Clinging to the thickly-wooded coast of North Devon, where the Bristol Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean, Clovelly is a contender for Britain’s prettiest (and Instagrammable) seaside village. Visitors can’t resist snapping away at its old fishermen’s cottages, mostly gleaming white and adorned with hanging flower baskets and decorative Arts and Crafts features, or at the painted boats bobbing in its horseshoe-shaped 14th-century harbour and the entrancing views beyond the green-blue waters of Bideford Bay.
Mind you — coming to Clovelly, it’s best to leave the heels or thongs in the car, for navigating its cobbled lanes requires sensible footwear and due care and attention. A little uneven in parts, the main narrow, car-free stretch — cobbled together from pebbles hauled up from the beach — drops 120m rather steeply, ensuring your thighs, calves and knees a decent work-out in both directions (slippery when wet, it’s best to visit on a dry day).
Like Portmeirion, the fanciful Italianate resort village in North Wales, Clovelly is privately-owned and incurs an admission fee — a proportion of which goes towards its upkeep (don’t be surprised to see paint-flecked builders and craftspeople touching up the daub-and-wattle buildings, some over 500 years old).
You enter Clovelly via its turn-of-the-millennium-built visitor centre, which has a souvenir store, refreshments, a film show telling the village’s story narrated by Joss Ackland (the retired actor who lives locally) and a panoramic terrace for sitting and savouring the views (30km away as the gull flies is puffin magnet Lundy Island and even further back are the sand-ribbed shores of South Wales).
About 250 people live in Clovelly — roughly a third of whom work in the village’s inns, tearooms, stores and artisan studios. A handful of folk still earn a crust from the sea, angling and taking tourists on boat and fishing trips.
Although this old herring port no longer bustles as it once did, the surrounding waters still teem with fish and shellfish (we’re here a few days before September’s annual Crab and Lobster festival).
Other Clovelly tenants have jobs outside the village, with some working remotely, via WiFi, during the pandemic. We pass one resident, cheery after her morning swim, as we stroll with Clovelly’s director and high sheriff, John Rous, a descendant of the Hamlyn family who have owned the village, estate and manor house, Clovelly Court, since 1738. His is just one of three families to have run this 800-hectare estate since the Norman Conquest (King William the Conqueror had gifted Clovelly to his wife and it was associated with royalty until AD1242).
Clovelly was relatively unknown until the mid-1800s when tourists began to trickle here, inspired by the words of Charles Kingsley, who had grown up in Clovelly (his father was the village rector).
Charles weaved his childhood experiences of north Devon into books like Westward Ho! and The Water-Babies, whose characters appear in mural-form on the walls of Kingsley Cottage, his one-time home and writing retreat. Along with the cottage next door, it doubles as a little history museum, its exhibits including black-and-white photographs (there’s a striking one of a Clovelly fisherman who caught so much his boat sank). Moving past period furniture and a fireplace, you’ll see a model of Kingsley at his desk. A passionate social reformer, imbued with a Christian socialist ethos, he was friends with Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, who wrote about Clovelly, calling it Steepways, in his 1892 short story, A Message From The Sea.
Charles’ brother, Henry, was also an author, and emigrated to Melbourne during the Victoria Gold Rush (there’s another Australian connection here: in 1913, the Sydney seaside suburb of Little Coogee was renamed Clovelly).
JMW Turner, the English landscape artist, was another prominent 19th-century visitor and his Clovelly paintings are scattered across various city galleries and collections (one is on show at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin).
You may yearn to twirl a paint-brush yourself, especially when you’re ducking down the side alleys, edging blackberry bushes and finding vegetation-shrouded look-outs to sea, or perusing the fine details of cottages, such as the one decorated with wood carvings from the German Passion Play village of Oberammergau.
Clovelly’s buildings were overhauled — inside and out — after lady of the manor Christine Hamlyn married Frederick Gosling in 1889. His fortune helped restore the estate’s properties and you’ll see the couple’s initials embossed on cottage facades. John, her great-grand nephew, says the buildings have been upgraded to make them more energy-efficient, with secondary glazing and loft insulation.
As you explore, don’t be surprised to hear the clatter of hand-pulled sledges on the cobbles. Greased with Devonian butter, they do the job the estate’s donkeys used to do, transporting everything from groceries and furniture to building materials and rubbish (the donkeys, no longer beasts of burden, now nibble on grassy slopes or hang out at the stables, which are a popular diversion for families).
A convivial, salty air permeates the harbourfront, which you might recognise from The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, a 2018 movie starring Lily James (Clovelly was transformed into a 1940s film set and Guernsey’s Saint Peter Port).
Today, people are supping and lunching at the Red Lion, a 18th-century quay-side pub with 17 rooms with sea vistas. Past a stack of empty lobster pots, other visitors are enjoying ice creams, legs dangling, from the stone harbour walls. Some kids are clearly itching to make a splash into the waters, which look serene today, but are known for their strong tidal currents, storms and shipwrecks.
A lifeboat station has fronted the beach since 1870 and John points out a plaque unveiled by Princess Anne to mark the 175th anniversary of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society — an association formed after 21 mariners died in a ferocious autumnal storm off Clovelly.
Each summer — usually in August — teams from across North Devon and neighbouring Cornwall brave the channel in traditional open rowing boats, reaching speeds of up to 9 knots, as they compete in the Clovelly Gig Regatta. Covid-19 restrictions scuppered this year’s event, but John, now in his early 70s and still a member of the village club, says: “We intend to hold our regatta in 2022 and I shall fight for a place in the boat!”
Steve McKenna was a guest of Clovelly, Visit Britain and Visit Devon. They have not seen or approved this story.
Admission to Clovelly is £8.25 ($15.50) for adults, £4.80 for children 7-16 ($9). It includes entry to the walled kitchen gardens, with restored Victorian glasshouses, of Clovelly Court, a short walk from the visitor centre. For an additional fee, a Land Rover service, available from Easter to October, takes people up and down a paved road around the side of the village to/from the quay, avoiding Clovelly’s main cobbled street. For details on Clovelly visits and accommodation, see clovelly.co.uk
Clovelly is linked to public footpaths with spectacular clifftop lookouts — including those of the South West Coast Path, which skirts 1000km of coastline, spanning Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset. See southwestcoastpath.org.uk
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