Looking down from the top of the cliffs of northern Devon, you would never know that, snuggled in a 400-foot cleft below you, a tiny fishing village sits, as it has for 900 years, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It is only after you start walking down the steep, cobbled path that you catch a glimpse of the roofs of Clovelly. As you wind your way down past whitewashed cottages, you seem to step back in time. Listed in the Domesday Book as “Cleaveleigh,” Clovelly has withstood the tests of time and modernization. Perhaps it is because the village is privately owned, held since 1739 by the same family, committed to its preservation. Perhaps it is because, with the exception of local inhabitants, cars are not permitted in the village area. Or perhaps it is the work of the “Clovelly fairies” immortalized by A. A. Milne (author of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ ) who warned his readers that “if you leave your orange peel all littered on the grass, you’ll never go to Fairyland or see the fairies pass.”
As you wander down the High Street (known locally as “Up along” or “Down along” depending on the direction you are going), you come to Mt. Pleasant, also known as Peace Park. A war memorial to commemorate those who died in the Great War of 1914-1918 stands in the clearing. It is a peaceful place with three wooden benches strategically placed so that you can sit and admire the changing play of light on the water below.
All along the path, retaining walls, constructed with stones from the rocky beach below, are scattered with moss and ferns growing in the crevices. A stack of wooden sleds is tethered beneath them, waiting to be put to use transporting goods and luggage down the almost vertical hillside. For hundreds of years, donkeys were used to transport goods and fish up the hill. At the height of the fishing boom, up to 400 donkey loads of fish were carried up the hill in a day. Today, the famous Donkeys of Clovelly live happily in retirement, housed in a stable above the town and brought out occasionally to provide rides for visiting children. The sleds are hauled down by men and towed up the hill behind a Land Rover on a back road. Between the immaculate white cottages festooned with flowers, tiny passageways and alleys branch off. Behind the New Inn (which is not so new having welcomed guests since the 17th century), two small chapels, one Methodist, the other Church of England, perch under the eaves. In a cob and stone building, a Fisherman’s Cottage has been recreated, depicting what life was like for those who made their living from the sea in the 1930s.
Next door is the Kingsley Museum where Charles Kingsley, Victorian author, and social reformer, sits writing in his study. Best known for his books, “The Water Babies” and “Westward Ho,” Kingsley also wrote a poem about Clovelly in 1851 entitled “The Three Fishers” put to music by Joan Baez many years later. It tells the story of three fishermen who sail out at dusk, watched by their women. As the weather changes, the fishermen are caught in a squall and drown. Kingsley wrote this poem after the great fishing tragedy, in which several boats and their crews were lost in a storm, as a tribute to the harsh life of the fishing families.
There is not much left of the great Clovelly fishing fleet in the harbor created by the 14th-century drystone quay. Bollards said to be cannon barrels from Ships of the Spanish Armada dot the quay. Curving around in an arc, the quay created the only safe port on the Devon coast before reaching the Cornish natural port of Boscastle. Before the herring and mackerel stocks dried up in the early 20th century, the fishing was so good in these parts that over 9,000 herring could be landed at any one time. Today, there are only a handful of fishing boats and piles of lobster baskets.
Overlooking the harbor is the oldest cottage in the village. It belonged to Kate Lyall, known as “Crazy Kate” who died in 1736. The wife of a fisherman, she watched her husband drown before her eyes. Unable to cope with the loss, she put on her wedding dress and walked into the bay to join him.
If you walk out to the end of the quay, you will have a wonderful view back to the village, the houses tumbling down higgledy-piggledy to the water’s edge. To your right is the 18th century Red Lion Hotel with its arched cellars, once used to store grain and coal. To your left is the Lifeboat House and beyond it, a short walk over the stony beach is a small sparkling waterfall. Just beyond is a cave, which legend says is the birthplace of Merlin the Magician. As you walk across the beach to the waterfall, the clatter of rocks rolling and tumbling over each other in the waves is a constant presence. You can even hear them as you slowly start your trek back up the hill, stopping along the way for a cream tea with Devon clotted cream or a fresh crab sandwich. As you pause to catch your breath, don’t forget to take a look back over your shoulder at the beauty below.
IF YOU GO To truly enjoy Clovelly, plan to visit during the low season and not in the summer months when the village is mobbed. To reach Clovelly, take the M5. At exit 27 take the A361 towards Barnstaple and Bideford. About nine miles west of Bideford, take the B3237 to Clovelly. A five-minute drive brings you to the Visitor Center car park above the village. To enter the village, purchase a ticket and pass through the Visitors Center. The revenue supports the maintenance of the village and fortunately confines the trappings of souvenir stands and other plastic memorabilia to an area far removed from the village itself. The visitor center is open from 0900 to 1800 from April to October; 1000 with varying closing hours November to March. Between April and October, a Land Rover leaves every 15 minutes from behind the Red Lion Pub to drive visitors who can’t make the walk uphill to the top (there is a charge).