Walk in the footsteps of the Romantic Poets along The Coleridge Way and discover some of the West Country’s most evocative landscapes.
Words by Mark Rowe, photography by Steve Morgan
When I was 17 and revising for my English A-Level I did something decidedly un-cool. In search of inspiration I headed for the Lake District with an anthology of Romantic poetry in my backpack. Many years later, and about to embark on the Coleridge Way, a long-distance hike through Somerset and Devon, I realise I had only half-completed my homework all those years ago.
The Lake Poets of course made their name in Cumbria but for one of their circle, inspiration was to a large extent nurtured in west Somerset. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he of Kubla Khan fame, lived in the village of Nether Stowey for three influential and important years; he sought a simple life, to grow his own food and write poetry (and, it must be said, escape his debts).
The village is the start (or finish) of the 51-mile/82km eponymous trail to Lynmouth in North Devon. The route breaks down into five distinct areas, beginning in the Quantock Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty [AONB], the first such area to be designated in England back in 1966. These hills drop off into a flat hinterland of farming landscapes before rising once more into the Brendon Hills which in turn bump into Exmoor national park. The route then turns north at Wheddon Cross, the highest village on Exmoor and descends to the coast at Porlock. Until two years ago this is where the Coleridge Way finished, whereupon an extension was added to take the route a further 15 miles west to Lynmouth via the Doone valley.
‘The Coleridge Way is a really good introduction to long distance walking,’ says Dan James, sustainable economy manager at Exmoor National Park. ‘In terms of navigation it is not a tough landscape, you are really just dabbling with long distance walking. There is such diversity from coastal vistas to inland moorland, quiet rural areas, more popular honeyspots. There’s a great link with the Romantic poets. You are not only walking where they walked and wrote but the Romantic movement really inspired the concept of protected landscapes – and this walk takes you from an AONB into a national park.’
A poet’s life
Before setting out along the trail I nose around Coleridge Cottage, now owned by the National Trust. Nowhere else that Coleridge lived is open to the public, so this is the only place to peer into his somewhat eccentric life. The endearing Georgian house is kept as it was during his sojourn from 1797 to 1799. A pretty garden, long and narrow with apple trees, extends at the back.
Coleridge was kept company by an itinerant William Wordsworth. One day, the pair struck out into the Quantocks with a view to writing a poem that would cover their expenses. They couldn't settle on a theme but the embryonic poem that flowed from Coleridge’s quill was to become the Rime of The Ancient Mariner. The great poet didn’t have things all his own way: opium already had him in its clutches; his son fell ill with ‘the itch’ (scabies); and his beleaguered wife Sara spilled boiling milk on his foot, leaving him housebound and cantankerous while his peers went a-hiking in the adjacent hills.
Nether Stowey, awash with picturesque Georgian and Victorian houses, will leave the walker in a better mood than it did Coleridge. I pass a clock tower and a cast-iron black and white signpost, something of a design classic that will prove to be a regular feature of this walk. I’ve only walked 400m and already I feel I have settled into the Coleridge Way as you might a comfy sofa.
I soon discover the sofa has bumps in it. The route climbs steeply up and across Quantock Common, with uplifting views east along the coast and across the Bristol Channel to South Wales. Two small islands, Steep Holme and Flat Holme, bask in the waters like sleeping whales.
I reach an ancient woodland at Walford's Gibbet above Nether Stowey. In 1789 murderer John Walford was hanged on a 30-foot gibbet here for the murder of his wife; his body was left suspended in a cage. This murky history overlays a delightful spot where woodland meets common and where tree trunks and their exposed roots are so delicately inlaid with lichens that it is hard to tell where moss ends and bark begins.
A conversation earlier in the day with Gerald Swayne, chair of West Somerset Ramblers, is ringing in my ears. Gerald has walked the Quantocks since a teenager and his enthusiasm bordered on the evangelical: ‘You cannot beat the beauty of this walk, it is truly magnificent. It shows off Somerset in a wonderful way. The combes [a local term for a valley] and streams are many and various – they can lure you, disorientate you.’ While the Ramblers were not involved in drawing up the extension, it met with their approval, according to Swayne. ‘The extension makes the Coleridge Way even better,’ he added. ‘It is just a pearl.’ Some grit can be found in the bucolic 'oyster', so to speak: I pick out the squat outline of Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Already, the apparatus of construction is assembling for the latest, controversial addition to the UK’s nuclear portfolio.
Woodland gives way to open ground on the East Quantoxhead estate where the Coleridge Way all but embeds you in the landscape: a climb is followed by a descent into a steep-sided valley, then another rise. Repeat. Often. It’s a case of up-down, moors-woods, gorse-ferns. My neck stiffens from constantly looking up at the towering banks of trees on the skyline. So far, the only thing the Coleridge Way has not done is actually deposit me right on top of the high hills. I don't have long to wait: the next day I strike out further east, from Wheddon Cross towards Porlock. If this countryside inspired the Romantic poets then this section is definitely lonely as the proverbial cloud: my route along the Dunster Path edges north past Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor. To the north-east lies the massif of Selworthy Beacon, whose contours helter-skelter up and then down almost vertiginously to the sea. Across the Bristol Channel I can pick out the distant peaks of the western Brecon Beacons. Small tracks break away from the main path, tumbling downhill to unseen destinations.
The path arrives at the vantage point of Webber’s Post, positioned in a car park but with one of the signature views of the entire walk, across to Dunkery, deep into the combes carved into its flanks. This is a wild-eyed landscape hurtling headlong from a plateau to the water. The Coleridge Way dives into the ancient oak woodland of Horner Wood. I descend steeply past an ensemble of iconic rural features: mushrooms the size of dinner plates, Exmoor ponies, packhorse bridges, high deer gates, a wrought-iron cast of horse and rider hanging outside an isolated house and, as I enter Porlock, thatched gargoyles of pheasants on rooftops (and even one of a monkey).
The five-mile stretch from Porlock is where the route truly bares its teeth. At Porlockford it suddenly climbs sharply through Worthy Woods in an ascent that requires some endurance before it finally spits you out on the ridgeline. I pass Ash Farm, thought to be the location where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan, only to be disturbed from his hallucinogenic state by a passing visitor. The views across the Bristol Channel and back to Selworthy Beacon are positively cinematic.
I take a waymarked diversion to Culbone parish church, reputedly the smallest church in England. Pre-Norman in origin and dedicated to the Welsh saint Beuno, it hunkers down in a lush valley where almost no direct sunlight penetrates. A slim line of gravestones forms a guard of honour and inside I walk from one white-washed wall to the other in perhaps five strides. A tiny, plainly carved rood screen is shoehorned into what little space remains before the altar.
The route then drops down into the Doone Valley, which has its own literary links with the eponymous Lorna Doone, a lusty 19th century romance by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. The walk down the side of the steep valley into Oare is magnificent, the light changing every few paces and cutting through a serrated skyline of beech trees.
The wildlife, as elsewhere along the trail, is striking for how easy it is to spot. Jaunty wrens, flocks of long-tailed tits and the occasional firecrest put in regular appearances, as do pheasants which scuttle shiftily across the path as if I’ve caught them in some act of skulduggery. Nearing its end, the Coleridge Way reaches a crescendo. First I walk alongside the dramatic convergence of the East Lyn and Hoar Oak rivers. The high sided woods somehow manage to be even steeper and more dizzying than anything that has gone before. The riverbanks look battered: fallen tree trunks and huge rocks have been shoved and heaved downstream as if they were boats by the fast-flowing waters.
A mile or so west of Lynmouth’s twin town of Lynton lies The Valley of Rocks, a moonscape of natural chimney stacks and ledges. Strictly speaking, the valley is not on the Coleridge Way but it's an easy amble from town. I gaze inland, looking for ravens, feral goats or some other signifier of the edgy landscape I’ve walked through. Instead my eye falls, unexpectedly, on a cricket pitch. That, though, is the exception: this walk has shown me that the West Country has a wild, exposed and romantic side.