Tarr Steps is an iconic place on Exmoor. Located in a national nature reserve, it attracts around 40 thousand visitors a year. Many are drawn by the clapper bridge, whose 50 metre length makes it the longest free-standing stone bridge in Britain. It looks like a mighty crocodile stealthily crossing the river. Walking the clapper bridge in times of social-distancing, when the largest width is 1.5 metres, requires careful negotiation. There are no support rails for walkers and, when the river Barle is high, water can lap over the slippery stones. Others marvel at its construction of 17 spans connected by stone slabs weighing between one and two tons.
It’s a magnet for children wanting to paddle in the water by the bridge. It’s a challenge for motor-cyclists on trail bikes trying to cross the ford in front of the bridge. It also provides sport to see cars trying to cross the river with many having to turn back. It offers historical perspective watching horse riders slowly crossing the ford as they would have done for hundreds of years.
Tarr Steps is surrounded by mythology and mystery. One local legend is that the devil constructed the bridge making it a place of fear for the local people. Eventually, the local vicar is said to have confronted the devil who ultimately backed down, agreeing that anyone could cross the bridge unharmed. However, he was allowed to sunbathe on the stones whenever he wished. There are claims that it was constructed in the bronze age, others say that its origin is medieval. I have visited Tarr Steps at all seasons of the year and, in the quiet, it is easy to imagine walkers and charcoal burners carrying their loads across the bridge while Exmoor ponies and cattle were being herded over the ford. The presence of the nearby sixteenth century inn is an indication of the place’s busyness over the centuries.
Tarr Steps is a place of tranquillity and activity – until the river flexes its muscles and unleashes its wildness. The gentle river then becomes a torrent and rages so forcefully that it lifts up the two ton stones which form the bridge and, as though in a pique of anger against human interference, hurls them downstream. It is not surprising that our ancestors claimed that the devil was active around the bridge. When this happens, we can only stand back, gaze in awe and learn. In time, the stones are recovered and returned to their rightful place as good as new and we are all reminded that the forces of nature cannot always be controlled.
Tarr Steps is one of my favourite places on Exmoor. It is a dynamic reminder of beauty and the world at play and at the same time it has deep within it ingredients for struggle and renewal. When all is not right with the world or with me, Tarr Steps is liberating. Simply being there, sitting and experiencing help balance and perspective to return. Tarr Steps is a place of hope and delight.
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