A romantic ramble along the Coleridge Way
PUBLISHED: 11:47 07 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:47 07 August 2018
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne takes a look at Coleridge’s long-distance path through Somerset’s poetically lovely landscape
History and background:
It will come as no surprise to those who know and love the Somerset countryside that our county provided major inspiration for one of our country’s best-known poets of the Romantic era.
Born in Devon in 1772, at eight years old Samuel Taylor Coleridge was sent to be educated in London, later progressing to Cambridge. His penchant for poetry developed in his childhood. In 1795 he married Sara and in 1797 they moved, with their baby son, Hartley, to Nether Stowey. Here they lived for almost three years; years which were some of Coleridge’s most poetically productive. His well-known Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, amongst many others, were born during his sojourn in Somerset.
Coleridge endured a troubled life but, along with his literary friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth, who rented Alfoxton Park in the Quantocks, he spent many happy hours strolling through the countryside. The group relished their natural environment, drawing on their surroundings to breathe life into their writings. Coleridge’s brother-in-law and fellow poet, Robert Southey, a man of rather radical politics, also joined them.
At a time when walking was, for many, the only way to get about and a necessary and sometimes onerous part of the daily grind, those who walked for pleasure were considered mildly odd, if not deeply suspicious. The poets’ habit of occasionally taking strolls at night, as well as during daylight hours, added to their aura of eccentricity and gave rise to the locals’ concern that they were French spies. Government investigation found nothing untoward; the romantics rambled on.
And thank goodness for their unorthodox and creative lifestyles. Not only have they left behind a legacy of enduring poetry, their wanderings have also inspired a fabulous walk.
Established in 2005, the Coleridge Way originally stretched for 36 miles between Nether Stowey (eight miles west of Bridgwater) and Porlock. Then, in 2014, it was extended by 15 miles to enter Devon and terminate in Lynmouth. It is a walk of contrasts: verdant valleys, deep woods and breathy heights with views that will remain with you long after the walk is over.
May Coleridge’s words and wanderings encourage others to follow in his footsteps through our poetically lovely landscape.
The cottage which the Coleridge family rented in Nether Stowey has been through many transitions and saw life as an inn during the 19th century. It is now cared for by the National Trust and makes a good start or end point to your journey.
Heading west from Nether Stowey the route passes Walford’s Gibbet, site of the demise of an 18th century Somerset murderer, as it heads into the delightful Quantock Hills. Entering Holford, the Way runs close to a ruined silk mill, once lost beneath vegetation and rediscovered by a volunteer conservation workforce in 1990. The site was subsequently used as a location by Bryan Adams in the video for his long-running single, Anything I do, I do it for you, in 1991. The path then passes Alfoxton Park, where William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived, during some of the time that Coleridge was staying at Nether Stowey.
Continuing westwards the path follows the northern edge of the Quantocks. Occasionally dipping into combes, the more lofty sections of the path offer expansive, airy views; the coast of the Bristol Channel is to the north. The way then goes south, still on the edge of the Quantocks, to join another long-distance path, the Macmillan Way, at Bicknoller. Just off-route here are the prehistoric sites of Bicknoller Hill and Trendle Ring, evidence of human occupation in the area for millennia.
The two paths run concurrently as far as Sampford Brett, at which point Coleridge’s Way takes another southerly dive to enter the Exmoor National Park and the tiny and delightfully-named village of Monksilver, meaning ‘monks wood’. This derives from the Latin word silva for wood or forest, which gives us our verbally picturesque ‘sylvan glades’.
The route then meanders generally westwards, crossing Exmoor and passing through Sticklepath and Roadwater, before heading through Langridge Wood, home of the erstwhile Felon’s Oak from which miscreants were once dangled.
Continuing west the Way reaches Luxborough, on the edge of which it passes the arresting 19th century Chargot House before continuing through the heart of Exmoor. It eventually enters the woodland north of Wheddon Cross through which the River Avill runs. This region is famous for its Snowdrop Valley, a privately-owned area that is open to the public each February when a glorious confection of snowdrops carpets the ground. The River Avill is also said to have inspired some of the words in the hymn All things bright and beautiful, which itself may have inspired one of the verses in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The river rises on Dunkery Hill and the Coleridge Way continues north across the slopes below Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor’s highest point and worth the effort of a detour if your lungs and legs permit, before heading to Webber’s Post, Horner and on to bustling Porlock. At some point along the route you are bound to encounter delightful Exmoor ponies, our oldest native breed.
Continuing west the route passes Ash Farm, near Culbone, where Coleridge was staying when writing Kubla Khan, during which his (possibly opium-enhanced) creative flow was interrupted by the arrival of the famed ‘Person from Porlock’.
Off the route, but worth a short detour along the South West Coast path, is the tiny church at Culbone which is said to be the smallest still-used church in England.
From here Coleridge shares some of his Way with the South West Coast Path before leaving it and taking us on a more southerly route to Oare. This is the region made famous in R D Blackmore’s ever-popular novel Lorna Doone, a tantalising blend of fact and fiction, romance and murder. The countryside here was once haunted by the Doones, a wild and outlawed clan which settled on Exmoor in the 17th century.
Just beyond here the Coleridge Way hops over the county boundary into Devon, continuing to its most western point almost eight miles further on, at Lynmouth.
Map: OS Outdoor Leisure 9, Exmoor OS Explorer 140, Quantock Hills & Bridgwater. ‘Strip’ maps are also available from the Long Distance Walkers’ Association.
A companion guide book to the Coleridge Way: coleridgewaywalk.co.uk/coleridge-way-guide.
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne is the author, with James Clancy, of A Dozen Dramatic Walks in Somerset and other walking guides for the West Country.
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