Literary Haunts

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
On the last day of 1796, aged 24, Samuel Taylor Coleridge turned his back on the bright lights of Bristol, and came with his wife and child to live in the village of Nether Stowey, at the foot of the Quantock Hills.

To an acquaintance who feared for his isolation, he wrote: "I shall have six companions My Sara, my Babe, my own shaping and disquisitive Mind, my Books, my beloved Friend, Thomas Poole, and lastly, Nature, looking at me with a thousand looks of beauty, and speaking to me in a thousand melodies of Love."

For his new rural life he had chosen a small, thatched 17th-century cottage near the poorhouse. It was damp, had mice, and an open gutter running outside the front door. Yet the three years he spent here were among the most creative of his life.

As Richard Holmes makes clear in his brilliant biography, Coleridge had in mind a kind of monastic retreat, where he could combine physical labour with philosophical reflection.

The simple daily rhythm, combined with the fresh landscape of sea, hills, streams and woods all around, inspired him to write some of his finest poems, including "Frost at Midnight", "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison", "Kubla Khan" (dreamed and written at a nearby farm), and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

But the other vital element was companionship. While his near neighbour Thomas Poole, a tanner with a great love of literature, provided talk and books, it was the coming to Stowey of friends such as Lamb, Hazlitt and the Wordsworths that really set his creative juices flowing.

Coleridge persuaded William and Dorothy to rent a country house four miles away, at Holford. For six months the trio wandered the hills and villages by day, and talked poetry deep into the night. During one marathon walk the idea for the "Ancient Mariner" came to Coleridge; and the notion of the collaborative Lyrical Ballads took shape.

It was, in miniature, a version of the Utopian colony that Coleridge had once hoped to set up in America. But as a Jacobin, he was observed with suspicion by the authorities.

In 1799, with his marriage beginning to unwind, Coleridge moved to London. Subsequently the cottage at Stowey was enlarged, and at one point became a pub. In 1908 it was acquired by a group of Coleridge enthusiasts, and given the following year to the National Trust, which has run it ever since.

Today only two of the slightly gloomy rooms are open, the former kitchen and sitting room. The personal memorabilia are few, but striking: they include the sword Coleridge had during his brief army career; two locks of hair; and a huge black and gold ink stand, almost a pleasure dome in itself.

There are several portraits, prints, lithographs and silhouettes of Wordsworth, members of Coleridge's family, his publisher Joseph Cottle, and others. Pictures of the poet's other homes include a fascinating painting of his very modern-looking room in Highgate, where he spent his final years.

According to Derrick Woolfe, a knowledgeable curator, there are plans to open the upstairs bedrooms, converting one into a library and study centre, and re-creating the other as a bedroom of Coleridge's time. An appeal for Pounds 20,000, launched by the Friends of Coleridge, has already raised half the money.

Coleridge's Cottage, 35 Lime Street, Nether Stowey, Bridgwater, TA5 lNQ. Tel: O1278 732662. Friends of Coleridge, 11 Castle Street, Nether Stowey, Bridgwater TA5 lLN. Tel: O1278 733338. Coleridge: Early Visions, by Richard Holmes (Penguin, Pounds 6.99)

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