Last week I went to Westward Ho! It’s a nice enough seaside town, a little tatty and run down – as they often are – but undergoing a modest revival thanks to surfers and tourists with a penchant for nostalgia. There is no denying, however, that its name is what mainly distinguishes it: how many place-names include an exclamation mark? Not many, I suspect, although there is a municipality in Quebec that has two!! Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!
My visit was part of a trip down Memory Lane – or I should say Lanes, those comprising the web of routes that connect the towns and hamlets around the coast, combes and valleys of North Devon. Having spent happy times there in my younger days I had great expectations of this latest return tempered, of course, by the knowledge that memory is an unreliable, fawning companion, often obliging with the kind of pleasant associations it knows you prefer and obscuring those which do not fit your idyll. And the places themselves will have changed as ‘progress’ makes its indelible marks. North Devon pre-1988 was relatively inaccessible and its unique cultural identity persisted a little longer than it might otherwise have done. That ended when the A361 trunk road opened, giving expedited access to commerce, industry and the growing number of motorised tourists and commuters encouraged by the easier journey.
But this is not a disaster story: the friends who anchor me to the place are still there and they have not changed. They might sometimes express wistfulness for the time when they felt less pressure from incomers but they are sufficiently well “dug-in” to be philosophical about it. The tourist industry feeds them via the local economy and they want high-speed broadband, good road access and supermarkets like the rest of us. Their children face the problem of expensive housing due to incomers, second-homers and the scarcity of new-build, but this is the same for their contemporaries born and bred in other desirable parts of Britain.
For visitors there are fundamental attractions that are constant: the countryside is pretty, even with the addition of a few wind-turbines; quaint village and town centres are preserved as assets; there is pollock to be had on the menus, pasties in the bakers and dark green laver in the fishmongers. And you can sometimes hear the glorious local accent, with its vowels thick as clotted cream, spoken confidently and proprietorially in contrast to the nondescript babble of incomers. Away from the hubbub is the footpath that makes its way along the Atlantic coast. I walked a section from the estuary at Lynmouth, climbing steeply up and down the sides of a series of combes on the way to Minehead before cutting back inland to Watersmeet where the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water join forces in a narrow, densely wooded valley.
All very beautiful, but for a taste of how life used to be in this part of the world it is useful to visit Arlington Court, former seat of local landowners the Chichesters, now owned and run by the National Trust. The estate typifies the way rural life was lived before the First World War: wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few people, social mobility was limited and rural poverty was the norm. The small scale of the “quaint” cottages in the former fishing ports, many of which are now holiday accommodation, reiterates the point. The inhabitants of North Devon have an easier life now than they did back then and Westward Ho! is partly responsible. Built specifically as a holiday resort in 1863, it established a new source of income for the locals; and, if its current revival persists, it might just do the same trick again and earn itself a second exclamation mark!
|Up-market seafood trailer at Westward Ho!|