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Days out on Exmoor - Visiting Tarr Steps

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Tarr Steps is always one of the most popular days out when guests book with Woodlands Holidays. Just a short drive from both Woodlands House and Woodleigh Cottage, Tarr Steps, the longest clapper bridge in the UK, is a listed Ancient Monument and the Tarr Steps Woods which surround it are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI) and a National Nature Reserve (NNR). But Tarr Steps is not only historic, it's great fun too. You'll cross the river via the giant 'steps', enjoy a walk along the river banks and even think about a wild swim if the weather is kind. Then enjoy a picnic, or book in for a delicious meal at the Tarr Farm Inn, or just join the regulars for a Somerset cider and a snack.

Tarr Steps - Myths and Legends

The exact origins of Tarr Steps are unknown, but this famous bridge could date from the Bronze Age and there are remains nearby of forts dating from this period. The term ‘Tarr’ is thought to derive from the Celtic world ‘tochar’, meaning ‘causeway’.

Since no one really knows who built it, when and how, a number of myths have developed as to how it came into being. Local folklore has it that it was built by the Devil himself and that only after a local parson challenged him did he eventually allow people cross it, except on any occasion when he chose to sunbathe there.

Getting Closer to Nature

The woods around Tarr Steps are of national importance for conservation due to the rare lichens that thrive in the moist clean air of the valley. A walk by the river will give you a chance to see birds at the water’s edge such as Dippers, Yellow Wagtails and even, if you are very fortunate, a Kingfisher. In summer, swifts and swallows swoop across the river’s pools catching mayflies and in the early morning or evening, you may see woodland bats on the wing. Above and behind you, in the wood, you’ll hear and maybe see green and lesser spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Tree Creepers as they feed on insects on the tree trunks amid the lichen. The area is known for sightings of Dormice and even Otters. Early morning, late afternoon and early evening can be the most rewarding time to get close to Exmoor’s wildlife.

It's a great place to visit with the family and a fascinating spot for adults and children alike, keen to get closer to nature. I first experienced it at the age of nine. For someone more used to the noise of London traffic, the constant sound of the rushing river was a revelation. We were encouraged to ‘go off and enjoy ourselves’ - which meant climbing down from the bridge onto the island below it and making camps.

Jane and I still visit Tarr Steps regularly and seeing young people discovering and enjoying Tarr Steps for the first time brings back many happy memories!

A wooden bridge further upstream in Tarr Steps Woods on a bright day in February 2021

Tarr Steps - History and Construction

If bridge history is your thing - visiting Tarr Steps is a must. This is a ‘Clapper Bridge’, from the latin ‘Claperius’ meaning ‘pile of stones’ and is formed of 17 ‘spans’, built from giant paving stones mounted on piers laid on the river bed. These piers are composed of uprights and horizontals arranged to resist the pressure of the river’s flow. It's 59 yards (54m) long and some stones are over 7 foot long and weigh as much as two tonnes, making it the longest of 40 such surviving bridges in Britain.

Visiting Tarr Steps

Getting to Tarr Steps by car takes just 15-minutes from Dulverton via Winsford Hill before taking a left turn and on to Tarr Steps. To create a car free experience at Tarr Steps itself, there’s a ‘pay and display’ car park from where you can walk down to the bridge through a field. Ignore the Sat Nav though if it suggests you can drive across the river. The crossing is best made on horseback or in a 4x4 with high ground clearance and then, only when the river level is low!

If you’d prefer to stretch your legs, then walking there will take you over some of the most stunning scenery across Winsford Hill and down the River Barle valley. A return trip will take about 4-5 hours, so make sure you are prepared.

Alternatively, walk there, enjoy Tarr Steps and book in for a meal at Tarr Farm Inn and come back by taxi. Probably best to book one in advance!

In 2021 the National Park introduced a ‘one way’ system, to ensure walkers are able to maintain social distance. Along the way though there are quiet, calm areas where you can enjoy a picnic and, if you are plucky enough, do some wild swimming in the warmer months.

Tarr Steps and Tarr Woods - Conservation

The Steps face the full force of winter weather and are often submerged as the river’s level rises. On more than one occasion, debris hurtling downstream has dislodged the stones and washed the bridge away, requiring it to be re-assembled. Today each of the largest stones are numbered, so that this can be done more easily. If you look upstream from the bridge you can see a heavy gauge steel hauser strung across the river to catch tree trunks before they can crash into the bridge and damage it.

You can learn more about how the Exmoor National Park Authority and it plans to conserve this unique environment in its mission statement for the Barle Valley Woods here and its guidance on visiting Tarr Steps

Visiting Tarr Steps with Woodlands Holidays

Woodlands House and Woodleigh Cottage are ideally situated to explore and enjoy Exmoor and visit beautiful sites like Tarr Steps and the Barle Valley. We look forward to welcoming you and helping you enjoy your stay throughout this year, perhaps exploring Tarr Steps and this very special corner of Exmoor.

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