Although finding some poetic inspiration in Teignmouth, Keats was not entirely enamoured with the town. He observed in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey: ‘you may say what you will of Devonshire: the truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod Country—the hills are very beautiful, when you get the sight of ‘em—the Primroses are out, but then you are in—the Cliffs are of a fine deep Colour, but then the Clouds are continually vieing with them …..’
Despite the weather Keats would have done much walking and the poem ‘Teignmouth’ seems to reflect his exploration of both sides of the river Teign between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot. There has been some debate about two of the locations – ‘the Barton’ and ‘Larch Brook’. I have followed in what might have been Keats footsteps and offer a possible explanation of these two sites.
In the poem the ‘Bishop’s Teign’ would now be Bishopsteignton, about 2 miles NW of Teignmouth on the right-hand side of the estuary as you look inland. The ‘King’s Teign’ would be Kingsteignton about 5 miles inland from Teignmouth on the same side of the river.
‘Barton’ in old English means a farmyard with additional meanings of ‘the domain lands of a manor’, ‘the manor itself’ or the ‘outhouses.’ I believe the likely reference is to what is now ‘Ware Barton’ an area of fields sloping down to the Teign between Bishopsteignton and Kingsteignton.
The landscape 200 years ago would have been different though there are still remnants of reed beds with ‘ditches and dykes’ on the riverside which these fields would have adjoined before the coming of the railway. There is also an old farm, ‘Wear Farm,’ to the right of this area.
Beyond Kingsteignton and adjacent to Newton Abbot are two existing areas of marshland – Hackney Marsh and, further to the North, Jetty Marsh – either or both of which could have constituted what Keats referred to as ‘Newton Marsh’.
On the opposite bank the ‘Coomb at the clear Teign head’ is almost certainly the modern ‘Combe-in-Teignhead’ where a stream flows down to the Teign into a cove adjacent to the ‘Combe Cellars’ Inn which is likely where Keats had his cream tea. (As an aside the name Combe-in-Teignhead is not derived from the river but is a corruption of the ‘ten hides’ area of land in which the village lay).
Arch Brook still exists further along the estuary from Coombe Cellars towards the coast. There is an old stone arch bridge flanked by reeds and quite a powerful brook surging into the Teign.
So, does ‘Larch Brook’ exist and, if so, where is it? I can’t believe, given that all Keats’ other references are correct, that Keats would have just invented Larch Brook as a convenient rhyme.
If you walk up the Teign from Coombe Cellars about half-way to where the dual-carriageway now crosses the river there is another brook of comparable size to Arch Brook.
There is no sign here but if you look inland you will see that the brook runs inland along a tall line of trees, including some tall conifers. Were there trees here two hundred years ago? Who knows but I believe that it is a likely candidate for Larch Brook.