Our destination was the Somerset village of Nether Stowey and the cottage that Coleridge lived in for three years from 1796. The cottage is now run by the National Trust and a leisurely amble through the four small rooms that are open to the public shows that many changes have been made to the building since Kubla Khan, Frost at Midnight and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner were composed here.
Like all famous literary homes, you have to imagine the ghosts of the past. Take the parlour, for example. Images such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt having a good old literary chinwag here are very easy to summon. The outside privy is still standing too but I imagined no further. Cute as the cottage is, the surrounding countryside is the place to try to understand what inspired Coleridge's imagination and what got his pen racing.
For a useful introduction to the Quantocks, the range of hills to the east of Exmoor, try the small information centre that is attached to the village's public library. Browsing the noticeboard in the entrance hall, I was caught by the Quantock Hillbillies Line Dance Display Team's advert - possibly not something to inspire a romantic poet, but fun anyway.
We camped quite close to Alfoxton Park, a country-house hotel, near Holford, and once (when called simply Alfoxden) home to Wordsworth for a short time. He and Coleridge did a fair bit of striding about the local lanes and hills while they were working on the seminal Lyrical Ballads of 1798. Relaxing on a camp-chair (enjoying the after-glow of a Pot Noodle), I half-saw the pair of poets striding up the lane alongside our field. My mind had them going for a moonlit walk down to Kilve beach, while I caught up with the antics of Julian and George and Timmy in that night's torchlit book at bedtime.
Kilve beach is associated with smuggling and, therefore, full of interest for one of my walking companions, whose mind was more on Enid Blyton than Biographia Literaria, but it is also a good place to search for fossils, toss rocks into the Bristol Channel or merely engage in philosophical debate. It was the sight of Wordsworth and Coleridge doing a bit of the latter on frequent occasions that aroused the suspicions of the locals at a sensitive period during the Napoleonic War. Fearing a French invasion, a government agent was sent to spy on the Romantic couple, suspecting that they must be up to no good.
Coleridge and Wordsworth would walk for miles across the north Somerset countryside and it was on one such long walk, up to the small port of Watchet,that Coleridge thought up the idea for The Ancient Mariner. We cheated and drove there. The tide was out and we were struck by the height of the harbour walls and the place from where that mariner set sail.
But you don't have to add yet another car to Watchet's narrow streets, as the West Somerset Steam Railway stops here on its way north to Minehead. The seaside resort is actually the railway line's terminus, but it is not far over the headland to Porlock and Kubla Khan country.
Porlock Weir is the small harbour that sits about a mile west from its larger namesake. A couple of hotels, a pub and a tea-shop bring visitors like us down for lunch - those and the beach, a repository for large pebbles. And these are serious pebbles. You don't toss pebbles into the Bristol Channel in these parts; you shot-put them.
Beyond the few artisanal-type shops that are set into what must have been the lock-ups where local fisherman did things to their nets in days gone by, is the start of the path eastwards to Culbone Wood. No enigmatic old one-eyed sea-dogs we noted as we left Porlock Weir. It was all very much a Nineties credit-card shopping opportunity. Very post-Blyton.
Nearby, Culbone Church is said to be the smallest church still in use in the country. The sign that claims that it is two miles from Porlock Weir is lying. Even so, it is an essential walk to complete the Coleridge perambulations. What feels like four miles of beautifully undulating wooded walking with frequent glimpses of a blue sea takes you through the landscape that inspired Kubla Khan.
Here, owing to illness, Coleridge broke his journey from Lynton back to Alfoxton and rested at a nearby farm. Under the influence of laudanum, he conjured up a beguiling piece of poetry. The church sits in a narrow valley on a bend in the coast path. As Romantic words like "verdant", "bower" and "tranquillity" came to mind, I embarrassed my young travelling companions by pulling out the bookmarked edition of Coleridge verse: "And here were forests ancient as the hills,/ Enfolding sunny spots of greenery."
So this was Xanadu perhaps. The journey back seemed shorter. The rain swept in. After a few days in north Somerset we had seen not a single unidentified flying object, nor had we disturbed any dens of smugglers. I decided not to tell my sons about the effect that opium might have had on the imagination of my favourite poet.
Coleridge Cottage at Nether Stowey is open 1 April to 30 September, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 2pm-5pm. pounds 2.50 adults, pounds 1 children, free to National Trust members. Donald Hiscock camped in the grounds of the Youth Hostel at Holford for pounds 3.75 per person per night (YHA membership required).Reuse content