BOUND FOR BEER (PART 1)

Garden at the National Trust Coleridge Cottage

MrElaineous and I are teetotal or, as I like to put it, totally about tea. This means that there was a degree of irony in our recent trip to the Devon village of Beer as we wouldn’t be partaking in the eponymous beverage, but we did hope to enjoy everything this coastal hamlet had to offer.

This was, I admit, another trip inspired by a television programme. Earlier in the year we caught Penelope Keith’s Village of the Year, in which 76 villages from across the United Kingdom squared off against each other for the coveted title. It was an oddly addicting programme as the presenters travelled across the country to showcase picture-perfect rows of houses, local cooking and crafts, and a few unique traditions (pie tossing festival anyone?), all of which are thriving thanks to a large dose of community spirit and civic pride. Beer was one of the four finalists and the one closest to us—a visit seemed an ideal way to kick off the summer season.

Yet one unfortunate trend of our travels this year has been the tendency for sunshine and blue skies to only appear when we stay close to home. A room booked at a B&B? I can almost guarantee rain. This trip was no exception, with rain showers following us as we travelled south.

However, we didn’t let that stop us from stopping at a small National Trust property as we headed towards Devon. We had visited the large stately homes in the area previously—Killerton and Knightshayes are both lovely, grand, and the type of place you need a full day to explore—and with only a few hours to kill we decided to give the Coleridge Cottage a try.

The National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage and a local pub, named after Samuel Taylor Coleridge best known poem, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

As the name implies, this cottage once belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the founders of the British romantic poetry movement. Other members included William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Blake, and John Keats. Rather than “romantic” in the sense of love and relationships, the practitioners of this movement championed imagination, being in touch with nature, and expressing emotions through poetry.

As we approached the cottage, I used my phone to find the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” online and recited it to MrElaineous. I hadn’t looked at it since high school, and yes, the rhymes are a bit dodgy and he does go on a bit (surely a few of the repeating stanzas could have been cut?), but I had forgotten how cinematic it was, which isn’t too shabby for a verse written in 1798. The ship of the dead calls to mind the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean, and his descriptions of Antarctic ice and the southern lights are familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a National Geographic. It has also entered popular culture through the phrase “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” and, of course, to have an albatross around one’s neck.

Arriving at the house, we were greeted with one of those fantastic National Trust volunteers who seemed to know everything about the person and the property. Her introduction to Coleridge helped set the scene: his friendship with leading poets like Wordsworth, his fondness for walking holidays, family tragedy, the breakdown of his marriage, his opium addiction. He and fellow poet Robert Southey even hatched a plan to go to America and start a commune where they would grow their own food and revolutionise poetry. While the latter came to pass in its own way, it became clear throughout the visit that Coleridge would have made a poor farmer!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge quote: "This is my botanical garden ... the weeds you see have taken liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries."

While Coleridge only lived in the cottage for three years, it was here that he wrote some of his best known poems, including “Rime”, “Christabel”, and “Kubla Khan”. His live-and-let-live philosophy, which comes across in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (“He prayeth well, who loveth well, Both man and bird and beast”), was on display during his time in the country. He allowed mice to run about freely, much to the disapproval of his wife, and his desire to keep a garden was scuppered by allowing weeds to grow equally with the fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

As a property, there is very little that is original as the traditional two-up-two-down thatched cottage (literally two rooms downstairs and two upstairs) was enlarged and enclosed in the Victorian period. Yet it serves as a fantastic introduction to the man and the period, with reconstructions and more modern interpretation harmoniously living side by side. Bits of Coleridge’s poems and letters are used throughout, the literature breathing life into what could have been just another period piece.

Three reconstructed rooms at the National Trust's Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey.

The garden of the cottage was lovely, bursting with flowers and abuzz with bees. Much of it was turned over to wildflowers and, at the very end, sat a small woven bower that had pride of place. While at the cottage, Coleridge wrote the poem “The lime-tree bower my prison” about sitting there while missing a walking trip with his friends; with a bit of National Trust magic and the press of a button, we could listen to the poem read aloud while in the place that inspired it. The bower turned into our prison for a time as well—what had been a drizzle began to come down harder and we had a decision to make: stay within or make a dash for the car.

We chose the latter and it turned out to be the right choice because, soon after, the first wave of torrential rain that was to hit the UK that evening descended on us. A garden bower wouldn’t have been enough to keep us dry, but now we were safely on the road to Beer and an even further leap back in time.

Check back next week for Part 2, or sign up to the mailing list to have it delivered directly to your inbox.

Flowers at the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage.

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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