Culture. in some places, culture is a collection of feelings and ideas which come together in a eclectic manner, defining the identity of a particular town or city. Other places, the geographic, economic and social development of a location has been so unidirectional that the word culture is an all encompassing term for everything that makes it special. Clovelly is such a place. Nestled into the coast, facing North over the Bristol channel and out across the Atlantic, this steep and shadowy fishing village grew up around a single purpose. Fish. Herring are small fish that live in big schools. The whole village was built around the need to catch fish, and every aspect of its formation solidified the role of the little ‘silver darlings’ in the villages history and future.
The village has been preserved in its antiquitous state thanks due in part to a quirk of medieval English history. In the 16th and 17th century, during the formation of the village, large swathes of the country were ruled over by feudal barons; in favour with the Kings, these rulers with little connection to the land eventually gave way to personal ownership of land and houses, with few estates left under the rule of one family. Plebeian oppression notwithstanding, this history left Clovelly under private ownership, and allowed it to develop (or not develop) in a unified way.
The visitor centre at the top of the hill is another unique feature. Not many villages have an entrance fee, but this method has provided the guaranteed tourist revenue to upkeep the village. when approaching the steep sided valley, not much can be seen until you’re right on top of it. Slowly walking down the cobbled street is an experience in loosing daylight as the lee of the hill crowds in on top of you. at this time of year, early december, the sun is low and the air holds a cold damp feel. The atlantic breeze adds to the chill.
The cobbled and stepped street is narrow and closed off to motrorised vehicles. The whitewashed cottages each have a wooden sled outside; used for pulling supplies up from the harbour below. Even with all the inconveniences of living in a preserved tourist attraction, the houses are in demand. The single ownership means all the residents are tenants, and in a bid to keep the village active and alive, the ruling family socially engineers a young population through preferentially moving them up the waiting list for houses.
As you walk further down the cobbled street, past small inns, a village shop and a couple pubs, the street narrows further, before you round a corner to be greeted by an opening view of the harbour below. Today, the tide is slowly creeping out, and a scattered assortment of working fishing vessels and restored replicas settle onto the sand as the sea leaves beneath them. The strong tidal pull in this part of the atlantic means Clovelly was a desireable location to those early fishermen – a sheltered bay leading quickly into deep water meant that storms generally rolled right past, and the boats had a wider window to leave and return to the harbour than in places with long stretches of shallow sand.
Walking down the steeper steps, we can see the smoke rising from stalls grilling, frying and baking fish over naked fires. The smoke seems to catch in the heavy damp air, and it lingers above the harbour like a protective blanket. The sound of tradition folk music also seems trapped by this blanket, and the familiar chant of the local songs is comforting. The music also came from the sea. Before capable vessels could bring in large catches, nets were often strung from the beach at low tide, only to be heaved in when the sea was at the top of the sand. The crews of men tasked with pulling in the catch developed rhythmic songs to work to, timing their efforts with the emphasis of the chorus. These songs have developed over time with new lyrics and new stories, still retaining their characteristic timing and their often lewd and sordid lyrics – a reminder of their all male origins.
Today is busy. Its the annual herring festival. A celebration of the sea’s bounty and a offering to ensure it stays productive for the future. The celebrations have attracted a huge crowd, and we wind our way between them to sample some local delicacies. Smoked over oak chips, rolled in oats and fried in lard. Pickled in vinegar. The food is not fancy, but hearty and whole, not messed with and not altered. Its remained unchanged for hundreds of years; the cooks relying on its freshness and wholesome flavour, rather than dressings and sauces and additions.
Looking back up at the village from the harbour, its heartening to know culture still exists in a continuous realm from its origins. This place hasn’t imported its customs from idealistic notions of far off lands. Its traditions are its own, developed over time to fit the need and lifestyle of the people. Its interlacing of tourism and normal life is a perfect model for other places looking to retain an identity and bring in revenue at the same time.
Long live the silver darlings.