Our day out to celebrate Elaine’s birthday, postponed from earlier in the week due to uncooperative weather, found us heading for the Somerset border yesterday and a trip over Exmoor to Tarr Steps, one of the many the ancient scheduled monuments that we’re fortunate to have in this part of the country.
Midway between Dulverton, popular destination for hikers and tourists alike and the picturesque village of Withypool, Tarr Steps, nestled in the Barle River Valley, isn’t hard to find and is definitely worth a visit.
Parking in the very reasonably priced car park (£2 all day) we released the excitedly whining Roo from captivity in the back of the car and strolled down the public footpath that crosses a sheep field (dogs on leads here please) to reach the bottom of the valley.
Elaine chose to stop at the Tarr Farm Inn for a drink first, and who was I to argue.
Located directly above the river, the beautiful 16th century stone building offers great views from the beer garden, down to the even more ancient stonework below.
From the perspective of this high elevation you don’t get much more than the impression of a solidly built pontoon bridge, but descending to the river bank the impressive scale of the engineering can be fully appreciated.
The date of the Clapper Bridge (from the old Latin word claperius, meaning “pile of stones”) is uncertain, but best estimates put it somewhere around 1000BC.
[Although Exmoor legend has it that it was built by the Devil as part of a bet. He threatened to vaporise anyone attempting to cross the bridge until, faced down by a local hard man preacher, he acquiesced and allowed safe passage across the river on the condition that he retained sunbathing rights on the stones]
Tarr Steps bridge is 180ft (55m) long and is constructed from 17 main slabs, all of which weigh upwards of a ton and the largest, 8ft long × 5ft wide, tips the scales at two tons.
The many smaller stones that make up the piers of the bridge are intricately fitted together without any form of cement or mortar and also incorporated are the unique, raked “buttress” stones, angled in such a way as to deflect debris washed down the river in heavy rains.
Despite this feature the Great Flood of 1952 (the night Lynmouth was devastated by flooding) demolished the bridge, leading to the stones now having been numbered for easy reassembly by conservation workers.
In fact since 1952 there has been a web of anchored cables further upstream, designed to catch fallen branches before they reach the bridge..
..which worked fine until 2012, when the extreme weather brought so much uprooted timber down the river that it ripped out the cables, carrying them downstream to do even more damage and once again providing patient heritage experts with the world’s heaviest jigsaw.
The Barle River Valley itself is a SSSI, (site of special scientific interest) and has been designated a National Nature Reserve, with easy walks along the river bank through woods of oak, beech, ash and hazel trees.
The reserve is also recognised as an internationally significant site for fungi, mosses, liverworts and lichens and it isn’t difficult to see why.
This peaceful river valley has been used by man for hundreds, possibly thousands of years for hunting, fishing, charcoal burning as part of the iron smelting industry, and now of course walking, canoeing and just enjoying the ancient beauty of the woods.