This tiny, two-storey Wendy House clings to the steep hill under a mass of tangy greenery; in fact, it's half buried in the earth which rises to a few feet of the bedroom window. It's called Shelley's Cottage, and is reputed to be the place where the poet stayed in 1812 with his 16-year- old wife. Belonging to a local inn, the cottage is now a honeymoon suite, though God knows, the brief, unhappy life of Harriet Shelley is no good portent for the newlyweds who stay there.
"We have roses and myrtles creeping up the sides of the house, which is thatched at the top ..." wrote Harriet joyously, and even in November, there are ragged roses nodding round the windows, though they appear on closer examination to have been freeze-dried on their stems. The cottage is tiny, with a door opening into a small sitting-room with a huge, empty hearth, a beamed kitchen, and upstairs a bathroom and bedroom with a diminutive "four-poster" (actually a half-canopy set into the sloping roof over the pillow-end, with two sticks at the foot). We throw open the windows to let the warm sea air pour in.
After dark we go out for a walk. The cottage has three lanterns outside the door and their welcoming lights can be seen all over Lynmouth. Walking over to the point where the two rivers meet for their final crash to the sea, we discover another establishment, the Shelley Cottage Hotel. Is this an attempt to cash in on the village's only claim to literary fame, or a genuine alternative candidate? Back in the bar at the Rising Sun, they have no doubts about whose is the superior claim. The barman is leaning confidentially towards a wide-eyed couple and muttering, as if all this only happened last week "the cheeky bastard got his young serving lad thrown into jail in Barnstaple for putting up political posters ... mind you, if you had a beautiful 16-year-old girl, you wouldn't want another bloke around either." (I get the feeling the proprietors really get off on this 16-year-old-girl business.)
Up in Lynton, the Victorian town on the cliffs accessed by precipitous paths or the cliff railway, the tourist information leaflet is strict on the matter. Shelley's real cottage was burnt down in the last century and the Shelley Cottage Hotel is built on the site. Yet I can't quite bring myself to abandon the claim of our little house, with its view of sea and river, and the beach where the poet launched tiny balloons, toy boats and bottles into the Bristol Channel, freighted with seditious ballads of his own composition.
The Shelley connection is not quite the village's only link with notoriety. Everywhere are reminders of the great flood that crashed down on to the town one night in 1952, sweeping with it over 30 lives and sending boulders tumbling down the main street. In Glen Lyn Gorge is a marker recording the flood level, high above our heads. I don't know how people here can sleep at nights when it rains, even though measures have apparently been taken to ensure the disaster never happens again (this explains the sunken- motorway appearance of the river).
When the time comes to check out of this magical place, I ask the woman behind the desk what's behind the Shelley legend. "It's always been known as Shelley's Cottage," she says firmly. "The owners of another hotel in the town say they've got written evidence to prove it was on their land ..." her scornful expression leaves little doubt about her feelings on the matter. "But he was here for several months and didn't necessarily stay in the same house all the time. Anyway," she winds up sweetly "I think you can use your imagination about where he would have liked to stay." In the cold light of day it's difficult to square the poet's account of his large establishment with the charming little two-up-two-down on Mars Hill. But perhaps he looked up at it occasionally and thought: "I wish I lived there."Reuse content