English Inns – Clovelly

THERE being no other passengers, the coachman smiled respectful approval at us, while he wound his horn gaily, and off we started over Bideford bridge on our way to Clovelly. Bideford town lies stretched along the estuary more asleep than awake. The busy days of Sir Francis Drake have long departed. A few small coasting-vessels ride by their cables on the great iron rings in the side of the stone quay, in place of the many galleons just home from the Spanish Main in these good old days. The quaint inns, where once browned sailors drank and boasted of their deeds, are still hoary and picturesque, unchanged outwardly since the departure of the former rollicking guests.

They now depend entirely on a few topers for their existence.

Bideford is built on a steep incline, so up we went, too, with vigorous horn-blowing by the guard, until the last fringe of cheap, ugly villas was left behind, and we were out on the broad highroad with ten miles of drive before us. Overhead arched a lovely sky, and to the sea tumbled thick-wooded cliffs. The waters of the bay were as full of shades and colours as an orchid leaf. The lazy swells rolled off to the horizon, where Lundy’s Island, the former home of smugglers and out-laws, lay as innocent as a pink sea-shell, changing its colour and shape to a violet cloud, where the road curves, and offered us new views every moment.

The whole way to Clovelly is hallowed by the remembrance of Charles Kingsley and the hero of his great novel, ” Westward Ho! ” Indeed the home of Amyas Leigh lay in this direction from Bideford, and as we drove, so did he stalk along on foot to visit his friend Will Cary at Clovelly.

The roofs of many country residences show among the trees. Here and there a bit of the point of a gable, or a red roof just peeping above the green leaves. Sheep, so big and fat that we think our eyes deceive us, are feeding in the rich green fields beyond high, luxuriant hedges. The road dips again and again down slight hills, and the tinted sea and deep-red cliffs are then shut off, only to appear again in new colours.

Finally, at a spot among tall, thick trees, we stop without warning, and the driver announces that our journey is at an end. There is no house or village; a barn at the top of the hill, a few seafaring men lounging about a milestone, and a steep woodland path leading apparently nowhere, is all we can see. The Invalid protests, but the rest of us, more obedient to the driver’s command, climb down from our perch. We are then so much absorbed by the difficulties of the slipping and sliding descent that, before we have time to make any comment, by a sudden turn the green balconies, the funny little bay-windows, and jumble of toy houses buried among flowers and foliage, announce to us that we are in one of the most noted villages of England.

It hangs there at our feet, crowded in between high banks of dark green, zigzagging down the narrow bed of a former stream to the huge, liquid, opal sea. It has the prosaic name of Hartland Bay, but ” it certainly is like a jewel to-night,” declares the Matron. ” The clouds above us are models for poster artists, with their gay hues and dark, decided outlines.”

If, in the picture before us, any variety was wanting, it was supplied by the red sails of the fishing-boats slowly rocking to and fro on the glassy water; or by the sturdy little donkeys who were picking their way from side to side down the broad cobble-paved steps of the street, bearing our bags and bundles before us to the door of the New Inn.

When we told our names to the hostess, the wisdom of sending a telegram several days before our advent was made manifest. In-stead of being packed away in the large and ugly Annex, we had the original ancient miniature New Inn quite to ourselves.

” I feel as if I had got into my own doll-house,” said Polly, as she mounted the low step into the bay-window, and, seating herself there, proceeded to fill its space entirely.

It is a doll’s inn, but so perfectly proportioned that we had decided that, were it possible to nibble some of the wonderful Wonder-land mushroom on the proper side, we should be in a palatial dwelling. We have none of Alice’s specific on hand, so we remain big and clumsy, and look with anxiety at the wealth of breakable objects with which our little sitting-room is encumbered. There are tables laden down with shepherdesses and cupids, more or less maimed; on the walls the china plates hang thick, and the mantel-shelf is littered with vases, great, small, and of middling size, while in every nook and corner, wherever there is a vacant spot, are flowered candlesticks.

There are four bedrooms in the little house, whose closed doors are defended from intruders by huge wooden latches, quite out of proportion to the possible danger of thieves. Low, long lattice casements, and a staircase that a tall man could go down with one step, we have also in our tiny inn. The Invalid’s bedroom looks seaward, and into her window two bold roses peep; they climb up over the roof of the next house, and nod and bow against the pane, for in Clovelly the windows of the second story of the house, the next highest up on the street, get a clean view over the lower chimneys.

While looking at these clustering roses, we found the new moon gazing at us. The sky, the sea, the cliffs, and all the beauties of Clovelly were doing their best to enchant our senses.

The perpendicular towns so common on many parts of the Continent, have no more picturesque qualities than this little hamlet. There are here the same unawaited flights of steps, unexpected back courts, blind alleys, and mysterious passages under arches and through houses; but there are here none of the malodorous horrors and dirt of the Continental villages. Clovelly may have had in Charles Kingsley’s day an ancient and fish-like odour, for he mentions the smells in one of his letters to his wife, but today Clovelly is swept and garnished in every nook and corner, and the back gardens blossom and overflow with every kind of flower, painted gaudier by the soft sea air. The falling, twisting street is a riot of bloom from top to bottom. Tall fuchsias and great purple clematis fight with the roses for mastery to the very chimney-tops. The window-ledge boxes fling over trailing vines, and are gay with geranium and petunia, while pots of flowering plants adorn each one of the queer little porches, and the brilliant nasturtiums crowd each other to stare over the walls of the tiny gardens.

Every house is small in Clovelly but the Annex to the New Inn, and that would not be called large in any other town. Although it has been lately built, the vines are doing their best to hide whatever there is ugly about it. All the other cottages well suit the little white wedge made by the village in the dark hill-side. Down by the water’s edge is a small pier, winding itself like a curved arm about the gaily painted fishing-boats which come to be sheltered there at night. There is a diminutive lighthouse at the point of this pier, and the sea-wall, raised along one side of it, is draped with the rich brown seaweed, an ornament furnished by nature that blends with the dark red nets of the fishermen.

The pier follows a natural formation of rock, which is probably the reason for the existence of a village in this strange precipitous glen. It is the very best place for lounging away the long, pleasant twilight; for gazing out around the tall neighbouring head-lands on to the waters of Bristol Channel, and watching the lights come out slowly in the village hanging above.

Along the pebbly beach are a few houses looking like escaped Italian villas, their green balconies hanging over the water’s edge.

There is down here a stout ruin of an early Roman tower, and the Red Lion Inn.

A part of this sober old hostelry was the birthplace of the sailor, Salvation Yeo, given immortal fame in the novel of ” Westward Ho!” and always the home of his mother, whom Kingsley makes describe her wandering seaman of a son as :

” A tall man, and black, and sweareth awful in his talk, the Lord forgive him! ”

Here along the side of the Red Lion the sturdy Clovelly sailormen lounge after their work is done, and it is probably on one of these benches that Charles Kingsley spent so many hours of his early youth, listening to yarns and learning sea-lore. Never was a better spot on earth devised in which to rear a poet and novelist! All the pleasure he enjoyed here during the long and lovely Clovelly twilights, Charles Kingsley has given back to the world in his writings.

There is another lookout above the beach, reached by crooked stairs from the harbour. Here more of the sailors gossip the hours away, and here the Invalid and the Matron, the first evening of our arrival, secured the confidences of the most friendly among them. The acquaintance began with an ancient mariner, who persisted in speaking of himself as a foreigner, although he had lived fifty years in Clovelly and was married to a Clovelly woman. He was Irish by birth, and it amused our American fancy very much to have him so persistent in claiming to be foreign. The Matron returned from this first evening’s chat with a stirring tale about the first, last, and only horses ever seen on Clovelly Street. They appeared in the ancient Irish mariner’s young days. An ignorant and reckless postboy attempted to drive a bridal couple to the door of the New Inn, with such disastrous results that the whole male population of the village was called upon to save the horses from destruction and to keep the chaise from rolling down into the sea. This they did by clinging to the wheels, and turning the horses sidewise on the broad steps of the street, at the peril of their lives. Fortunately the incident happened late in the afternoon, when the men had come back from the boats. Our Irishman was among the rescuing crew.

The landlord of Clovelly is Mr. Hamlin, who lives in Clovelly Court, close to the top of the village. The estate has descended to him through the marriage of one of his ancestors with the Cary family, which included among its members the Will Cary of Kingsley’s novel. Of Sir John Cary, founder of the family and a judge in the time of Henry VI., a gossipy chronicle says : ” He was placed in a high and spacious orb, where he scattered about the rays of justice with great splendour.”

This extraordinary power, however, did not prevent the good judge from being exiled during those troublous times. His confiscated estates were later returned to a son. At Clovelly Court lived Will Cary. Here within the park gates still stands the church where Charles Kingsley’s father was vicar. In Clovelly park rises a wonderful high cliff, mounting three hundred feet above the pebbly beach and bearing the attractive name of Gallantry Bower. From among the park’s trees we looked out upon the roofs of the village, that seemingly push one another down-hill like naughty children; then out beyond the jutting Hartland point we saw a dim line which they told us was the coast of Wales, and across the tops of the village houses there came into view the deep green wood that rises high on the opposite hillside. Along this way runs the Hobby drive, a fine, winding road built by the Hamlins, and for which every visitor to Clovelly owes them hearty thanks. In the whole world there is no road affording more truly lovely views of land or sea.

The Matron says that she strongly suspects the artistic sails of Devon boats (they are of the same red colour as the Devon soil of the cliffs) originated in the times when many little casks of good French brandy rolled ashore under the shelter of Gallantry Bower, and found there proper gallants to receive the cargo. The sentimental Invalid is very unwilling to believe that this charming spot was ever used for other than romantic purposes, but unfortunately, both history and tradition whisper that all the riches of this coast were not caught with the herring.

The glory of the New Inn Annex is the dining-room; here the guest not only feasts upon fresh herring, sweet and tender, but his eyes are edified with much blue china and more hammered brass. I disdain to repeat Polly’s insulting remarks about their artistic merits or her doubts of their antiquity. Our delighted eyes behold overhead the entwined flags of England and America frescoed on the ceiling with striking truth to nature, while under their gorgeous folds sit the Lion and the Eagle, smiling broadly down on the guests. For those diners who choose to crane their necks between the courses, there is a poem painted on the ceiling with as many stanzas as the old-time ballad; I venture to quote only the beginning and the end of this inspired lay:

I.

“Let parents be parental, Think of children night and day, And the children be respectful, To their parents far away.

IX.

” Our foes we need not fear them, If hand in hand we go, We want no wars with any man As onward we do so.

X.

“But do our foes assail us, We will do our best to gain, With our children standing by us Britannia rules the main.”

Mine host of the New Inn, who beguiles his winter hours by dallying with the Muses, is responsible for this poetry.

In addition to its richly hung walls and decorated ceiling, the dining-room has still another attraction in the person of the chief waitress, a young woman very efficient in her calling, blessed with a sweet voice, attentive, willing, and amiable.

Her fame has spread far and near as the Beauty of Clovelly. A mass of very blond hair, in strong contrast with her black eye-brows and eyelashes, appears to be the chief reason for which this title has been bestowed. Her features are by no means beautiful, nor is her complexion faultless. Polly says that at least her peculiar charms are useful as promoting conversation, for, after she has been seen, every visitor spends the leisure hours discussing how much of her hair is real, and whether its colour is artificial. One of the numerous old village gossips, whom the Matron has interviewed, says that the girl always had the same mass of wonderful hair even when she was a small child. Peroxide cannot be a convenient beautifier here in Clovelly, where the entire village supply of drugs would not fill a market-basket. The Beauty is a niece of the landlady, and does not seem at all disturbed, or even spoilt, by her peculiar celebrity, which is so wide that the summer trippers gather in crowds about the inn to stare at her.

Against these same trippers the ire of the village gossips is fierce and fiery. From the coast towns they come by the boat-load to see the wedge-like village, and try to see it so thoroughly that not only do these strangers tramp into the back gardens and peer into the windows while the good cottagers are eating, but one old lady told the Invalid that she had once caught two busybodies just as they were about to look into her cooking-pots on the kitchen stove. We were not in Clovelly at the time of any of these invasions, but the numerous tea-room signs on many small houses bear testimony to how much refreshment must be sold here on such occasions.

Single blessedness is not the fashion in Clovelly. On the lookout bench at evening the village bachelor becomes the butt of all his comrades’ chaff. At the time of our visit there was but one of these despised single creatures in Clovelly. This we inferred from the jokes thrown headlong at one man, who held his own boldly for a time, until at last, overcome by twitting sarcasms about his wealth and beauty, he fled ignominiously to his solitary fireside. We were inclined to agree with the ancient mariner, who confidentially whispered to the Matron:

” That man’ll be married inside six month.”

Children are the only human beings who dare to run down Clovelly streets. They clatter along with so much noise against the cobble that the Matron insists that their English shoes are wooden. They begin to troop up and down before six o’clock, and rattle up and down until the school-bell calls the flock to lessons. The Matron is very fussy about being disturbed early in the morning. That others have shared her views, we find from the visitors’ book, where a poetic genius has complained:

“Although in Devon ’tis almost heaven, Down Clovelly streets is the sound of feet Not of angels, and not bare.”

We had wandered up and down the steep streets in and out through every conceivable quaint passage, talked to all the friendly villagers, and admired the adorable flowers, when at last we gathered on the second evening in our sitting-room, among the broken-nosed shepherdesses and the cupids with cracked hearts, to decide on our future plans. We had explored the neighbouring country to discover the old Roman road, gazed upon the ancient British earthworks, and revelled in the walk along the Hobby drive. Nothing was left undone which a proper tourist should do in this unique spot, except, perhaps, a sail to Lundy’s Island. That is a perilous voyage for seasick women, and we willingly persuaded ourselves that Lundy’s Island looked better from a distance. Had there been a drag going between Clovelly and Ilfracombe, the charm of the enchanting scenery would have decided us at once to take that route, but, as it sometimes happens, we were not fortunate enough to find a party going, and the expense of hiring such a conveyance was too great for our purses.

The way to Derbyshire is a longer journey than we cared to take without a break, there-fore, after much discussion, Evesham was decided as a resting-place. That town lies in the land where the peaceful river Avon waters useful market-gardens, and orchards of plum-trees thrive under the lee of that pastoral range called the Cotswold Hills. A welcome telegram had announced the recovery of Jumbo, and the bag’s safe arrival in the cloak-room at Bideford station. We promptly hurried off another wire (Polly feels so English when she says ” wire “) to Evesham to announce our coming to the landlady of a sunny old farmhouse that looks down over a rose-garden upon the Avon valley and the town below.

We had decided not to try a real inn this time, but make an inn for ourselves. The Crown, the chief hotel in Evesham, is huddled down in the centre of the town, while at Clerk’s Hill House pet garden thrushes would be bursting their little throats with song to give us a concert at dinner-time. As we bowled along on our return to Bideford, the accomplished coachman played for us merry and appropriate tunes. He drove his four horses easily with one hand, while with the horn he held in the other he wound out a continual strain of melody. The sea and cliffs along the road had lost the soft pastel shades we found there on the first late after-noon drive. They were now bold blue, red, and vivid green in the sharp morning light.

During the half-hour wait for the train, while the Matron clasped Jumbo to her side, and we had each taken a peep to see if all our valuables were still safe in his embrace, we looked into the room at the Royal Hotel where Charles Kingsley wrote the greater portion of ” Westward Ho ! ” The hotel is beside the station, and was the house described by Kingsley as that of Rose Saltern’s father. In the drawing-room, where the author wrote part, if not all, of his noted novel, remains a fine Elizabethan stucco ceiling. It is decorated with garlands, birds, fruits, and flowers, coloured by artists who were brought from Italy by the merchant prince who lived in this house during the time of Sir Francis Drake.