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Clovelly, Devon, UK

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There are many villages in England that can measure their popularity, their 'visitability', by the sheer number of postcards sold each year. Clovelly must be near the top of the list, for it is indeed a memorable little place, with whitewashed, flowerclad cottages tumbling down a steep hill into a small harbour on the north coast of Devon.

A Private Haven

The epitome of a 'picture postcard village', Clovelly is a little different than others deserving such an accolade. It is a private place, literally. The entire village is privately-owned, by one family, these days by way of the Clovelly Trust.

A Car-free Life

There are no cars in Clovelly. Transport is by donkey and wooden sledge. That may bear repeating. There is here, in the 21st Century, a village in Britain where the main mode of transport is by donkey. This is not a 'Green' environmental gesture, however. The streets are simply too steep for cars, the one exception being a Land Rover that collects any tourists who are unable, or unwilling, to make the steep climb back up through the village to the car park and Visitor Centre at the top of the hill.

Of Faust and Whimsical Gifts

There are few, if any, 'outsiders' living in Clovelly. Most inhabitants have lived happily here for generations, and show few signs of leaving to make room for weekend cottagers and the like. It seems, however, that these villagers, or at least the owners, have made some sort of Faustian pact with the devil of tourism.

The only way into the village is via the car park and Visitor Centre. You are obliged to go through the Centre to reach the village. There is simply no other way in. The Visitor Centre may well be welcoming and tasteful, but the feeling for visitors can be that the exploitation starts the moment you step through the door. You need to keep in mind the fact that this is private land to prevent yourself baulking at being asked to pay to visit a village.

A Tide of Tourists

Once through the Visitor Centre, you are swept by the gentle but irresistible flow of tourists down the cobbled and twisting main street at a fairly brisk pace. At the beginning there are a few 'gifty' shops, studios and galleries, but these quickly give way to charming cottages, little side turnings of vanishing steps, flowers in every nook and cranny, and glimpses of the sea below.

Do not, however, stand and stare. Your fellow tourists will have a view on your ambitions to dam their flow, and will express this with a degree of candour. It may also be wise to give way to those making the return climb, for they may not be in much of a mood, or physical state, to give way to you. When you reach the harbour at the bottom, there is a little more space available.

Of Pilchards and Publishers

Should you be able to come to this place, this small cove sheltered from the prevailing weather, at a time when visitors are not so plentiful1 you might, looking back, get a better impression of Clovelly's long history.

This fishing village has been seeking a living from the shoals of pilchards and sardines that were plentiful off this coast since time immemorial, and which gave an annual, reliable and bountiful living to the villages along it. When the fish inexplicably and suddenly left the area in Victorian times, it fell into disrepair. The owner, then a Mrs Hamlyn2, during the 1920s and 30s spent very considerable amounts of time and money to restore the old cottages, one by one, to their original condition. This policy of preservation and restoration continues to this day and is the primary reason for the admission charges.

Please discard your jaded traveller's cynicism, though, as you queue to leave the car park, and remember that this place is a real village - a real working village - that needs to earn its living, and that has swallowed lifetimes of energy and devotion from its feudal owners.

1 Perhaps the third wet Tuesday morning in November!2 Of the publishing family.

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