Think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and what does the name conjure up?
The Lake District, where he hung out with William Wordsworth? Or the dope fiend who wrote "Kubla Khan" while under the influence of opium?
Possibly, but the poet was also a prodigious walker, thinking nothing of a 40-mile hike to visit friends. And his most creative period was not in Cumbria but in Somerset, where he rented a cottage in the village of Nether Stowey in 1797. In less than three years he wrote all his most famous work, often as he strode the surrounding hills and fields.
Coleridge's most frequent destination was Alfoxton Park, where Wordsworth had settled with his sister, Dorothy. Almost every day they would walk the three and a half miles between their houses, but Coleridge ranged much further. He is reputed to have walked the 36 miles from Nether Stowey to Porlock in a day.
Since 2005 it has been possible to follow this route along a designated Coleridge Way, which passes from the Quantocks through the lesser-known Brendon Hills and into Exmoor National Park. Only the most fanatical hiker, though, would attempt to match the poet's pace: three or four days make more sense. And for complete amateurs more interested in exploring the area's literary associations, such as myself and my cultural adviser (also spouse), a sampling of the path was going to be more than enough.
We based ourselves in the pretty Somerset village of Dunster, at the midpoint of the Coleridge Way, where the Yarn Market Hotel understands the needs of walkers. It will deliver you to the starting point of your day's route, allowing you to leave your car at the end.
Literary logic dictated that we tackle the first steps of the route, which begins outside Coleridge's modest cottage on the edge of Nether Stowey. The rain had swollen a brook beside the path and made the going boggy, but as we mounted to a height known as Walford's Gibbet, the sun appeared, and Coleridge's lines from "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" came to mind: "Now, my friends emerge/ Beneath the wide wide Heaven - and view again / The many-steepled tract magnificent/ Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea."
Luckily for the poet, Hinckley Point nuclear power station was not the blot on the scenery it is today. But we could see the Welsh coast across the Bristol Channel, gleaming in the bright sunshine. It made up for the squelchy descent through the woods to Holford, where we had left our car near Wordsworth's old residence, now a hotel.
After only 3.8 miles we felt like accomplished yompers. Fed, watered and cosseted overnight by the friendly people at the Yarn Market, we were ready for the final eight miles of the Coleridge Way from Wheddon Cross to Porlock, which the website warned was "the most demanding physically". It started promisingly enough as we traversed the steep wooded side of a valley. But as we emerged on to the slopes of Exmoor, our inexperience was exposed and we lost our route.
We had to climb almost all the way to Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on the moor, before hitting a road that would lead us to Webbers Post, getting us back on track. A chilly breeze cut through us, lending point to the warning that this stage of the walk should not be attempted in poor visibility, though the panorama of north Somerset and the choppy sea beyond were some compensation for the gruelling detour.
Below Webbers Post you descend into woodland. But much of the Coleridge Way is also bridleway, creating a quagmire after rain. The slope down to the perfect little village of Horner was a nightmare of rocks and churned-up mud. The final stretch to Porlock, through more woodland, was much gentler, but we arrived at our final destination feeling as if we had come off a commando course. That lent all the more savour to our dinner at Reeves Restaurant in Dunster, where Justin and Claire Reeves serve the best food for miles around.
We ended our stay in Coleridge country, rather than beginning it there, by visiting his cottage in Nether Stowey. Looking around its gloomy interior, it was easy to understand why he so frequently burst out into the glorious countryside all around.
HOW TO GET THERE
Raymond Whitaker stayed at the Rising Sun in Lynmouth (01598 753223; specialplace.co.uk), which offers b&b from £60 per person per night, and the Yarn Market Hotel in Dunster (01643 821425; yarnmarkethotel.co.uk), which has b&b from £35.
Reeves Restaurant (01643 821414; reevesrestaurant dunster. co.uk); Coleridge Way (coleridgeway.co.uk); Coleridge Cottage opens 1 April (01278 732662; nationaltrust. org.uk); for a free Rural Escapes brochure contact Enjoy England (0845 603 6940; enjoyengland/ ruralescapes).Reuse content