I wondered, lonely as a cloud that floats up high above hills and dales, when will I next join a crowd, see my gran, or visit Wales? Apologies to William Wordsworth. While I’ve spent most of the past year indoors ‘in pensive mood’, Wordsworth’s original lines were written during a different ‘bliss of solitude’. From 1797, Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge enjoyed a year living and walking in the Quantock Hills. Wordsworth recalled, ‘upon smooth Quantock’s airy ridge we roved, unchecked, or loitered ’mid her sylvan combes’. Their walks inspired some of the most famous poems in English literature, including Kubla Khan, Frost at Midnight, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
English Romanticism can therefore be traced to west Somerset rather than the more famous Lake District. ‘I found that intriguing,’ says Peter Coates, professor of environmental history at the University of Bristol. Coates created this Discovering Britain walk after falling for ‘these rather unassuming hills’. He explains: ‘The Quantocks are special to me. In my younger days, I did a lot of mountain hiking in America. In comparison, Britain’s moors and hills seemed pretty tame. After I settled in Bristol, the Quantocks were where I started to rediscover my appreciation of the English countryside, to accept it on its own terms.’
Despite their huge literary significance, the Quantocks are small. They cover just 38 square miles while their highest point, Wills Neck, reaches 1,261 feet (384 metres). Even so, the Quantocks are famous for panoramic views. ‘They feel almost like an island,’ says Coates. ‘The contrast to surrounding lowlands, like the Somerset Levels, is so stark.’ They also contain great biodiversity and scenic variety. Expansive heathland plateaus are ringed with steep wooded valleys (the ‘combes’). There are squelching bogs and tinkling streams. In the dense combes it can be difficult to see beyond a few metres. On the open heath, you can see for miles.
In 1953 the Quantock Hills were designated England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The walk begins with almost chocolate box scenery. From a carpet-smooth bowling green, a single-track road meanders through the village of Holford. Among clusters of thatched cottages stands The Combe House Hotel. The attractive grounds contain a surprise: a large water wheel. The hotel was originally a tannery. The wheel is the remains of the water mill where oak bark was ground to make dye. At the time of Wordsworth and Coleridge's walks there were several tan pits in the Quantocks, all fuelled by the surrounding streams and woods.
‘It’s often forgotten that the Quantocks are a landscape of labour as well as leisure,’ says Coates. As the route continues uphill into Holford Combe, other clues emerge. The narrow, thickly wooded combes are one of the Quantocks’ defining features. The trees are a mix of broadleaf species. Alder and willow occupy the moister valley floors, while rowan, birch, holly, hazel, and, most of all, oak cover the higher ground. Large, severed branches lie covered in moss so thick it looks like seaweed. The combes feel untouched for centuries but closer examination reveals human handiwork.
Many of the trees are twisted and gnarled into strange shapes. Their appearance is a sign of coppicing. Quantocks timber was regularly harvested. Wordsworth and Coleridge would have smelt the smoke of charcoal-burning platforms. Oak was burned into charcoal to feed local blast furnaces, which made glass and iron. The main customer though was the Royal Navy, which used charcoal for making gunpowder. For Coates, these signs of the Quantocks’ working past ‘don’t really detract from the landscape. If anything, they add layers of complexity. Such ruins and traces are part of the Romantic appeal.’
From Holford Combe and Frog Combe, the route emerges onto open heathland to follow the Pack Way. ‘This track is probably the busiest in the Quantocks but it hasn’t really changed since Wordsworth and Coleridge rambled here,’ says Coates. Following them across the undulating heath is exhilarating. Vast views sweep towards the Bristol Channel. The peaks of Exmoor and the Brecon Beacons are visible on clear days.
In summer, the heath is carpeted with heather and gorse. They provide more than just a colourful backdrop, however. For many locals, the heath was vital. Heather made useful mattress stuffing and gorse good kindling. The ground itself was dug for peat. From the 1790s parts of the heath were temporarily enclosed to grow crops, in particular rye for baking bread. ‘Somerset was badly hit by economic recession and food was in short supply,’ Coates explains.
The heathlands were also used for grazing cattle and sheep. The Quantocks are still home to wilder animals. Exmoor ponies thrive on heathland plants. While first testing Coates’ route, we were lucky to see a small group. We watched from a distance. Then one ambled towards us. After some friendly nuzzling, our new acquaintance tried to eat Coates’ map and notebook. Slightly more elusive are the Quantock's famous red deer, which live mostly in the combes. These herds are not native. Deer were brought from Exmoor in the nineteenth century mainly for hunting.
Past Bicknoller Post, where a windswept tree leans in the ground like a javelin thrown from Wales, the route returns to Holford village. Along the way is a glimpse of Alfoxton House, where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived. They leased this grand villa to be near Coleridge, who was renting a ploughman’s cottage in Nether Stowey. Much of their pioneering collection Lyrical Ballads was planned and written at Alfoxton. Locals grew suspicious of the Wordsworths’ lifestyle and activities – hosting parties, tracing streams, walking at night – and rumours grew that they were French spies scoping an invasion. Their rent was not renewed and the Wordsworths moved to the Lakes.
Though they only lived in the Quantocks for a year, the landscape had long-term effects on these poets and their writing. By inspiring Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Quantocks shaped the ideals of Romanticism, which influenced the arts for decades. Even today, the image of the poet in popular imagination – long-haired, lovelorn, lolling outdoors – can be traced to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s walks in the Quantock Hills in 1797.
By following in their footsteps, this walk also reflects upon one of the great aesthetic debates. What makes something beautiful? In the case of a landscape, do specific features have an inherent aesthetic appeal? Or are landscapes considered beautiful through the ways they are described, especially in poetry and painting? Beyond doubt is that Coleridge and Wordsworth saw beauty in the Quantocks. ‘They were sending passionate Valentine cards to nature every day,’ says Coates, ‘every time they roamed the hills and combes and splashed through streams, in rain, mist or shine, in all seasons, by day and by night.’ Sounds beautiful to me.