Hunting for beavers on the River Otter the other day, our editor-at-large Martin Hesp stumbled upon a small cave with a big history – here is what he found out about the Pixie Parlour
The Westcountry is rich in literary landmarks great and small, famous and obscure – but none, perhaps, is quite so humble in terms of being linked to a poetic genius than a low sandy-floored cave lurking at the base of an ancient Devonian river cliff.
Even the river in question has long since turned its back on the place – the Otter’s stream now runs 100 metres away from the sandstone cliff that once bordered its shore – but residents of Ottery St Mary are so determined that the tiny cavern linked to Samuel Taylor Coleridge should be remembered, the council has created a special themed trail that passes its mouth, and has also produced an explanatory leaflet.
The town is rightly proud of its most famous son. Coleridge is more often linked to the Quantock village of Nether Stowey 50 miles away, where he penned some of his best known poems – but he was born in Ottery in 1772 and spent his childhood there.
His father, the Rev John Coleridge, was vicar at St Mary’s Church and there is no doubt the young poet knew the shallow cave – partly because the Pixie’s Parlour, as it long been known, has legendary links with the town that go back for many centuries (see panel).
But Coleridge’s link with the cave is more concrete than mere legend. It is believed he and his brothers all scratched their names in its soft red sandstone walls but, if they did, their signatures have long since been covered by other scratchings and scrawlings, including some weird and wonderful faces that have been etched into the rock.
What is known for sure is that the poet returned to town from university when he was 21 and for some reason took a bevy of young ladies to visit the cave one summer day when he apparently declared himself to be Prince of Pixies and crowned one of the girls (a Miss Boutflour, or Beaufleur) as his Fairy Queen.
Not bad going, in flirtatious terms at least, for a boy who had been something of a taciturn recluse in childhood – but the result of the amorous adventure was a poem (see below).
The rather lovely, albeit youthful, poem seems to act as a reminder of innocent days along the banks of the Otter – but what is better documented is another of the young poet’s meetings with the river, this time in less happy circumstances.
I was told this story by Chris Wakefield who is a local expert on the poet and who, in that light, has helped an organisation called the Coleridge Memorial Project to put together an informative leaflet on what is now known as the Coleridge Link – a footpath which connects Ottery St Mary to the East Devon Way by two separate routes.
It was Chris who introduced me to a letter Coleridge wrote to Nether Stowey’s Tom Poole in 1797 in which he described a family row caused, somewhat prosaically, by a lump of cheese…
Basically, young Samuel asked his mother to leave his portion in a single lump so he could toast it, but his brother made mischief by crumbling it into pieces.
The two boys fought, and the mother caught Samuel flying at his brother with a knife in hand…
“I expected a flogging and struggling from her I ran away to a hill at the bottom of which the Otter flows. There I stayed, my rage died away, but my obstinacy vanquished my fears.”
Coleridge remained outdoors in the gloaming saying his prayers “with inward and gloomy satisfaction how miserable my Mother must be!”
“It grew dark and I fell asleep,” he wrote. “It was towards the latter end of October and it proved a dreadful stormy night. I felt the cold and dreamt that I was pulling the blanket over me – and actually pulled over me a dry thorn bush.
“In my sleep I had rolled from the top of the hill to within three yards of the river, which flowed by the unfenced edge of the bottom. In the meantime my Mother waited, expecting my return when the sulks had evaporated.
“I not returning, she sent into the churchyard and round the town. Not found! Several men and all the boys were sent to seek me – in vain!
“My Mother was almost distracted and at ten o’clock at night I was cry’d by the crier in Ottery, and in two villages near it – with a reward offered for me. No one went to bed – indeed, I believe, half the town were up all night!
“About five in the morning I was broad awake and attempted to get up and walk – but I could not move. I saw the shepherds and workmen at a distance and cried – but so faintly that it was impossible to hear me – and there I might have lain and died.
“But by good luck Sir Stafford Northcote, who had been out all night, resolved to make one other trial, and came so near that he heard my crying. He carried me in his arms, when we met my father and Sir Stafford’s servants.”
It seems that the region very nearly lost its finest poet that night – and all because of a lump of cheese!
I would have liked, in the interests of journalistic symmetry, to have reported that Coleridge sheltered in Pixie’s Parlour, but he obviously did not. You can go and see the place for yourself thanks to the work of the Coleridge Memorial Project – and why not visit the town’s excellent tourist information centre.
The Coleridge Link Leaflet is available at the TIC or downloadable from www.coleridgememorial.org.uk/walking