The very mention of Devon holidays by the sea sets my heart beating for my heritage and my roots. Specifically North Devon where I’ve spent many happy summer holidays as a child. I revisit Devon most years to see my family, and this year I went on a literary trail, on a quest to follow in the writerly footsteps of authors who lived or worked in Devon.
Novelists and Devon holidays by the sea.
“Before 1925 there wasn’t a road here, just a trail,” says 90 year old Maurice Cawthorne in the broad burr of Devon’s dialect that’s as thick and sweet as its clotted cream.
We are driving in his vintage Morgan with the top down, along a thin strip of coastal road between Saunton and Croyde.
“You could get motorbikes and horse carts along here, but not cars,” he says as we survey breathtaking views across Saunton Sands to Westward Ho!.
Getting out of the car we brace ourselves against a keen wind to stop and stare at North Devon’s uncomplicated scenery.
It’s no wonder that Devon has inspired writers through the ages.
Novelists including Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Williamson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rudyard Kipling and Michael Morpurgo have lived, or had associations with Devon at some stage in their careers, writing tales which have added intriguing points of interest to the county’s literary map as well as swelling the tourism wave.
Apart from its literary connections, North Devon’s history is inextricably interwoven with tales of smuggling and pirates, while the coastal path that stretches 170kms along vertiginous cliffs, green pastures, tiny coves and surf-washed beaches offers up some of the most remote and rugged scenery that the county has to offer.
The track is easily accessible with car parks at various points along the way, and as I head to Clovelly to walk the Hobby Drive section, the fields to either side of me in every imaginable shade of green look like a patchwork quilt stitched by nature.
At a small roundabout on the A39, 10 miles west of Bideford you’ll find Clovelly Cross Service station. Blink and you might miss it. It only has two pumps and is the last service station in North Devon before you reach Cornwall.
And at the bottom of a winding hill you’ll find a fishing village once famous for herring and mackerel, with a history of smuggling and shipwrecks. From the quayside Clovelly seems to cling to the wooded 400 foot cliff face which means that the street is far too precipitous for vehicles and donkeys have for centuries been the main mode of transport.
These days all goods, from groceries to furniture, are transported down through the steep cobbled streets by hand drawn sledges, an enigma in the fast paced world of today.
Walking Down-Along or Up-Along depending on which way you’re going is the best way to view the village and absorb the beguiling 19th century detail, although there is a Land Rover which will take you down a back route to the Red Lion, an 18th century hotel situated at the tiny harbor on the rocky shore.
Novelist, Charles Kingsley lived in Clovelly as a child when his father was the rector, and later he returned to Clovelly to write The Water Babies and Westward Ho! staying in a whitewashed house now marked as Kingsley Cottage. Down-a-long you’ll find the low beamed Kingsley Museum, and among other attractions a fisherman’s cottage decked out with 1930’s memorabilia.
Another famous resident of Clovelly is Joss Ackland CBE, a leading stage and screen actor who has written a moving memoir of life and love, entitled “My Better Half and Me”, based on the diaries of his late wife Rosemary.
Standing at Kipling Terrace and looking down across the famous pebble ridge which separates the beach from Northam Burrows and the 253 hectares of grassy coastal plain, salt marsh and sand dunes – not to mention the oldest golf course in the country founded in 1864 – I realize that I am on hallowed writerly ground. Rudyard Kipling wrote Stalky and Co based on his schooldays from 1878-1882, at the former United Services College, now a terrace of flats which looms above me, but Westward Ho! is named after Charles Kingsley’s swashbuckling novel of the same name written in 1855 – about the time that the resort was gaining popularity due to the Victorian boom in seaside holidays.
Westward Ho! on a sunny summer’s morning when the world is still new with mist rising off the long stretch of sand, feels as close to utopia as I can imagine. Surfers are beginning to appear over the grey pebble ridge carrying bright surfboards.
They’re dressed in dark wet suits ready to brave the cool Atlantic ocean and two dog walkers are throwing balls for their canine companions. But the expansive beach is to all purposes practically empty, and I am alone with my thoughts as I walk briskly, stamping fresh footprints, looking back to the promenade and a number of wooden beach huts painted in idiosyncratic colours, knowing that apart from Lundy Island just visible in the far distance, the next stop across the briny ocean is America.
You can walk from Westward Ho! to Appledore across a muddy section of the Northam Burrows and past the old ship yard until you reach the colourful cottages of Irsha Street. Further along the narrow streets and tiny fishermen’s cottages in the heart of the village jostle for space in diminutive alleyways that run down to the quay which overlooks the Taw/Torridge Estuary.
On the literary front, Daniel Farson famous for his books, his probing TV interviews, and memoirs of his colourful Soho life, lived in Irsha Street for a number of years, and the village hosts a book festival from each year around the end of September.
Nearby, Bideford is an ancient port and market town that interestingly claims a reputation as one of the best places in the country (possibly second only to Trafalgar Square) to celebrate the new year, when the quay is crammed with thousands of people in fancy dress waiting for the town hall clock to strike midnight and the fireworks to begin.
But today I’m going east of the water to cycle the Tarka trail, a mostly flat 51 km track that follows the old railway line from Petrockstowe to Braunton.
Hiring a bike I head north from Bideford along the Torridge Estuary coming to the village of Instow at the confluence of the rivers Taw and Torridge. The trail south follows the valley of the River Torridge zig-zagging across the river through woods and a railway tunnel until it reaches old Torrington Station. Henry Williamson, who lived in North Devon most of his life based his book Tarka the Otter around the Taw-Torridge rivers and Tarka’s journey started and ended on Canal Bridge on the River Torridge near Weare Giffard.
The Hartland Peninsula
Stark and geologically fascinating Hartland Peninsula faces west and here the cliffs of contorted beds of sandstone and shale jut out into the wild ocean below where the rocks are frequented by Atlantic seals. A 1.25km walk leads along the coast path to Devon’s largest waterfall at Speke’s Mill Mouth while nearby Hartland Abbey, the family home of the Stucley’s which was founded by Augustinian monks in 1157 is open to the public. Situated in a sylvan valley that wanders through gardens and parkland down to a private beach the estate has been used as a film location for Jane Austen’s novel ‘Sense and Sensibility, and Rosamunde Pilcher’s ‘The Shell Seekers’ and was also the venue for Prince William’s stag party weekend.
“It was a closely guarded secret. We were told that the manor was booked for the weekend by an octogenarian holding a birthday party, and that they wanted some peace and quiet” explains a member of the household staff. “Little did we expect an energetic Royal entourage to turn up instead.”
I smile and wonder if perhaps this and the other stories of derring-do with which he regales us will one day reach the pages of another Devonshire novel. In my heart, I rather hope so. And looking across at Maurice, dapper in his plus fours, standing in front of his vintage Morgan, I snap an image of its potential hero 🙂
Oh, and remind you that he already has his heroine – my Mum!
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