Crossing the Barle River in Exmoor National Park is a Medieval causeway that has withstood the test of time, from locals challenging the devil to many a flood since. Ethan takes us across the Tarr Steps.

The Tarr Steps the longest and perhaps oldest Medieval clapper bridge in Britain.
Crossing the Barle River, the longest surviving Medieval clapper bridge.

Exmoor, a National Park stretching across the borders of Devon and Somerset, is one of southern England’s most picturesque areas. Its wide-open moors, rolling hills, and rugged coastline make the space an ideal getaway for hillwalkers and holidaymakers.

It is also an area rich in archaeological interest. One of Exmoor’s finest gems is Tarr Steps. Stretching for 54 metres across the River Barle, Tarr Steps is an example of a clapper bridge, a form of construction involving large flat slabs of stone balanced on stone piers jutting out of the water. There is some debate about the etymology of the name. Tarr is thought to be from the Celtic word tochar meaning causeway. The term lapper bridge is derived from the Latin word for a pile of stones, that is claperius.

The Tarr Steps in Exmoor National Park, Somerset.

The Tarr Steps Bridge is one of the oldest known examples of a stone bridge made before the use arches. The bridge was constructed using 17 spans of pillars and smooth covering stones. The pillars were made using rough stones that are between 3 and 4 feet high, and placed in the river bed between 4 to 6 feet apart. Smooth slabs varying between 6 to 8 feet long were then laid flat on the pillars without the use of mortar or cement. Most pillars are spanned by only one stone.

The exact origins of Tarr Steps are not known for sure. Some suggest that locals constructed it during the Bronze Age or at some other point in prehistory. More recent research, however, suggests late medieval origins. A documentary source from 1279 indicates that at the time there was a bridge further along the river, at Three Waters. It seems unlikely that there would be two bridges in close proximity during this period, suggesting that it was built after that date.

Tarr Steps has had a difficult history, and in recent years has been heavily damaged by flooding, necessitating extensive reconstruction. Regardless of how many times the bridge has been repaired and re-erected, it is still a site of great archaeological importance, reflected in the fact that English Heritage categorise it as a Grade-I listed building.

Tarr Steps is a beautiful place to visit and at certain times can be a little swamped with tourists. A large car park and toilet cater for visitors, although there is a five-minute walk from these to the bridge which may pose difficulties for those with severe mobility issues. Nearer to the bridge itself is a pub and tearoom, although there are also areas where one can picnic.

The Coin Tree near the Tarr Steps, Somerset.

The coin tree.

After visiting the bridge itself, consider taking the circular walk along the River Barle. The wooded Barle Valley is one of the most beautiful areas of Exmoor and contains interesting features like a coin tree; a tree in which hundreds of pennies have been inserted into the trunk, resulting in a crocodile-like appearance. There are many such ‘wishing trees’ around Britain. Banging coins into the trunk of a tree is much like throwing coins into springs and fountains.

Further afield, there are other archaeological sites which you might like to visit. Many Bronze Age survivals can be found in the surrounding area, including Withypool Stone Circle and a large number of round barrows, although none are so visually impressive as Tarr Steps.

The wishing tree near the Tarr Steps in Exmoor National Park.

The coin tree.

The Tarr Steps in Folklore

As is so often the case, local folklore offers a different account for the clapper bridge. Legend has it that the bridge was built by the devil himself, and that he swore to kill anyone who attempted to cross it. To test the threat, locals sent a cat across the bridge. When they saw it disappear right before them, they called for the parson. He was sent over the bridge to remonstrate with the devil.

The two met in the middle, but despite being threatened by the devil the parson stood his ground. Eventually the devil gave in and agreed to allowing people to use his bridge on condition they would stayed away if he chose to sunbathe.

In fact there are about 40 such clapper bridges around Britain, many of which have their own folktales. At 54 metres in length, the Exmoor Clapper Bridge is by far the longest of those still standing.

Where are the Tarr Steps and the Coin Tree?

Dulverton to Tarr Steps

Exmoor National Park has created a self-guided trail that runs between Dulverton and the Tarr Steps. Besides the Medieval clapper bridge and surrounding Tarr Woodland with its abundant plant and small animal life, the circular walk also takes in the heathland of Winsford Hill with its wild ponies.

Of particular note are the woods around the Tarr Steps in spring, when they are covered in bluebells. The park authorities have produced a leaflet that includes detailed directions as well as a map; download it here and follow the orange way marks.