Friday, 25 March 2016

Walking The Coleridge Way Day 1

Coleridge Way signpost
Well, its been a while - over the winter I have been posting at The Other Place - my blog recording my research into the portraits of Jane Austen which you can find HERE.

But Easter is here and the sun is shining so time to dust off the walking poles, scrape the worst of the mud off the boots and get out into the countryside!

Mick and I have decided to walk The Coleridge Way - a 50 (ish) mile walk through Somerset from Nether Stowey to Lynmouth.  You can read a good description of the route on Encounter Walking Holiday's website HERE. The route was established about ten years ago and originally finished in Porlock but in 2014 it was extended to Lynmouth over the border in North Devon. 50 miles seemed a perfect length for a long weekend's walk. Plus the Daily Mirror had announced a couple of weeks ago hat Britain was going to bask in a heatwave so it seemed a great way to spend Easter. (If the Daily Express had run the headline I would have taken no notice  - after all, the Express only has three headlines: Temperatures About To Soar,  House Prices Are UP; and New Cure for Alzheimers) but this was in the lefty Mirror so had to be true!

So last night Mick and I met at Lynmouth where we planned to leave a car before heading up to Nether Stowey to start the walk. I would have much preferred to have used public transport but as anyone who has tried to catch a bus near Lynmouth knows, unless you want to go to Barnstaple you will be standing at the bus stop for a very long time indeed.  My journey up from Cornwall was fine - Mick on the other hand was stuck in the mass exodus of traffic leaving Bristol so arrived three pints later than me, despite having less miles to cover.

We slept in the car in a quiet spot. I don't know why more people don't do this - in Japan car-camping is perfectly normal and you see people all the time overnighting in their cars, having picnics next to them and no-one thinks anything of it. Here you are considered weird or sad if you don't pay £80 or so for a bed and instead get the quilt out in the back of the motor. But as Mick remarked, we all wake up to the same morning, and £80 is a lot of beer money!

Nether Stowey
 So, this morning we drove to Nether Stowey and left the car in the little car park in the village. The route starts at Coleridge Cottage, where S T Coleridge lived for three years and where he composed some of his best known poems including the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. (There is a clue in the name of the pub opposite the cottage.)

Coleridge Cottage 
Its a pity the National Trust do not open the cottage until 11am as if you are walking the route it means a very late start, impractical if you have booked accommodation farther along the route. But we had our tent on our backs and no plan at all about where we were going to stay so we decided to get a nice cup of tea in the corner cafe and wait for them to open up. When we finally gained entry we were impressed with the cottage however. The NT has invested a lot of money and we had a very enjoyable couple of hours here. A member of staff pounced on Mick when we entered the little front room and handed him a dress coat. "Ooh you look like Coleridge" she said.  "Put this on and you can be him!" Mick didn't need asking twice and soon was sitting at the desk composing a poem. "I'm struggling to find inspiration," he said. "Don't suppose you've got any opium have you?" Unsurprisingly no drugs were forthcoming so we decided it was time we got on our way.

Mick is S.T Coleridge

Inspiration is not forthcoming...

On leaving the cottage we walked through the picturesque village and up the hill. At the stop we stopped to look at Stowey Castle - just a mound now to show where an 11th century motte and bailey castle had once been.  The castle was destroyed in the fifteenth century after the locals got a bit uppity with the king, backing the pretender Perkin Warbeck's Second Cornish Uprising, for which the local lord of the manor Lord Audley lost his head. (I mean literally lost his head; he was executed on the orders of Henry V11 in 1497.) From the castle we were treated to fantastic views across Somerset to the coast and over to Wales. A wooden cross had been erected here for Easter which was visible for miles.

The first part of the route took us through rolling Somerset countryside past Walfords Gibbet where wife murderer John Walford was hung with his body left hanging in a cage until it rotted as a deterrent to other would-be murders. He had left his wife's body in nearby woodland at a place still known as Dead Woman's Ditch.

Cottage on the Coleridge Way
Mick said he had had enough of all this death and violence for one day so we changed the subject and were so merrily chattering away that we missed a turning and walked half a mile up the road by mistake. Reluctant to retrace our steps, instead we followed a path which took us up to the top of Dowsborough Hillfort. It was a serendipitous mistake as had we followed the correct path which skirts the bottom of the hill we probably wouldn't have bothered. As it was, we wandered through the fort, and were treated to another panoramic viewpoint, which  must have been jolly useful for iron age folk to check what the marauding neighbours were up to and made a great spot to stop for a bit of lunch.

View from Dowsborough Hillfort

Lunch spot on the hillfort
Cairn marking highest point of the route

The walking was easy, along ancient lanes and through sleepy villages with quaint thatched cottages and squat little churches. At Holford we passed a square building with a plaque on the wall. This was Holford dog pound which was used to house stray dogs to stop them unsettling the hunting dogs owned by the local squire. It was built following an unpleasant incident when a huntsman was savaged by his own dogs when he went out to investigate what had spooked them.

Dog pound at Hollford

Just after here the path becomes a long sweeping drive past Alfoxton House which was the home of the Wordsworths for a year from 1797 until 1798. For a while it was run as a hotel and presumably there was once as a youth hostel here too as we noticed an old YHA sign on a tree, but is now privately owned. What a pity, its a great location for a hostel.

Alfoxton House
We were skirting the edge of the Quantocks now, the path meandering at times close to the A39 before wandering off again. We stopped and talked for a while to a young couple with a baby who wanted to know about our walk. We should do that one day, the chap enthused! His partner look less convinced. As she was the one carrying the baby in a papoose perhaps this was not so surprising.

Just before Bicknoller the path descended steeply through the woodland until a lane took as into the centre of the village. It was late afternoon now and we decided to call it a day. We headed for the Bicknoller Inn and had a brief moment of panic when we discovered that the pub was closed before we realised that a) it was closed for the afternoon only and re-opened at 6 o'clock and b) it was now five to six. Five minutes later we were at the bar ordering a pint of Palmer's Dorset Gold which was superb. Five hours later we were still at the bar ordering pints of Palmer's Dorset Gold which was going down exceedingly well.

That night in the Bicknoller Inn was one of the best nights out I've had in a long time. After offering to swap tables with a bigger group we got chatting to them and to the group of farmers sitting at the bar and soon we were all roaring with laughter and having a fine old time. We had no idea where we were going to sleep that night and asked the locals for advice. After some debate during which one farmer offering us a field which we gratefully accepted until we realised his farm was 10 miles on towards Taunton, somebody suggested the field behind the village shop. We were a little doubtful at first but were reassured that no-body would mind.

Putting the tent up in the dark after copious amounts of beer was a bit of a challenge but eventually we managed it and soon slipped into a booze-fuelled stupor.

A fine night in the Bicknoller Arms

A fine choice of ale

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