Literary References along the Coleridge Way
William and Dorothy Wordsworth
Coleridge met William Wordsworth in Bristol in 1795, and there was an instant rapport between the two. At the time Wordsworth was on his way to Racedown in Dorset, where he and his sister Dorothy were to live rent-free, thanks to the sponsorship of the Pinneys, a wealthy family whose fortune came from the West Indies, where they were noted slave-owners.
The Wordsworths followed Coleridge to Quantocks in July 1797, when Thomas Poole persuaded the St Albyns to lease Alfoxton to them. The estate had passed into the St Albyn family in the fifteenth century, when John St. Albyn of Parracombe married Joan, daughter and heir of Richard Popham of Porlock. Dating from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the Alfoxton dog pound was given to Holford by the family of John Lancelot Brereton, who died in 1973. (Brereton inherited Alfoxton house, park and woods in 1924 from his uncle, Birt St. Albyn Jenner, the rest of the estate having been sold in 1920).
Coleridge and William were working together on the ‘Lyrical Ballads’, and STC (as he liked to be known) visited the Wordsworths often in Alfoxton, walking the same paths that are followed by the Coleridge Way. The three poets rambled extensively through the district, revelling in the wonders of the natural world around them but raising eyebrows among the local population, for whom walking was a necessary means of transport, not a leisure pursuit.
The locals’ distrust deepened when Robert Southey visited, and his controversial politics as well as the four poets’ habit of taking long walks above the Bristol Channel at night led to rumours that they were French spies. Although the Government officer sent to check this out found nothing suspicious, the St Albyns terminated the lease in June 1798 and the Wordsworths returned to Westmorland.
Poet Laureate Robert Southey was married to Coleridge’s wife’s sister, and he visited Coleridge in Nether Stowey, although he, too, was particularly drawn to the coast. Lynton, Lynmouth and the Valley of Rocks were part of his stamping ground, and it was his comments on the area’s similarity to Switzerland that led to Newnes and others later developing the Swiss theme for the benefit of Victorian tourists.
Southey recorded his visits in his ‘Commonplace Book’, which was published in 1851; but it was in 1799 that he said of Porlock: ‘Hedges luxuriantly high for the most part impede the view; through their openings dark hills are seen, and the combes that intersect them…Porlock is called in the neighbourhood the End of the World. All beyond is inaccessible to carriage or even cart.’ The weather closed in after he wrote this; and he spent the next day at the fireside in Porlock’s Ship Inn, where he was staying, composing his poem ‘To Porlock’ in a corner of the bar today known as ‘Southey’s Corner’.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Another Romantic poet drawn to Exmoor was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who eloped to Lynmouth with his teenage wife, Harriet, during the summer of 1812, writing ‘Queen Mab’ while he was there. It is reputed that Shelley and his wife had to flee to Wales by a small boat to escape the wrath of the local population!
R D Blackmore
R D Blackmore was born in Oxfordshire, in 1825. His mother died of typhus a few months later, and he was raised by his aunt at Nottage in Porthcawl, in South Wales. His book ‘The Maid of Sker’ was inspired by Sker House near Nottage, but it was also partly set in North Devon. Blackmore’s family came from Parracombe, and he considered himself a Devon man. For some years his grandfather was Rector of Oare, a place he used as a location in his most famous novel.
Blackmore wrote several novels, but it was ‘Lorna Doone’, set on Exmoor, that captured the public imagination and played its part in establishing the romantic novel as a genre. His Doone brothers were based on the seventeenth-century Doune brothers, a band of brigands originally from Morayshire who robbed hapless travellers in one of Exmoor’s most remote areas, and many of the locations Blackmore used for the novel were on the moor. Most of these were along the Badgworthy Water, where the ruins of a real-life medieval settlement inspired him to house his imaginary ruffians here.