Monday, June 26, 2017
The North Devon Coastline: Barnstaple, Bideford, Westward Ho! And Clovelly:
We devoted this day to exploring the North Devon coastline and since it was a week day and we had the luxury of choosing from a number of trains, we had a longer lie-lin. Breakfast was granola with yogurt and coffee in the kitchen in our studio at Melbury House before we got dressed and left. We walked briskly to Exeter Central Station having discovered a simpler, shorter, way to get there from our hotel. Our train arrived at the appointed hour ( 8. 25 am) and off we went. It was the Tarka Line—a picturesque route that traverses the interior of the county of Devon past varied shades of green in field, farm and pasture, before it dropped us off at the end of the line at Barnstaple.
On the Bus to Clovelly:
From right outside Barnstaple station, there is a bus stop that whisks visitors off to the most visited parts of the North Devon coast. In our case, we were headed to Clovelly (pronounced Clo-velly). It has been years since I have wanted to visit this place based entirely on pictures of it that I have seen of its steeped main street that dips sharply down to the sea. So getting there was, in a way, a dream come true for me. The issue is that Clovelly lies so far away from the beaten tourist track that it is not the sort of place one can reach at random. Hence, it was very much a part of my plan for a visit to Devon.
Another very scenic bus route took us to Clovelly via the town of Bideford which is a junction of sorts for a lot of destinations on the northern Devon coast. Once at Bideford, we discovered that we had a wait of about a half hour before we got into a connecting bus to Clovelly—it was a good opportunity for us to see a bit of this town and we did just that as we went in search of its Panier Marketplace—only to discover that this Victorian Covered Market was closed. Still, the opportunity to walk in these quaint towns and get a feel of small-town Devonshire life was priceless.
Off to Clovelly:
We did eventually get into the bus that took us to Clovelly which we reached at a little past noon—by which time we were both starving. The interesting thing about Clovelly is that the entire village is owned by a single family and they extract a toll off every visitor. This entry fee is used for maintenance of one of the world’s most unique villages. You pay the 7.50 pounds entry fee at the Visitors Center (where the bus drops you off) and enter a vast space filled with restrooms, a restaurant, shops selling postcards, magnets and the like. We acquired a map after paying our fee and then headed straight to the café where Shahnaz ordered a burger while I chose a steak and onion pasty—they do not call them Cornish pasties in Devon! But they are essentially the same things. I also had a decaff coffee. My pasty and Shahnaz’s bacon cheeseburger (of which she ate only half leaving the rest to me) were both filling and fueled us for the ordeal that lay ahead.
Clovelly consists entirely of a single street—it is sharply cobbled and placed on a steep incline. Lined on both sides by the most picturesque little cottages with riots of summer flowers like fuschias, petunias, impatiens (bizzie-lizzies) and verbena tumbling out of window boxes and baskets, the town is as pretty as a postcard. Everyone’s camera works overtime trying to capture the quaint and unusual beauty of the hamlet that profits enormously from its location which overlooks the crystal-clear waters of the azure sea.
Two attractions that most visitors inspect are the home of Charles Kingsley, who is the best known literary figure in the area, and the Fisherman’s Cottage. Kingsley who was born in the region, made Clovelly his home in the late 1890s as he wrote two of his most famous works: Westward Ho! which is named for the town close-by which is the setting of his novel and The Water Babies. We were able to visit the tiny home in which he had lived and written his literary works—they are so tiny that they feel like doll’s houses. We also saw the home of a typical 19th century fisherman for fishing was the main stay of the local economy. Maintained in period style, these places retain a great deal of character. All the way to the bottom, there are colorful shops filled with colorful people but there are no chain stores, high street shops, fast food places of anything of the kind. This made me feel as if I was walking in the pages of history for nothing seems to have changed in this place for at least a century.
Getting down to the sea is no mean feat and I have to say that my open sandals (because it was so hot) were not the most ideal footwear for such activity. Shahnaz, with her hunter boots, was in a far better situation. Still, I managed as we kept pausing after every few steps to take pictures. All the while, we inched closer to sea level. It took us a good hour to finally see the beach where most people rewarded themselves for getting to the end by guzzling cold beer in The Red Lion restaurant at the bottom. Had we not stuffed ourselves fully at the café at the Visitor Center, no doubt, we too would have enjoyed a drink there.
Getting Back Up the Hill To the Bus:
Shahnaz, who by this time, had been stressing about climbing back up the hill, was most relieved to discover that there was a Land Rover service that for 3.50 pounds took folks back up to the Visitors Center in under ten minutes—saving us the sweat equity involved in doing the hike back up—which would have taken us no less than two hours! In fact, we did see people making the brave (panting) trek upwards, some with dogs who were so tired that they refused to budge from the cobbles! Suffice it to say that the Land Rover service is a huge boon and quite indispensable for the elderly and the infirm. We were certainly grateful for the service and as we planned the next leg of our sightseeing, we sat at the Visitors Center and waited for the bus.
Off to Westward Ho!
The town of Westward Ho! has the distinction of being the only place in the world that officially has an exclamation mark at the end of it. Westward Ho! is also the name of the novel that Kingsley gave the world. The area is filled with Kingsley memorabilia from a large sculpture that overlooks the port at Bideford to his home at Clovelly. Sadly, the town of Westward Ho! was a major disappointment to us for there was really nothing much to see or do there. The bus dropped us off at the main street from where it was only a short walk to the beach front—once again, I was struck by the vast expanse of flat, wide beach (one of the great natural treasures of the British coastline).
Shahnaz busied herself with collecting flat stones on which she intended to paint. I sat facing the sea and drinking in the scent as I thought of Kingsley’s novel. I took in the salt tang in the air and the sight of people wading out in the far distance for the tide was out. After a while when strolling around a pretty street with ice-cream colored houses was accomplished, we got back to the bus stop and looked for a bus that would take us back home on the return journey. But just before we hopped into it, I got myself a scoop of Hockings ice-cream which is supposedly one of the finest in the area.
Luckily, the bus took us directly to Barnstaple which made it easy for us to walk straight to the train station and wait out the ten minutes that it took for us to catch the Tarka Line train back to our home base in Exeter. We arrived there about 7.00 pm and since there was still so much daylight left, decided to go into further exploration of Exeter.
Dinner by the Dockside:
Having asked the friendly railway personnel who were hanging out at Exeter station whether we ought to see the Dockside or the Underground Passages (with limited time at our disposal), they suggested we get to the Dockside. This rather ‘happening’ part of Exeter is a frequent hangout for late evenings. Getting there involved the use of our sketchy map and a very long walk; but it did provide us with the opportunity to see varied parts of Exeter as we inched forward with every step.
We did reach the Dockside about 45 minutes later, past the Cathedral and Close that looked glorious in the setting rays of the evening’s sun. By the time we were at the Dockside on the banks of the River Exe that gives the city its name, we spied a pretty bridge that spanned the water. Three or four restaurants are clustered together at this spot and since dusk was falling slowly, most seemed to enjoy their sundowner pints—for all these eateries are also pubs. We decided to inspect the menu of all three places and then make a choice for dinner. Eventually we chose a place called On The Waterfront—which, as its name implies, faced the water. Once again, the presence of seagulls intimidated Shahnaz—so, reluctantly, we moved inside to a booth which was not nearly as atmospheric as actually sitting by the quay and watching twilight fall.
Drink and food orders needed to be placed at the bar—we got ourselves draft lagers and settled our feet down for a long rest as our food was prepared: Thai curry fishcakes with a peanut and cucumber relish was part of the elegant Tapas menu and a large Salade Nicoise which came with wonderful grilled tuna, anchovies, eggs, tomatoes, green beans and potatoes. They made for a very filling summer’s dinner and as all the food was very tasty, we dined well. So, although we went entirely by instinct, we ended up having a most satisfying meal indeed.
Getting Back to our Hotel:
Darkness had well and truly fallen over Exeter by the time we got up to leave. Shahnaz felt daunted at the thought of walking back to our hotel—a walk of at least 45 minutes, on a day when we had put our leg and feet muscles through many challenges on those Clovelly cobbles! So, she was absolutely delighted to see a bus stop and suggested we sit down and wait for a bus that would take us towards our hotel. As luck would have it, a bus came along within five minutes—one that was going very close to our hotel. It was truly God-sent! Within ten minutes, we were dropped off at the Duke of York pub from where it was only a few blocks to Melbury House.
It had been an exhausting day but a deeply fulfilling one as we saw such unusual sights in the heart of the English countryside. At the end of each day, Shahnaz and I never failed to marvel at how much we had accomplished, how much ground we had covered and how deeply blessed we were to have the opportunity to traverse these little-known parts of the world.
Until tomorrow, cheerio.