Time and tide

On the coast of Devon, Penny McDonald meets the man who owns the 700-year-old fishing village of Clovelly.

Clovelly is one of my favourite snorkelling sites in Sydney, in large part because it's the exception to the city's ocean beaches. It's not really a beach at all - except for the patch of sand and shallows at its head favoured by families with small children - but a rocky inlet with concrete platforms for sunbathing right up to its deep, fishy waters.

Of all Sydney's beaches, it has the most European feel.

Little Coogee was renamed Clovelly, after an English village in the West Country, in 1914 by the president of the local progress association, F.H. Howe, and I've often wondered why. On a recent trip to Devon I made a diversion to explore the original.

It's immediately apparent the homage isn't misplaced. Like the Sydney inlet, Clovelly in Devon is a break in a harsh shoreline of cliffs, in its case, facing the Atlantic Ocean. Lime-washed cottages sit on the steep, densely wooded hillsides behind.

There the resemblance ends. The English Clovelly has been a working fishing port for about 700 years, its herring boats sheltered from Atlantic storms by a massive seawall restored every couple of centuries.

Since the 13th century, Clovelly has been in the possession of just three families: the Giffords, the Carys and, since 1738, the Hamlyns. Its 80 or so houses and much of the surrounding land are the property of one man - and he's not selling.

In the 19th century, Clovelly attracted artists and writers. Turner painted the bay. Dickens wrote about it as ''Steepways'' in A Message from the Sea. The author of The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley, who lived here as a child while his father was rector of All Saints church, returned and drew on local characters in his swashbuckling novel of Elizabethan times, Westward Ho!. A nearby village was named after this book and it was where Rudyard Kipling went to boarding school, described in his story of schoolboy deeds in the gorse-covered hills, Stalky & Co.

Christine Hamlyn, who inherited the land in 1884, decided that tourism, not herring, was the future and the flow of sightseers by steamer and rail (via the nearby station at Bideford) was best encouraged by keeping Clovelly in a time warp. She spent her remaining 52 years preserving Clovelly (many of the cottages are marked with her initials, CH) and she banned motor cars from its street.

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Her descendant and the current squire, John Rous, inherited it in 1987 and quit his work in London's financial industry to persevere in the same spirit. Clovelly's cottages are let to tenants who live in the village year-round, work locally, and preferably have young children to keep the village school busy.

Tourists must leave their cars and buses in a large car park over the brow of the hill and walk in through a visitors' centre after paying an entrance fee. With these fees, modest rents and souvenir sales, Rous wages a constant battle against the elements to keep the village in 19th-century shape.

I walk down the single, steep zigzag street, passing residents hauling their shopping, to the Red Lion Hotel, a long two-storey pub by the water with fishing boats out the front. Six hours later, the same boats are resting on the bottom of the empty port, stranded by a five-metre tide fall.

My room at the Red Lion has a pair of vintage oars above the bed, inscribed ''Seagull''. It's furnished with lamps, model boats and large pebbles from the beach. The window seat seems to hang over the harbour, and I watch the weather over the slate-grey sea, bursts of sunshine alternating with rain squalls.

As the light fades, I catch a lift in the hotel's Land Rover by a private road up the hill to Clovelly Court. This is the Georgian manor (with a few earlier remnants) where the squires of the village have lived for centuries, except during the two world wars when it became a convalescent home for wounded soldiers.

John Rous, a tall figure in fawn corduroys and a cardigan, is watching local children perform a dance in his garden. Then he'll head to the Scilly Islands, off Cornwall.

The Scilly business, I discover, is a race of traditional six-oared pilot gigs. Rous loves these handsome wooden boats and strives to keep a crew going at Clovelly. When volunteers are lacking, he takes to the water in the Clovelly Scull, a version of the single rowing scull adapted for rough water, which he also markets.

That evening, Rous enters the bar of the Red Lion, chatting affably to his employees and tenants. Over a whisky he explains his two-decade campaign to keep funds flowing for the relentless restoration required to maintain the village. His calendar is filled with events: gig regattas, excursions to puffin and seal colonies on nearby Lundy Island, a herring festival in autumn listed as one of Britain's best food fairs. ''It's quite a challenge to keep it nice for tenants to live in and keep it interesting for tourists,'' he says.

Rous is fond of his Australasian visitors. His grandfather, married to a niece of Christine Hamlyn, who inherited Clovelly in 1936, was Arthur Asquith, the son of a famous British prime minister, and had served in Gallipoli. Asquith's chums there included the New Zealander Bernard Freyberg and the Sydney Grammar old boy and oarsman Frederick ''Cleg'' Kelly, who composed a musical tribute when they buried Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros. Kelly died at the Somme a year later and Asquith helped compile his diaries, now held at the National Archive in Canberra. In Kelly's honour, Rous flies the Australian and New Zealand flags at Clovelly on Anzac Day.

Penny McDonald travelled courtesy of VisitBritain.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Four hours' drive from London. Take the M4 to Bristol, switch to the M5 and, a little past Taunton, take the A361 westwards to Clovelly via Barnstaple. Entrance fees to Clovelly cost £5.95 ($9.50) for adults; £3.75 for children aged 7-16, £15.90 for a family.

Staying there

The Red Lion Hotel has dinner, bed and breakfast from £90.50 a person; email redlion@clovelly.co.uk, see clovelly.co.uk.

Eating there

Try Clovelly lobster with chips and aioli, £18.50, at the Red Lion Hotel. And the Cottage Tea Rooms serves a fine Devonshire cream tea for £3.95.

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