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Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth night walking in the Quantock Hills

‘I walked to Stowey in the evening … Coleridge returned with me, as far as the wood.’ - Dorothy Wordsworth

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.

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. 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. 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.

So how would 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. 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.

Terence Sackett

Taken from his Quantock Notebook

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