Smoke rises from charcoal burners’ fires in Five Lords, the deep wooded combe running below the old coach road between the Counting House on the A39 and Dead Woman’s Ditch. A green and peaceful spot, but in Coleridge’s time the site of a terrible tragedy.
Coleridge is walking with the publisher Joseph Cottle to visit the Wordsworths at Alfoxden. They follow the path that hugs the Stowey stream beyond Broomsquires Cottage. Cottle is shocked and horrified to hear about the young charcoal burner, John Walford, who was hanged on a gibbet in the field above the combe in 1789 for murdering his young wife.
‘A terrible story, Cottle. Poor fellow fell in love with Ann Rice, a local girl. But he was forced to marry another half-witted woman he didn’t love. He couldn’t bear the misery of it and murdered her.’
Coleridge shudders and turn pale. ‘Wordsworth’s writing a poem about it.’ He stumbles on up the lane under the shadow of the old oaks, clearly upset. Then he turns: ‘Tom Poole was here, you know. He was part of the crowd of three thousand watching the execution. Walford’s carcass was left hanging in a cage for an entire year – his parents could see it rotting from their cottage in the valley below.’
The traditional method of charcoal burning is almost as old as the Quantock Hills. Coleridge and Wordsworth would have met charcoal burners regularly on their Quantock walks.
In Five Lords it is said that there are the remains of the terraces where the charcoal burners lit their fires. The woods, however, are denser and more overgrown than they would have been in Coleridge’s time. The trees would have been coppiced and cropped regularly and the undergrowth slashed back. Where would the charcoal burners have had their fires? The valley floor is broad and it would seem logical for them to have had their huts and fires here alongside the stream running along it where there was a source of water. It would also have made the transporting of the charcoal more convenient. Waggons would have plied back and forth along the valley floor to the narrow lane connecting the hamlet of Bincombe with Stowey. But when I walked the path across the hillside I did find a narrow terrace half way up the slope, which was almost certainly one of their firing sites.
Once inside the woods the silence is deafening. There is always distant birdsong, but apart from the occasional dog walker trekking along the valley bottom, you see no one. The charcoal burners would have come from villages all over the Quantocks, arriving on Monday morning and staying the whole week in simple huts, tending their fires. It would have been a solitary existence.
Charcoal is made by allowing heaps of wood, covered with damp sods and wet sand, to burn slowly with a carefully regulated supply of air. The Quantock charcoal burner built large conical heaps from billets of ‘winter wood’ (branches and stems of coppice cut in winter, about four feet long, and averaging not more than an inch and a half in diameter). He constructed the stack round a vertical stake in the centre, and the space left by its withdrawal formed a kind of chimney. He lit the heap by throwing burning wood into the centre; he placed a screen made of leaves and branches on the windy side of the heap to prevent the combustion from going ahead too rapidly. The heap of wood burned slowly for twenty-four hours, the fire gradually passing from the centre to the edges. When the charcoal burner saw thick smoke and fumes coming from all parts of the heap, he knew it was time to throw wet sand and water on to damp down the fire. Then he had to watch the heap carefully in case fire broke out again, moving the screen round as the wind changed direction and pressing damp sods and sand down on the heap. When the slow smouldering process was complete, the heap was left to cool, which took 5 or 6 hours; finally the heap was taken apart and the resulting charcoal put in sacks.
The Quantock charcoal-burners occupied themselves in the winter from November to April felling and hauling the wood. They shared small conical-shaped huts covered with sods. Here they lived, cooked, and slept for up to twelve or fifteen weeks, and seldom visited their homes unless all work was stopped by stormy weather. They were visited from time to time by members of their families, who brought them food and gossip from the outside world. Because charcoal burning required great care and constant attention it was necessary that the men were on the watch day and night. Hence the long hours of work away from home, and no rest, even on Sundays.