On Dunster seafront stands a statue of a certain Ancient Mariner, obligatory albatross around his neck. A selfie prop gull, very much alive, flutters on his head for our shot. Behind, a quote from the Coleridge ballad is daubed on the harbour wall: “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free”. They make much of the great Romantic poet in these parts. The Somerset port has tenuous claims to be the inspiration for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Perhaps lines such as “merrily did we drop/Below the kirk, below the hill, below the lighthouse top” were penned in the Bell Inn when Coleridge stayed there. He regularly walked the 10 miles west from his home at Nether Stowey in the Quantock Hills in the last three years of the 18th century.
The 50 mile ‘Coleridge Way’ that starts there bypasses Watchet on its meandering path to Lynmouth in Devon via the fringes of Exmoor, offering tangible links to another of his great poems, Kubla Khan. Of which more shortly. Lorna Doone Country is along the route, too, if you plan a homage to RD Blackmore’s historical romance of 1869 with a cream tea… or, in our case, a pint of Exmoor Gold by the East Lyn River at Brendon village’s Staghunters Inn.
This was just six miles from our base near Lynton, more attractive hilltop sibling of seaside resort Lynmouth. Shelley spent his honeymoon there in 1812. Further proof of the irresistible picturesque allure of this whole coastline to the Romantic poets.
Take Watersmeet, the wooded gorge that descends to the sea here. Very much the “deep romantic chasm” of Kubla, albeit these days under the auspices of the National Trust. As is the Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey. You don’t have to be in thrall to the West Country coming together of Wordsworth and Coleridge ahead of the publication of Lyrical Ballads but it helps. Their communal Quantocks bonding and radical literary departures in 1797-98 are charted in a very hands-on way in Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels (William Collins, £25).
Laid-back Nether Stowey is a very copacetic starting point to retrace their steps. The Coleridge Cottage is hardly stimulating. It doesn’t convey the bohemian muddle of the young Coleridge family somehow getting by in far from idyllic conditions. Today it’s a quintessential Somerset village to hang loose in.
Much more fun, though, was our next port of call, the aforementioned Watchet, a couple of miles off the A39. There’s a plethora of quirky indie shops and galleries plus a clutch of welcoming pubs. Just the one then? Definitely colourful Pebbles Tavern on Market Street, which boasts a comprehensive cider list alongside cask ales and shanty sessions. Fo something rockier maybe the equally colourful gig venue, The Esplanade.
Speaking of pebbles, I tripped up over the St Decuman Pebble Mosaic at the end of the Esplanade. This public work of art celebrates this seventh century holy man, who crossed over from Wales on his cloak with a cow for company. After settling he made enemies and was beheaded. Upon which he picked up his head, washed it and reattached it to his neck. The impressed locals helped him build a church. I too feel a ballad coming on.
Inland from Watchet a visit to picture postcard Dunster with its castle is a must, if you avoid high season. Of the many thatched villages dotted around the National Trust’s Holnicote estate the pick is Selworthy, with the bonus of its unusually Italianate lime-washed church with stupendous views across fields and woodland.
But back to the coastal Coleridge pilgrimage (in the literary company of Mr Nicolson) and Porlock next. Kubla Khan allegedly came to the poet in a dream and he was busy writing it down when he was interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’ and lost his thread, leaving it unfinished. The location of this momentous interruption? Coleridge recalled: “At a Farm House between Porlock & Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culbone church, in the fall of th year, 1797, in a sort of Reverie brought brought on by two grains of Opium, taken to check a dysentery.”
It’s nigh on 40 years since we last visited Culbone, which “can justly claim to be the smallest (in floor area), most isolated and most picturesque in England by Simon Jenkins in his magisterial England’s Thousand Best Churches. Probably Saxon in origin, its wooded combe once housed a leper colony. To reach it we walked the three and a half miles up from Porlock Weir, climbing steeply through oak and chestnut with the sea glinting to our right. The jury’s out, by the way, on which farmhouse Coleridge was staying at and if it still standing.
The Weir, a little harbour among the shingle is prettier than Porlock proper, a real sun trap offering cafes, a decent pub and Porlock Bay Oysters, among the best in the country. Owner Mark from his quayside shack shucked a couple of free ones to show just how sweet and saline they are.
North Devon is not far off and the Coastal Path will take you along the cliff tops all the way to Lynmouth. By road, your gears will be sorely tested by Porlock Hill; your reward magnificent views from the switchback A39 of the distant sea one way and the wild uplands of Exmoor. Do slow down if one of the semi wild Exmoor ponies strays across.
Low gear is required as Countisbury Hill swoops spectacularly down to Lynmouth. That resort is very much geared towards tourism. I was happy to take the unique Cliff Railway, a water-powered funicular that takes you up the high cliff to Lynton, which has more interesting shops and a community-run cinema. We were staying in a cottage at Barbrook to the north. One night we dined on Thai cuisine at the quirky Old Cottage Inn; and on the last night ordered a takeaway from Spicy Mare, a South Indian operation run by a retired air stewardess with a passion for Kerala. The best foodie adventure, though, was to buy a beef box from West Ilkerton Farm, which has pioneered the revival of the Devon Ruby breed.
We had a great walk to Watersmeet House, the NT tea room in the spectacular gorge, but preferred the coastal path route, feral goats and all, westward to the Valley of the Rocks, the apogee of sublime romantic scenery, a riot of fossiliferous ancient stones. And, yes,
Wordsworth and Coleridge and their poetic contemporary Robert Southey all trekked there. For the Romantics rocks were their rock and roll.