On the last day of 1796 Samuel Taylor Coleridge with his wife and baby son moved into a tiny cottage in Nether Stowey on the edge of the Quantock Hills in Somerset. In July of the following year William and Dorothy Wordsworth moved into a house at Alfoxton, four miles away. Three years of intense poetic creativity were about to begin.
Stowey countryside today: silent lanes with only the occasional growl of a passing car; rooks squabbling overhead; the occasional surprised cat. Out beyond the farms, high up on the Quantock Hills, only ramblers, or a string of mountain bikers slithering along the muddy tracks.
The Stowey countryside that Coleridge and the Wordsworths knew two hundred years ago was very different. The lanes and field paths would have bustled with people on the move. Most people worked within a mile of their homes, and country life was a noisy, public affair. Wagons rattled between villages; ploughmen stumbled through the furrows behind oxen teams; eagle-eyed shepherds watched from Will’s Neck or Longstone Hill; and out in the wooded combes around Holford men were felling timber or barking oaks for Tom Poole’s tannery.
The paths and tracks were not used for recreation; they were a means of getting to and from work. If you were a gentleman, you made a point of not walking anywhere – if you were seen rambling in the country, your status was immediately in question. Where was your horse or chaise? Were you a vagrant or a thief? A murderer, even?
Characteristically, Coleridge and the Wordsworths ignored the rules of polite society and walked everywhere. Their unusual behaviour was a source of intense interest to the Quantock country people. They were especially curious about Wordsworth, who was seen to ‘wander about by night, and look rather strangely at the moon’. And what was his real relationship with the gypsy-like young woman he lived with and whom he said was his sister?
A walk with Coleridge would not have been a quiet, contemplative affair. If you were one of his rambling companions, you would have struggled to get a word in edgeways. Coleridge was ‘a marvellous talker’. He was supreme in monologue, but had no idea of dialogue.’ The poet Samuel Rogers recalls a meeting with Wordsworth during which Coleridge ‘talked uninterruptedly for about two hours …’ When they left, Rogers admitted to Wordsworth ‘Well, for my own part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge’s oration: pray, did you understand it?’ ‘Not one syllable of it,’ was Wordsworth’s reply.