Chapters and verse

Across the hills of Somerset, Penny McDonald tramps in the footsteps of the great Romantic poets.

'That's him gone. Now, where was I? In Xanadu: 'For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.' What's next? Need a bit more opium.'' So the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have thought, seeing off the visitor who interrupted the writing of his poem, Kubla Khan, in October 1797.

Coleridge never did pick up the thread and Kubla Khan remains the greatest poetic fragment in English literature. Famously, his creative, opium-fuelled reverie was halted by a ''person on business from Porlock'', a town close to where he was staying.

The most notable walk-on character in literary history has never been identified.

Porlock's infamy hasn't stopped the Somerset town and its neighbours from making the most of their heritage as hosts to a burst of poetry by the Romantics, Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Porlock lies at one end of what is now called the Coleridge Way, a trail of 58 kilometres. I set out from the other end, the small village of Nether Stowey at the foot of the Quantock Hills, where Coleridge lived for three years from 1797, under the patronage of a local tanner, Tom Poole.

''I mean to work very hard, as cook, butler, scullion, shoe-cleaner, occasional muse, gardener, hind, pig-protector, chaplain, secretary, poet, reviewer and omnium-botherum shilling-scavenger …'' Coleridge promised Poole, whose garden backed on to Coleridge's through a lime-tree bower.

Coleridge planted vegetables and reared pigs, happy in a decaying mice-infested 17th-century cottage with a thatched roof that he referred to fondly as ''the hovel''. Within a year, he'd also written some of his most famous poetry: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Frost at Midnight, The Lime Tree Bower my Prison and the opium-inspired Kubla Khan.

The brilliant, mercurial son of a Devonshire clergyman, Coleridge arrived in Nether Stowey with his wife, Sara, and newborn son, Hartley. He received a constant stream of visitors, among them the poet, Robert Southey, who had forced the marriage between Coleridge and his sister-in-law, Sara, as part of his scheme for a utopian commune or ''pantisocracy''; William Hazlitt; Coleridge's school friend Charles Lamb; and the Wedgwood pottery heirs, Tom and Josiah, who later became his patrons, too.

Coleridge's cottage faces the Ancient Mariner Hotel. Down the road is a whitewashed cottage named Xanadu. Now smartened up by the National Trust, which acquired it in 1909, Coleridge's cottage is undergoing restoration to the kitchen, well and privy. Wildflowers and new versions of the original 18th-century apple tree varieties have been planted in what was the back garden. It attracts 4000 visitors a year.

Inside, the rooms - two up, two down - are tiny and are connected by the original wooden spiral staircase, with exposed oak beams. Bookshelves are wired to prevent dealers making off with the cracked leather-bound first editions.

Taller tourists have to stoop. I can hear an American voice reciting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to his companions.

We press together to admire Coleridge's inkstand, quills, copies of his manuscripts, original watercolours, engravings and portraits of him and his family, even a sword from his brief and unlikely stint in the 15th Light Dragoons.

Nether Stowey's main street is a jumble of old cottages and pubs, the partly cobbled footpath crowded with tweedy locals and their dogs, the smell of wood smoke in the air.

Some locals regard Coleridge as a quirky eccentric who spent much of his time on drugs. ''High as a kite he was,'' says one. ''That's why the walk goes all over the place.'' At the Ancient Mariner, patrons describe him quaffing ale in what was once the The First and Last tavern, and it is certainly old enough. ''He used to sit in that corner smoking his wacky baccy with Poole and his friends,'' says a man with a shaven, tattooed head. As interest in Coleridge grew, the tavern changed its name. It serves a beer called Coleridge's Bitter and ''Ancient Mariner Ultimate Fish and Chips''.

The poet was fond for walking, and indeed some of his regular routes have been packaged as the Coleridge Way. It traverses scenic coombs (valleys); the Quantock and Brendon hills; part of Exmoor with its heath, wild ponies and deer; and there are side walks along the South West Coast Path to Devon. All of these walks are referred to in Coleridge's letters and notebooks.

Armed with map, raincoat and water bottle, I leave Nether Stowey on the first leg of the walk, aiming for the village of Bicknoller, about 14.5 kilometres away. The bridlepath is lined with banks of primroses. The signs have a quill instead of an arrow. Dried mud, rucked up by horses' hooves, makes for an uneven start but it soon opens out to fields and a hill, at the top of which is Walford's Gibbet. In 1789, a charcoal burner named John Walford murdered his wife and was hanged on this spot; his body hung in a cage for a year and a day. The path leads on to heath above Holford Combe and to the left is the Dowsborough hill fort, dating from the Iron Age.

Alone on top of the hill with views of the Quantock moorlands, the Mendips and the Bristol Channel, wind roaring in my ears, I have my first Coleridge moment. It is the route to Alfoxden Park, the home of William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, for a year in 1797-98 and, trying not to fall down rabbit holes, I hurry down the slope.

Wordsworth had been forced to flee the Revolution in France, leaving behind his French mistress and daughter. With England and France in protracted war, he was unable to return. With a modest annuity he'd started to write again and in Somerset, comforted by Dorothy, entranced by Coleridge and soothed by the countryside, he would recover his strength and spirit. The threesome became inseparable (''three people but one soul'', as Coleridge put it), rambling in the wooded hills over Stowey.

The poets, both early supporters of the Revolution, were suspected as spies. England was in the grip of invasion fever. The Home Office sent a government agent to investigate the pair, who'd been overheard discussing the situation in France. The agent followed them to Kilve, a smuggler's resort and possible landing spot, and hid behind a gorse bush. When he heard mention of ''spy nosy'', he thought he'd caught them out, but discovered they'd been talking about the Dutch philosopher, Spinoza.

The route descends to Holford village and Alfoxden Park, an isolated Queen Anne mansion set in a deer park. I tiptoe up the driveway. It's not hard to imagine Coleridge and Wordsworth working on their lyric ballads at the kitchen table, Dorothy in attendance, Sara Coleridge left at home with the baby.

From here the path leads overland to the village of Bicknoller. Unable to resist the lure of the sea, I walk in the opposite direction and cross a dewy field to the A39 and link up with the South West Coast Path to the village of East Quantoxhead, near Kilve, with its famous ammonites. It is a decision I will regret. Unused to hill walking and in secondhand boots, I arrive at Bicknoller hours later with blisters.

I marvel at the stamina of Coleridge, who thought nothing of walking to Devon in a day, a 50-kilometre trip one-way. At this stage he was taking small amounts of opium but had not yet become an addict. By the time I pick up the route again I wish I had some, too.

The next day is dominated by the steep climb to the highest point of the walk at Lype Hill on the fringe of Exmoor. I fortify myself with a hearty lunch of cider, bread and cheese at the Royal Oak in Luxborough. Up tractor-churned paths I reach the summit. That whistling noise is my breathing.

As I walk I wonder who was the person from Porlock. By his own account Coleridge fell sick between Porlock and Lynton, 400 metres from Culbone Church, and retired to ''a lonely farmhouse''. He was reading the 17th-century travel book, Purchas's Pilgrimage, and admits that Kubla Khan was ''composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium''.

When he awoke and began to set it down he was disturbed ''by a person on business from Porlock'' and by the time he'd gone, Coleridge was unable to recollect much more of it.

On a hillside overlooking the sea I find the ''lonely farmhouse''. Ash Farm is a working farm with sheep, dogs and Red Devon cows, and also a delightful bed-and-breakfast at the end of the route. The landscape perhaps fused into Coleridge's dream: ''Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, Through caverns measureless to man, Down to a sunless sea.'' Here I have another Coleridge moment; I check in at Ash Farm, take a shower and sink into a snowy quilt - my own ''reverie''.

The poetic interlude was soon over. In 1798, Wordsworth, feeling hounded, left Somerset for Germany with Dorothy; Coleridge went too, leaving behind Sara, with Hartley and a baby boy, Berkeley, who would die in infancy.

From Germany, the Wordsworths moved to the Lake District, followed by Coleridge and a reluctant Sara and their surviving son.

As he descended into addiction, Coleridge's marriage would fail and his friendship with Wordsworth falter.

But he continued to write and he and Wordsworth, who would become Poet Laureate, recalled the idyllic days spent tramping the Quantocks and Coleridge's ''beloved Stowey!''

Penny McDonald travelled courtesy of VisitBritain.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas has a fare to London for about $1785 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax, to Hong Kong (9hr) and then London (13hr). You can also fly via Singapore and Bangkok.

From London, book a return ticket to Taunton (£59.70, $102) on the Paddington to Penzance train. Change at Taunton for Bridgwater and catch the No.15 bus to Nether Stowey. To return to London, catch the Taunton bus at Porlock car park. From Taunton, catch the train direct to Paddington. See www.nationalrail.co.uk, www.traveline.org.uk.

Walking there

Allow three or four days to complete the Coleridge Way. See www.coleridgeway.co.uk, www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk/coleridgeway. Check in advance that your accommodation will transport your luggage to your next stop.

Coleridge Cottage, in Nether Stowey, Somerset, opens Thursday-Sunday from 2-5pm until September 30. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-coleridgecottage.

Staying and eating there

Coleridge once stayed at the Old House in Nether Stowey, which has bed-and-breakfast from £70/double a night, www.theoldhouse-quantocks.co.uk.

He also stayed at Ash Farm at Porlock, which has bed and breakfast for £25 a person. See www.porlock.co.uk.

The Royal Oak Inn,Luxborough, is a bed and breakfast. Try the £6.25 mixed ploughman's lunch with three local cheeses: cheddar, Exmoor Blue and Somerset Rustic. See www.theroyaloakinnluxborough.co.uk.

The Normans brought cider to England and it has been produced in Somerset ever since. Known as ''scrumpy'', it is potent and costs £3 a pint. Try a version called Thatcher's Dry.

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