Tarr Steps – Bridge under troubled water…

Local journalist and author Martin Hesp was the first to break the story: Tarr Steps, the ancient clapper bridge crossing the River Barle, had been washed away by the swollen river. Only a few stones remain in place. However, all stones are numbered and the much loved bridge will be rebuilt.

“One of the region’s oldest bridges – Exmoor’s Tarr Steps – has been swept away by a raging, swollen river as what is likely to be the wettest year on record comes to a soggy end.

The iconic 1,000-year-old clapper bridge is the latest landmark to be hit by the aftermath of weeks of relentless downpours. Other areas all around the Westcountry are still threatened by landslips, saturated ground and the continued risk of flooding.

The damage to Tarr Steps – a well-known beauty spot on the fast-flowing river Barle – comes as sections of the cliffs along the Jurassic Coast began sliding towards the waves at the weekend, threatening luxury beach chalets and creating a risk for beach-goers and fossil hunters who were warned to stay away from the cliffs.

Martin Hesp and his lurcher, Monty, on what remains of Tarr Steps, the ancient Exmoor bridge, washed away by winter storms and floods.  Massive trees snapped the  steel hawsers designed to protect the bridge  Picture: Nancy Hesp

Martin Hesp and his lurcher, Monty, on what remains of Tarr Steps, the ancient Exmoor bridge, washed away by winter storms and floods. Massive trees snapped the steel hawsers designed to protect the bridge Picture: Nancy Hesp

​More than three quarters of the 50-metre long, ancient clapper bridge, which crosses the Barle between Withypool and Dulverton, has been washed away in the rain-swollen river which has reached depths 10 feet deeper than normal levels.

So strong was the force of water washing down the deep Exmoor valley that the twin steel hawsers designed to protect the bridge were snapped by massive trees being swept downstream in the flood.

The hawsers were strung across the river exactly 60 years ago after an extreme flood damaged the bridge – and the cable debris-trap has stood the test of time ever since, despite bad weather in the past.

“They say the bridge only gets damaged in a year that ends in the number two,” commented a barman at neighbouring Tarr Farm Inn. “It was damaged in 1982 and before that in 1952 – and apparently in the past they’ve brought the Army in to help retrieve the stones and put them back again.”

All the massive slabs incorporated into the 17-span bridge have been numbered so that they can be retrieved and put back in exactly the right place.

A spokesman for the Exmoor National Park Authority said: “The stones forming the spans weigh between one and two tons each and have on occasions been washed up to 50 yards downstream. A distinctive feature of Tarr Steps is the slabs that are raked against the ends of each pier to break the force of the river and divert floating debris.

“Despite this, much of the damage has been due to debris such as branches floating down with the flood and battering the bridge.”

Western Morning News, 31 December 2012

PS: I borrowed the title (Bridge under Troubled Water) from David Binks –  www.courtfarm.co.uk