Lovely Clovelly

“And a mighty sing’lar and pretty place it is, as ever I saw in all the days of my life!” said Captain Jorgan, looking up at it.


Let’s make no bones about it

  • Please don’t assume I am belittling Charles Dickens with my comments.
  • Dickens employed the highly creative 'write what you see' technique on this one - and his observation skills for 'Steepways' were first-rate and finely tuned.
  • Clovelly’s a place where truth really is stranger than fiction.

Captain Jorgan had to look high to look at it, for 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…”

This is part of Charles Dickens’s account of a place he called Steepways and featured in his 1892 work A Message From The Sea.

Let’s make no bones about it, the fictional Steepways is a stunner of a place; a superlative example of an idyllic English fishing village, expertly crafted in the superior imagination of one of our greatest writers.

Or so I assumed when I first studied the work as a student. I’ve since learnt Dickens’ imagination wasn’t quite as adept as I had at first assumed (at least in this case). Fast-forward thirteen years and imagine my surprise to find myself standing at the top of the steep hill that leads down to the Devon village of Clovelly; Dickens words ringing in my ears.

As I walk down the steep and cobbled path, it’s more apparent with every step that Clovelly is not a model for Steepways, nor a broad-brush canvas embellished by the superior pen of a master of the English language. Clovelly actually is Steepways. It seems that Dickens employed the highly creative ‘write what you see’ technique on this one – and his observation skills were first-rate and finely tuned.

Please don’t assume I am belittling Charles Dickens with my comments. Far from it. You see, when a place is as eccentric, as unexpected and as rich in out-of-the-ordinary detail as Clovelly, there is really no need for an author to embellish.

Looking up at Clovelly

In many ways, Steepways on second reading feels cliché; as if the author has concocted too much perfection and picturesque detail for the place to be entirely believable. Imagine then, how it feels to stand in that place that only a writer could possibly dream of. In fact, don’t imagine it. Go.

For this is Clovelly’s tantalising offer - a place where truth really is stranger than fiction.

I would recommend spending a whole day exploring the delights of Clovelly including visiting the pottery

Stand in the middle of the 400ft cobbled path leading down to the harbor quay, built in the 16th century and largely unchanged and you get an odd sensation of being displaced from reality. You understand what unspoilt truly means as you take in the higgledy-piggledy whitewashed houses tumbling down to the sea (only seven of them are unlisted). I watch an old couple sat in deckchairs in their multi-level garden, sipping tea and enjoying the late afternoon sunshine; a lone female swimmer ploughing her way through the waves. It’s as if I’ve stepped back in time, perhaps even out of time, to a place where the golden good old days have never left.

Pick your way down the steep main road and not a single car will disturb your walk – it’s narrow and stepped too, so completely inaccessible to vehicular traffic. The New Inn pub is flawlessly located halfway down the street with the village teashop just beyond it; one way or another providing the perfect rest stop whether your tipple of choice involves hops or leaves.

Looking down on Clovelly

In Clovelly mules used to cart all the produce up and down the streets. Now you’ll find the donkeys in the sanctuary at the top of the hill whilst the flat bed sleighs used to transport everything employ only human beasts of burden. You see the curious wooden devices stacked against walls and in porches and doorways – and you half expect a small boy in a flat cap to come and offer to give you a ride. The street, which can be quite treacherous and slippery in wet weather, must provide an absolutely irresistible adrenalin rush to those same boys when it snows. There are no removal vans here either. Wardrobes, boxes, beds and dressers must be moved in and out using sheer brute force. Clovelly is entirely privately owned and the houses are all rented. It’s only been associated with three families since the 13th Century, before which it could be found in the Domesday Book and was owned by the King.

north Cornwall coastline

In 1860 Charles Dickens stayed at the New Inn. And so enchanted was the writer by the village that he used it as inspiration for his work of fiction. He wasn’t the only Victorian writer who was so taken either. Another Charles, Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies and Westward Ho! lived in the village as a child whilst his father was rector here. You’ll find an animatronic version of him seated at his desk in the Kingsley Museum that now occupies his old home (look for the yellow building just along from the pub).

I would recommend spending a whole day exploring the delights of Clovelly including visiting the pottery, donkey sanctuary, reproduction Fisherman’s House and a walk along the rocky beach at low tide, past the lifeboat station (Clovelly has had its own lifeboat since 1870). There are craft workshops to take part in and make your own fabrics and pots, or you can take a boat trip or try your hand at angling or diving from the harbour.

Comfortable shoes are a must as the cobbles are rough underfoot and the walk back uphill to the car park is steep and tough. A Land Rover taxi service operates during summer months.

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