Superstore plan at poet's historic home

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN A poem called "Life", Samuel Taylor Coleridge described his feelings on paying a visit to Ottery St Mary, the Devon town where he spent a blissful childhood: "Where native Otter sports his scanty stream ... The glorious prospect woke me from the dream."

Were he to return to his birthplace today, the poet and opium addict might be greeted by less heavenly sights, which could soon include a supermarket in the grounds of a Grade II listed building that has been his family's home for more than two centuries.

William Duke Coleridge, a descendant of the poet's elder brother, wants to lease part of his estate for development by a food retailer. The 5th Baron Coleridge - a 19th century ancestor was ennobled - has applied to East Devon District Council for planning permission.

The prospect of a supermarket being built in a historic area of the ancient market town has horrified many of Ottery's residents. The site is close to several buildings that date back to medieval times, including a parish church regarded as the finest in Devon.

It is also overlooked by Chanter's House, Lord Coleridge's home, a building rich in history. The house was part of Ottery's collegiate foundation, a religious seat of learning set up by the Bishop of Exeter, John de Grandisson, in the 14th century.

In the Great Parlour, now an oak-panelled dining room, Oliver Cromwell met one of his generals, Sir Thomas Fairfax, in 1645 to plan the next phase of the Civil War in the West Country.

It is this historic heritage that will be jeopardised, many locals fear, if the go-ahead is given for a supermarket to be built on the site of an overgrown orchard on the edge of the Coleridge estate.

Supporters of the plan, including some members of the town council, believe that the development would regenerate Ottery by bringing in new custom for its struggling shops.

Opponents say a better way to attract more people to the town, 12 miles east of Exeter, would be to capitalise on its status as birthplace of one of England's greatest poets.

Coleridge was born in Ottery in 1772 and christened in the church, St Mary of Ottery, where his father was vicar. Much of his poetry was influenced by the town and surrounding countryside, where he spent his early years playing by the river Otter.

His oldest brother, Colonel James Coleridge, bought Chanter's House in 1796.

Tony Wilkinson, a district councillor, said: "They're trying to kick- start Ottery, but it's the wrong way to do it. The town should be heavily marketed on the back of its association with Coleridge."

At present, there is little to alert visitors to the town's literary heritage. The only memorial to the poet is a small bronze plaque in the wall of the churchyard, although generations of his family are buried in the south transept.

Even some locals are unaware of Ottery's link with the author of such masterpieces as "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

When interviews were conducted last year for the post of tourism office manager in the town, every candidate looked blank when asked if they knew the relevance of the lines "Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink".

Laurie Roberts, a resident spearheading opposition to the planning application, contrasts Ottery's low-key approach with the way that the Somerset village of Nether Stowey, where Coleridge lived for many years, has exploited the connection.

Traders in Ottery are less concerned about literary niceties than about their livelihoods. The dozen or so food shops in the town feel particularly vulnerable. "We wouldn't survive," said Wendy Wade, proprietor of a greengrocer and delicatessen. Stephen Bealey, who runs Country Farm butcher's, said: "When the small shops are gone, a town like this loses its heart and soul."

Friends of Lord Coleridge say he needs income for the upkeep of Chanter's House, and point out that part of the orchard was compulsorily purchased by the district council some years ago to build a car park.

His brother, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, said that he hoped to bring new jobs to Ottery. "As a family that has lived here for so many years, we are more anxious than anyone else to protect our house and our heritage."