Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/The north coast of Devon and Cornwall - Part 1

THE NORTH COAST OF DEVON AND CORNWALL.
(IN TWO PARTS.)



PART I.

On a bright morning, about the middle of last summer, we started from the Waterloo Station. The day was sufficiently fresh and sunny to make our spirits rise, as London and its smoke and dust were left behind, and we began to breathe the pure country air. The road had nothing of special interest to beguile the way. At Salisbury we caught a glimpse of the cathedral and its elegant spires. Exeter seemed hardly interesting as we passed it; but we were pleasantly whirled on to Barnstaple, in the hope of much enjoyment to come. Here we at once found ourselves in the midst of Devonshire country life. It was fair-day. The carriage was full in a minute with farmers and their wives. Very merry they were, relating to each other the various experiences of the day, but in a language almost unintelligible to us, the broadest brogue we heard during our journey. Bideford was our destination by train; but we had determined that Clovelly should be our resting-place that night; and, as the evening was drawing in, we at once set to work to find out the quickest way there. A little patience was needed, as conveyances were scarce that day at Bideford. We loitered about the old bridge, with its twenty-five arches, watching the setting sun and the boats on the broad, winding Torridge. Bideford is not an interesting place. There are pleasant walks and drives in the neighbourhood to the Tapley Woods, and Northam Burrows, and the Pebble Ridge; but we did not care to linger there, and were soon on our way to Clovelly. As this part of our journey was in the dark we will not pretend to describe it; the road seemed chiefly between two high hedges, which would at any time prevent a view of the sea. We passed through several little villages; and once the driver pointed out a bright speck in the distance, the lighthouse on Lundy Isle. Within a mile of Clovelly we came to a group of cottages and a little chapel; then we turned down a shady road, and the driver pulled up, and told us we had arrived at our journey’s end. But where were the houses? We seemed to have alighted in the middle of a wood, and could scarcely see a glimmer of light between the trees. We began to wonder where we should find a night’s lodging. It was past ten o’clock, and very dark, and apparently all Clovelly had retired to rest. We took our traps and followed our guide, who, with a carriage-lamp in one hand, helped us to grope our way down a steep path; then we turned, and found ourselves in the village, the babbling little stream and our own footsteps the only sounds to be heard. But this did not last long. If the inhabitants had retired to rest, they were still awake enough to care to know who had come at that time of night; and a candle and then a head came forth from first one door, then another. There seems to be a very friendly feeling between the lodging-house keepers at Clovelly. It is the custom for visitors to try for accommodation at the top of the street first, and if that is full they will be recommended to the next, and so on. We made two unsuccessful attempts; but the third time we found a good lodging, and there we gladly settled down. It turned out well in all respects; and our worthy landlady made us as comfortable as we could wish to be during the three days we stayed there.

We slept soundly on a soft bed, and were up betimes in the morning. Then it was we had our first view of the quaint little town of Clovelly. Our house was not half-way down the steep street, and at our first essay it seemed probable that we should not very often descend to the pier. The street (if it may bear that name) is a kind of paved staircase, very rough and irregular. It requires some practice to learn how to trip down it without fear of a tumble. Perhaps our boots were at fault, or perhaps it was the rain (which had come down heavily in the night); but we were hardly able to keep on our feet, and envied the little children who ran down, skipping and laughing, before us. The first point of interest in the descent is the seat, commanding a fine view of the bay and pier, where may generally be found a little knot of sailors watching the fishing-boats; or it may be a coastguard’s man on the look-out as a strange vessel appears in sight There is a barometer hanging up behind, from which, with the aid of the little table beneath (which is filled up daily), you may see what the weather has been, and form some judgment as to what it is likely to be:—

Long foretold, long last,
Short notice, soon past.

With “many turns and twists, so that the cobbler’s house comes dead across your path, and to have held a reasonable course you must have gone through his house, and through him too, as he sat at work between his two little windows,” we made our way down to the pier. It was early, and the tide was high, and came washing against the row of old-terraced houses which are on the beach. The pier looks as if built to stand the rough seas of this coast, and seems already to have braved many a heavy storm. From the end there is a good view of the village; and here should, if possible, be read the graphic description of a well-known author:—

The village was built sheer up the face of a steep and lofty cliff. There was no road in it, there was no wheeled vehicle in it, there was not a level yard in it. From the sea-beach to the cliff-top two irregular rows of white houses, placed opposite to one another, and twisting here and there, and there and here, rose like the sides of a long succession of stages of crooked ladders, and you climbed up the village or climbed down the village by the stairs between, some six feet wide or so, and made of sharp irregular stones. The old pack-saddle, long laid aside in most parts of England as one of the appendages of its infancy, flourished here intact. Strings of pack-horses and pack-donkeys toiled slowly up the stairs of the ladder, bearing fish and coal, and such other cargo as was unshipping at the pier, from the dancing fleet of village boats, and from two or three little coasting traders. As the beasts of burden ascended laden or descended light, they got so lost at intervals in the floating clouds of village smoke, that they seemed to dive down some of the village chimneys, and come to the surface again far off, high above others. No two houses in the village were alike, in chimneys, size, shape, door, window, gable, roof-tree, anything. The sides of the ladders were musical with water running clear and bright. The stones were musical with the clattering feet of the pack-horses and pack-donkeys, and the voices of the fishermen urging them up, mingled with the voices of the fishermen’s wives and their many children.

From the pier to the right there is a view all along Bideford Bay to Morte Point. If the day be clear, the next point, Baggy, is generally visible. Nearer, you distinguish the lighthouse at Braunton Burrows. Then the straight line of the Pebble Ridge; and, still closer, Buck’s Mills, standing prettily amidst the wooded hills. On the left, the first rocks shut out the coast view; but Lundy Isle, about eighteen miles away, is generally distinguishable. For those who are good sailors it is an interesting expedition to Lundy. Our stay was not long enough to enable us to go; but we heard much of its wildness and beauty. There is generally a good dish of fish to be had for breakfast at Clovelly, if you are not too early. Fresh herrings or whiting are plentiful in the autumn, and the nearer your lodging is to the pier the better choice you will have.

Our first walk was to Buck’s Mills. The sea was so fresh and beautiful that we did not care to leave it, and when the tide went down we determined to go by the beach. We passed the old terraced houses, and over the rusty chains and brown fishing-nets; and at first our walk seemed easy enough, skipping from one great stone to another, but we did not find it so as we went on. The stones were, some of them, slippery, some sharp, and always we had to pick our way. A short distance from Clovelly the red-brown cliffs come down upon the shore in broken rocks. There is a passage through one; and near it, looking back, is a good view of the lower part of the village and the pier. All along the way the cliffs are beautifully wooded to the very edge; and as we saw them in their rich autumnal foliage, with the grey boulders beneath, and the fresh sea dashing and foaming about the rocks, there was much to delight the eye whichever way we turned. We rounded point after point; but Buck’s Mills was a long time before it seemed nearer to us. When at last we reached it we found a curious little place built up the hill—something in the style of Clovelly. We rested, watching the men and donkeys busily at work with the sand, and then made our way up a circuitous path, and looked at the picturesque water-mill above. Our way was along the cliff towards the Hobby: it was to be a short cut, but proved, as usual, a much longer route. We lost the path, and found that there were walls to climb and two little streams to cross. But when you are out for a walk like this such obstacles are rather diverting than otherwise; and in the end we found ourselves where we wished to be.

The Hobby is a pretty shady walk, following the bends of the coast; and as we went on here and there, between the overhanging trees, we caught beautiful bird’s-eye views of Clovelly. We believe that, by asking, any one may obtain permission to ride through, if unequal to the walk; and a carriage from the New Inn, Bideford, can always go through the Hobby the last mile. All other vehicles go round, as we did the night before. In the evening we were down on the pier, watching the boats come in. Generally something interesting is going on there, and the sailors are always willing to talk. Fine, handsome fellows, many of them are, with bright, open-hearted faces. No wonder that a painter like Hook has found many of his models here. One thing specially strikes you about them,—they all seem well to do. How this is we do not know. One would hardly think that the fishing and trading of the place could bring in very handsome incomes.

Our next day, Saturday, was spent in exploring in an opposite direction. Clovelly Court is not open to the public; but when persons have once been through with a guide they are free to do as they like. It was rather tiresome to have to follow their footsteps and listen to the tittle-tattle; but many a pretty peep would have been missed if we had gone without one. Several little summer-houses and seats are put up at the most interesting points of view. From one on the Clovelly side of the deer-park there is a good view of the Gallantry Bower Bock, which stands out boldly in a precipice of 400 feet. Of course, there is a romantic story attached to it—of a fair lady and a knight—from which it derives its name. There is a rough path down to the beach, and perhaps its height is even more imposing from below. The park was rich with heather and gorse, and troops of deer went leaping down before us. We soon ascended the hill into a place called the Wilderness, from which we had a view of the coast nearly to Hartland Point. Here we left our guide, and came back alone. We found a pleasant walk by a lower path through a beautiful wooded glen, which led us out into the road near the church. Not far from this point are Clovelly Cross and Dykes, where are the remains of an old Roman encampment.

Most of our readers know, we doubt not, the pure enjoyment of a Sunday afternoon by the sea amongst the rocks. They will find many quiet little nooks near Clovelly. Is it true, as an eloquent author of modern times has suggested, “that the Teutonic eye has a keener instinct, and the Teutonic mind a purer relish, for landscape beauty,” than the ancients had, or foreign nations of the present day? Then would we thank God that we are English men and women, that the glories of His earth and sky can awaken such deep feelings in our hearts.

Thou who hast given me eyes to see,
And love this sight so fair,
Give me a heart to find out Thee,
And read Thee everywhere.