A Circular Walk with Sue Viccars
For our first route of the new year I’m suggesting a really good leg-stretching walk. This popular 9-mile route fits the bill: a long riverside tramp (scrambly in places) upstream along the lovely River Barle, followed by a good stride up Withypool Hill (once you’re nicely warmed up) and an easy return through fields to Tarr Steps, one of Exmoor’s most popular attractions and Britain’s largest clapper bridge. No one can agree a precise date for the construction of this 160ft-plus stone bridge, but many believe it dates from medieval times. Legend has it that it was built by the Devil who likes to prevent people from crossing while he sunbathes!
The walk leads to the pretty village of Withypool, in medieval times a place of some significance, being a centre for the Royal Forest of Exmoor. At one time the twice-yearly Forest Court (Swainmote) was held a mile or so upstream at Landacre Bridge. The return route runs over Withypool Hill, home to Exmoor ponies and to a Bronze Age stone circle on its southern slopes.
The walk can be shortened slightly by crossing the stepping stones across the Barle just south of Withypool and so missing out the village, but this should only be attempted with care and at times of low water. Other crossing points across the river, which might have been used to produce a shorter alternative (and which may look possible on the OS map), consist of fords and are only usable by those on horseback.
Note that this stretch of the River Barle is privately owned, and access to the water is only permitted at the various fords along its length.
1 Make your way past the toilets towards the car park exit, to find a signed path to Tarr Steps via a kissing gate. Keep downhill eventually to join the lane via another gate. Continue downhill past Tarr Farm Inn to reach Tarr Steps.
2 Turn right before crossing the bridge, signed public bridleway to Withypool. The path initially follows the riverbank, soon crossing an area of rocky slabs, slippery at times. If the slabs are underwater here, take the woodland path running above right: the two routes soon join up.
Soon cross a wooden footbridge over a stream, and pass through a five-bar gate; Watery Lane, which runs up to Knaplock (from where a bridleway continues up to Winsford Hill) joins from the right at this point. Continue through an open area past a complicated path junction. The path clings to the river again through Lea Wood – it’s narrow, rocky, up and down, muddy after wet weather and requires care – before crossing a rooty and wet section to reach a stile at the end of the wood.
3 An open section is followed by more woodland and another stream crossing (on a dilapidated footbridge, hopefully repaired by the time this article is published!) Pass through a gate and continue to pass a ford across the river. Pass a private track right, cross a small footbridge, and keep going. The next gate leads to a lovely avenue of beech trees on the right; the river is calm and broad, and the path no longer muddy! Continue along the riverside edge of a large field, following the Barle as it makes a broad loop, soon passing another ford (I’ve never managed to locate the stepping stones marked on the map at this point).
At the end of the field bear right uphill, then left through a bank of gorse and a gate into woodland. Continue high up above the river; drop to pass through a gate back into the open. Keep following the river (the footbridge marked on the OS map at this point no longer exists).
4 Eventually reach a path junction, with a footpath signed left across stepping stones (only passable at low water). If you want to cut a mile off the route turn left at this point and cross the river; follow the track uphill past South Hill to meet the lane above Newhouse on Withypool Hill, and turn left to rejoin the main route. Keep ahead up the right bank of the Barle; pass through a gate and cross a stream (boggy). Cross a boardwalk; the path climbs steeply, then bears left through a hedgebank. Descend to cross a stream in a small combe; through the trees left the swell of Withypool Hill comes into view. Cross a stile onto a lane.
5 Turn left downhill to pass through Withypool, which dates back to Domesday, and is named for the reeds (withies) growing along the Barle. Soon pass The Royal Oak Inn (R. D. Blackmore stayed here in 1866 while writing Lorna Doone) and later St
Andrew’s Church, which dates from Norman times but was heavily restored in the late nineteenth century. It was originally a chapel-of-ease to Hawkridge. These were provided for those living at some distance from the main parish church, and baptisms, marriages and other services could be performed (but rarely burials); many were abolished at the Chantries Act of 1547. Pass the post office and general stores, tearooms and toilets.
6 Cross the six-arched Withypool Bridge which is about 100 years old and replaced a medieval packhorse bridge. Keep ahead on the lane and start the long climb up Withypool Hill, which rises to 1306ft (398m). A lengthy lane section lies ahead, but if you’re following this route after a spell of wet weather you’ll find it something of a relief to have a stretch on firm tarmac after ploughing along the often muddy riverside path! It’s also lovely to emerge from the wooded valley into open country, with wide-ranging views to the south over Withypool Hill. Pass the bridlepath left signed to the ford and stepping stones (the short route) and continue uphill. After the brow of the hill cross a cattle grid to leave the common and follow the lane downhill, soon passing another bridlepath signed left to a ford over the Barle. At the bottom pass Westwater Farm (left), then cross the bridge over the West Water.
7 Turn left as signed through a metal gate. Keep ahead initially along the left edge of the field, soon keeping to the right of an intermittent line of oak and beech trees. Go through a metal gate at the end of the field to reach a fork; walk straight ahead as signed to Tarr Steps. The path climbs a little then runs between stands of gorse, later with a wire fence right, to cross a stile/small gate. Keep along the left edge of the next field; pass through a gate, and continue with the hedgebank right, and lovely views left over the valley of the Barle. At the end of the field go through a big gate and keep ahead, slightly downhill, with the hedgebank right. Drop to a junction of paths at the field end (footpath to Parsonage Farm right).
8 Turn left uphill, with a wire fence right. At the top pass through a big gate and keep ahead along the right edge of the next field. Pass through the gate at the end of that field, then descend steeply (hedgebank left). At the end of the field turn sharp right downhill, with a wall left. The track bears left through a gate, continuing downhill, with woodland right. Follow the track steeply downhill to meet a rough lane; bear left to find Tarr Steps. Cross the clapper bridge and retrace your steps uphill to your car.
- Map: OS Explorer OL9 Exmoor
- Start: Tarr Steps SS 872324
- Distance: 9 miles (14.5km)
- Time: 41/2 hours
- Terrain: Wooded riverside path (often narrow, muddy or uneven), quiet lanes, fields
- Toilets: Car park (fee) at Tarr Steps and by Withypool Bridge
- Parking: Tarr Steps (£1.50 for 4 hours, £2.50 all day) or Withypool if you prefer to start the walk there (free parking).
- Refreshments: Tarr Farm Inn at Tarr Steps (open daily 11am-11pm), The Royal Oak Inn and Withypool Tearoom at Withypool (latter open 10.30am-5/6pm daily spring to autumn); picnic area at Withypool Bridge; cream teas at Parsonage Farm (seasonal).