Coleridge nature walk, Somerset
This walk contrasts the landscape and its wildlife then and now. The poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth must have walked many times along this route, as it includes much of the most direct route between Coleridge's cottage and where Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, lived at Alfoxton, near Holford.
Public car park in Nether Stowey, grid ref: ST191397
From the library car park in central Nether Stowey, turn left down Castle Street and left again opposite the George Hotel and clock tower. Head up Lime Street towards Coleridge Cottage. Collared doves are now numerous in Stowey, but only colonised England in the 1950s. Their call would sound oriental to Coleridge, perhaps suggesting something out of Kubla Khan. The stone-lined gutter, the village lock up (now a bus shelter) and swallows and house martins would be familiar to Coleridge.
Coleridge Cottage was revamped in 2011 to make the interior even more authentic, and now includes a tea-room. In the 1790s the cottage was a three up three down poor man's cottage, almost a hovel. Sara Coleridge cooked on an open fire, though she arranged for pies to be baked in the village bakery opposite, where the Ancient Mariner pub now stands. The cottage flooded badly on one occasion.
From the cottage, carry on uphill and turn left into Mill Lane before the A39 traffic lights. Go past Coleridge Road on your left. Bear left along Mill Lane at the end of the village, avoiding Jackson's Lane, Hack Lane and two left turns back into the village. The houses and bungalows here are modern, as are the plants in their gardens. But Coleridge would certainly recognise the old motte and bailey mound of Stowey Castle, grazed by Scots Blackface sheep, an old breed. The hedges are composed of dogwood, elm, hawthorn, hazel and field maple, and are locally entwined with hops. All these would be familiar, though modern mechanical hedge management would render the hedge structure rather unrecognisable. The hedges are lined with abdundant nettle, which would have increased greatly in recent decades, due to artificial fertilisers. The poets would have known a much more varied flora here, and considerably more abundant bird life.
Before the line of tall ash and poplars appearing on the right, before Bincombe Farm, turn right along the Coleridge Way, which follows a bridleway. Initially, this is lined by tall hollies but soon tunnels over beneath ash and maple, in a sunken lane section. The way then divides for a while: you can splash along the shallow gravel-lined stream, or take the dry higher route; either return you to a drier path. A delightful lane full of flowers which would all have been familiar to the poets, and butterflies such as orange tip and green-veined white. Wrens and robins nest along the sunken way. The poets would have known all these by local names, learnt in childhood. Whilst living at Stowey, Coleridge wrote in his notebook: 'God no distance knows, all of the whole possessing.'
At the crossroads by a whitewashed house, turn right to take the track uphill. At the top of the hill, by the fingerpost, follow the Coleridge Way/Quantock Greenway up along the edge of a field, close to an ancient hedge. The path leaves the field in the top corner, above the old stone quarry. Coleridge's poem, The Nightingale, was inspired by a nocturnal ramble with the Wordsworths through a marshy copse to the north of here, close to Dodington Hall, just across the A39. The field is largely resown with modern rye grass, whereas in the poet's day it would have been awash with wild flowers and composed of several species of grass, including bent grasses that dominate the area around the quarry.
At the lane corner at Walfords Gibbet, go straight on up the lane that runs along the crest of a steep wooded slope on your left. Local charcoal burner John Walford was hanged for murdering his wife here in 1789, and his body left hanging for a year in a gibbet, before it strangely fell to the ground a year to the day of his wife's death. The woodland on your right is a modern plantation, consisting of non-native trees that would have been unfamiliar to the poets.
As the road starts to climb uphill after a bend, turn right along the Coleridge Way/Quantock Greenway, following a sunken track that is often both stony and muddy. In wet weather it's easier to walk on drier land to the left of and above this track, through woodland. The woodland floor on your left is lightly covered with bilberry, of which the local name is whortleberry or worts. In the poets time local names would have prevailed, there were few standardised names for plants and animals. In his notebook, Coleridge once wrote: 'There have been times when looking up beneath the sheltering Tree, I could Invest every leaf with Awe.'
At the highest point of this sunken muddy track, turn left up a minor, un-signed path that runs straight uphill below twisted oaks. This leads to a minor cross rides at a minor summit. Here, turn right, uphill again. The path leads you up to and along the ramparts of Dowsborough Castle, an ancient hill fort.
The path to the hill fort runs beneath the low growth of ancient coppiced oaks. This woodland was once actively coppiced; bark would've been used in the tannery owned by Coleridge's close friend and neighbour, Tom Poole. Beneath this dense woodland is a simple ground flora, of bilberry and wood sorrel. The twisted oaks throw curious tricks of light that would have delighted the poets, particularly Coleridge who revelled in altered states of reality. We know that the poets rampaged through this woodland on moonlit nights, when the wooded landscape must have looked highly surreal.
Bear right downslope after a grassy glade at the end of the Dowsborough ramparts. The trees clear to offer superb views over the heathland of the northern Quantocks. Alfoxton (Wordsworth's house) lies the other side of the wooded crest, running east to west in the middle distance, just east of Holford. Follow the stony track down through the heathland and turn right at the minor cross ways, marked by a finger post. (Alternatively, carry on at the finger post, following the Coleridge Way for another mile and a half to Alfoxton, via Holford, and then return).
The open heath today is grazed by a few ponies and sheep. Areas are burnt on rotation, to prevent gorse and birch taking over. In the poets day the heath would have been heavily grazed, gorse would have been cut for fodder and fuel, and bracken harvested for animal bedding. Look out for meadow pipits and stonechats and butterflies such as green hairstreaks on the gorse and grayling, small heath and small copper along the paths.
As the wood begins, follow the track which rejoins the sunken path you left to climb up to Dowsborough. Carry straight on along (or just off) this path until you return to the road. At the road - and this is the tricky bit - turn left and go downhill for about 130yd (120m). At the broken forestry gate on your left, cross directly over the road to pick up a minor path that begins by a lone holly bush. This path then runs straight and narrow downhill into the bottom of Bin Combe valley. Holly has invaded the lower slopes here and forms a dense understorey beneath the oaks. In his notebook, Coleridge wrote: 'Nature! Sweet Nurse! O take me in thy lap - And tell me of my Father'.
At the bottom of the steep slope back into Bin Combe, turn left and follow the often muddy sunken valley bottom track all the way back out of Bin Combe, through a bridle gate, past the cross rides by the whitewashed cottage, past the stream path section, to the road on the outskirts of Stowey. Note mosses and liverworts along the stream banks on your right and spring flowers and autumn fungi. Whilst living at Calne, Wiltshire, ca. 1815, Coleridge wrote in his notebook: 'If a man could pass thro' Paradise in a Dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when he awoke - Aye? And what then?'
Back on the road, turn left and then first right by a thatched white cottage with a little orchard. Follow this uphill, diverting if you wish to see the old motte and bailey mound on your left by the 30mph sign. Then follow the road back down into Stowey car park.
This is the part of the village Coleridge may most readily recognise. Some of the houses, the surviving small orchards, some of the garden plants, and hedgerow flowers like alexanders would all be familiar. He'd certainly relish the prospect of holding court during afternoon tea at his cottage... above all, he was a brilliant orator.
Nether Stowey car park or Coleridge Cottage (grid ref: ST191399)
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