Walk 135: Tarr Steps, Exmoor, Circular Walk…give it a ‘Clap(per)’

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 3.1 miles (4.90km)

Time to walk: A leisurely stroll will take you roughly 1.5 hours but, if it’s a nice day, bring a picnic & chill by the river, or visit the pub for a drink, or lunch

Difficulty: All on woodland trails & parts could get muddy in wet weather. The hill to & from the car park is quite steep

Parking: Use the public car park which is well signposted to Tarr Steps, on Exmoor

Public toilets: At the Pay & Display car park at the start & finish of the walk, or at Tarr Farm Inn

Map of the route: The route follows the River Barle throughout most of the walk

We were introduced to this short, yet lovely walk by friends in Somerset as part of a day spent touring Exmoor & the Quantocks – a superb day & a special mention to Beaufort who’ll we’ll see later

Situated in & owned by Exmoor National Park Authority, Tarr Steps Woodland National Nature Reserve covers 33 hectares of the River Barle valley. It has a great diversity of trees & is also internationally known for the mosses, liverworts & lichens which flourish in the cool damp conditions

Much of the woodland was once coppiced, primarily to provide charcoal for the local iron smelting industry. The river & the valley woodlands are part of the Barle Valley Site of Special Scientific Interest & are full of wildlife, ranging from red deer to dormice & the rare Barbastelle Bat Otter also feed along the unpolluted & fast-flowing river, which is also known for its migratory salmon

Shall we go & have a look?

Let’s Walk!

1. Tarr Steps car park is normally quite busy, especially on warm, summer weekends. Make sure you get a ticket before heading off. There’s some good information boards about the area on the walls of the building

Walk away from the building & down the footpath into the valley. Be careful as it’s quite steep & remember, it will feel worse on the way back up!

2. Walk through the gap at the bottom of the track & pass Tarr Farm Residential Inn & Restaurant

We decided to postpone refreshments until the end of the walk, but it’s an attractive setting & serves good fare as we’ll see later. In the meantime walk down to the River Barle to find the Tarr Steps themselves. The River Barle runs from the ‘Chains’ on northern Exmoor to join the River Exe at Exebridge in Devon

3. The Tarr Steps themselves are a bit of a phenomenon & a scheduled monument. They actually form a ‘clapper’ bridge over the River Barle. The name “clapper bridge” comes from the Medieval Latin “claperius” which means “pile of stones”. It’s an ancient form of bridge constructed with large unmortared slabs of stone resting on one another. Tarr Steps is the largest example of its type

There are 17 spans across 55 yards, the top slabs weighing between 1 & 2 tons & sit about 39 inches above normal water level. The largest slab is over 8 feet long & about 5 feet wide

 This is one of the best known monuments on Exmoor. Its age is unknown, as several theories claim that Tarr Steps dates from the Bronze Age, but others date them from around 1400 AD. It has been restored several times in recent years, following flood damage. Over the years the damage provides a good indicator of the strength of each flood. Some of the top slabs have been washed away in extreme flood conditions & they have now all been numbered to facilitate replacement

4. Cross the Steps…

…or in Beaufort’s case, just dive in!

5. Turn right & follow the well marked footpath along the side of the river. The next part of this walk follows the left bank & then crosses to return on the other side…

After roughly 100 yards you’ll come to a structure spanning the river. As the sign tells you, “This is not a bridge”. It is in fact cables that are designed to stop fallen trees, caused by floods, crashing into the Steps. Debris used to be removed once a year by farmers from the Dulverton & Hawkridge sides of the river, but since the flood of 1952 it has been trapped by the cables

The bridge was badly damaged by floodwater on 22 December 2012 when the steel wires were broken by fallen trees washed down the river. Floodwaters carried away part of the bridge again on 21 November 2016

6. We always like following rivers as they’re living things, flowing fast & “chattering” one minute, & meandering slowly & serenely the next. This is pretty much what you” find here…

Of course, Beaufort couldn’t resist again!

7. For a short while the path emerges from the trees into more of a meadow environment. You can see that when we did this walk in mid September 2019 it was amazing weather…

Also, although you’re following a river, the path is quite undulating &, as it enters the woods once more, it becomes steeper

8. After descending again, we arrive at a completely different looking river. It’s now wider & deeper & looks more like a lake. Because of this, it obviously attracts families for picnicking & paddling…

Plus if you fancy a go, there’s always the rope swing!!

9. Follow the path for another 50 yards to reach the footbridge over the river. You do have the option of continuing straight ahead, but for this walk, it’s time to cross & start heading back towards the Steps

Pass the “family area” & walk through the meadow. The whole area reminds us of a childhood haunt known as ‘Hubbard’s Hills’ near Louth in Lincolnshire

10. Walk through the gate into the woods & either cross the small stream by stepping on the stones, or by using the bridge

Look out for something unusual along here. There’s a fallen tree that people have knocked coins into. There’s thousands of them, so this must have been a custom that’s been going on years

11. Finally the path emerges from the woods to arrive back at the Tarr Steps area…

Now, on a day like today, refreshments are called for, so climb the steps up to the inn, or retrace the route on the road. If it’s a sunny day there’s plenty of seats in the garden (the one at the back’s quieter) to sit & simply enjoy the view. Afterwards just retrace your route back up the hill to the car park

So that’s our short walk in one of Somerset’s most beautiful & naturally important valleys, that also takes in the amazing Tarr Steps. It obviously can get busy, but is large enough to find some space to sit a while & simply enjoy the stunning surroundings

Go Walk!