For photographs of many of these places, please see the photo gallery.
Much of Barefoot on the Cobbles is set in the unique village of Clovelly. Clovelly is a privately-owned fishing village on the rugged North Devon coast and many of the cottages that are lived in by the novel’s characters are 400 years old. The steep, cobbled street, that is reflected in Barefoot’s title, means that motorised transport is prohibited. Modern-day residents walk up and down the main street just as Polly, Albert, Daisy and other inhabitants of Barefoot would have done. Although, in the early twentieth century, donkeys, as well as sledges, were used to transport goods, nowadays the donkeys are merely there to recreate the atmosphere of the past. In Barefoot’s time, tourism was secondary to the fishing fleet, whose small boats sought herring, lobster, prawns and mackerel on the uncertain waves. Now, the fishing fleet has dwindled to a handful of boats and Clovelly is dedicated to catering for visitors.
The Red Lion, Clovelly
Formerly a row of fishermen’s cottages, by the time of the novel, it was a flourishing hostelry, providing accommodation for tourists and refreshment for visitors and locals alike. Its dominant position on the quay at Clovelly, meant that it became a meeting point for the elderly fishermen of the village, who would sit outside the Red Lion with their baccy and beer, yarning about their days at sea. In inclement weather, they would huddle under the archway, which also provided shelter for the Clovelly donkeys. The Red Lion housed the Mariner’s Union Club Room and although inquests were known to be held there, it was not the setting for the inquest that features in Barefoot. The Red Lion’s publican, Mr Moss and his daughter Mary, are mentioned in the book.
The quayside at Clovelly is the lifeblood of the village and it is a location that is threaded through the fabric of Barefoot on the Cobbles. Here the fisherman put out to sea, risking their lives for an uncertain harvest. When the weather is inclement, they mend their nets or weave the lobster pots on the quayside, eager to get back in the tiny wooden boats and seek the shoals that are their livelihood. Holidaymakers alight here to exclaim over the village’s quaintness and to swell the coffers of the inhabitants. Anxious watchers line the quay scanning the waves for the returning lifeboat. In the time of the novel, it was a bustling, working quay, with a fishing fleet unloading its daily catch and men now too old for the rigors of the sea, watchfully reliving their youth. Thus the quay is the social hub of the village, a focus for gossip and the comfort of old friends. Barefoot on the Cobbles is set at a time when the tourism was just beginning to compete with fishing as the lynch pin of the village economy.
Independent Street, Clovelly
Independent Street, one of Clovelly’s few side streets, first appears in the pages of Barefoot on the Cobbles when Mrs and Mrs Collins arrive as paying guests in the home of Mrs Stanbury.
There isn’t much to be said about a single street, an ordinary street, yet the incidents that took place there are the inspiration for the novel. Those houses, those inhabitants and a particular set of circumstances, all contributed to an appalling tragedy.
Rat’s Castle, Clovelly
Rat’s Castle, a tiny two-roomed property near Clovelly Quay, makes a brief appearance in Barefoot on the Cobbles as it was Albert and Polly’s first marital home. This cottage was frequently allocated to Clovelly newly-weds, two rooms being all that they required. Tenancies were often short; as soon as the family began to arrive they would be moved on to a larger home. The origins of its name are unknown but presumably the cellars attracted rodents.
More information about Bucks Mills can be found here.
King’s Cottage, Bucks Mills
King’s Cottage, Bucks Mills is the home of Albert and Eadie’s grandparents. We get a glimpse inside in the first chapter of Barefoot on the Cobbles.
On 27 January 1845, Reverend John Thomas Pine Coffin, the landowner, had entered into an agreement with Albert’s grandfather, James, giving him permission to build ‘a house over the watercourse at the machine platform at Buckish, Parkham’. This land was adjacent to James’ father’s home. The new house was to become King’s Cottage and the rent was one shilling a year. By the time we open the front door of King’s Cottage in the novel, the family have lived there for forty five years. They were to remain there for a further twenty years. It was a substantial cottage, with a view over the bay and unique plumbing arrangements, which are mentioned in the book. King’s Cottage was described in the North Devon Journal in 1855, the house ‘at the lower extremity of Bucks, on a towering height above the beach, is a real curiosity. The rivulet that comes down between the hills, by and under part of his eagle’s nest premises, discharges itself in a cataract on the beach where it flows into the Atlantic.’
After the family left, it was tenanted by a relative of Clementine Churchill.
Rose Cottage, Bucks Mills
In the novel, Rose Cottage is the home of William and Mary and their two adult sons. We encounter the Cottage and its inhabitants in the first chapter of Barefoot on the Cobbles. The name is used anachronistically; this small fisherman’s cottage at the top of the village of Bucks Mills was given the name Rosie’s Cottage in the mid-twentieth century. It is now known as Rose Cottage and in the absence of a contemporary name, it seemed appropriate to refer to William’s home by its current appellation. In the summer of 1890, when Eadie comes to join the family, Rose Cottage was a four roomed, thatched, cob cottage, typical of others in the village of Bucks Mills. It is set back from the road, next to the former ale house, The Coffin Arms and a small terrace of cottages known as Forest Gardens. Rose Cottage was to remain in the family for another seventy years.
The Coffin Arms, Bucks Mills
By the time that it is mentioned in the first chapter of Barefoot on the Cobbles, it has been twenty years since the Coffin Arms closed its doors. Its unusual name comes from the local landowners, the Pine-Coffin family. The Coffin Arms served the fishing village of Bucks Mills as an ale house for fifty years before the licence was transferred to the Coach and Horses at Horns Cross. Bucks Mills has been a dry village since that time. It is likely that it provided off sales rather than being an inn.
The cottage formed part of the Pine-Coffin estate and was almost certainly built, along with most of the other dwellings on that side of the Bucks Mills road, in the 1810s. The earliest known tenants were the Bale family. During was the 1840s the Coffin Arms taken over by Samuel Harris, who combined beer selling with lime burning. Thomas and Thirza Webb were in residence in the 1860s, until Thomas transferred the licence to his brother-in-law, Joseph Dark.
Once the Coffin Arms became a private residence, it was the home of the Steer family for fifty years. Jane Steer took four orphaned nieces and nephews into her home. This brought the total number of inhabitants in 1871 to fourteen.
In the 1920s, with new owners, the name was changed to Woodlands. The house has lain semi-derelict for decades.
The Wakely family, who feature in the early chapters of Barefoot on the Cobbles, live in Northway, at the top of the beautiful Peppercombe Valley. The small hamlet of Peppercombe nestles on the north Devon coast, between Bideford and Clovelly. At the time of the novel, fishermen put out from the rocky beach, In the lee of the looming red cliffs. Further up the wooded valley, straggled a handful of small cob cottages, inhabited by fishermen and labourers. As the track nears the main road, a mile from the shore, the landscape opens into farm land. Peppercombe has been inhabited for centuries, as is evidenced by the remains of an iron age fort, now named Peppercombe Castle. There was a large house of the same name in the village but this no longer survives. Little remains of the limekiln that would have been working in the valley when the Wakeleys first lived there.
The valley now belongs to the National Trust and some of the cottages are available as holiday lets. There is a short history of Peppercombe, together with some photographs, on the Devon Perspectives website.
As the name suggests, East-the-Water refers to the part of Bideford that lies on the eastern bank of the River Torridge. One of the principal characters of Barefoot on the Cobbles arrives in East-the-Water in Chapter 2 and the following Chapter is centred on this part of the town. Although East-the-Water has never been the principal part of the town, at the time of the novel, the riverside’s wharves swarmed with activity. Higher up the hill were the prestigious villas of the Chudleigh Estate, built in the lee of the seventeenth century Chudleigh Fort. The Way of the Wharves, community history project explores the history of this area in more detail. There is also an account of East-the-Water’s history on the community website.
In Chapter 2 of Barefoot on the Cobbles we cross Bideford Bridge with Polly, as she goes to begin a new life on the eastern side of the River Torridge. In 1280, the ford that is thought to give Bideford (By the ford) its name was replaced with a wooden bridge, to enable pack-horses to cross the river. At 677 feet long, it is thought to be one of the longest medieval bridges. The twenty four arches are of uneven width and there are several theories as to why this came about. It may be that each arch was funded by a different gild and the disparity in their donations meant the arches were not a uniform size. Alternatively, it was because the available oak beams were of different sizes, or that the piers were place on firmer ground and the stony outcrops were not evenly spaced. There is also a legend that the piers were set on bales of wool, a symbol of the town’s wealth.
The original wooden bridge was subsequently encased in stone. The bridge was widened in the 1790s and again in 1865, twenty six years before Polly makes her crossing. It was to be further widened in 1925. There were several applications to run a railway track across the bridge but the only time a train crossed the bridge was during the First World War, when temporary tracks were laid. In 1968, a section of the bridge collapsed and one of Barefoot’s characters, Leonard, was to man the safety boat whilst reconstruction took place.
The chapters of Barefoot that are set in the seaside town of Torquay provide a contrast to the North Decon fishing villages, where much of the action takes place.
Torquay Town Hall Hospital
The military hospital that was set up in the Town Hall in Torquay at the beginning of the First World War was one of the largest in the country. The climate in Torquay was thought to be particularly suitable for convalescing soldiers and there were a number of other hospitals in the town. The hospital is mentioned in Chapter 10 of Barefoot on the Cobbles as Daisy’s friend Winnie has been working there as a VAD nurse. Unlikely though they may sound, Winnie’s experiences, that are described on pages 200-201, are based on the memoirs of a real volunteer at the hospital. Although family information suggests that Daisy nursed whilst she was in Torquay, there is no record of her having been attached to the Red Cross as a VAD, in the Town Hall Hospital or elsewhere. I have therefore given her a slightly different role.
The Western Front
As a significant proportion of Barefoot on the Cobbles is set during the First World War, it needed to contain a scene from the Western Front. This was a challenge. I write by researching my characters’ geographical and emotional backgrounds. For the rest of the book, which all takes place in Devon, discovering the physical landscape, albeit with a twenty first century slant, was straightforward. Many of Barefoot’s main characters are female and although I am not a young female, I was once, so I can get inside their heads. I have never visited the battlefields, I have no experience of being on active service and I am not a young male. The thought of composing the battle scene was daunting.
I had already chosen the character that I would use for this part of the book and was interested to discover that he lost his life in one of the lesser known battles, a least from a British perspective (this particular battle has much higher prominence in Australian history). I had already created my soldier’s personality but how would he respond to a war zone? I was unable to go to France while I was writing this novel but I read diaries, letters and memoirs written by those who took part in the battle. I hope that I have created a believable character and a realistic environment. Despite having serious misgivings about my ability to think and therefore write, from the point of view of a First World War soldier, this is the chapter that I am most pleased with.
There are so many, oft used, words and phrases to describe the Western Front: horrific, damaged, muddy, bloody, terrifying, boring, ravaged; all those things. I think I will leave you with some words from chapter 8. ‘Across the plain where the purple clover once bloomed and the swallows used to dive, men prepared for death in a blood-stained ditch. The lurking mist that accompanied the persistent drizzle obscured the view but the deathly crumps of falling shells resounded as the wire-cutting party were sent into the abyss. From the vantage point of the higher ground, the Germans were set to defend the salient without thought for the cost in human pain.’