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Shoring up the future of a village steeped in history

Help sought from tourists to meet pounds 2.5m repair bill. Michael Pres tage reports
A routine survey of the houses set into the cliffside at Clovelly, north Devon, has revealed structural faults that present a major conservation task for the unique listed village.

There are 80 houses and a pub in Clovelly, which has belonged to the Rous family since 1738. While other villages in Devon have seen their character and communities undermined as properties are bought up for holiday homes, Clovelly has remained unsullied.

It is the rule that tenancies go only to full-time occupiers and preference is given to locals - families who arrived 40 years ago are still considered incomers. But tourists are being encouraged to help to pay the pounds 2.5m repair bill. English Heritage has also given a grant.

Jonathan Rous, the current squire of Clovelly, is overseeing the improvement work. The last major renovation was carried out at the turn of the century. Now, beneath the whitewash and plaster of the quaint fishing cottages, the reality is rot and leaking roofs. The very survival of some properties is in question.

In a village built into a 400ft (120m) precipice, where wooden sledges and donkeys are the traditional way of getting materials down cobbled streets impassable to vehicles, the 10-year repair plan could prove an optimistic schedule. Investment in a motorised sledge is the only concession to modern times.

Mr Rous said: "Because they are listed buildings we have tried to respect the old building technology. We have used materials that would have been familiar to builders two centuries ago. It hasn't just been done for old time's sake; those builders knew what was needed, given the rigours of the Atlantic conditions."

Tourists are encouraged, but not at the expense of the character of the village. Last year, 300,000 walked the cobbled streets, but many locals still earn a living from fishing.

Mr Rous said: "We have to achieve a fine balance; we need the revenue to pay for the repair work and ensure the village's future but Clovelly is a living community with many families living here for generations."

In the past six months pounds 300,000 has been spent, and the estimated cost continues to rise. Mr Rous said: "We are finding that after starting work on a leaking roof it is discovered that most of the joists are rotting as well. The more work we do, it seems, the more money we need. It was a task that could not have been put off any longer."