In the footsteps of Coleridge in the Quantocks

by Tiffany Francis
We had gorged on sticky ginger loaf until, feeling plump, we stepped out into the garden to admire the garlic mustard and bluebells drooped in the April air. Through the tall grasses we followed a pathway to the back of the garden where Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself sat reluctantly beneath that lime-tree bower, his prison. Here we perched too, immobilised not by an injured foot, as his poor wife Sara had burnt him with spilled milk, but by contented bellies filled with coffee and cake. But while Coleridge was forced to stay behind as his friends wandered the Quantock Hills nearby, today we had other plans.

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Tiffany in the lime tree bower

Easter has never been a biblical time for me; I have a mild interest in religious stories, but find infinitely more thrills in spiced buns and simnel cake. For the Easter weekend we decided to make use of the bank holiday and slip away to Somerset, where we had already completed our rounds of the cheese and cider shops in Cheddar. That morning, after a bristling wild swim in the Kings Sedgemoor river, we headed west to Nether Stowey and Coleridge Cottage, a National Trust property in which Coleridge lived for three years and wrote some of his finest works, including ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. It is also the gateway to the Coleridge Way, a 51-mile walk across the Quantocks and Exmoor that was a favourite rambling route for Coleridge and Wordsworth; they walked extensively through the district and composed many of their ‘Lyrical Ballads’ while reflecting on the surrounding landscape.
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We couldn’t quite manage the 51-mile route before work on Tuesday morning, so instead chose a circular section that within three hours would lead us back to the warm campervan and kettle. We crept out of Nether Stowey and made our way westward through tangled conifers whose clawing branches blocked out the world above us; after a while the track plateaued onto a vast hilltop, carpeted with thick heather and gorse. No flowers bloomed here; the gorse had been burnt as part of a heathland conservation scheme, and now stood dark and twisted against a slate sky. To the north we watched gulls drift over the Bristol Channel.
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It is thought that in a marshy copse near our walking place, Coleridge, William and Dorothy Wordsworth took a nocturnal ramble that inspired Coleridge’s poem ‘The Nightingale’:

’Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music!

While nightingales may have been abundant a century or so ago, they are now marked on the Red List of endangered British birds; their vibrant song, like beads of rain falling onto a lake, has become a rare and precious voice in our landscape. Throughout May the RSPB held a Nightingale Festival across the country to raise awareness of their plight and enable visitors to listen to that same song that once hypnotised Coleridge over two hundred years ago. You can find out more about these events here.
Our route ascended once more to the summit of a barren peak, where we discovered a heap of ashen stones piled together by passing travellers; we dropped down into deciduous woodland and stopped suddenly on the path. Before us, a herd of thirty roe deer crossed cautiously between the trees, alarmed by our footsteps and seeking safer ground. We stood mesmerised as they slipped away into the woods, and continued our journey through until we reached the road that would take us back to the campervan, past thickets of wild garlic and a sleepy herd of cows who licked my hand as we passed. On the road I found a rusted horseshoe, which now rests in the sunlight by our kitchen window.
While landscapes shape and reshape themselves over the centuries, there is something comforting in knowing the paths we walk were once crossed by Coleridge and the Wordsworths two hundred years ago. This corner of Somerset is wild but quiet; the perfect escape from modern life’s drudgery.
Tiffany is a writer from Petersfield, where she works at Butser Ancient Farm and writes a monthly wildlife column for Hampshire Life. Her first book Food You Can Forage will be published next spring by Bloomsbury, her second best achievement after winning third prize at the Singleton Rare Breeds Show with her goat Sorrel.