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A Round of Applause for Tarr Steps

Visit one of the 'oldest' bridges in the world, set in a quiet valley clothed in ancient woodland.

Distance 5.2 miles (8.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 700ft (210m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Riverside paths and field tracks, some open moor, no stiles

Landscape Wooded river valley and pasture slopes above

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 9 Exmoor

Start/finish SS 872323

Dog friendliness Dogs can run off-lead along River Barle

Parking Just over ¼ mile (400m) east of Tarr Steps - can be full in summer. (Parking at Tarr Steps for disabled people only)

Public toilets At car park

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1 Leave the bottom of the car park by a footpath on the left-hand side, signposted 'Scenic Path'. This takes you down to the left of the road to the Little River, crossing two footbridges on its way to Tarr Steps, over the River Barle, ahead.

2 Cross the Steps, turning upstream at the far side (signposted 'Circular Walk'). Follow a wide riverbank path past what looks like an exciting wire footbridge but is, in fact, a device for intercepting floating trees in times of flood. After ¾ mile (1.2km) the path crosses a side-stream on stepping stones, and immediately afterwards reaches a long footbridge over the River Barle.

3 Cross, and continue upstream, with the river now on the left. After ¾ mile (1.2km) the path crosses a small wooden footbridge, and then divides at a signpost.

4 Turn right, uphill, signed 'Winsford Hill'. A wide path goes up through the woods with a stream on its right. Where it meets a track turn briefly right to ford the stream, then continue uphill on a narrower signed path. At a low bank with beech trees turn right to a gate and follow the foot of a field to a tarred lane. Go up this to a cattle grid on to the open moor. Here, bear right on a faint track that heads up between gorse bushes. After 250yds (229m) it reaches a 4-way signpost.

5 Turn right ('Knaplock') and slant down to a hedge corner. Follow this hedge briefly, then take a path that slants gradually up into the moor. After 170yds (155m) a sign points back down towards the moor-foot banking. A beech bank crosses ahead: aim for the lower end of this, where a soft track leads forward, with occasional blue paint-spots. After ¼ mile (400m) the track turns downhill, then back to the left. It becomes firmer and drier as it reaches Knaplock Farm.

6 Among the farm buildings turn downhill signed 'Tarr Steps', on to a muddy farm track. Where this turns off into a field, continue ahead in a stony track, Watery Lane. After its initial descent this becomes a smooth path down to the River Barle. Turn left, downstream. When the path rises a little above the river, look out for a fork on the right, signed 'Footpath'. This rejoins the river to pass through an open field that's just right for a more comfortable sunbathe than the busy Tarr Steps downstream. Cross the road and turn left up the scenic path to return to your car.

This is the longest and best clapper stone bridge in Britain; as such it featured on a postage stamp in 1968. (The others in the set were the stone military bridge at Aberfeldy; Telford's Menai Bridge; and a concrete viaduct on the M4.) Bronze-Age trackways converge on to this river crossing, suggesting that the bridge itself may be about 4,000 years old. Given that it gets swept away and rebuilt after every major flood, this date for its construction is pure guesswork - or, to use the archaeological term, 'conjectural'. It is still arguably Europe's oldest bridge.

The name 'clapper' probably comes from the Saxon 'cleaca', meaning stepping stones. The first clapper bridges arose as stone slabs laid across the top of existing stepping stones. With a serviceable ford alongside, this one is clearly a luxury rather than a necessity. It's only because the local sedimentary rocks form such suitable slabs that it was built at all. At 59yds (54m), Tarr Steps is by far the longest of the 40 or so clapper bridges left in Britain.

As the bridge is a public highway you could, in theory, be entitled to ride your bicycle across it. (I have seen this done, though not tried it myself.) Quite clearly, the damage you might do to yourself by falling off the bridge could be very serious. That said, the feat is not as hard as it looks - the secret seems to lie in avoiding catching the front wheel in the slots where the bridge top consists of two separate, parallel stones. The ford alongside is popular with horse riders and canoeists, though the Highway Code does not seem to specify who gives way when the one meets the other. It's always very pleasing to see these three non-motorised forms of transport in action together, while motorists are unable to make it down the congested narrow road.

Local legend gives the bridge a devilish origin. Apparently Satan himself built it for sunbathing on. The shady groves of ancient woodland, that drove him into the middle of the river, form probably the best birdwatching terrain in the country - you need only to sit or stand quietly in the shadow of a tree trunk and wait for the birds to parade before you. It's also good for the birds, offering them safety from hawks and buzzards, plenty of nest sites, insects to eat and open flight paths between the branches.

What to look for

For non-specialists, some of the more easily recognised birds are: the dipper (small, black-and-white, bobs on a rock) grey wagtail (yellow underside, wags its tail) and the kingfisher (flash of blue passing up or down the river). The observant should spot the standing heron even before it unfolds itself like an umbrella and takes to the air.

Where to eat and drink

If you didn't bring your own picnic, the tea rooms at Tarr Farm are ideally situated, just above the Steps. There are no pubs on the walk, but not too far away is the Rock Inn at Dulverton; others are at Winsford and Withypool.

While you're there

The thatched village of Winsford is delightful in itself but poses a problem in mathematics: is it possible to walk over all of its seven bridges without passing over any of them twice?

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