Finding Xanadu Jeremy Seal follows the new Coleridge Way into a landscape that inspired a literary great. Sunday Times, 24/4/2005
A discreet footpath veered off the lane beyond the village of Holford. It led through beech trees to a secret, dappled place; a wooden bridge which crossed a deep gorge seamed by tumbling waterfalls. It was the perfect romantic setting, and in a specific historical sense. As the place where Samuel Taylor Coleridge repeatedly came with William and Dorothy Wordsworth to rhapsodise about nature during their extraordinarily creative residences in North Somerset at the end of the eighteenth century, the little-visited Holford Glen could even claim to be the original Romantics’ favourite inspirational spot.
On the heels, though hardly hot on them, of Lancashire and Yorkshire’s Bronte Way (1985) comes another walking trail with a pronounced literary theme. The 36-mile Coleridge Way is/was launched this month with a spate of cultural and walking events, notably at Nether Stowey where Coleridge lived from 1797 to 1800. The launch is also being celebrated at the Way’s finish at Porlock, home of the anonymous individual who infamously interrupted Coleridge at a crucial moment in his opium-induced creation of Kubla Khan when he was staying at a farmhouse at nearby Culbone Combe.
Only along a few stretches, where the organizers have agreed new rights of way, can the Coleridge Way properly be called a new path. For much of its northwesterly route through the Quantocks AONB, the little-visited Brendon Hills and the eastern flank of Exmoor National Park, it follows ancient bridleways and even piggy-backs along lengths of existing named walking trails including the Quantock Greenway and the Macmillan Way. No matter; the Coleridge Way deserves to be a hit. A magnificently scenic two- to four-day walk along generally undemanding and well-maintained trails, with an impressive roster of re-supply points en route, from village shops and tearooms to a full range of overnight accommodation options, it succeeds in ticking all the obvious rambling boxes. It also scores by adding another enrichening dimension to the experience in its perfect match of walk and theme. Nobody walked quite like Coleridge and nowhere in his life was Coleridge more inspired by his rambles than North Somerset. Coleridge and his writings are not merely a thematic backdrop to this walk; put aside the opium habit, and they are the ultimate advertisement to the stimulating benefits of walking these uplifting landscapes.
The Way begins at Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey, now in the care of the National Trust. Here, the poet entertained a dizzying stream of essayists, critics and admirers including Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt and also wrote famous poems such as Frost at Midnight and This Lime Tree Bower My Prison. These atmospheric period interiors, the walls hung with sketches, cartoons, manuscripts and other Coleridge memorabilia, served to provision me mentally for the journey ahead. As for the body (just as important), I stocked up on bananas and biscuits at the village store.
I followed the Way’s route out of Nether Stowey, tracing Coleridge’s almost daily departures from the cottage. I stopped at the iron-age castle site on the edge of the village with its splendid panorama over the Bristol Channel and Wales, the first of many such viewpoints along the Way, before climbing through fields and beech woods, where whortleberries grew, to the bracken saddle of the Quantocks. Where instinct guided the wild spirit that was Coleridge, I followed the route directions which I had downloaded from the Way’s website. Whatever objections the impetuously errant poet might have had about giving his name to a fixed route, there did nevertheless seem something quintessentially Coleridgean about the Way; it was not yet specifically waymarked nor was any kind of guidebook available. The fledgling Way is at once charming and irritating – as Coleridge must have been – in that the en-route commentary largely begins and ends at the Nether Stowey cottage. There were no signposts to the glen at Holford, the first village after Nether Stowey, nor the least suggestion of its significance in the early flowering of English Romanticism; no mention of the curious fact that Virginia Woolf – since we’re in a literary vein – had honeymooned at Holford’s Plough Inn; and nothing at the entrance to the nearby Alfoxton Hotel to show that the Wordsworths had lived at the house during 1797 when the two neighbouring poets had collaborated on the Lyrical Ballads.
All this will no doubt change as the Way becomes established and new information is made available on its website (see box). What no walker will miss are the wider landscapes that inspired Coleridge. The Way passes through a richly varied patchwork of woodland, heath and moor, and pasturelands dotted with pink-painted farmhouses beneath helmets of thatch. It also takes in villages like Bicknoller and Monksilver, Roadwater and Luxborough, with their welcome pubs and lichen-stippled churches, and seedling stalls in road-side wheelbarrows with cake-tin honesty boxes. Then there are the sea views where the coastal landmarks – the hulking power station at West Hinckley and the great white Butlin’s marquee at Minehead – serve as reminders that this is one part of the country where it pays walkers to stay inland a little.
I walked 16 miles on my second day. At the end of it was the Exmoor House Hotel in Wheddon Cross, the highest village on Exmoor; a walkers’ haven offering snug public rooms where log fires and lemon cake were on offer. In the morning I woke, stiff-legged, to a raging storm.
‘It will have passed by the end of breakfast,’ said Paul, the landlord. I ate very slowly; the porridge, kippers and toast were not to be rushed, and I wanted Paul to be right. The sun had burst through by the time I left the hotel. I climbed through woods carpeted in wood anemones and celandines before skirting the moor below Dunkery Beacon. Three red deer bounded across the trail. Buzzards spiraled high above the yellow flares of gorse. Two centuries after Coleridge, these landscapes had lost little of their power to captivate.
Beyond the moor lay the long descent to Porlock. I dragged my weary feet boots through the bustling village where ‘Coleridge sausages’ were on sale at the butchers and the baker’s was doing a brisk trade in ‘Person from Porlock’ picnics. I was meandering through town when I noticed the Lorna Doone Hotel; here Coleridge’s story ended and another one began.
Details and route instructions at: www.exmoornationalpark.gov.uk/Projects/ColeridgeWay/coleridgeway
OS Maps: Explorer 140 (Quantock Hills and Bridgewater) and OL9 (Exmoor)
Getting there: Taxis to Nether Stowey from Bridgewater main-line station (8 miles). Taxis back from Porlock with Porlock Taxis (07771 716852) or Bossington Lane Private Hire (07855 023177)
Jeremy Seal was a guest at Stilegate B&B, West Quantoxhead (01984 639119; firstname.lastname@example.org; from £25 per person ); and at Exmoor House Hotel (01643 841432; email@example.com; from £32 per person, dinner £18.
Also recommended: Wood Advent Farm, Roadwater (01984 640920; firstname.lastname@example.org; half-board £45 per person). The farm also has a camping barn, part of the Camping Barns Network, which can be booked on the same number or through the YHA (www.yha.org.uk; 0870 770 8868). The self-catering barn sleeps 12 and costs £5 per person per night.
The Old Cider House, Nether Stowey (01278 732228; email@example.com; from £35 per person B&B). Further accommodation options available through Quantock Hills Tourist Information Centre (01278 787852; firstname.lastname@example.org or Porlock Visitors Centre (01643 863150: email@example.com; and at www.visit-exmoor.info
The route is well served by pubs which mostly offer B&B accommodation: The Plough, Holford (01278 741418); the Bicknoller Inn, Bicknoller (01984 656234); The Notley Arms, Monksilver (01984 656217); The Valiant Soldier, Roadwater (01984 640223); The Royal Oak, Luxborough (01984 640319); The Rest and Be Thankful, Wheddon Cross (01643 841222); the Ship Inn, Porlock (01643 862507).
Coleridge Cottage, Nether Stowey (01278 732662). Open Thursday-Sunday 2pm-5pm. Admission £3.20 and free to National Trust members.
Reading: Tom Mayberry’s Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country (Thrupp Publications, Stroud).