Two centuries ago, the Romantic poets sought inspiration on the byways of Exmoor. Paul Bloomfield follows in their footsteps on a section of the Coleridge Way
Some poets find their muses in mountains or lakes, others in birds or flowers. For the Romantics, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, the wild beauty of Exmoor provided inspiration, the latter rhapsodising: ‘The inland walks are striking: the hills dark, and dells woody and watery, winding up them in ways of sequestered coolness.’
The ideal way to explore those hills and dells is to tackle the Coleridge Way, a 36-mile walking trail winding west through the Quantocks and Brendon Hills, traversing eastern Exmoor to within touching distance of the coast. The path begins at Nether Stowey, where Coleridge lived for a few years at the tail end of the 18th century, and finishes at Porlock, home of the unnamed man whose untimely visit curtailed Kubla Khan. The whole route can be walked in three or four days, with ample accommodation at stage ends; as a taster, I hiked the final nine miles north from Wheddon Cross.
Descending from the village, perched high on the moor, I followed wooden fingerposts bearing the quill symbol, pointing down a track through Raleigh Manor. The settlement soon melted away, and I tramped between rhododendrons, bamboo and wild garlic; in spring, I reflected, this must surely be a riot of floral colour, but on this frosty March morning, snow dusted the path.
The first two or three miles alternated between pine and deciduous woodlands, in which a woodpecker clattered its Morse code, interspersed with steep fields and narrow combes, clefts in the hillside cut by dashing streams. Reaching the valley floor, a succession of fords and stepping stones crisscrossed a winding brook; a shadow flitting across my path betrayed a buzzard soaring overhead.
Soon the path rose onto the open moor beneath Dunkery Beacon, at 414m Exmoor’s highest point. As I tramped up among grass and rust-red bracken, I passed possibly the tiniest lamb I’ve ever seen, nuzzling at mother’s belly for a feed – a reminder that spring was, theoretically, here, despite the unseasonal frost.
Then, cresting Dunkery’s shoulder, the vista was transformed. Snow-free hills, rounded, verdant and chequered with field boundaries, reared ahead. Footprints pocked the last patches of snow: the hopping of hares and birds, mingled with larger pawprints – had the legendary black beast of Exmoor roamed these trails?
As the path curved north around Dunkery, I had a clear sense of walking away from winter. On these eastern slopes, the gorse was aflame with yellow blossoms; the sun sparkled on the Bristol Channel ahead, while to the north the creamy-yellow thatched cottages of Selworthy and Allerford nestled beneath Bossington Hill. Descending from the moor, I emerged from the woods below Webber’s Post at Horner, passing the delightful stone-built mill before crossing an ancient packhorse bridge, clad with moss and lichen, for the final mile to Porlock.
Despite the damage wreaked on the poet’s fantastical dream-vision by its notorious son, Porlock celebrates its Coleridge connection. I popped into Dovery Manor, a compact gem of a museum set in a 15th-century manor house. Here, period curios and artefacts from schoolrooms and shops sit alongside natural-history exhibits and displays on the artists and poets – Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey and Shelley among them – whose creative juices were set flowing by Exmoor.
In the Coleridge Memorial Garden behind Porlock’s visitor centre, the poet is commemorated with a plaque bearing the famed first lines of Kubla Khan. But while pleasuredomes and palaces owe more to opiates than open moors, I reflected, other words from his unfinished opus perhaps speak of scenes he witnessed on his Somerset wanderings:
'A savage place! as holy and enchanted... As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted.’
That’s Exmoor, without a doubt.
Where to eat and drink
Coleridge’s inspiration was fired, in part at least, by opium. My own exertions were amply fuelled instead by the breakfast provided by Rosi and Frank at Exmoor House, a B&B with a strong green ethos, where the origins of ingredients are measured not so much in food miles as inches. With bacon cured just over the border in Devon, coffee blended in Porlock, honey from Allerford and Dunster, eggs from the next-door neighbour, and home-made bread and jams (plum particularly recommended), no ingredient could have travelled more than 15 miles to my plate. Frank even makes his own baked beans.
A sumptuous dinner (£24 for three courses) was similarly Exmoor-centric: venison burgers, Exmoor Jersey Blue cheese from Lydeard St Lawrence, just to the south-east, and home-made ice creams, washed down with Exmoor or Cotleigh Ales from Wiveliscombe.
Cuisine aside, Exmoor House has a vintage character belied by the rather plain exterior. Built over a century ago as a tailor’s shop, its dark wood panels and quirky room shapes endow it with a unique charm. The guests’ sitting room is particularly alluring, especially when the open fire roars; with an honesty bar and shelves groaning with games, maps and books on local lore, wildlife and walks, it’s perfect for relaxing after a day’s hike – or for planning tomorrow’s exertions.
Words by Paul Bloomfield