A while ago, a friend was telling me she had just been for her first run in a long time. “I couldn’t help but think it would be much more fun if I were walking,” she complained.
These days, I see what she means. And so it came to be that on my 42nd birthday I spent it completing a long-distance walk. As a multi-day hike rookie, I wanted to tackle a trail that would be achievable (so no 100 milers to start).
I picked the Coleridge Way, a 51-mile trail starting in Nether Stowey just outside the Quantock Hills in Somerset and ending in Lynmouth on North Devon’s rugged coast.
The route is named after poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who lived in Nether Stowey for three years from 1797 (his cottage is still there).
In those days Coleridge was considered a radical figure. He expressed support for the French Revolution, was outspoken against slavery and introduced the new philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
His poetry set him apart from others: previously it had been long form and digressive. Coleridge’s was musical, vivid, imaginative and… trippy. To the chagrin of locals, he also walked for miles purely for the fun of it. In those days that just did not happen. He was, they thought, incredibly eccentric. Alarming, even.
Coleridge was great friends with fellow poet William Wordsworth. Together with Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, also a poet and author, they spent time in the area. As architects of the Romantic movement, the landscape delighted and inspired them. Coleridge spent many hours strolling through the countryside, once walking from his cottage to Porlock in a single day (about 35 miles).
The trail traces its way east to west, or vice versa, through the Quantocks, Brendon Hills and Exmoor National Park. In 2014 the Coleridge Way was extended from its original finish in Porlock to Lynmouth, 15 miles away. I split the journey into sections, staying overnight in B&B accommodation along way.
In order not to be THAT person who got lost/injured/phoned for help, I studied my Ordnance Survey maps intently (full disclosure: I could gaze at maps for hours so enjoyed this a bit too much), looked at weather conditions in preceding days so I could pack appropriately and noted down accommodation details in case the phone reception was patchy. In fact, there was zero signal along many route sections, so this was a good call.
The path is very well waymarked with a yellow quill symbol. We experienced and savioured some of the finest scenery anywhere in England: wooded valleys, rolling hills, farmland, forest tracks, ancient green lanes, route tracks, open moorland, historic villages with thatched cottages, riverside paths and stunning coastline.
I would describe our walk as one of all seasons: blistering sunshine, rain, mist, and showers often all in one day. There was, however, incredible clarity and visibility which made the world pop with colour.
Hiking gives you time and space to admire history in the landscape: old silk mills, Iron Age hill forts, medieval packhorse bridges, churches buried deep in deciduous combes, beautifully kept agricultural land, burial tombs and old congregational routes.
We’d breakfast like champions and finish each day victorious. We met other people attempting the route: if we happened to be staying overnight in the same place, we would swap notes about our day and wish each other luck for the next leg.
We extended the final leg from the official finish in Lynmouth into the evocative Valley of Rocks, high above sea level just west from Lynton. This involved a near vertical climb up the South West Coast Path but it was well worth the burning quads.
Valley of Rocks is where Coleridge and the Wordsworths’ spent some time and even talked about moving there. It’s strangely atmospheric; a dry valley hemmed in by gigantic sea cliffs which resemble malevolent shadow puppets when the sky darkens.
We climbed up and up further to the summit of Hollerday Hill where the scooped-out valley looks like a unfurled jade-green blanket. To our right, craggy cliffs reared up and tumbled down to the glass-like sea. I wondered what the poets talked about when they visited. I stood for what felt like ages, looking and looking and looking; drinking it in and trying to stamp the scene into my mind.
Nearly all of Coleridge’s poems express an unfettered joy for the natural world: what he saw around him was his muse. It is not hard to see why.
Reluctantly our Coleridge Way adventure successfully concluded. During the journey home my head swam with flashbacks, moments and recollections of those last few days.
There are thousands of miles of footpaths and trails in the UK, many with magical environments and stories to tell just like this one. If you’re curious to spend time more immersed in nature, why follow in the footsteps of Coleridge and give walking a go?