Walking the new extension of the Coleridge Way, Exmoor
Mark Rowe hikes the new 15-mile extension of the Coleridge Way from Porlock and encounters red deer, England's smallest parish church and some pretty challenging ascents along the way
The only way is up, I tell myself as I walk along Porlock high street, steadily hiking away from the sea-level views of the hills of Exmoor. I rather like this small, remarkably isolated town on the north-west tip of Somerset: it has good pubs, good coffee and 'normal' shops, including an ironmongers, that give the encouraging impression that this is a living community.
It would be easy to linger but I'm keen to complete the Coleridge Way, a 51-mile/82km route that begins in Nether Stowey in west Somerset where Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived between 1797-1799. Until a couple of years ago, the route stopped in Porlock but a 15-mile extension was then added to take the walker farther west all the way to Lynmouth. In a nice touch, this extension was officially opened by Rosemary Coleridge Middleton, the great, great, great-granddaughter of the poet.
'The extension was really just a case of unfinished business,' says Dan James, sustainable economy manager at Exmoor National Park. The route was deliberately chosen to run inland, James points out, because 'we already have an extremely good route, the South West Coast Path, along the coast. The new route emphasises places and areas you might not otherwise have thought about.'
Sure enough, while the coast path runs along the shore, giving long-distant hikers a well-earned respite, the Coleridge Way extension quickly works its way through the gears. The first five miles west of Porlock are described in the official trail guide as 'challenging', which is about right: after a glorious walk at the bottom edge of the tree line overlooking salt marshes and with views to Selworthy Beacon that are positively cinematic, the trail bares its teeth by the small footbridge at Porlockford. Exmoor's hills abut the sea and rise abruptly from the shoreline and suddenly I'm climbing sharply through Worthy Woods, in an ascent that demands some endurance.
It's fair to say that waymarking – the trail is denoted by a quill – needs to be improved through these woods. That said, should you take the wrong path you simply need to keep heading upwards and you will be spat out sooner or later on the bridleway that cuts across the ridgeline.
The topography calms down after this and 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. One biography of Coleridge, by Richard Holmes, suggests this visitor was the poet's physician, bearing opium. Holmes memorably describes Coleridge as 'a lyrical smackhead'.
The Bristol Channel looks as wide as a sea from here and I can pick out the distant peaks of the Brecon Beacons way beyond the northern shore. Small tracks break away from the main path, tumbling to unseen destinations. These are ancient routes for trade, deer stalking and, no doubt, smuggling. While many footpaths across the country enjoy similar origins, the sense of history is somehow more palpable on Exmoor. I'm struck by how easy wildlife is to spot: red deer take the prize for charisma and stature but just as stirring are jaunty wrens and the occasional firecrest, Britain's second smallest bird. Pheasants scuttle shiftily across the path as if I've caught them in some act of skulduggery.
I follow one such waymarked diversion to Culbone parish church, reputed to be the smallest church in England. Pre-Norman in origin and dedicated to the Welsh saint Beuno, it is hunkered down in a lush valley where almost no direct sunlight penetrates. A slim line of gravestones forms an eerie guard of honour as I approach the porch. Inside, I find I can walk from one white-washed wall to the other in perhaps five strides. There always seem to be fresh flowers here. 'You could imagine Wordsworth and Coleridge sitting there and writing poetry,' says James.
The route then drops down to Oare through the Doone Valley, which has its own literary links with the eponymous Lorna Doone, a lusty 19th century tale of romance and villainy. The walk into the steep valley is magnificent, the backdrop formed of a serrated skyline of beech trees and the light changing with every few paces of descent. The Ordnance Survey adds to the moody drama, atmospherically labelling this area 'Doone Country' on its map of Exmoor.
Nearing its end, the Coleridge Way reaches a crescendo. First I walk alongside the dramatic convergence of the East Lyn and Hoar Oak rivers at the appropriately named Watersmeet. The high sided woods are implausibly steep and the rivers converge – crash into one another – and hurtle onwards to the sea. The riverbanks look battered: fallen tree trunks are common and huge rocks have been shoved and heaved downstream as though they were plastic ducks. I admire the nerve of the frantically paddling canoeists who scoot past.
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 to reach it. I gaze inland, looking for ravens, feral goats and other signifiers of the edgy landscape I've walked through. At the shelter at Poets Corner at the top of the valley I discover another thoughtful gesture, a poetry box that invites walkers to compose a poem. So far, 6,000 have been collected and the best 100 published in a small book, described as "a love letter to Exmoor". 'Some were really rather good,' says James. 'There were even a few marriage proposals in the poems.' A touch of romance seems an appropriate way to end a walk in the footsteps of a Romantic poet.
The extension to the Coleridge Way can be walked in one long day but, because of the steep climb out of Porlock, most people will find it more enjoyable to complete over two days. It takes 4-6 days to walk the whole Coleridge Way.
OS Maps: Explorer OL9 Exmoor & Explorer 140 Quantock Hills & Bridgwater.