Food & Drink · Travel

Ro’s Recipes: Climbing Clovelly

Devon is a county in southern England, rumpled with rolling hills, sloping farmlands, short hedges cossetting narrow winding lanes that follow farms, which delineate land ownership dating back centuries. Except for the old Roman Roads, used for troop movement, there were no straight lines in England until motorways generated them beginning in the late ’50s.

Clovelly is one of only three privately owned villages in England. Originally owned by royalty, it was passed over to the Hamlyn Family in the mid-13th century. George Cary established the village in the 16th century around a single cobbled street winding over half a mile down to the harbor quay built at the bottom of the steep 400-feet cliff drop.

Clearly, there is no possibility of any sort of vehicular traffic, so any shopping, luggage, moving pianos, need to be hauled by sledges up the slopes. Donkeys also transport goods up and down the cobbled street, residing at the top of the cliff, where children are welcome to ride them when they’re not “working.”

The continued private ownership of this ancient Iron Age hillfort dwelling ensures that it was not and will not be tampered with by any form of structural modernism. The quaint difficulty of getting around has been preserved, which ensures that only people who value the glory of the historical will dwell and stay. These families protect the lifestyle that so fascinates worldwide visitors. It is this simple, ornate village Victorianism that seduces all who visit. It is as if being embedded in a fantasy land – except it truly exists in reality.

Clovelly has been painted by J.M.W. Turner and Rex Whistler, described by Charles Dickens and served as  home to Charles Kingsley and Campbell De Morgan (1811–1876) — the first surgeon to speculate that cancer arose in the body and spread more widely.

I encountered Clovelly on a dare. Penelope, one of my flat mates in the ’70s in Manchester Square, worked for a small company that planned unique weekends for small groups of people all over Britain.  She suggested this very small village after I’d asked her about somewhere in Devon to spend a weekend with a boyfriend. She even booked a B&B in the village  with the proviso that we pretend we were married!

Mrs. Cobbley, the landlady, though sweet, was clearly a dedicated guardian of the morals of the young. The little cobbled cottage at the top of the slope, with low ceilings and small rooms, was predictably quaint-adorable with little tiny windows framed by geraniums overlooking the street. She served us a good tea, real-bread toast and homemade marmalade as a delightful breakfast at her dining room table, dressed with a pretty, embroidered table cloth and napkins. She asked if we’d like her to prepare sandwiches for us to take for our lunch.

These days, there are many different activities and tours available as tourism became the major “industry.” But in the 1970s there would be nothing “to do” Mrs. Cobbley warned. She suggested we wander down the main street and the quay. Armed with her advice, we dawdled downwards along the cobbled street, hugely tempted to look in the cottage windows, continuing to the quay where there were small village shops, a post office, a fishing tackle garage-warehouse and fishing boats. This was a working quay.

When Mrs. Cobbley realized that good food was a love of mine, she spoke highly about The Red Lion pub, so we stopped in to make a reservation for dinner that night. Unnecessary said the landlord! Then up the slope again to walk along the cliffs, skirting farmland overlooking the harbor. We stopped on the edge of a sheep meadow for a lunch of ham sandwiches and a bottle of beer. Perfect on a  beautiful summer day. Having had a donkey as a young child I insisted on popping in to the donkey barns to revisit my childhood.

As I was babbling about my donkey, gently ambling down the steep street, I slipped on the cobbles and twisted my ankle. It wasn’t so bad in the beginning, but by the time we reached the cottage my foot and ankle had swollen and walking on it was impossible. “It’s OK – I can just rest it horizontally with a cold compress for a while and I’ll be fine,” I said.

It was going to be a literal pain to get to the Red Lion for the so eagerly anticipated dinner. I changed out of daytime shorts and tee into a summer frock and sandals. As we were about to leave, Mrs. Cobbley opened the front door with a big smile on her face and told us the taxi had arrived. How a taxi?

There waiting on the street was one of the donkeys I had met! Mrs. Cobbley had called and ordered the donkey to carry me down to the Red Lion and take me back up after dinner. I’ve been in all sorts of contraptions in my travels but this was my favorite!

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