The North Devon Riviera
You won’t find a place called the North Devon Riviera on any map or in a travel or guide book, because it doesn’t exist. I made the name up to describe a beautiful stretch of the North Devon coast for a novel I’ve written called Love Out Of Season. And I didn’t want to upset the people of Lynmouth by re-ordering their beautiful little town so that it fitted my story. Novelists do this all the time. Usually, though, we don’t own up to it.
But when I first visited Lynmouth about four years ago and walked the surrounding cliffs and moors it just seemed to me to be the most perfect place for a romantic story. To be honest I think it’s one of the prettiest and most unspoilt seaside places in England.
I say unspoilt, meaning in the commercial, day-tripper sense, of course. Because, as the older people of Lynmouth remember to their distress, it was very badly spoiled in 1952 when, after 24 hours and nine inches of rain on the Exmoor hills, roaring torrents of water and tumbling boulders ripped the village apart. In just a few night-time hours the place known as England’s Little Switzerland, because of its neat, steep, wooded beauty, was totally vandalised by nature.
The massive damage was, of course, repaired decades ago, and now Lynmouth once again enjoys that special relationship that it’s always had with water—the water which wrecked it but which also makes it so special.
Because quite apart from Lynmouth being a little port, water also created and still contributes to the extraordinary beauty of the hills and gorges, provides some of the local electricity, and made possible a staggering piece of Victorian engineering which must be ridden to be appreciated.
The characters in my story visit the “North Devon Riviera” in the winter, chosen by one of them because it seems a bleak, misty, inaccessible hideaway, tucked under Exmoor, peeping out at the Bristol Channel. The perfect place for a quiet weekend, in other words. But in summer, it’s different completely, almost Neapolitan from some angles.
With the forest dropping straight down to the sea to the west of the town, Lynmouth, with its white hotels set in the woods, seems to stroll with late Victorian/ Edwardian ambience—a sparkling splinter of that tranquil England which was left behind when the modern world flew off to sunnier climes in charter jets.
What fascinated me when I first visited were the gorges cut deep by the two rivers which converge in Lynmouth itself, the East Lyn, wide and babbling and made-for-picnics at Watersmeet a couple of miles upstream; and the West Lyn which charges through the narrower Glen Lyn Gorge. If you have children the Glen Lyn Gorge should not be missed.
There they can generate their own hydro-electric power on a tiny model, and even make their own rainbows. No less interesting, however, are the walks through the woods in Glen Lyn and all around Lynmouth, where the spray from the waterfalls and the abundant rainfall has created something of a microclimate and with it a dense forest, in which giant ferns, larches, beeches, oaks and Spanish chestnuts wrestle upwards.
In truth, all the walks around Lynmouth, whether you venture inland to Exmoor and to what’s become known as the Doone Valley, after the novel Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore, or concentrate entirely on the cliff paths, which at 800 feet are some of the highest in Britain, are spectacular.
Why didn’t I know more about this area, I always ask myself as I gaze out at the Valley of Rocks, a prehistoric looking place just behind the cliffs, where the exposed granite stones look like a line of huge ragged teeth? I don’t know. But I didn’t. It’s been a well kept secret.
To fully appreciate Lynmouth you have to visualise its geography, to understand that it’s really less than half a settlement, the greater proportion of the place, Lynton, being a pretty village of grey and pastel walls and roofs 500 feet above the little port.
There are three ways to get from Lynmouth the Lynton. There’s a winding road for cars: a crippling zig-zagging climb through the wet woods, and a third method—one of the most interesting tourist attractions you’re likely to find in Britain, the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway.
For this, we are all indebted to the nineteenth century popular magazine publisher and millionaire philanthropist, George Newnes. Having apparently fallen in love with Lynmouth on a visit he was appalled to see the plight of the pack horses as they struggled with breaking backs up the steep and winding road from the port to Lynton.
So when someone appeared with a revolutionary plan for a cliff railway, he immediately agreed to fund its development. One hundred and twelve years later, and still without a single serious accident, the railway is still running.
Powered by steam, diesel, gas or electricity it would have been a remarkable engineering feat. But what was, and remains unique, is that it works entirely by water. The basic plan is simplicity itself, a see-saw involving two equally balanced cars connected by a cable but always at opposite ends of the railway system from each other, each with a 700 gallon tank mounted between the wheels.
Using the water which runs freely off the East Lyn, the tank on the car at the top is filled. On a signal the car 800 ft away at the bottom of the railway begins to release its water from its tank, whereupon the now heavier weight of the top car pushes it down the track, simultaneously pulling up the now lighter lower car. Then, when the lower car reaches the top, now empty of water, it is filled up, and the whole procedure begins again.
I’m not usually interested in engineering, but to see this brilliant Victorian invention, one which is totally ecologically clean, still carrying passengers up and down the Cliffside, is thrilling.
But, don’t go to Lynmouth if all you want is a beach and a tube of sun cream. For one thing the beaches are pebbly and not too easy to get to unless you’re a mountain goat. And for another sun cream is not, as in other resorts, available at every turn. In fact we had quite a job finding any for sale at all. And that in mid-July.
But if you’re interested in a quiet place for romance, like the characters in my book, or you’re looking for a tiny version of what holidays used to be like in the days of Enid Blyton and before we discovered the delights of the Mediterranean, Lynmouth will take some beating. And if the power of water interests you, there can be few places more interesting.
I didn’t include the cliff railway in my novel. It didn’t fit into my re-ordered, fictionalised view of the North Devon Riviera. But the cliffs walks are there, the little harbour, the woods, the moors above the town and the raging Glen Lyn Gorge.
As a setting for a romantic story I can still think of nowhere better.
The Mail on Sunday, September 2007