An up-and-down walk in the Quantock combes.
Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)
Minimum time 2hrs 40min
Ascent/gradient 700ft (210m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Wide, smooth paths, with one slightly rough descent, no stiles
Landscape Deep, wooded hollows and rolling hilltops
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 140 Quantock Hills & Bridgwater
Start/finish ST 154410
Dog friendliness Well-trained dogs can usually remain off leads throughout
Parking At back of Holford (free)
Public toilets None on route
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1 Two tracks leave the road beside the car park. Take the right-hand one, which is marked with a bridleway sign. It becomes an earth track through woods, with Hodder's Combe Brook on its right. After ¾ mile (1.2km) the small track fords the stream and forks. Take the right-hand option, entering a side-valley. The path runs up the valley floor, gradually rising through oakwoods floored with bilberry (locally known as 'whortleberry'), then mixed heather and bracken, to reach the Quantock ridge. As the ground eases, keep ahead over two cross-tracks to Bicknoller Post.
2 To the right (north) of this col the ridge divides: we shall take the left-hand branch, which is 'Beacon Hill', so pass to the left side of the marker stake on a broad track. Keep ahead on the widest of the tracks. This track becomes a double one, almost a 'dual carriageway'. Bear left off it to the trig point on Beacon Hill.
3 At the trig point bend half-right to another marker-post on the main track. A smaller path goes down directly ahead, into Smith's Combe. The path weaves around, crossing the stream several times.
4 At the foot of the valley, with green fields below, is a 4-way 'Quantock Greenway' signpost: turn right (green arrow), uphill at first. The path runs around the base of the hills, with a belt of trees below and then the green fields. At the first spur crest is another signpost, 3-way: keep ahead for Holford. The path drops to cross a stream, Dens Combe. After ¼ mile (400m) it drops towards a wide gate leading out on to tarmac.
5 Don't go through the gate, but strike uphill to another 'Quantock Greenway' signpost. Keep uphill (green arrow) to pass above a pink house on to a tarred lane. Take the patchily tarred track ahead below a couple of houses. A sign indicates the Quantock Hills Youth Hostel down to the left, but stay on the lane. It runs out past Alfoxton, with the walled garden of the grand house (once Wordsworth's, now a hotel) on the left and the stable block with its clock on the right. At the foot of the hotel driveway is a small parking area.
6 Follow the lane for 650yds (594m) then, as it bends right, look out for a waymarker and railings a little way down in the trees. Below is a spectacular footbridge leading across into Holford. Turn right, and at the first junction turn right again, to the car park.
The great beauty of these hills, says Dorothy Wordsworth, is their wild simplicity. We often hear of the 'Lakes poets', but in fact Coleridge wrote most of his best-known works (Kubla Khan, Christabel) while he was living in Somerset, and his neighbour, Wordsworth, started his poetic career here as well. Coleridge was the first to move to the Quantocks, invited by a friendly bookseller, from Nether Stowey, who had noticed a cottage to let at the bottom of his garden. A year later Wordsworth and his sister moved into the rather grand house of Alfoxton (now a hotel and passed towards the end of this walk).
This took place in the heady years after the French Revolution, and the ultimate aim of the two friends was to set up a sort of poets' commune, gathering like-minded radicals for a group emigration to America. In the meantime, the two young men revolutionised English poetry. They were key players in the Romantic Revival, overthrowing the stilted formal verse of the previous hundred years, by creating Romantic poetry as a means of describing and expressing strong emotion.
Amazingly, Coleridge's most celebrated work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was written in the Quantocks at a time when his entire experience of sea voyaging was a crossing of the Severn by the Chepstow ferry. The poem was roughed out in the course of a walk taken by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy. They set out from Alfoxton at 4pm on a November afternoon in 1797; this was timed so that they could watch from the Quantock ridge as dusk gave way to moonlight over the Bristol Channel. After crossing the Quantocks they continued by the coast path, finally arriving at Dulverton four days later. Coleridge's mesmeric Christabel recalls the wooded combes of Holford. In This Lime-tree Bower My Prison, Coleridge himself was frustratingly trapped at home in Stowey, after his wife Sara had spilt scalding milk on his foot.
'Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven - and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea'
Meanwhile, his friends were following your present walk up to Bicknoller Post and enjoying the view over the Bristol Channel. The different writing styles of the two friends were reflected in their walking styles: Coleridge liked to compose his verse whilst striding over awkward ground, whereas Wordsworth did so pacing up and down a gravel path.
There is nothing currently at Holford. Nether Stowey has a good selection, with the Royal Oak being congenial and dog-friendly.
Just below Dowsborough Fort is, apparently, the home of the Great Vurm of Shervage Wood. It lives on sheep, cattle, whortleberries and people. It sometimes looks like a fallen tree trunk; the only person to have survived meeting it was a woodman from Stogumber who actually sat down on it to enjoy his lunchtime cider and sandwiches. A small building in the wood near the car park (grid ref ST 153411) is a dog pound. In the 18th century the huntsman at Alfoxton's kennels was killed by his own hounds when trying to pacify them from barking at stray dogs. Accordingly Alfoxton donated this pound to the community.
The Coleridge Cottage at Nether Stowey is managed by the National Trust. The lime tree bower is gone but you can see a bay tree planted by the poet, his massive inkwell, his sword and a lock of his hair as well as the rooms where he worked. The poet's privy has also survived. The cottage is open four afternoons a week except in winter.