TWO MOORS WAY
Stage 6: Witheridge to Tarr Steps
Thursday, May 23, 2019
I was awakened by the sound of a campervan's engine spluttering into life a few pitches away from my tent. To my mild dismay, I had overslept and it was already nine o'clock. Perhaps the extra rest had done me some good, however, as my injured knee was feeling quite a bit better, though it was still a little tender and stiff.
After packing up as quickly as I could, I farewelled my hosts and set off back to Witheridge, this time taking a slightly longer route on back lanes to avoid most of the vergeless stretch of the B3137. Returning to The Square, which has a thatched cottage standing right in the middle of it (picture 1), I purchased some supplies from the adjacent General Store, then headed off along the narrow West Street. It was now a quarter to eleven, and I wasn't sure if my late start was going to prevent me from getting to my intended finish at the Tarr Steps.
At the end of West Street, the Two Moors Way crosses the busy Fore Street, part of the B3137, and continues ahead on North Street. Just past a playground adjoining the Witheridge Parish Hall, a TMW signpost points through a gate on the left and down a grassy track, initially just outside the perimeter of the hall's grounds (picture 2) and then through a wooden kissing gate and along the margin of a large field. At the next kissing gate the Way bears right to follow a narrow and rather overgrown path between unkempt hedges to emerge in a large, irregularly-shaped field.
A well-worn path goes straight ahead, cutting off a corner of the field before following the right edge of the remainder as it starts to descend and curves towards a gate on the edge of the Woodland Trust's Yeo Copse (picture 3).
The path cuts through the corner of the copse then follows a stream to a footbridge, crossing over and heading through a gate onto a sloping hillside where a faint path heads under a line of oak trees (picture 4), paralleling the Little Dart River which lies a stone's throw over to the left.
Beyond a second hillside field, a stretch of boardwalk crosses a footbridge and snakes ahead over marshy ground (picture 5), but ends a little too early, leaving a boggy patch to cross before another grassy path heads for the corner of Bradford Moor Plantation. The Way skirts the plantation (picture 6) along the edges of several grassy meadows before a muddy path squeezes past a secluded house to reach a quiet country lane called Bradford Moor Hill.
This is the beginning of a lengthy stretch of walking on tarmac, with the Two Moors Way heading left along the lane, soon crossing a bridge over the Little Dart River at Bradford Mill (picture 7). Shortly thereafter, the road forks and the Two Moors Way takes the left branch, passing Bradford Barton, which is close to the lane, and then North Combe Farm, which is set back from the lane across a meadow named Basil's Patch (picture 8).
Just beyond Higher Crowdhole (picture 9), the lane forks again, with the Two Moors Way taking the right branch onward between hedge-lined fields to a shady T-junction at Creacombe Parsonage Cross, where high fences screen the Acorns Naturist Retreat from view.
The Two Moors Way turns right at the junction, following an unnamed lane that climbs very gently across the sheep-grazed Creacombe Moor (picture 10), ignoring turnings on the left and right before eventually reaching a junction with Waterloo Hill (picture 11). A few steps to the left of the junction, a shady path inside a band of trees runs past the North Backstone Piggery and onward onto Canworthy Common (picture 12).
Shortly after crossing a ladder stile, a short stretch of boardwalk leads out of the trees and over rough ground to turn left along a lane on Knowstone Outer Moor, which has view northward to the hills of Exmoor (picture 13). The lane descends from the rough moorland into a wood. Immediately after crossing the little Sturcombe River, a TMW signpost points along a path through the trees, following the river under the A361 (picture 14).
Beyond the busy main road, the Way climbs through trees on the edge of Knowstone Inner Moor (picture 15) to reach a lane at a farm gate and cattle grid. A short walk down the lane to the left is Knowstone Moor Cross (picture 16), where the Way turns right, signposted for the village of Knowstone.
Before taking the turn for Knowstone, I continued down the lane, which descends for about 600 metres to a rest area beside the A361, where a roadside diner was marked on my map. To my disappointment, I discovered that the diner closes at one o'clock. Due to my late start, it was already half past two.
Returning to Knowstone Moor Cross, I turned towards Knowstone, following the lane along the edge of Side Moor (picture 17). Three quarters of the way to the village, the Way leaves the lane at a slight bend, going through a gate on the right and descending across several fields to join an enclosed path into the churchyard of St Peter's (picture 18). Around the other side of the church, the Two Moors Way emerges onto the village street (picture 19) opposite the thatched Masons Arms pub (picture 20). The pub closes in the afternoon, so I had missed another opportunity for a lunch stop.
After stopping to chat with a young couple who were walking the Two Moors Way southbound, I continued past the pub and out of the village, soon reaching Greenhill Cross, where the Way turns left along the narrow Owlaborough Lane. The lane winds its way down into a green valley before climbing up past the farm buildings of Owlaborough, which include an unusual octagonal-roofed stone roundhouse, once used for making farmhouse cider (picture 21).
Beyond Owlaborough, the lane is mostly shaded and passes Highfield Farm before bending left. At the next right-hand bend, the Way continues ahead on a winding footpath through a wood (picture 22), exiting past a wooden barn to head along the right side of a grassy field on Owlaborough Moor (picture 23). Through a gate, the Way goes diagonally across two more grassy fields, bearing left through another gate to follow the driveway of Whitefield Farm through New Moor Plantation to the B3227 (picture 24).
Eighty metres to the right along the road, the Two Moors Way turns onto Easter New Moor, descending the right edge of two successive fields before skirting around the left side of a dairy to meet a lane just to the left of Highaton Head Cross.
From the junction, a lane descends steeply into the valley of the River Yeo (picture 25), passing between the abutments of a long dismantled railway bridge to reach the small village of Yeo Mill, where the West Anstey Village Hall (picture 26) was being used as a polling place for the last European parliamentary election before the UK left the European Union. The presence of just a single car in the carpark suggested that the voter turnout was a little short of spectacular.
Through the village, the lane crosses a stone bridge over the River Yeo (picture 27) and climbs past Mill House to Yeo Mill Cross, where the Way turns right on another lane that winds its way past Lower Wychwood (picture 28) and Higher Wychwood. I was a little surprised to see the name Wychwood being used here, as it is a name I associate with the Cotswolds.
The lane climbs for a little while until a sunken bridleway peels off on the left and climbs above the Yeo Valley (picture 29). The bridleway appeared to have been tree-lined until quite recently and the banks were littered with branches and small tree-stumps, giving this stretch of the path a rather melancholy air (picture 30).
When the bridleway ends, the Way keeps climbing up the side of a large sheep pasture to the top of a ridge then descends another pasture to the village of West Anstey (picture 31). The Way turns right on Badlake Lane, which passes Churchtown Farm and Badlake Farm before making a long climb up to Badlake Moor Cross.
Crossing a cattle grid to the left of the cross, the Two Moors Way enters the Exmoor National Park. A well-worn path bears right along the edge of Woodland Common, where a large carved granite boulder sits under beech trees next to the path (picture 32). The boulder is one of a matching pair, which face each other across mid-Devon, one on the northern side of Dartmoor and one here on the southern side of Exmoor.
The path climbs across Woodland Common to reach a small parking area by Ridge Road, where there are far-reaching views south-west to fertile green farmland beyond the foothills of Exmoor (picture 33). A broad track heads onto Anstey Money Common (picture 34), following its right edge over a ridge and descending gently for a while to a low signpost where the Two Moors Way leaves the main track to descend across the common (picture 35) with views to the left of the path into the valley of Dane's Brook (picture 36).
The rough path eventually reaches Slade Lane (picture 37) and turns left to follow the tarmac down to the stone Slade Bridge (picture 38), crossing over Dane's Brook and passing from Devon into Somerset. From the bridge, Slade Lane climbs and sweeps gradually around to the right. When the lane suddenly bends back to the left, the Way goes through a gate and climbs across a large pasture toward the hamlet of West Hollowcombe (picture 39), turning right along Broad Lane to cover the short distance to the neighbouring village of Hawkridge, where I paused to rest for a few minutes outside the stone village hall (picture 40), built in 1938.
The Two Moors Way turns left at a junction just beyond the village hall, but first I took a brief diversion further along Broad Lane to see the Church of St Giles (picture 41), parts of which date back to Saxon and Norman times.
Back at the junction, the Two Moors Way is joined for the next two kilometres by the route of the Exe Valley Way, which runs for 103 kilometres from the source of the River Exe to Starcross on the Exe Estuary, though this part of that path follows the valley of the River Barle, a tributary of the Exe. The Exe Valley Way is another trail on my "to do" list, though that list often seems to grow faster than I manage to tick walks off.
Less than one hundred metres from the junction, the Way leaves the tarmac and goes up a few steps and through a gate next to a stone hut, along a narrow path between tall hedges and over a stile into a field, bearing left to cross diagonally towards a lone tree in the far corner. To the right is a good view down into Great Cleave (picture 42), part of the Barle Valley, but the Way goes through a gate just to the left of the tree to cross a couple of sloping meadows (picture 43) then gradually descends along the right edges of two more meadows to reach the end of a tarmac lane on the edge of South Barton Wood. The Way ignores the lane, instead going straight ahead on a track descending into the wood (picture 44).
After a sharp right turn over a little stream in the middle of the wood, the track climbs through Parsonage Farm (picture 45). Through a gate above the farm, the Exe Valley Way turns sharply away to head north-west across fields while the Two Moors Way continues ahead along the right edge of two sheep pastures and through a gate into a rougher field where the path soon begins to descend steeply along the left edge into the wooded valley of the River Barle (picture 46). The Way turns down the end of the field to find a stony path in the far corner, leading down to the River Barle and one of Exmoor's most famous landmarks, the Tarr Steps (picture 47).
The Tarr Steps is a Grade I listed clapper bridge of indeterminate age, crossing the shallow River Barle beside a ford where vehicles can cross. At fifty-five metres long, it is the longest clapper bridge in the world. Its seventeen spans are made from flat stone slabs weighing as much as two tons apiece. Occasionally the slabs can be washed away when the river is in flood and they are now numbered to assist with restoring them to their correct positions.
Nobody knows how old the Tarr Steps are or who built it. Various sources put the construction of the bridge anywhere from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages. If the older estimates are accurate, it would be one of the oldest surviving bridges in the world. Local legend has it that the bridge was built by the Devil so that he could sunbathe on the warm slabs without getting his feet wet.
Across the ancient bridge, the Two Moors Way turns left below the Tarr Farm Inn (picture 48) to follow the river upstream into Knaplock Wood, but this was as far as I was walking today, having covered another 26.2 kilometres of the Two Moors Way. After my late start I was happy to have managed a good distance for the day and my knee was feeling much better despite the long day's walking.
The Tarr Farm Inn allows camping on a large, sheltered grassy area beside the bridge, costing just four pounds at the time of my visit. On this particular evening, I was the only camper and by the time the inn's restaurant had closed for the night and the carpark had emptied, I had this peaceful riverside spot and the starlit view of the ancient bridge all to myself. After sitting on the quiet riverbank for an hour gazing up at the stars, it seemed almost a shame to crawl into my tent and go to sleep.