Weekend walk: on Exmoor along the Barle from Withypool
THE Barle is the truly impressive tributary of the River Exe – so impressive that one could question why it didn't win the name game and become ascendant over the mother river. If it had, we'd have Barlemoor, Barleter and Barlemouth on our maps.
It has many a fine moment as it passes Simonsbath, flows under lovely arched Landacre Bridge, slips through handsome little Withypool and ducks and dives through deep woods past famous Tarr Steps and beyond.
That latter section makes for a particularly excellent riverside walk.
The walk begins in Withypool – a place I can never visit without recalling what the writer Walter Raymond noted a century ago while describing meetings with various village worthies in a series of articles for The Spectator. What a varied bunch they were...hurdle-makers, acorn-pickers, stone-crackers, hay-makers and, most curious of all, the snail-catcher who collected his prey on behalf of a glass factory. Alas, I'm ignorant as to how snails can be of any help in the manufacture of glass.
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This walk leaves the village by climbing the hill towards Winsford a few hundred metres before crossing a stile on the right which will introduce you to the famous river walk which follows the east bank of the Barle four twisting miles down to the famous clapper bridge at Tarr Steps.
One thing about following a watercourse is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to lose the way. Rivers do not run in circles, so there's little danger of that classic hiker's lament of "I'm sure we passed this bit before..." By the way, being mainly at the bottom of a steep river valley, the path can get pretty muddy so good boots are a must.
But certainly worthwhile. This part of the hike is a stunning mix of sloping meadow and deep oak and beech woodland, always with the fast-running Barle just a few feet away.
A quarter of a mile after leaving the road you might be tempted to skip across the stepping stones which have been placed to accommodate a footpath from the other side of Withypool. Or at least in the summer you might. I have passed by when they were a good two feet under the torrent.
About half-way down the valley the river takes an extravagant sweep and almost curves back on itself as it rounds Pit Wood. There are some old embankments here and close to the path I once found what might be one of Exmoor's many standing stones. The trouble is that unlike ancient stones in other locations, where they can be as big as Stonehenge, the dolmens or menhirs of Exmoor are often vertically challenged. Many are so small it's easy to miss them. A problem which faced four-wheel-drive tractor drivers a few years ago as they unwittingly ploughed some of Exmoor's ancient landmarks into the ground, much to the concern of the National Park. Anyway, this little 18-inch monolith is still at large...
And so to Tarr Steps with its often busy picnic meadow, excellent pub and, of course, clapper bridge. No-one is sure of the age of this 180ft slab bridge with its 17 spans – it could be medieval or, if named after the ancient Sanskrit word "tara" meaning crossing, it could be much, much earlier still.
Tennyson came here in the 1800s and he and his son recalled the "tawny cows" cooling off in the river. The beasts belonged to Ashway Farm where the farmer of the time died of an adder bite, but not before having fathered one George Williams. Sir George, as he became, left the lonely moors and went on to become founder of the YMCA.
As one gazes dreamily at the past it is often the magical names which ring down like the shimmering peals of a distant church. Tarr Steps once belonged to the Rev D S Sweetapple-Horlock who hunted and fished with great enthusiasm and wore riding boots under his cassock as he preached in Hawkridge Church.
Our return journey starts by crossing the clapper-bridge and walking up the drive of the Tarr Steps Hotel, taking a right-hand path to run alongside the wood and on across the fields to Parsonage Farm. Here it's right again to reach the road up at Westwater Farm.
Now there is a stretch of tarmac up the hill to the cattle grid where you have the choice of the slightly longer, off-road hike around Withypool Hill, or simply carrying on along the lane with its own tremendous views, down to Withypool itself.
You're home near-as-dammit, so turn left and climb to the top of Withypool Hill where you'll be treated to one of Exmoor's most impressive vistas with an ancient tumuli and a nearby Bronze Age stone circle thrown in.
Either way you'll have earned a long drink by the fireside at the Royal Oak where you can gaze into your glass and ponder why it was that the local snails were once used in its manufacture.