Among The Quantock Hills
by Henry van Dyke
My little Dorothea was the only one of the merry crowd who cared to turn aside with me from the beaten tourist-track, and give up the sight of another English cathedral for the sake of a quiet day among the Quantock Hills. Was it the literary association of that little corner of Somersetshire with the names of Wordsworth and Coleridge that attracted her, I wonder? Or was it the promise that we would hire a dog-cart, if one could be found, and that she should be the driver all through the summer day? I confess my incompetence to decide the question. When one is fifteen years old, a live horse may be as interesting as two dead poets. Not for the world would I put Dorothea to the embarrassment of declaring which was first in her mind.
When she and I got out of the railway carriage, in the early morning, at the humble station of Watchet, (barely mentioned in the guide-book,) our travelling companions jeered gently at our enterprise. As the train rumbled away from the platform, they stuck their heads out of the window and cried, “Where are you going? And how are you going to get there?” Upon my honour, I did not know. That was just the fun of it.
But there was an inn at Watchet, though I doubt whether it had ever entertained tourists. The friendly and surprised landlady thought that she could get us a dog-cart to drive across the country; but it would take about an hour to make ready. So we strolled about the town, and saw the sights of Watchet.
They were few and simple; yet something, (perhaps the generous sunshine of the July day, or perhaps an inward glow of contentment in our hearts,) made them bright and memorable. There were the quaint, narrow streets, with their tiny shops and low stone houses. There was the coast-guard station, with its trim garden, perched on a terrace above the sea. There was the life-boat house, with its doors wide open, and the great boat, spick and span in the glory of new paint, standing ready on its rollers, and the record of splendid rescues in past years inscribed upon the walls. There was the circular basin-harbour, with the workmen slowly repairing the breakwater, and a couple of ancient looking schooners reposing on their sides in the mud at low tide. And there, back on the hill, looking down over the town and far away across the yellow waters of the Bristol Channel, was the high tower of St. Decuman’s Church.
“It was from this tiny harbour,” said I to Dorothea, “that a great friend of ours, the Ancient Mariner, set sail on a wonderful voyage. Do you remember?
“‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.’
“That was the kirk to which he looked back as he sailed away to an unknown country.”
“But, father,” said Dorothea, “the Ancient Mariner was not a real person. He was only a character!”
“Are you quite sure,” said I, “that a character isn’t a real person? At all events, it was here that Coleridge, walking from Nether Stowey to Dulverton, saw the old sailor-man. And since Coleridge saw him, I reckon he lived, and still lives. Are we ever going to forget what he has told us?
“‘He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.'”
Just then a most enchanting little boy and his sister, not more than five years old, came sauntering down the gray street, hand in hand. They were on their way to school, at least an hour late, round and rosy, careless and merry, manifest owners of the universe. We stopped them: they were dismayed, but resolute. We gave each of them a penny; they radiated wonder and joy. Too happy for walking, they skipped and toddled on their way, telling everyone they met, children and grown-up people, of the good fortune that had befallen them. We could see them far down the street, pausing a moment to look in at the shop-windows, or holding up their coppers while they stopped some casual passer-by and made him listen to their story–just like the Ancient Mariner.
By this time the dog-cart was ready. The landlord charged me eighteen shillings for the drive to Bridgewater, nineteen miles away, stopping where we liked, and sending back the cart with the post-boy that evening. By the look on his face I judge that he thought it was too much. But I did not. So we climbed to the high seat, Dorothea took the reins and the whip, and we set forth for a day of unguide-booked pleasure.
What good roads they have in England! Look at the piles of broken stone for repairs, stored in little niches all along the way; see how promptly and carefully every hole is filled up and every break mended; and you will understand how a small beast can pull a heavy load in this country, and why the big draught-horses wear long and do good work. A country with a fine system of roads is like a man with a good circulation of the blood; the labour of life becomes easier, effort is reduced and pleasure increased.
Bowling along the smooth road we crossed a small river at Doniford, where a man was wading the stream below the bridge and fly-fishing for trout; we passed the farmhouses of Rydon, where the steam-thresher was whirling, and the wheat was falling in golden heaps, and the pale-yellow straw was mounded in gigantic ricks; and then we climbed the hill behind St. Audries, with its pretty gray church, and manor house half hidden in the great trees of the park.
The view was one of indescribable beauty and charm; soft, tranquil woods and placid fertile fields; thatched cottages here and there, sheltered and embowered in green; far away on the shore, the village of East Quantockshead; beyond that the broad, tossing waters of the Bristol Channel; and beyond that again, thirty miles away, the silver coast of Wales and the blue mountains fading into the sky. Ships were sailing in and out, toy-like in the distance. Far to the north-west, we could see the cliffs of the Devonshire coast; to the north-east the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm rose from the Severn Sea; and around the point beyond them, in the little churchyard of Clevedon, I knew that the dust of Arthur Henry Hallam, whose friendship Tennyson has immortalized in “In Memoriam,” was sleeping
“By the pleasant shore
And in the hearing of the wave.”
High overhead the great white clouds were loitering across the deep-blue heaven. White butterflies wavered above the road. Tall foxglove spires lit the woodland shadows with rosy gleams. Bluebells and golden ragwort fringed the hedge-rows. A family of young wrens fluttered in and out of the hawthorns. A yellow-hammer, with cap of gold, warbled his sweet, common little song. The colour of the earth was warm and red; the grass was of a green so living that it seemed to be full of conscious gladness. It was a day and a scene to calm and satisfy the heart.
At Kilve, a straggling village along the road-side, I remembered Wordsworth’s poem called “An Anecdote for Fathers.” The little boy in the poem says that he would rather be at Kilve than at Liswyn. When his father foolishly presses him to give a reason for his preference, he invents one:
“At Kilve there was no weather-cock,
And that’s the reason why.”
Naturally, I looked around the village to see whether it would still answer to the little boy’s description. Sure enough, there was no weather-cock in sight, not even on the church-tower.
Not far beyond Kilve we saw a white house, a mile or so away, standing among the trees to the south, at the foot of the high-rolling Quantock Hills. Our post-boy told us that it was Alfoxton, “where Muster Wudswuth used to live,” but just how to get to it he did not know. So we drove into the next village of Holford and made inquiry at the “Giles’ Plough Inn,” a most quaint and rustic tavern with a huge ancient sign-board on the wall, representing Giles with his white horse and his brown horse and his plough. Turning right and left and right again, through narrow lanes, between cottages gay with flowers, we came to a wicket-gate beside an old stone building, and above the gate a notice warning all persons not to trespass on the grounds of Alfoxton. But the gate was on the latch, and a cottager, passing by, told us that there was a “right of way” which could not be closed–“goa straight on, and nivver fear, nubbody ‘ll harm ye.”
A few steps brought us into the thick woods, and to the edge of a deep glen, spanned by a bridge made of a single long tree-trunk, with a hand-rail at one side. Down below us, as we stood on the swaying bridge, a stream dashed and danced and sang through the shade, among the ferns and mosses and wild flowers. The steep sides of the glen glistened with hollies and laurels, tangled and confused with blackberry bushes. Overhead was the interwoven roof of oaks and ashes and beeches. Here it was that Wordsworth, in the year 1797, when he was feeling his way back from the despair of mind which followed the shipwreck of his early revolutionary dreams, used to wander alone or with his dear sister Dorothy. And here he composed the “Lines Written in Early Spring”–almost the first notes of his new poetic power:
“I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sat reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
“Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its leaves;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.”
Climbing up to the drive, we followed a long curving avenue toward the house. It led along the breast of the hill, with a fine view under the spreading arms of the great beeches, across the water to the Welsh mountains. On the left the woods were thick. Huge old hollies showed the ravages of age and storm. A riotous undergrowth of bushes and bracken filled the spaces between the taller trees. Doves were murmuring in the shade. Rabbits scampered across the road. In an open park at the edge of the wood, a herd of twenty or thirty fallow deer with pale spotted sides and twinkling tails trotted slowly up the slope.
Alfoxton House is a long, two-story building of white stucco, with a pillared porch facing the hills. The back looks out over a walled garden, with velvet turf and brilliant flowers and pretty evergreens, toward the sea-shore. The house has been much changed and enlarged since the days when young William Wordsworth rented it, (hardly more than a good farmhouse), for twenty-three pounds a year, and lived in it with his sister from 1797 to 1798, in order to be near his friend Coleridge at Nether Stowey. There is not a room that remains the same, though the present owner has wisely brought together as much of the old wood-work as possible into one chamber, which is known as Wordsworth’s study. But the poet’s real study was out of doors; and it was there that we looked for the things that he loved.
In a field beyond the house there were two splendid old ash-trees, which must have been full-grown in Wordsworth’s day. We stretched ourselves among the gnarled roots, my little Dorothy and I, and fed our eyes upon the view that must have often refreshed him, while his Dorothy was leading his heart back with gentle touches toward the recovery of joy. There was the soft, dimpled landscape, in tones of silvery verdure, blue in distance, green near at hand, sloping down to the shining sea. The sky was delicate and friendly, bending close above us, with long lines of snowy clouds. There was hardly a breath of wind. Far to the east we saw the rich plain rolling away to Bridgewater and the bare line of the distant Mendip Hills. Shadows of clouds swept slowly across the land. Colours shifted and blended. On the steep hill behind us a row of trees stood out clear against the blue.
“With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh.”
What induced Wordsworth to leave a place so beautiful? A most prosaic reason. He was practically driven out by the suspicion and mistrust of his country neighbours. A poet was a creature that they could not understand. His long rambles among the hills by day and night, regardless of the weather; his habit of talking to himself; his intimacy and his constant conferences on unknown subjects with Coleridge, whose radical ideas were no secret; his friendship with Thelwall the republican, who came to reside in the neighbourhood; the rumour that the poet had lived in France and sympathized with the Revolution–all these were dark and damning evidences to the rustic mind that there was something wrong about this long-legged, sober-faced, feckless young man. Probably he was a conspirator, plotting the overthrow of the English Government, or at least of the Tory party. So ran the talk of the country-side; and the lady who owned Alfoxton was so alarmed by it that she declined to harbour such a dangerous tenant any longer. Wordsworth went with his sister to Germany in 1798; and in the following year they found a new home at Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, among the English lakes.
On our way out to the place where we had left our equipage, we met the owner of the estate, walking with his dogs. He was much less fierce than his placard. It may have been something in Dorothea’s way that mollified him, but at all events he turned and walked with us to show us the way up the “Hareknap”–the war-path of ancient armies–to a famous point of view. There we saw the Quantock Hills, rolling all around us. They were like long smooth steep billows of earth, covered with bracken, and gorse, and heather just coming into bloom. Thick woodlands hung on their sides, but above their purple shoulders the ridges were bare. They looked more than a thousand feet high. Among their cloven combes, deep-thicketed and watered with cool springs, the wild red deer still find a home. And it was here (not in Cardiganshire as the poem puts it) that Wordsworth’s old huntsman, “Simon Lee,” followed the chase of the stag.
It was a three-mile drive from Holford to Nether Stowey. Dorothea remarked that Coleridge and the Wordsworths must have been great walkers if this was their idea of living close together. And so they were, for that bit of road seemed to them only a prelude to a real walk of twenty or thirty miles. The exercise put them in tune for poetry, and their best thoughts came to them when they were afoot.
“The George” at Nether Stowey is a very modest inn, the entrance paved with flag-stones, the only public room a low-ceiled parlour; but its merits are far beyond its pretensions. We lunched there most comfortably on roast duck and green peas, cherry tart and cheese, and then set out to explore the village, which is closely built along the roads whose junction is marked by a little clock-tower. The market-street is paved with cobble-stones, and down one side of it runs a small brook, partly built in and covered over, but making a merry noise all the way. Coleridge speaks of it in his letters as “the dear gutter of Stowey.”
Just outside of the town is the Castle Mound, a steep, grassy hill, to the top of which we climbed. There was the distinct outline of the foundations of the old castle, built in the Norman times; we could trace the moat, and the court, and all the separate rooms; but not a stone of the walls remained–only a ground-plan drawn in the turf of the hill-top. All the pride and power of the Norman barons had passed like the clouds that were sailing over the smooth ridges of the Quantocks.
Coleridge was twenty-four years old when he came to Nether Stowey with his young wife and a boy baby. Troubles had begun to gather around him; he was very poor, tormented with neuralgia, unable to find regular occupation, and estranged by a quarrel from his friend and brother-in-law, Robert Southey. Thomas Poole, a well-to-do tanner at Nether Stowey, a man of good education and noble character, a great lover of poetry and liberty, had befriended Coleridge and won his deep regard and affection. Nothing would do but that Poole should find a cottage near to his own house, where the poet could live in quietude and congenial companionship.
The cottage was found; and, in spite of Poole’s misgivings about its size, and his warnings in regard to the tedium and depression of village life, Coleridge took it and moved in with his little family on the last day of the year 1796–a cold season for a “flitting!” We can imagine the young people coming down the Bridgewater road through the wintry weather with their few household goods in a cart.
The cottage was at the western end of the village; and there it stands yet, a poor, ugly house, close on the street. We went in, and after making clear to the good woman who owned it that we were not looking for lodgings, we saw all that there was to see of the dwelling. There were four rooms, two downstairs and two above. All were bare and disorderly, because, as the woman explained, house-cleaning was in progress. It was needed. She showed us a winding stair, hardly better than a ladder, which led from the lower to the upper rooms. There was no view, no garden. But in Coleridge’s day there was a small plot of ground belonging to the house and running back to the large and pleasant place of his friend Poole. It was upon this little garden that the imagination of the new tenant was fixed, and there he saw, in his dream, the corn and the cabbages and the potatoes growing luxuriantly under his watchful and happy care; enough, he hoped, to feed himself and his family, and to keep a couple of what he called “snouted and grunting cousins” on the surplus. “Literature,” he wrote, “though I shall never abandon it, will always be a secondary object with me. My poetic vanity and my political favour have been exhaled, and I would rather be an expert, self-maintaining gardener than a Milton, if I could not unite them both.” How amusing are men’s dreams–those of humility as well as those of ambition! There is a peculiarly Coleridgean touch in that last hint of uniting Milton and the market-gardener.
In fact, I doubt whether the garden ever paid expenses; but, on the other hand, the crop of poetry that sprung from Coleridge’s marvellous mind was rich and splendid. It was while he lived in this poor little cottage that he produced “Osorio,” “Fears in Solitude,” “Ode to France,” the first part of “Christabel,” “Frost at Midnight,” “The Nightingale,” “Kubla Khan,” and “The Ancient Mariner,” and planned with his friend Wordsworth “Lyrical Ballads,” the most epoch-making book of modern English poetry. Truly this year, from April, 1797, to April, 1798, was the _annus mirabilis_ of his life. Never again was he so happy, never again did he do such good work, as when he harboured in this cottage, and slipped through the back gate to walk in the garden or read in the library of his good friend, Thomas Poole, or trudged down the road to the woods of Alfoxton to talk with the Wordsworths. He wrote lovingly of the place:
“And now, beloved Stowey, I behold
Thy Church-tower, and methinks, the four huge elms
Clustering, which mark the mansion of my friend;
And close behind them, hidden from my view,
Is my own lovely cottage, where my babe
And my babe’s mother dwell in peace.”
Dorothea and I were not sure that Mrs. Coleridge enjoyed the cottage as much as he did. Greta Hall, at Keswick, with its light airy rooms and its splendid view, was her next home; and when we saw it, a few weeks later, we were glad that the babe and the babe’s mother had lived there.
But the afternoon was waning, and we must turn our back to the Quantocks, and take to the road again. Past the church and the manor house, with its odd little turreted summer-house, or _gazebo_, perched on the corner of the garden-wall; past a row of ancient larch-trees and a grove of Scotch pines; past smooth-rolling meadows full of cattle and sheep; past green orchards full of fruit for the famous and potent Somereset cider; past the old town of Cannington, where the fair Rosamund was born, and where, on our day, we saw the whole population in the streets, perturbed by some unknown excitement and running to and fro like mad folks; past sleepy farms and spacious parks and snug villas, we rolled along the high-road, into Bridgewater, a small city, where they make “Bath bricks,” and where the statue of Admiral Blake swaggers sturdily in the market-place. There we took the train to join our friends at dinner in Bristol; and so ended our day among the Quantock Hills.