Country walk: Coming to grips with the Nether region

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The Independent Online
Two hundred years ago this month, Coleridge walked the Quantock hills and contemplated the 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. Clive Fewins followed in his footsteps.

Autumn mist meant that we were not quite able to see the nuclear power station at Hinckley Point on Bridgwater Bay from our vantage point on top of Somerset's Quantock Hills. So our view across the heather- and bracken-clad hills towards the bay and distant Wales must have been much the same as it was in Coleridge's day, two centuries ago.

The poet and his young wife Sara and baby son Hartley came to live in the small town of Nether Stowey at the foot of the hills in January 1797. They were followed seven months later by their friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth, who took a year's lease on Alfoxton House, a large, early- 18th-century property two miles away, near the village of Holford. The two poets used to walk the hills together, and our aim was to retrace some of the tracks they used.

It is a particularly appropriate walk this month, as it was in November 200 years ago while walking in these hills that the two discussed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was published in 1798.

We drove from the centre of Nether Stowey, following the sign to Crowcombe. After two miles we parked the car at Dead Woman's Ditch, so called because of the body of a woman traveller found near the spot in medieval times. From there we took an unsigned track on the other side of the road from the car park, and walked for just under a mile to the main track that follows the Quantock Ridge. We followed the ridge path for about a mile and a half. The autumn mist had lifted sufficiently for us to have splendid views over the undulating countryside to the west. After about a mile we reached Bicknoller Post. This old oak post marks the site of a building where carriages stopped to change horses on the coach road from Holford to the small town of Williton, five miles to the west. Tracks shoot out here in all directions. Beware, the Quantocks are largely unsignposted; we were grateful that we had brought a large-scale Ordnance Survey map so that we could identify the various points mentioned in the introduction to my collection of Coleridge's poems.

Bicknoller post is only 200 yards or so from an ancient track known as the Great Road. Once we reached this clearly defined former packhorse track we turned right, following the stony route for just under a mile. Eventually we followed it gently downhill to another meeting-point of numerous old tracks. It was marked on the map as New Ground.

Here we left the Great Road and walked through Alfoxton Park to see the house where the Wordsworths once lived. Our route led us steeply down past the rear of the building, now a hotel. Once past the big house, we were tempted to take the main driveway down through the woods to Holford village and the Plough pub. But, realising we had missed lunchtime there, we decided to keep walking and took a footpath signposted "Holford via Dog Pound" that led to a field of close-cropped grass which we crossed diagonally to a stile in the far corner. We then descended about a quarter of a mile through woods of beech and holly to join a bridle track. Very shortly we emerged beside a large green, a quarter of a mile or so from Holford village.

We walked along until we found an old-fashioned Somerset County Council sign which pointed us in the direction of Holford Combe. The road led past a newly thatched cottage and the attractive-looking Combe House Hotel. Despite a large sign saying "Open to Non Residents" and an enticing-looking menu, we resisted the temptation to take an early tea and plodded up the combe, until the valley widened and we found ourselves in a large, flat, green area traversed by a shallow, gurgling brook. We took a quick break to eat the picnic we had brought with us, then carried straight on over a ford where the metalled road came to an end. The track ran beside the stream up the steep combe.

As the gradient steepened we looked carefully for our escape route, a short path to the left about a mile up the combe from Holford. This brought us into Lady's Combe - clearly marked on the 1:25,000 map. A steep climb of about a third of a mile led us to a clearing at the foot of Dowsborough Hill fort.

The path ascending the steep gradient to the hill fort, an Iron Age camp, lay to our left. We took the path in the other direction to join the minor road that climbs gently through the woods for less than a quarter of a mile to join the Nether Stowey-Crowcombe road opposite Dead Woman's Ditch. We drove back to Nether Stowey. We were unable to visit Coleridge Cottage, where the poet and his family lived from 1797 to 1800, since it was closed for the winter. But we had a large tea at Stowey Tea Rooms in Castle Street.

Length of walk: About seven miles

Map: 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey Explorer 2

Three leaflets describing walks in the area and the Coleridge and Wordsworth connections are available from the Curator, Coleridge Cottage, Nether Stowey, Somerset TA5 1NQ, price 40p each. Send an A5 stamped, addressed envelope.