Inside the most Instragrammable village

The award-winning Clovelly village, crowned the UK’s most Instagrammable village, is more than just a tourism attraction – it is a thriving place to live and work. Kim John finds out more.
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Perched against a 400ft cliff on the North Devon coastline, it’s easy to see why Clovelly’s car-free cobbles are trampled on by 150,000 visitors per year. The picturesque Clovelly Estate, which extends to around 2,000 acres and includes three farm tenancies, has an extensive history. It was originally owned by William the Conqueror and gifted to his wife Matilda of Flanders. It then had many royal associations until 1242, when it was first acquired by the Giffard family, followed by the Careys and finally the Hamlyn family, after Zachary Hamlyn bought it in 1738. Christine Hamlyn inherited the estate in 1884 and was responsible for much of the village’s aesthetic. The Honourable John Rous, great-grandnephew to Christine, is the estate’s first male heir in more than 120 years.

Tourism potential

Upon his return to the estate in 1983, John realised that there was tourism potential for Clovelly as numbers visiting the village increased. He also recognised that its character and heritage needed to be retained and that, with increasing footfall, degradation was inevitable.

“It seemed reasonable that we would charge people entry to the village to help with the maintenance and upkeep,” he explains. He set about planning for a visitors’ centre, with a feasibility study conducted and an architectural competition arranged to decide the final design.

In 1988, a charge to enter the village was implemented. Perhaps the only fee-paid village in England, the £8.50 entry fee goes towards its maintenance and upkeep. “This is no small feat when everything has to be brought in by hand,” John says. The fee includes parking, entry to the village with its small fishing harbour and beach, and entry to Clovelly Court gardens.

Two cottages are open to visitors - Kingsley Museum and Fisherman’s Cottage - and those who explore the village can sit beside the fishing harbour, enjoy local produce from the two hotels, stroll the cobbles and take in the views across the bay. Visitors navigate a steep decline once they exit the vast commercial visitor’s centre, where income is boosted by the sale of collectables and souvenirs, as well as a café restaurant. There is a Land Rover service, which takes tourists up a back road for an additional charge, or they can choose the climb, taking ‘scenery stops’ on the way to catch their breath. Sledges are used by residents to bring goods down to the village. Historically, donkeys were used but they are now purely a tourism attraction.

A working village

What is perhaps most surprising about Clovelly is that it is a living, working village. The cottages are rented out to tenants who understand that they will live in a tourism hotspot. Some have lived there for decades, while others are new, young families who have chosen to embrace life in this quirky place. Preserving Clovelly as a living village is important to John. Christine Hamlyn and her husband set the direction for the village’s aesthetic and instigated renovations. John says: “Christine’s eclectic style accounts for the variety of façades you see.” He has since undertaken a 10-year programme of works, replacing rotten beams and carrying out repair works to the cottages at a significant investment. There’s a continuous schedule of restoration while John frequently looks to make improvements to the energy efficiency of the historic buildings.

Energy efficiency improvements

When the government began talking about the energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of let properties, John initiated a plan to increase the EPC rating of the listed cottages. This was a significant challenge because the exterior of the buildings could not be changed. With no oil and little gas, the vast majority are heated using wood or coal-burning stoves.

The first phase involved insulating chimneys to help retain heat and reduce the risk of chimney fires, followed by draught-proofing. “It wasn’t the case of just adding brushes to windows,” says John. “It was a complete restructure of the frames themselves and installing secondary glazing, which fits the existing window without impacting on the aesthetic of the original frames.”

Other energy-saving measures included fitting loft insulation and sloping ceiling insulation. Together, these measures are estimated to save around 40% of heat loss. Despite spending around £10,000 per property on improvements, the changes earned few EPC points. However: “Tenants reported significant savings in their heating costs as a result of improved insulation,” John says.

Quick fixes such as high heat retention radiators, which would have earned significant EPC points, were rejected as being too costly for tenants to run. Instead, a ‘fabric first approach was adopted. Aesthetic considerations ruled out photovoltaics, as did topography for ground source heat pumps.

In 2022, these energy-saving measures have seen Clovelly Estate win the National Landlord of the Year award for energy efficiency run by the Energy Efficiency Association – another accolade to its ever-growing list.

Improvement works are not restricted to the residential tenants of the village. There are plans to develop agricultural buildings on the estate for the growing number of commercial tenants, which currently include a brewery, a soap maker, a silk scarf designer and a pottery, as well as the two hotels and shops.

It’s no wonder that Clovelly can attract up to 2,000 people per day during peak season, but how does it cope? John says: “We encourage people to explore the coast path or to visit the gardens.” While Clovelly could restrict visitor numbers, John adds: “It is rewarding seeing people enjoy Clovelly.” When asked if he was tempted to turn cottages into holiday lets, John says: “We want to maintain Clovelly as a living, thriving village”.