Searching England for a place where time has stood still, I found it at Clovelly. Here lingers in the low, thatched cottages, and upon the ancient street, much of that quality of life that dominated England centuries ago. The life of today comes and looks in upon it as at a play, but passes on, leaving no impress. In season the tourist toils up and down the single steep street that springs from the sea, and he takes his tea in the still little parlor of some fisherman’s home opened as a tea room six months in the year. But the tourist is, after all, but an incident in the village life, not a factor in its development, for that life still retains the definite impress of those ” large, free days of Elizabeth.”
I think the dominant note of any English landscape is its humanness. There is a sense of its subserviency to human uses. It is livable, a place for homes and every day cheerfulness and content. In no other land does the past seem so close, and its long-vanished generations of men so akin to us and so little alien to our mental attitudes. Perhaps this is because the old environment, the old accompaniment of life, which we still can see, seems so perfectly fitted to our own manner of living. The hedge, the trees, the church spires, the thatched roofs, the flowers, the ancient ways, are clearly a part of today, and yet we know are practically unchanged from what they were when they were the background for the lives of other times. And nowhere does this English characteristic more closely bring together medievalism and the present than in this little village of Clovelly. In short, Clovelly is the door through which you can come upon somewhat of the past life of the English medieval village.
The town has no parallel anywhere, and when you have seen it you have seen something different, something no other land can show, but not only is it unique; it is conceded to be the most beautiful place in England. One writer sums up the consensus of opinion as follows: ” Clovelly is the most exquisite town in England . . . elsewhere there is nothing like it . . . a scene more beautiful could not have been devised by the wit of man deliberately set to produce what is picturesque. . . . The village has grown along lines of perfect beauty. . . . Here is nothing, absolutely nothing, commonplace or ugly.”
The reason for Clovelly’s unspoilt charm is found in its remote and isolated position. On the Devon shore of the Bristol channel, nearly a hundred miles west of Bristol, and about the same distance to the north of Plymouth, the two nearest ports, and ten miles from the railroad, the tides of life flow far away, so that, unsubmerged by the present, the past lives on. And even that past moved more peacefully here than elsewhere. To this far-off western coast there was little travel. The roads were exceedingly poor, and robbers lay in wait in the forest. Only the rich, who could afford a coach-and-four and armed retainers in sufficient numbers to repel attack, traveled by land. And there were no rich in this little fishing-village. In the neighborhood have lived for centuries three or four great families, but the men and women of Clovelly seldom left their homes by land. The channel offered a way to Bristol, and the life of Bristol and Clovelly always had much in common, but, while the hardy fearless fishers would go back and forth to Bristol, the open, wind-swept harbor of Clovelly was in itself a barrier to intrusion, so its people have ever remained far from the stress of English history. But for eight hundred years the lure of the sea has been a compelling factor in the lives of the people. Away back in 1147 men from Clovelly joined men from Bristol and crusaded to Portugal to rescue Lisbon from the Moors, and see the chaplain of their English fleet become the first Bishop of Portugal. And ever since, when British ships have put to sea in quest of battle, plunder or adventure, men of the Devon coast have been on board. Some sailed with Cabot from Bristol on his voyage that discovered North America, and tales are told of half-forgotten men that sailed away on fantastic errands, never to return. For through all the years Clovelly sails have longed for the wind of other seas, and today the young men are found as stewards on the great liners, as stokers in the hold, as sailors on the coasting-schooners, and as fishermen off the shore. Clovelly’s whole world is the sea.
But while Clovelly always had a certain independence of the conditions elsewhere prevailing in the island, its ways of life were, of course, more or less in common with those of all medieval England. Here, as everywhere, life was picturesque but uncomfortable. Until well along in the Fifteenth Century the houses had no chimneys. In the center of the ceiling was a hole for the smoke to escape from the fire, which was built directly beneath. There was no glass in the windows, and when finally it appeared it was only to be had in small pieces, necessitating the small latticed windows that add so vastly to the picturesqueness of these cottages. There were no crockery dishes, and the tables were set with horn and pewter. Rushes covered the floor, and in the manor house the servants slept on these rushes around the fire that burned in the center of the hall. There was very little furniture; the tables were merely long boards placed on trestles that were removed when the meal was over, and stood up against the wall. It is an interesting fact, by the way, that in the remoter mountains of eastern Kentucky, settled long ago by people of pure English blood, this same custom prevails today. To Clovelly also came the religious fervor of the Reformation, that strange, excessive zeal which sent a Praise God Barebones to Parliament, and actually christened his brother ” If – Christ – had – not – died – for – thee – thou – hadst – been – damned – Barebones.”
But all movements, both good and bad, had somewhat spent their force when they reached this far-off place, and the result of successive generations of tranquillity shows today in the manners and habits of the people. There is no crime, and the people tell with pride that no Clovelly man has been arrested within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. ” No, sir,” said an old fisherman, ” we be a peaceable lot. I never heard of anyone here ever getting took up. But once a young chap he went to Biddeford, and he took more than was good for him, sir, and when he came back he was a bit noisy and had to be spoken to. But that was quite a time ago, and since then we be very quiet, sir.”
I agree with Andrew Lang that places have a distinct effect upon the character and the personality of the people living there, and surely, sweet, beautiful Clovelly has brought a certain goodness, peace and restraint into the lives of its people.
The joy of Clovelly commences when the train with the pale-green locomotive leaves you at Biddeford, where the twelve mile coach ride begins. This ride takes you over a splendid white ribbon of road, laid down across the hill-tops, where come at times great glimpses of the sea, and between typical English hedgerows, where for miles and miles the honeysuckle and brier rose bloom, topped here and there by the stately foxglove that, in Devon, lifts its purple head man-high. Uphill and down the highway goes, by thatched-roofed farmhouses with roses over the door and on the children’s cheeks, through bits of villages, where the houses crowd in rows, and on to the coast, where the wonderful flowers grow brighter and bigger. In the corner of a yard I saw a fuchsia tree fully fifteen feet high, covered with thousands of red and purple blossoms, and all around was the chaos of old-fashioned bloom the English love. Finally the coach halts at an abrupt turn in the road amidst the woods where some porters are waiting, and donkey boys with big, gray beasts are standing. ” Clovelly ! ” cries the driver. Surely never stranger entrance to famous town. Nothing but the forest gathered close about you. But a step or two, and you cry out in delight as you come to the head of a long, narrow street that pitches sharply down to the sea, five hundred feet below. No horse, no carriage has ever traversed Clovelly’s street. There is a steep slant of cobble stones, some ten feet wide, that, after six feet or so, breaks into a step; another slant, another step, and so on to the bay that lies radiant in glorious light and color at the end of the vista. This strange street is set close with whitewashed houses crowded together seemingly for mutual support. From this one thoroughfare three or four little byways open promisingly, but end nowhere save in lovely views across the water to the violet and gray hills beyond. Nobody knows when the town first began. Many years ago the records were burned in a fire that destroyed the manor house, where for generations they had been kept. Six hundred years ago is the date commonly assigned for the building of the quay. Along the street the houses have stood for centuries. The keeper of the Red Lion Inn says nothing has been built in his day, and that the houses that now look the best, in his boyhood looked the worst, having now been fully repaired. The ceilings of these little homes are incredibly low; floors are of stone or brick; windows quaintly latticed; and showing throughout the structure are the heavy timbers of the frame. Inside the stone or plaster surface the walls are of mud, but no decay is anywhere permitted. Over all the houses vines and roses clamber, and in tiny gardens grow fuchsia trees and great roses, and in narrow strips of earth, clinging precariously to the fronts of the buildings that abut sharply on the street, grow marvelous sweet peas and perfumed lilies, richly colored by the damp sea air. Occasionally a house retires somewhat from the road, and in the yard of one of those are two of the curious ” Monkeytrees ” that are so noticeable in the grounds of Del Monte, California.
There are two hotels, but the one I chose is on the quay, a rare old house, full of curious turnings and little steps, and dark passages; an inn whose suppers remain a separate memory-delicious fried chicken, green peas, new potatoes and red raspberries covered with the clotted sweet cream of Devon, the joy of which is not to be duplicated. Flowers are blooming in the windows and fill great vases on the long table, and you are put to bed by candlelight, and you sleep to the sound of the tide, and wake in the morning to a glorious view of bay and shore, and are glad you are alive.
Once upon a time, though even the Great War seems not to have come this way, the waterfront was fortified, and, along the sea, old walls can still be traced, and hard by the inn is a. fine old gate that gives the final touch of old-world picturesqueness. On the quay guns were one time mounted, but in these pacific days are put to humdrum uses, for, being inverted and cemented to the pier, they form the posts to which the fishers tie their boats.
Nothing on wheels can travel the ladderlike street, so provisions, mail, and tourists are carried up and down on the backs of donkeys, led by round-faced boys. These donkeys, and the red sails of the fishing-boats, and the white houses clinging against the vivid green of the hillside, lend to the picture a suggestion of Italy that is often commented upon.
The title to all the village rests in a single individual, who rents the houses to the fishers at annual rentals ranging from fifteen to a hundred and twenty-five dollars. Casual repairs are made by the tenant, but restorations of consequence are attended to by the owner, to whose artistic taste and careful supervision the public is indebted for the preservation of Clovelly’s charm unspoiled by modern “i’rnprovements.” The church and school are not in the village street, but up on the hill a short distance away. Everyone goes to church, and for ten months in the year school attendance is compulsory for children under fourteen years of age.
But not all the attractiveness of Clovelly lies in the street and shore. Back on the hills is a drive that ranks for beauty with the ” twenty-mile drive ” in California, the Great Orme’s Head drive in North Wales, and the wonderful road from Sorrento to Amalfi. It is a winding, upward, wooded way, with window-like openings framed with great oaks and looking out on superb views of the bay beneath, clasped with its far-flung headlands. For three miles or more the road runs beneath trees centuries old, their gray trunks draped with ivy, and where the forest breaks away grow the wonderful Devonshire wild flowers, many of which are elsewhere unknown; flowers that Kingsley speaks of as from seed that came from the Fairy Isles of the unknown western ocean, ” strange flowers that still linger about this land … the Cornish heath, and the little pink Butterworth of Devon.” The culminating glory of the way is when you come out upon an open space, and see, a thousand feet below, the little harbor and the white houses of Clovelly that seem to ripple down its one long street. But there is another view, not so celebrated, but to me of equal beauty, where can be seen for miles the circling coast line of the bay, gradually fusing, under the soft and subtle color that comes with afternoon, into the far blue of water and of sky.
One bright morning a fisher rowed me out along the fair, wicked coast of Devon that has broken ships and hearts with her gales and rocks, and he told me tales of wrecks, which each winter pile up along the shore. ” The worst wreck that ever I see, sir,” said he, ” was two years ago come December. She was a big steamer, seven thousand tons they said, and bound for Buenos Aires. ‘Twas a clear night, and the moon was shining, but ’twas blowing like it was a hurricane. She was coming down the channel and putting her nose into the seas that piled all over her. They’d loaded her too heavy, sir, and ’twas so bitter cold they must have been keeping no good watch. And them seas took off her ventilators one by one, least so we think, and she began to fill from the wash that went over her every time she dipped to a sea. After a bit the Captain must have tried to get about, but it was no use. I was out to see to my boat, for it was an awful tide. ‘Twas two o’clock in the morning, and I heard her call and see her flare. She was right off the pier then, but a good five miles out. I called the Captain of the Life Station, and he sent a man to cry the wreck and raise the town, and everybody came down to the pier, and the women got things ready for the men we hoped to bring ashore.
“I was pretty well forward in the lifeboat, and she was full of water from the minute we started. By and by we could see the steamer fair as we’d lift on a wave. She was settling at the head, and we pulled till one man clean give out. But it was no use. We saw ‘em get the boats over, but they went to smash as soon as they’d hit a wave. We was almost to her when, all of a sudden, she give a long lurch to one side, and a big wave broke over her, and she wasn’t there any more. We were five minutes too late, sir. Where she went down, the water was all smooth and oily, and all sorts of loose stuff floating, but that was all.”
The summer night comes slowly to Clovelly, and the twilight lingers till ten o’clock. The women gather in the doorways and talk and knit. Down by the quay the fishing-boats are drawn far up the beach beyond the reach of the great tide that rises twenty feet and more. The donkeys have made their last climb for the day, and are stabled upon the hill at the head of the street. On a long bench in front of the Red Lion a group of fishermen discuss the remote events of the world. They tell, too, of the great storm of 1882, when thirty of their boats went down; and of the blow of one November, when the waves washed in at the Red Lion door. And they talk of Clovelly fishing boats that went out among mines and submarines during the Great War. Presently they say good-night, and a great quiet settles down on the village.
No, there is nothing just like Clovelly. It is unique among the villages of earth, and for me possesses a charm more potent than I have elsewhere felt. I have not forgotten the peacefulness of Rothenburg, the intense picturesqueness of San Gimignano, nor the effectiveness of Carcassonne. Nor am I unmindful of Middelburg’s lure, the beauty of Cintra, or the strangeness of Ronda, but in this one element of charm I think Clovelly stands supreme.