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Incomparable Clovelly

“Suddenly a hot gleam of sunlight fell upon the white cottages, with their grey steaming roofs and little scraps of garden courtyard, and lighting up the wings of the gorgeous butterflies which fluttered from the woodland down to the garden.”

So did the celebrated author Charles Kingsley (1819 – 75) write about Clovelly, a picturesque fishing village whose cottages tumble towards the sea in North Devon. Kingsley knew the village well, for he spent his boyhood days there when his father was rector. Its fairytale cobbled streets, quaint dwellings, and unparalleled views inspired his most famous work, Westward Ho!

Victorians, eh? They never were happy excelling in one field, they had to master another! Like Sabine Baring-Goud, the legendary polymath I feature in my own Gothic novel, Kingsley was also a man of the cloth. His parish was at Eversley in Hampshire, yet the lure of Clovelly pulled him back time and again, his renting a cottage there when penning his thrilling books.

The cottage now forms part of a museum, uniquely devoted to both the famous author and the simple fishermen who were once his neighbours.

I visited during November 2023 and was mightily impressed.

But first, you will want to get a flavour of the village itself, for Clovelly is essentially one large, open air, living museum. Originally given by William the Conqueror to his wife Matilda, it has been in the hands of the same family since the 18th century. Visitors pay a small charge to enter, which is used to ensure its time-defying upkeep. The streets being traffic-free, the only sounds are the gulls crying in the skies above, or the occasional lazy hum of a fishing boat returning to an ancient harbour.

Visit during the height of summer and you’ll also hear swallows and sand martins chasing after insects. Watch as colourful butterflies flutter to and fro amongst the myriad flower-filled pots and hanging baskets bedecking the tiny gardens. A traditional cream tea can be taken at the 19th century New Inn (‘new’ being a matter of perspective in Devonshire!) or a pint of real ale and lobster dinner at the harbourside Red Lion.

As you can tell, I love the village; I have done since first visiting as a boy. A place where I’ve rowed in regattas, and courted a local girl, this is how I write about it in my novel Forever Onward, Battling The Beast of Dartmoor…

We saw whitewashed cottages perching on the edge of the cliffs; tumbling towards the sea, like a river making its way ever downhill to kiss the brine. Their window frames were painted bright colours, whilst baskets and barrels stood in each garden, filled with spring flowers like pansies and tulips. The sky blazed blue overhead, and the air was fresh and very clean. Taking great lungfuls of the stuff, I smelt salt and fish and ozone and kelp.

The narrow street was industrious with morning chores, performed whilst nature busied herself with identical energy.

Sparrows pecked at crumbs thrown from cottage windows, finches and robins fetching after insects trapped between the cobblestones. Thrushes and blackbirds foraged for nesting materials, so they could build new homes in which to raise their young. In the sky above, the cry of gulls greeted the return of a trawler or two.

Smells of breakfast came from the open doorways and windows of many pretty cottages. Smells of bacon and sausage; freshly baked bread; kippers smoking; coffee brewing on the stove.

And everyone in the village seemed to know one another! They thought nothing of wandering into their neighbours’ homes to borrow butter, sugar or milk. The returning fishermen stopped every handful of feet, as though nothing could rush them, now they were back on dry land. They greeted each friend with a morning’s hello.

Onto the museum itself and it’s set in a cluster of tiny cottages hugging the edge of the main cobbled street. The fishermen’s cottage has been laid out as it was during the latter part of the Victorian age and is a perfect time capsule of a bygone era.

Sadly bygone? Well, that’s often the nostalgic appraisal of our past. Yet the exhibits clearly show how challenging life was in this most beautiful of spots.

Large families crammed into tiny rooms, whilst the loft space, reached by a ladder and carpeted with straw, was the bedroom for many children. Damp walls, low ceilings; one can almost picture the former inhabitant’s soaking wet oilskins dripping upon the floor, the smell of herring and mackerel that must’ve filled the bijou hovel both day and night. The people didn’t have much in those days, but they did have faith in a loving God. One who could protect the menfolk as they travelled to sea to land their daily catch.

GOD IS LOVE promises one picture on a limewashed wall. Another announces GOD IS OUR REFUGE.

In a second building are photographs of Clovelly as it was during the 1800’s. We learn about shipwrecks and the selfless bravery of the indomitable fishermen, that they manned lifeboats to rescue ‘those in peril on the sea’. Fascinating stuff and very humbling to think they risked their lives for perfect strangers through a sense of humanitarian kindness, brotherly experience, and Christian love.

And so to the neighbouring cottage, devoted to the churchman and novelist, Charles Kingsley. It’s also laid out to the period but, as one would expect, is more handsomely lit and furnished. Oil lamps where the previous cottage boasted only tallow candles; comfortable beds; a fine mahogany bureau where the great man wrote.

Indeed, he is even present! To a degree, anyhow, for an animatronic version now sits at his old dining room table, decanter of port eternally to hand whilst he pores over one of his books.

Perhaps he ponders the words he wrote to his beloved wife, Frances Eliza Grenfell, after her first trip to Clovelly in 1854.

“Now that you have seen the dear old Paradise, you know what was the inspiration of my life before I met you.”


Getting There: Clovelly is reached off the A39 Atlantic Highway, eleven miles west of Bideford in North Devon, South-West England.

Entirely traffic-free, there is a large car park above Clovelly. Entry to the village is £9.50 per adult, £5.50 per child (7-16), family tickets are £25. There is a well-stocked gift shop and conveniences at the entrance. Tickets include free entry to the Charles Kingsley and Fisherman’s Museum.

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