Discounting the dash from the roadside car park to the summit of Dunkery Beacon, Withypool to Tarr Steps is the Blackpool of Exmoor walks, or at least its Weston-super-Mare. On a sunny Wednesday morning in early August the gridlock was hardly on the M5 scale, but the evidence of past heavy traffic was there for all to see. In the heavy rains of July the path in places had been turned into a sucking morass by the splatter of passing feet. This riverside walk, however, is a lovely one, and is easily accessible, either from Withypool where the car park is free, or from Tarr Steps where it is not. For refreshments, Withypool boasts the “Royal Oak” as well as its famous tea room, and at the other end you can choose between the sophistication of the Tarr Farm Hotel and the ice cream kiosk.
We left Withypool village by taking the road in front of the “Royal Oak” and climbing some hundred yards up the steep hill which leads to Comers Cross. First you see the stile on the left which would take you towards to Exford and then, just a few yards further on, the stile to Tarr Steps is suddenly visible on the right hand side of the road. The path gives a good view back towards the village as well as over Kings Farm, a very smart and comfortable B&B.
The path here in wet weather can be greasy and fairly tricky, but soon enough you drop down to the level of the river Barle and begin to walk along its banks.
This path is now the only easy access to the walk. Sadly the handy stepping stones below South Hill Farm were put out of commission by a fallen tree over a year ago, and the depth of the water would deter all but the most adventurous from trying the ford except, of course, on a horse. The Exmoor National Park authority shows no signs of any intention of clearing the tree away. “Outraged of Withypool” has already written a letter of complaint. Please feel free to do so yourself.
No one would wish to compose mentally letters of complaint to a quasi-government bureaucracy while walking by the side of the Barle. The rushing sound of the river is always with you. After crossing three wide meadows, the path climbs through a wood of old oaks with the water far below you. When you emerge, you are perched high above a big sheep pasture. Look carefully across the river into the bracken below the woods on the opposite bank. We recently spotted a magnificent stag here.
The wired-in cover on your left is part of the furniture of an important shoot. In September you would find it difficult to move without treading on a pheasant.
It is best to keep to the outside of the pasture and enjoy the nearness of the river. At the end of this huge field, the path again enters woodland. The going for the next couple of miles is poor after wet weather. You find yourself dotting from side to side to avoid the dirtiest bits, and it’s not the place for trainers, which some people like to affect on this route. The nearer to Tarr Steps you come, the better the path again. A footbridge allows you to cross the river and walk the last half mile on the other bank if you prefer. If you stick to the left hand side of the river, the woodland suddenly ceases and opens into a wide grassy walk which leads to the Steps themselves.No one seems to know how old the ancient clapper bridge may be; six hundred years, a thousand years, two thousand years? Take your pick. It’s a magical place even so. Tarr Farm Hotel high above the Steps was a humble farmhouse tearoom when we knew it first thirty years ago. Now it is a luxury establishment, much frequented by shooting parties in the autumn and winter, with a finesse of cuisine far beyond our rustic tastes. There are plenty of tables on the terrace overlooking the river where you could enjoy a coffee, a drink, or a meal.
We passed over the footbridge by the ice-cream kiosk and took the bridleway upwards towards Ashway Farm. At first the river is still there below you, but then the path turns away from it and, after you have passed the farm, it becomes a metalled lane. Far below is Three Rivers, where stags hunted up from Marsh Bridge often turn and go over the top towards Molland Moor.
This road winds up and down, quite steeply in places, towards Dulverton. We had hoped to escape from it, down to the river again but, as the map shows, there are no paths leading to it. If you want to walk the Barle between Tarr and Dulverton, you need to be on the other bank. This is only accessible by walking from Tarr to Hawkridge, along the Hawkridge Ridge, and then down to the river again at Castle Bridge where the Barle is joined by the Danesbrook. From there you can follow the path as far as Marsh Bridge. We marched on from Ashway to Ashwick, past Mounsey Farm where the celebrated huntsman, Captain Ronnie Wallace, lived when Master of the Exmoor. He was known to some as “God”, making him, I suppose, a sort of Eric Clapton of foxhunting.
Eventually we passed Draydon Farm and came down to Marsh Bridge, or bridges to be exact.
The path gives a splendid view of Dulverton as you near the town.
You can drink and eat your lunch and still have plenty of time to catch the bus at 3.30. Or you can go into the Lorna Doone Stores for some milk, bump into an old friend, and be driven back to Withypool in style, as we were.