‘I walked to Stowey in the evening … Coleridge returned with me, as far as the wood.’
Dorothy Wordsworth, ‘Alfoxden Journal’, 27 February 1798
During their brief period of living in Somerset Coleridge and the Wordsworths saw each other almost daily, trekking back and forth from Stowey to Holford across the Quantocks, now signposted as the Coleridge Way.
Tonight, Coleridge is escorting Dorothy Wordsworth a short part of her journey back to the country house that she and her brother William are renting at Alfoxton. Setting out up Castle Street, the two climb past the Castle Mount, then follow the lane down the hill past outlying cottages towards the hamlet of Bincombe. Soon no more lights flicker at cottage windows, and they turn off through the darkness along a narrow wooded track. They can hear but not see the stream bubbling along beside them. Soon it will be tumbling down Castle Street towards the sea.
Coleridge, chattering throughout, sets the pace of the walk. At the remote settlement where the broomsquires have their huts the path divides. Here Coleridge turns back. It’s decision time for Dorothy. Should she turn right up the hill and make her way past the site of Walford’s Gibbet, along the old coach road, through a coppice, and out on to the summit of Woodlands Hill? No, she decides to take the lower path that hugs the stream at the foot of Bin Combe. Ahead of her is a solitary three-mile walk through the night to Holford. Giving Coleridge a final wave, she hurries on, plunged immediately into total darkness. Treading a lonely path alongside dense woodland of oak and beech, she finally emerges into the close stillness of Holford Combe.
It’s hard for us to imagine the depths of darkness that Coleridge and the Wordsworths experienced. I remember the night of the 2012 Jubilee, when beacon fires were lit across Somerset. As I stood in the crowd on the top of Stowey’s Castle Mount, the landscape was ablaze, but not with the flames of the beacons, but from the distant glow of Bridgwater’s street lighting and the headlights of cars on the M5.
In the 18th century working country people were more accustomed and attuned to low levels of light. They made the most of any daylight on offer, living and working outside as much as possible. Their cottage homes had small windows, and rooms were lit by the dim glow of rushlights and the occasional candle. Coleridge must have suffered considerable eye strain as he ploughed his way through his heavy volumes of German metaphysics, sitting by the fire in his Lime Street cottage, young Hartley in the crook of his arm.
The Quantocks are hardly the Himalayas, but it’s still easy to lose your way, even in bright sunlight. The main track across the spine of the hills is broad and easy to follow, but if you venture down into the combes the labyrinth of paths can be confusing. So how did Coleridge and the Wordsworths find their way in their nocturnal wanderings?
They had the night sky. It would have been more densely black than today and on a clear night vivid with silver stars. Keeping a specific star or constellation in sight would have helped them determine their general direction. But if there was no moon and the sky was overcast, it must have been profoundly disorienting.
The Quantock paths and tracks were then much more heavily trodden, and it’s likely that marker trees signposted the way across the hills for itinerant labourers and tradesmen. If you walk along the spine of the hills from Dead Woman’s Ditch today, the first few paths you pass leading down into the combes are marked with rowans, thorns or holly.
Coleridge and the Wordsworths may have carried lanterns. However, the winds can gust over the Quantock summits, and it’s likely that the flame would have guttered and flickered.
It’s possible, too, that they carried white stones with them. These they could drop at significant crossing points, marking the way for their return journey in the dark.
Coleridge and Dorothy were both highly impressionable and richly imaginative. Fashionably prey to their emotions, they must have jumped out of their skins more than once when a gnarled witch loomed out of the darkness, reaching out at them with scrawny arms and fingers. The Quantock thorn trees, shrunken and twisted, and in many cases hundreds of years old, lent an eerie quality to the night. Legends grew up around them, and Wordsworth wrote a poem about a poor mad mother who buried her baby below one. Did Dorothy ever suffer the feeling of being watched during her night journeys? The odd shepherd or poacher would not have bothered her, but there were other more sinister characters on the prowl. How could she tell whether she was the watcher or the watched? Dorothy must have had considerable courage to wander such a wild stretch of country alone.