Landing a boat on the treacherous North Devon coast with its cliffs and rocky foreshores has never been easy. However, Clovelly’s bay is sheltered from the strong westerly winds, so a settlement has existed here from the earliest times. As long ago as the 13th century a rudimentary quay was constructed, and soon a small fleet of fishing boats from Clovelly was working Bideford Bay in search of herring and mackerel.
The Cary family owned the village in the 17th century, and George Cary saw the potential of building a more substantial quay. He wrote: ‘I have of late erected a pier or key in the sea and river of Severne upon the sea-shore, near low water of the said seas, within or near about one half mile of my said capital messuage of Clovelly, and also divers houses, cellars, warehouses, and other edifices … which standeth and hath cost me about £2,000 and which place was of none or very small benefit before my said exertions and buildings.’
It’s hard to imagine how the men of Clovelly managed to drag such huge boulders across the foreshore and hoist them into position. They could work only at low tide; using ropes and pulleys, brute force and determination. The stones had to be fitted as tightly as possible; behind them they inserted a backfill of smaller stones to create a firm bed. Medieval mortar, made very often from a mixture of lime and ash or lime and sand, was not as waterproof as modern mortars, so it seems likely that it often had to be replaced. It was a formidable achievement, but the result was invaluable: they had created the only safe haven for boats along the entire stretch of rocky coast between Appledore and Boscastle.
The Devon antiquary, historian and topographer Risdon, writing in about 1630, described the work as a ‘pile to resist the inrushing of the sea’s violent breach, that ships and boats may with more safety harbour there’. Clovelly fishermen in later years certainly appreciated the effort it had taken to build the quay. The village evolved into a bustling and prosperous centre for fishing. When fishing was good they would land up to 9,000 herring at one time!
Today there are fewer fishermen, but they, and the many visitors to Clovelly, are still grateful to the strong arm of the quay that protects them from the wind and the waves.
The Picarooner vessel is unique to Clovelly but there remain just two, until we bought a replica, built by Falmouth Marine College students in 2008. ‘Picarooner’ was once a Spanish insult, meaning ‘a rogue or rascal stealing a march’, because the vessel, with its shallow draft, rounded bilges and high transom, could get out to sea faster and return earlier on the tide and thus steal a march on the bigger boats in the pursuit of sweet Clovelly herrings.