There are two immediate signs that Clovelly, located on the coast of Devon in South West England, isn't your usual seaside village. The first is that the only access is through the visitor centre, which charges £8.50 per adult for entrance (£4.95 for children). The second is the sledges. They stand at attention at the top of the cobbled walk that runs through the town's steep lanes of cottages and down to Clovelly's harbour, 120m below, ready for the next time a resident comes back from the shops and needs to lug their purchases home.
They might seem out of place to a first-time visitor. But both the visitor centre, opened in 1988, and the sledges, which largely replaced donkeys by the 1970s, are ways in which this 1,000-year-old community has adapted to modern times – while still preserving the rhythms of the past.
Even today, there are no cars in Clovelly. (It would be too steep for them to get access even if the town wanted them.) There are no chain stores, no traffic noises, no light pollution. Instead, there are cobbled lanes, whitewashed cottages, small boats bobbing in the 14th-Century stone quay, fat bees and butterflies feeding on flowers, and, almost everywhere, the sound, smells and sight of the Atlantic.
"Moving to a teeny tiny cottage on the edge of a cliff was something I never imagined," said Ellie Jarvis, who came from London to Clovelly for six months in 2007 to help run her family's silk workshop and never left. "But what is so beautiful and unique about Clovelly is not only the cobbles and all the obvious things that you see as a tourist. It's the fact that you're living with the past."
And that past extends a long way.
Instead of cars, chain stores or light pollution, Clovelly has centuries-old cottages and ocean views (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
In the 11th Century, when it was listed in the Domesday Book, England's earliest public record, Clovelly was owned by William the Conqueror himself. The king later gave the village to his wife Matilda of Flanders, England's first crowned queen. It still retains a quaint, yesteryear feel – a big part of why it was a main location for the films Sense & Sensibility (2008) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018); and why, over the centuries, the village has inspired artists and writers from JMW Turner to Charles Dickens.
Few have seen Clovelly as more of a muse than the 19th-Century novelist and poet Charles Kingsley, however, who lived here as a child. "Now that you have seen the dear old Paradise you know what was the inspiration of my life before I met you," he wrote to his wife after her first visit in 1854.
Clovelly's stone quay dates back to the 14th Century (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
It's true that there are, of course, other picturesque, historical fishing villages in the area without entrance fees. But what appears authentic on first sight can collapse at a closer look. Many idyllic spots have been hollowed out by holiday lets, leaving them bursting with tourists in summer and emptied out in the off season.
At Clovelly, where some 300 people live in the village's 83 cottages, the experience is the reverse. Get past the visitor centre and its souvenir shop, and there is a real – and vibrant – group of residents behind it all.
"There is an actual community that lives here," said Cass Mcfarlane, who moved here in autumn 2021 from London and runs a sweet shop in Kingsley Cottage, a small museum devoted to the writer. "And it's an active, bubbly community, from all ages and walks of life. There's always someone to see and talk to."
Cass Mcfarlane moved to Clovelly in autumn 2021 (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
Although I'd been to the village before, I first saw this for myself in the run up to Christmas. Everyone in my own town, 15 miles south of Clovelly, had been asking if we were going to see Clovelly's Christmas lights. When we arrived, the lanes were even more packed than they had been at the height of the summer tourist season. A band of local schoolchildren played Christmas carols; people greeted one another on the cobbled streets.
"Very often a visitor would possibly make, I think, the mistake of thinking that it was a sleepy village. And it really isn't," said Jarvis. "There's a lot going on." Festivals, events, theatre. At the same time, she added, "There's a more gentle way of life here. I'm forever telling my children that there's always someone watching them. They cannot misbehave – there's always an audience."
Clovelly may seem sleepy to outsiders, but residents say that's far from the case (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
That tight-knit, dynamic aspect of Clovelly's community has been nurtured by design, according to the owner of Clovelly, Hon. John Rous. "It was always important to me that Clovelly should remain a living village," he said when we met at his estate office, a jumble of pleasant stone buildings in the shadow of Clovelly's 12th-Century All Saints church. "I didn't want to go down the holiday lets line. I didn't want to go down even a timeshare basis."
Now 71, Rous inherited the village from his mother, a countess, in 1983. This is the other reason Clovelly is unusual: it is one of the UK's only privately owned villages. Not only that, but the Rous family is only the third family to own it since the 1200s.
The Hon. John Rous, shown here in Clovelly Court Gardens, has owned Clovelly since 1983 (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
In the heyday of aristocracy, this was common. A landowning family would not only employ people to work their farms, but lease them homes and shops, too. But in the same way that so many of the grand houses of yesteryear had to be given up, so too did the villages. It was no different at Clovelly, where, by the 1980s, Rous' family had been selling off parts of the estate – which spreads over 2,000 acres of North Devon – to be able to finance the rest.
"It was a very difficult time. There was not much income being generated from the estate – a little bit of tourism income," Rous said. "I thought, I don't really want to get involved in a sort of managed decline. We've got to try and stop the rot and be self-financing. And so, I realised that we needed to make some major investment in tourism."
This meant building the visitor centre and, for the first time, charging an entrance fee to the village, rather than a car park charge. To his surprise, visitor numbers went up, not down. (Today, there are about 150,000 a year.) Still, the move was viewed with scepticism. Even now, more than 30 years later, a quick look on Tripadvisor shows that plenty of visitors remain irritated about having to pay.
But that income has kept Clovelly intact, Rous said. And it has allowed for a programme of renovation of the cottages, some of which date to at least the 15th Century – and all of which are subject to the wet, wild, windy weather that this part of the English coastline is known for, with all of its upkeep challenges, from mould to damaged roofs.
Some of Clovelly's cottages are more than 600 years old (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
The tourism income has also allowed Clovelly to maintain an unusual policy for this part of the world: there are no second homes or absentee landlords allowed. (Rous, the only landlord, lives on the estate himself, in Clovelly Manor; while the original manor burned down in 1943 in World War Two, its walled gardens, Clovelly Court Gardens, survived intact and are included in the visitor fee.) As a condition of their tenancy, residents are required to live here full-time.
For longer-term residents like Jarvis, that meant having to change houses several times as her family expanded. Her two boys, aged nine and 13, have grown up here. There are certain days of the year where multiple households move at once in a kind of game of musical chairs, but with sledges instead of moving vans.
Speaking of the sledges, residents say that these are not just quirks. They are an integral part of Clovelly life. Everybody has their own, which they keep at the top of the village. When locals order groceries, the delivery vans know, on seeing "Clovelly" on the address, to give a 15-minute heads up before they arrive so the customer has time to trudge to the top of the village and get their sledge.
"There is no secret way of getting things down," said Mcfarlane. "This morning, I saw a gentleman with a new washing machine and a new cooker. Last year, a grand piano came down."
Almost anything cumbersome gets sledged into Clovelly – even pets (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
Many residents see it as a small price to pay for the privilege of living in such an idyllic spot. At high tide, Jarvis' boys can jump from their kitchen door straight into the sea. Other residents agree that the inconveniences are worth it.
"Once you've made your mind up, the transition from gas and central heating to putting logs and coal on your sledge and letting gravity bring it down, and chopping wood and making the Raven [wood stove], it just feels right," said Dave Francis, who moved to Clovelly in 2020 and runs the Donkey Shoe Shop with his wife, Jakki.
While it's easy for visitors to forget, the Clovelly estate is far more than the village. It includes 700 acres of woodland, three large farms, the working harbour, gardens and even a sawmill. Some 80 employees keep it all going. That all brings challenges – from dieback in the woodlands to garden upgrades to the unending upkeep of the cottages. ("The nasty thing about that is that you could spend loads and loads of money and hardly notice a difference," Rous remarked, especially since the restorations are done with historical sensitivity, such as reroofing in stone or slate instead of cheaper materials.)
Clovelly's maritime past remains important, and fishing takes place here still today (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri/BBC)
Despite the challenges, Rous, who speaks with passion about every aspect of running the estate, continues to look forwards. He wants to encourage Clovelly's burgeoning crafting industry (together with silk-maker Jarvis, a soap-maker and potter also have workshops here), as well as the village's historical links to fishing and the sea. He's even thinking about introducing small-scale oyster farming in the bay. "We've got to continually evolve and adapt to changing circumstances," he said, even while preserving the past.
For Jarvis and others, when it comes to finding this balance, Clovelly succeeds.
"It isn't an easy way of life; it isn't straightforward. You can't compare living here to anywhere else," Jarvis said. "But you just fall in love.
"I think you live here with all of your heart."
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