In search of ghosts of Romantic poets, Sally Beauman treads the unspoilt hills of Somerset and finds a modern version of the Ancient Mariner
When I walk, I like the walk to have ghosts, and the ghosts I find most companiable are writers' ghosts. I like to follow their footsteps, and listen to their words. This is romantic, probably reprehensible: it is not a taste with which my family has absolute sympathy. Walks are idiosyncratic affairs: I like to take them at a fast pace, Alan Howard likes them to be slow, meditative and solitary. Our dog likes them urban, redolent of other dogs, and our son James likes them to be fierce and uncomfortable, conducted if at all possible in harrowing conditions. His idea of a walk is 20 miles with a full pack, following a compass-line across a wilderness.
I was worried, therefore, about the Quantocks. Next to Dartmoor, the Pennine way, the Cuillins, would they measure up on the macho scale? What would happen when I mentioned Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose ghosts must haunt the Quantock Hills as much as they do the Lake District?
Dead poets rate pretty low in my son's scheme of things. I mentioned them, somewhat cravenly. He was generous. Only one sigh and shake of the head before he went back to measuring the OS contours. Pace my son, this corner of Somerset, and this route through the Quantock Hills is, if you care for literary ghosts, one of the most haunted in England. During the years 1797-8, when Coleridge was living nearby atr Nether Stowey, and William and Dorothy Wordsworth at Alfoxden Manor ( now Alfoxton ) they walked these paths daily.
Wordsworth was 27, his sister Dorothy a year younger, Coleridge 25: an intense friendship, and a long (later troubled) literary association was just beginning. These 'three persons with one soul', as Coleridge described them, walked these coombes and hills in all weather conditions: so frequent were their walks, and so detailed the notes they took of the landscape that they were taken for French spies - an irony which would have delighted Coleridge since a poetic revolution, if not a political one, was indeed being plotted.
In an extraordinary welling-up of creative energy, the distinctive Quantocks landscape, with its high, bare hills, its view of the sea, its fissured valleys and deeply wooded coombes passed directly from their notebooks to inform the poetry.
It was here that the plan for Lyrical Ballads was begun, and many of its poems composed. It was a period when Coleridge's greatest poetry would be written, including Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner, and the first part of Christobel.
Now, if you follow the path up Longstone Hill towards Quantoxhead, you can do so knowing that The Ancient Mariner was begun here, on the long slope up through the holly groves, as the sun began to set on 13 November, 1797. It was read aloud to the Wordsworths for the first time about four months later, at Alfoxden, the house still visible, as it was then, from the hill.
So, yes, this is a haunted landscape, and - since the Quantocks have not given birth to a poetic industry - it is one which remains uncannily unchanged. The tourists and trippers congregate further south, where the summit of the hills can be reached by car. There are no gift shops, no signposts; once you leave the village of Holford (our starting point) you also leave the twentieth century.
The landscape remains almost exactly as Dorothy Wordsworth described it in that strange, haunting, concise yet enigmatic journal which she wrote at Alfoxden. In that journal (probably incomplete; the manuscript is missing) people are excised, but her descriptions of this landscape, the secrecy of the coombes, the rushing sound of the streams that accompanies you as you climb, and the exhilaration of the hills carries a powerful, almost sexual, charge.
Two hundred years later, the Quantocks retain both their beauty and that latent power. On a damp, misty, overcast day we walked the red route, in an anticlockwise direction, up the coombe to the ancient ridgeway leading north to the sea, above Alfoxden. It is a walk of five or six miles, not arduous despite the climb, and, like all the best walks, filled with contrasts, with surprises. From the enclosure of the oak woods (we saw two stags) you come out above the treeline on to the hills, which are sudden, huge, bleak and astonishing. Beyond, to the north-west, there is the lure of the sea, and - on a cloudy day a beautiful tricking of the eye, so it becomes almost impossible to be sure where sea meets sky, or sky hills, for all three appear to merge at the horizon.
From there, the path to Alfoxden is a long, gentle decline through (I have never seen this before) groves of holly. They were, last October, thickly berried, pagan, druidic and magnificent. I should have liked to see them, still berried but under snow, as Dorothy Wordsworth did in January, 1798.
At Nether Stowey, Coleridge's house (National Trust) was closed. We went into the pub immediately opposite, a dispiriting place called, yes, 'The Ancient Mariner'. It had a weedy garden, with a clothes-line and plastic swings. There was only one other customer; a silent, strange, grim old man. Was he long and lank and brown, as is the ribbed sea sand? Well, to the fevered eye, he was. And he was strange; he was clutching a pint glass of beer, which was topped with a bright little paper umbrella, and a cherry.
The Observer Magazine, 7.4.1991.