, and enjoyed getting a bit of background before we took a look around.
A Bit of History
The earliest mention of Clovelly is in the Doomsday book, which dates back to about 1100 AD, but the settlement itself likely existed long before that. The village of Clovelly has only been in the hands of three families in the past 800 years! From the 9th Century or so, the village was officially owned by the King. In the middle of the 13th Century it was acquired by the Giffard family, followed about 30 years later by the Cary family, who lived there for the next 11 generations. When the Cary line died out, one of the descendant’s widowers sold the estate to Zachary Hamlyn in 1738. One of his family’s descendants, Christine Hamlyn dedicated herself (and her husband’s considerable wealth) to the renovation in the early 1900s of many cottages and houses in Clovelly. The estate is currently run by John Rous, the son of Christine’s niece. From what we’ve read since, Squire John values the traditions of the village, and works hard to maintain them. From lower rents for his tenants to using the highest quality, traditional building materials, his job is a challenging and expensive one. Walking through the village later, we took note of the dates on some of the buildings, and the initials CH. These are the dates that Christine Hamlyn’s renovations of the buildings took place. As the video mentions, she combined many different styles, suiting her own taste of the moment. The doorframe of one house features a bunch of carved fruit, commonly seen in German architecture, for example.
Sledges and Donkeys, or How to Move Things Around
Since the street is so steep and bumpy, there is a long tradition of using donkeys as a form of transportation. We saw some historical signs talking about maximum weight for riders and goods, different for going up than for going down. Donkeys can still be seen in their stables at the top of the village. The guys working there can tell you all the details about the donkeys past and present. We were surprised to hear how long they live! One old mare was over 30, and tiny compared to her much taller daughter. These days, most everything is brought into town by sledge. These look like crates or wire baskets mounted to wooden blades. They look like they’d be hard to maneuver, but the people we saw using them didn’t seem to have any trouble. Bags of coal seemed to be the delivered item of the day, left on many front porches. We even saw one sledge with a baby seat attached to it. Good idea, considering the problems we saw one couple having with their stroller. Note: if you go with a stroller, don’t keep the baby in it!
The maritime history of Clovelly is understandably rich and fascinating. In the heyday, herring and mackerel would have been the catch of the day. The harbor still has plenty of boats, and the sea wall was piled up with crab and lobster traps, nets and colorful buoys. This isolated, protected area was also popular with pirates and smugglers, and there are some interesting stories on those topics, including one scary one about cannibals! Shipwrecks abound, and Clovelly still maintains its lifesaving boat and crew. The dangerous and unpredictable waters of the North Devon coast led to many tragedies, but some amazing rescues as well. In summer, you can visit the Lifeboat Station, which faces the middle of the harbor. In town, there is also a traditional fisherman’s cottage to visit. Don’t miss the attic, up a ladder on the top floor. This is where the boys would have slept on straw mattresses.
19th Century writer and social reformer Charles Kingsley, perhaps best known for his works, Westward Ho! and The Water Babies, spent his childhood in Clovelly. He returned as an adult many times, and is said to have written Westward Ho! here. There is a small museum in Providence House, where he lived, dedicated to him, including memorabilia such as his favorite chair and christening shawl, along with papers, letters and other items of interest. In the main room, you hear one of Kingsley’s more famous poems being read, about three fishermen’s wives waiting for their husbands’ return, which wasn’t meant to be.
Entrance fee for adults as of 2015 is 6.95 GBP. The village is open year-round except Christmas. Accommodation is available in the New Inn, in the middle of town, and the Red Lion by the harbor. In warmer weather, Hobby Drive looks like a great place for a nice, long walk. Also in summer, for those who can’t make the walk back up, there are Land Rovers to make that return journey, for a fee. Keep your an eye out for the many friendly cats that seem to own a piece of the action here as well!