Cobbled streets in Clovelly near the ‘Promontory of Hercules’
There are only a few bucket-and-spade beaches on this stretch of Devon’s northern coast, but lofty cliffs and headlands provide rich compensation for lovers of wild, wave-sculpted scenery. East of Hartland Point, nature’s grandeur contrasts with the picture-postcard charms of Clovelly. In Elizabethan days the Torridge estuary was the starting point of many voyages of adventure for ships crewed by the ‘Men of Bideford’.
SPEKE’S MILL MOUTH
Paths from Milford and Hartland Quay take walkers to this attractive little bay where a waterfall cascades down to a beach of pebbles and tilted tables of sea-smoothed rock. The shore is reached down a steep, zigzag path and sheltered by crumbling cliffs. A footpath runs through a tranquil valley inland towards the village of Milford.
Three of England’s most famous sailors – Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir John Hawkins – financed the building of a small harbour here in the 16th century, providing a welcome refuge on this formidably inhospitable part of the Devon coast. It has not been used commercially since the end of the 19th century, but old coastguard cottages and other buildings now form a hotel. There is also a small museum, open in summer, devoted to local seafaring history. The little bay is backed by impressive cliffs whose layers of rock go from horizontal to vertical in the space of a few yards.
The road to Hartland Quay passes through Stoke, a village with a 14th-century church whose tower, almost 130 ft high and worthy of a cathedral, was built as a landmark for ships. The church’s memorials include one to Sir Allen Lane, the publisher who was responsible for founding Penguin books.
Exploring this enchanting little village is like stepping back into the 19th century. Quaint old whitewashed cottages, bright with flowers, flank the steep, narrow, cobbled streets where traffic amounts to nothing more modern than donkeys and sledges. Although old enough to have been recorded in Domesday book, 900 years ago, Clovelly could almost be an extravagant film set created to depict the perfect seaside village. It owes a great deal to Christine Hamlyn who owned the estate from 1884 until her death in 1936. She devoted her life to restoring Clovelly’s buildings and preserving the village’s unique beauty. Many cottages, some of which date from the Tudor period, bear her initials.
The High Street – also known as ‘Up-a-long’ and ‘Down-a-long’ – is paved with pebbles from the beach set on edge. It plunges down to a small harbour, where the boats of holidaymakers and lobster fishermen bob at anchor. The quay was lengthened in 1826 to give adequate protection to Clovelly’s large fishing fleet, which prospered during the 18th and 19th centuries on huge catches of herring.
There is a beach of shingle and pebbles, with a little sand revealed at low tide. The harbour is overlooked by the Red Lion Hotel, which operates a Land Rover service to carry non-walkers up and down the hill by a private road during the holiday season. The rocky foreshore is tempting, but walkers must beware of the incoming tide. Clifftop paths run west to Mouth Mill and east to Buck’s Mills.
The most attractive way to reach Clovelly is along the 3 mile Hobby Drive, which runs through woodlands from Hobby Lodge on the A39 and may be used on payment of a toll. It was built as a hobby by Sir James Hamlyn Williams and helped to alleviate unemployment after the Napoleonic Wars. There are boat trips from Clovelly when the tide is in.
Nestling in a wooded valley, Buck’s Mills amounts to little more than one narrow street, hemmed in by whitewashed cottages, which runs for half a mile from a small car park to the sea. Tree-clad cliffs rise up behind a pebbled, sand-patched beach where the ebbing tide leaves many rock pools.
The shore is overlooked by the ivy-covered ruins of a 19th-century lime-kiln big enough to be mistaken for a small fort. Limestone shipped over from South Wales was burned in the kiln and then carted inland by farmers to neutralise acids in the -’- soil. Small boats may be launched, but the presence of a sand-bar creates hazards for sailors without local knowledge.
Founded in 1863 and named after Charles Kingsley’s adventure story about Elizabethan seafarers, Westward Ho! is the brash newcomer in a county of old-established towns and villages. Its caravan sites, holiday camps and hotels look northwards over 3 miles of sands backed by a huge bank of shingle. The smooth stones shelter Northam Burrows, an expanse of dunes and saltings which includes the Royal North Devon Golf Club and a country park.
A path to the west of the village climbs Kipling’s Tor, a gorse-gold hill named after Rudyard Kipling. The author was a pupil at the United Services College in Westward Ho! from 1878 until 1882, and recalled his time there in Stalky and Co. The buildings which housed the college are now known as Kipling Terrace. There are surfboards for hire, and other seaside attractions include an open-air swimming pool.
Colour-washed buildings and streets only a few paces wide in places contribute to the rich character of a large fishing village whose seafaring traditions go back more than 1,000 years. It has been a base for fishermen since Anglo-Saxon times, and is said to have been granted ‘free port’ status by Elizabeth I in gratitude for the part played by Appledore ships and sailors in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Modern vessels are built in a covered yard – the largest in Europe when it was opened in 1970. At Hinks’s Yard local craftsmen have built full-sized replicas of a Roman galley, a Viking longship and Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde, the first English ship to sail round the world. Many aspects of the town’s seafaring history are illustrated in the North Devon Maritime Museum in Odun Road. One room is devoted to Appledore’s links with Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the 19th century when, faced with a timber shortage in Europe, local shipbuilders built ships on the island and then sailed them back to Appledore to be given the finishing touches by craftsmen in Richmond Dock.
The quay beside the River Torridge was completed in 1846 and used by a considerable number of sailing ships until the 1930s. It overlooks a muddy estuary where strong currents make bathing unsafe. A passenger ferry plies between Appledore and Instow, on the opposite side of the Torridge, during the holiday season. There are boats for hire, and a regatta is held in July or August.
A few small coasters still moor at Bideford’s long, tree-lined quay, recalling the days when this was one of the busiest ports in England with ships trading as far afield as North America, the West Indies and Spain. The quay was built in the 17th century when wool was being imported from Spain to meet the demands of the textile mills.
Sir Richard Grenville, the swashbuckling sea captain who helped to found colonies on the far side of the Atlantic, is commemorated in the parish church. A brass plate in the family chapel records how he died of wounds in 1591 after his ship had fought with 15 Spanish galleons off the Azores. A somewhat romanticised version of the battle is given in Tennyson’s poem The Revenge.
Bideford’s most famous landmark is its bridge, the 24 arches have spanned the Torridge since the Middle Ages. It has been widened and strengthened several times, most recently in 1969, but can still be recognised from 16th-century descriptions. Old Ford House has displays of traditional West Country crafts. There are river trips, and a regatta is held in August.
The ebbing tide reveals a broad expanse of sand, backed by dunes at the northern end of the beach, but tidal currents make it unwise to bathe at low tide. However, the sheltered waters of the Torridge and Taw provide good conditions for water-skiing and sailing, and Instow has schools and clubs for both sports. In summer, a passenger ferry runs to Appledore from the village’s small, stone-built quay.