As long ago as the Lower Palaeolithic period (probably around 425,000 to 300,000 years ago), handaxes found near St Audries Bay show that Somerset was intermittently occupied by groups of hunter gatherers from the south. Rising sea levels had not yet flooded the English Channel, and Britain was still attached to Europe. In the warmer periods between glacials, herds of wild animals roamed freely here from the continent, followed by early humans, probably the ancestors of the Neanderthals.
After this period, however, conditions were presumably too harsh for habitation, and no evidence has been found of occupation until the Neanderthals themselves arrived, around 60,000 years ago. Triangular handaxes found in West Quantoxhead tell us that there were human hunters here during that period.
Around 25,000 years ago, temperatures plummeted and Somerset resembled a tundra zone for about 12,000 years, until global warming triggered the growth of birchwoods and grasslands, which supported mammoth, horses, wild cattle and red deer. A new wave of hunters arrived; and although there was another brief glacial spell when they fled south again, after this the climate improved and sea levels rose to close off the bridge to the continent. By the Mesolithic period, 9500 - 5500 years ago, humans were here to stay. Exmoor and the Quantocks became their summer hunting grounds, and flints found at Hawkcombe but sourced from further west suggest that these people either roamed a wide area or had an early trade system going.
During the Neolithic period, 5500 years ago, local people were raising livestock and planting crops, and the landscape began to change as they cleared large areas of woodland for their agriculture. By the Bronze Age, 3500 years later, they had domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs, as well as horses and dogs, and were dividing the landscape into fields by means of low stone banks or lynchets. The foundations of their round houses still exist all over Exmoor, as do countless barrows and cairns where they buried their dead. The Coleridge Way passes many of these, including the Langridge Wood cist, the Lype Hill barrow and the cairn cemetery on Dunkery Beacon. They also erected stone rows in association with their barrows, such as the one on Culbone Hill.
In the Iron Age (700 BC to AD 43) land ownership was important enough for people to build their settlements inside hillforts, where they could defend their population. Usually these were on high ground, as at Dowsborough, so that they had a good strategic viewpoint over the surrounding landscape. Often the position and size of the fort also reflected the tribe's social status. These hillforts were also important trade centres, as were the smaller, less defensible enclosures like the one at Trendle Ring, and iron was beginning to replace bronze for tool-making.
Romans, the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period
The Romans, too, exploited the iron deposits in the Brendon Hills and on Exmoor, but other than this they were not a strong presence in the area. When they established a camp at Old Burrow, above the coast at County Gate, it was so that they could watch the activities of the troublesome Silurian Britons across the Bristol Channel, in South Wales. Christianity was spreading up the coast from Cornwall, where there were trade links with the Mediterranean. Legends persist throughout the South West, claiming that Phoenician tin trader Joseph of Arimathea (great-uncle of Jesus Christ) walked along the Exmoor coastline on his way to Glastonbury to establish its abbey.
When the Romans abandoned Britain as their empire collapsed, this early Christianity came under threat from the pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders, and waves of Celtic missionaries arrived on the South West coastline to establish hermitages through the region. Culbone Church is thought to date from the Saxon period, and many of the churches on the Coleridge Way built in Norman times were on the site of these very early churches, with pathways leading to them dating from the Dark Ages. (There are many well-trodden pathways leading to Exmoor's churches, such as the holloway over Lype Hill from Churchtown, the Church Path near Watersmeet, and Horner Hill's Priestway, the path taken by the priest at Luccombe to the chapel of ease at Stoke Pero). Another medieval highway from Anglo-Saxon times is the Hare Path (herpath), although the packhorse bridges at Horner and elsewhere date from a later period. In the later Dark Ages there were Viking raids on the coast, too, and Wind Hill, above Wester Wood, was the scene of a major battle between the Norsemen and the Saxons.
After the 1066 Norman Conquest, the bleak hills and unproductive bogland in the area the Saxons called 'Somer Shire' was of little interest to the Normans; but the King kept the prize pastureland for himself, or allocated it to his barons. By 1086, when the Domesday Book tallied who owned what, the whole of Somerset was in the hands of just 75 landowners. They set about building themselves castles like Nether Stowey Castle to keep an eye on the local population, and small settlements were established, including the ones now in ruins at Perry and Twitchin, where villagers worked in the fields for their overlord. Rivers were used to power mills, and pastureland was irrigated using water meadows, where rainwater was collected during the winter. Deer parks, warrens, fishponds and dovecotes were established to provide meat and fish; and on Woodlands Hill there is still a stock pond from this period.
The Post-Medieval Period
During Tudor times, Combe Sydenham was the home of explorer Sir Francis Drake's second wife, Elizabeth Sydenham, daughter of Somerset's High Sheriff. They were married in the church at Monksilver after their original wedding ceremony at Stogumber was halted by a meteorite crashing through the roof! A fine building that dates from the Tudor period and is encountered en route is Aller Farm, with its red brick farmhouse and matching outbuildings. Many of the villages along the way have cottages from this time, too.
Rural industry flourished in the seventeenth century, and Holford Combe was a busy valley, where a pond, dam and leats remain from a tannery, whose mill still has its waterwheel. There were wool mills in Holford village, with a dye house nearby, and a silk mill was founded here by Huguenot refugees. In the woods, charcoal burners set themselves up in lonely huts to tend their fires and broomsquires gathered bundles of twigs into besoms to sell in the market. Nether Stowey was a centre of small-scale industry, especially pottery, and an important market town. Nonetheless, a series of disastrous harvests around Coleridge's time caused widespread poverty, exacerbated by high bread prices during the Napoleonic Wars, and only the charity of businessmen such as Coleridge's friend and mentor Thomas Poole kept villagers from the dreaded poorhouse.
The Industrial Revolution changed the focus of the local workforce. Farm machinery meant that fewer labourers were needed; but industries such as the Brendon Hills Mines brought new work, although they also attracted a specialist workforce from the mines in Wales and Cornwall. Further job opportunities were provided by the mines service industries, such as the West Somerset Mineral Railway, which transported the iron ore to the coast, where it was shipped to the company's furnaces in Wales.
In Victorian times the coast began to contribute to the area's economy in a whole new way, as vast numbers of tourists visited, arriving on steamers in the Bristol Channel, and on the brand new West Somerset Railway. This was an age when people with capital, courage and big ideas could make a fortune, and several new dynasties were founded around the area as a result of successful businessmen investing heavily in the local infrastructure. Chief among these were publisher George Newnes and Scottish heir and visionary Reverend Walter Halliday, whose families between them made the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth a very popular destination, although Newnes campaigned to have their jointly-funded railway terminate at an inconvenient distance from the town, to discourage the lower orders from spoiling his empire. Country landowners such as the Acland family on Porlock's Holnicote Estate were meanwhile directing their energies towards enhancing the landscape by establishing woodlands, planting formal gardens and developing carriage drives, footpaths and rides. Their workers were housed in purpose-built cottages around the estate, and reading rooms and other facilities were set up for their education and entertainment.
The area lost its share of young men to two world wars, and there are extensive remains from the Second World War on North Hill, above Porlock, used for tank training; but apart from the pillboxes along Porlock's shingle ridge there is little to be seen of either conflict along the Coleridge Way. In Roadwater, the red pillbox above Vale House guarded the road in the Second World War, possibly because there was an auxiliary unit operational base nearby; and at Porlock Weir the small village hall was a military building in the First World War. On Porlock's shoreline is a memorial to US airmen who lost their lives in 1942, when their plane crashed on Bossington Hill; and in the woods at Ashley Combe there is another to US pilots whose plane crashed on the site in 1943.
A community of monks was established at Culbone in the fifth century, but throughout history, Culbone Wood was a place for outcasts. In the thirteenth century it was 'disbelievers, the mentally insane, and those practising witchcraft' who were brought here and left to fend for themselves without resources of any kind. The following century criminals and moral offenders were abandoned here, and many 'went mad or killed themselves'. In the sixteenth century a leper colony was established in the wood; but for two centuries after this the only people to use it were smugglers. In the eighteenth century a small self-sufficient community thrived here (by choice) for a couple of generations; and the following century a number of Indian prisoners were brought here to work as charcoal burners for 21 years, at which point they were allowed their freedom. Small boats would take away the charcoal in exchange for commodities like tea and sugar.