Cream Of The Country: Appledore

This pretty and unspoilt Devon village is defined by its relationship with the sea
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Appledore, the "little white fishing village" in Charles Kingsley's epic seafaring novel Westward Ho!, lies just inside the mouth of the unspoilt Taw-Torridge estuary in north Devon and is characterised by higgledy-piggledy streets of pastel-painted fishermen's cottages, bobbing boats and a soft light that painters find irresistible.

The village has been a proud boat-building and fishing centre since Elizabethan times, though as far back as 1830 Pigot's Directory noted that it was also frequented by "genteel individuals from distant parts". Today, crowds are kept at bay by the lack of caravan parks and campsites, with the bulk of visitors renting holiday cottages.

Richard Watts and his wife Chris moved from Northampton in January to run The Quay coffee-shop. "We checked out the south Devon coast but it was too touristy," he says. "We liked the fact that Appledore isn't a kiss-me-quick resort. And we fell in love with the water."

The heart of the village is a conservation area of quaint unpretentious 18th and 19th-century terraces. The fancier ones in Odun Road, Marine Parade and Bude Street were once the homes of ships' captains and merchants but many others were built by seafaring folk with boulders from the foreshore.

The abundance of tiny cottages has made it popular with holiday-home owners since the late 1980s. Although there is some local resentment, these properties aren't ideal for permanent modern family living. You can rarely park outside and few have more than a courtyard garden.

One of the most desirable addresses is Irsha Street. It used to be a rough-and-ready location, with reports during the 1860s of prostitution and witchcraft. Its salty reputation appealed to creative types. Henry Williamson, whose Tarka the Otter was partly set in the estuary, was a regular at its pubs in the 1930s.

Recently, there has been gentrification. Cottages on the favoured seaward side have rocketed in price. One tiny two-bed house backing on to the water that cost £80,000 in 2000 was resold last summer, after renovation, for £273,000.

A stroll around the churchyard bears testament to Appledore's trials with the ocean: "drowned in Bideford Bay" and "lost at sea" are typical inscriptions. One glimpse up the maze of alleyways makes it easy to imagine the smugglers of old melting away from the customs men.

It is still the sea that draws visitors. The place comes alive at high tide, when the sailboats emerge from the North Devon Yacht Club at Instow opposite, and children leap into the water from the quayside. A clutch of small trawlers moor alongside, including one whose skipper sells fresh fish straight from the boat.

The light on the water has long been a magnet for artists. And in the past decade particularly, a sizeable community of potters, painters and craftspeople has evolved, and the village hosts an innovative annual arts festival.

On top of this, it boasts a primary school, post office, library, late-opening Co-op, church, half-a-dozen pubs, butcher, fish-and-chip shop, several cafés-cum-restaurants and an ice-cream firm. The nearest supermarket is in Bideford, three miles away.

David Carter and his wife Jenny moved from Swindon 18 months ago and turned the village's oldest dwelling into an art gallery. "My ancestors lived in Appledore," says David, "so it just feels right. It's relaxed here." Job flexibility is the key to financial survival, he says. "Tourism is the main source of income now and it's very quiet in winter so you have to do more than one thing."

"Seventy per cent of the Appledore market is people from outside the South-west," says Peter McHugh, of Webbers estate agents in Bideford. "They're either buying a second home or they're going there to live permanently. And you've still got some locals left, which provides a balance. It's just a lovely place."

The lowdown

Cost of living: Two-bed cottages from £150,000; three-bed bungalows from £200,000; four-bed houses from £250,000; waterside homes from £260,000.

Attractions: Galleries and craft shops; annual arts festival; watersports and regatta; North Devon Maritime Museum; fresh fish in foodie pubs; locally made Hocking's ice-cream; yacht club across the estuary; Northam Burrows country park; Westward Ho! beach; links golf course; Lundy ferry from Bideford.

How to get there: Three hours 50 minutes by train from Paddington to Barnstaple via Exeter, then 50 minutes by bus; an hour's drive from J27 of the M5.

USP: Narrow streets of old cottages and watery appeal for artists, walkers and sea-dogs alike.