Stage 7: Tarr Steps to Simonsbath

Friday, May 24, 2019

Tarr Steps

(1) Tarr Steps

River Barle

(2) River Barle

Tree catcher

(3) Tree catcher

Knaplock Wood

(4) Knaplock Wood

I had an excellent night's sleep, soothed by the waters of the River Barle bubbling away gently just a few feet from my tent, and I woke a little after half past six, when the sun had risen high enough over the valley for its warm, bright rays to fall on my tent. There was a good view of the Tarr Steps while I made my breakfast and packed up my gear (picture 1). It's not often that one can camp so close to an ancient monument.

Before setting off on the next part of the Two Moors Way, I walked back across the Tarr Steps a couple of times and checked out the view up the rocky bed of the shallow River Barle (picture 2).

By half past seven I was ready to move on, following the well-trodden path upstream beside the Barle, where I soon passed a tree catcher (picture 3). Strong cables have been strung across the river to arrest fallen trees and other debris that is swept down the river during floods, hopefully reducing the chance of the Tarr Steps being damaged.

The Way continues into Knaplock Wood, where the morning sun filtered down amongst a variety of moss- and lichen-covered oak, ash, beech and sycamore trees. This path through Knaplock Wood never strays far from the river and is roughly cobbled in a few places (picture 4). After a week crossing terrain that was predominantly open moorland and pastures, it was wonderful to walk through a good stretch of relatively pristine woodland.

River Barle in Knaplock Wood

(5) River Barle in Knaplock Wood

Path opposite Westwater Copse

(6) Path opposite Westwater Copse

River Barle in Lea Wood

(7) River Barle in Lea Wood

Entering Pit Wood

(8) Entering Pit Wood

A few short stretches of the path require some care, with narrow lines of cobbles right at the river's eroded edge (picture 5), but the rest of the path is very easy walking.

After a little while, the path fords a side-stream and crosses a large clearing at a bend in the river before re-entering Knaplock Wood. Soon the path passes by a footbridge that crosses over to Westwater Copse (picture 6), part of a popular circular walk back to Tarr Steps. The Way stays on the right bank, however, and before long the path crosses another riverside clearing separating Knaplock Wood from the smaller Lea Wood, where at times the path scrambles along the river's edge (picture 7) before crossing another clearing to Pit Wood (picture 8).

River Barle opposite Bradley Wood

(9) River Barle opposite Bradley Wood

Oakbeer Wood

(10) Oakbeer Wood

Stepping stones

(11) Stepping stones

Approaching Withypool

(13) Approaching Withypool

In Pit Wood, the river curves left through 180 degrees opposite Bradley Wood (picture 9), leaving Pit Wood just as the river begins to bend back the other way. The riverbank is followed along the edge of a large pasture as the river sweeps to the right then curves back to the left through the small Oakbeer Wood (picture 10). A kilometre of open riverbank then leads to a line of stepping stones across the River Barle (picture 11), though the Two Moors Way doesn't cross them.

The path stays by the river for a bit longer, then when the river bends away to the left the path keeps on ahead and begins to climb. After crossing a stile, the village of Withypool comes into view across the valley (picture 12).

Church of St Andrew, Withypool

(13) Church of St Andrew, Withypool

Withypool General Store

(14) Withypool General Store

Withypool Tea Room

(15) Withypool Tea Room

The Old School

(16) The Old School

The Two Moors Way climbs up to a narrow road, turning left and briefly rejoining the Exe Valley Way. Both routes descend into Withypool, passing the historic Royal Oak Inn and the medieval St Andrew's Church (picture 13), but split again just down the hill, with the Two Moors Way bearing right up a lane just before the main street reaches the heart of the village while the Exe Valley Way goes across the Barle on the 19th-century red sandstone New Bridge.

Before proceeding, I called in at the village shop (picture 14) to top-up my supplies and went across the road to get a coffee at the village tea room. Interestingly, there is an old petrol bowser outside the village store and three more in front of a little hut beside the tea room (picture 15). I assume from this that the narrow road through Withypool must once have been one of the main driving routes across Exmoor.

As I sat down to drink my coffee I noticed that the weather had gotten quite gloomy and a cold wind was picking up. That was a little disappointing after such a lovely bright start to the day at Tarr Steps. By the time I had finished my drink I felt the need to pull on a fleece before walking back to the fork to rejoin the Two Moors Way and followed the lane up behind the village store to a signpost pointing the way past the former village school (picture 16) and out into a series of small horse paddocks.

Kitridge Lane

(17) Kitridge Lane

Withypool Common

(18) Withypool Common

Withypool Common

(19) Withypool Common

Descending from Withypool Common

(20) Descending from Withypool Common

The Way reaches Kitridge Lane at the top of the fourth paddock. When I arrived, a large van was parked in front of the gate and the driver was dispensing hot drinks to a dozen day walkers who were fortifying themselves before walking to Tarr Steps, where the van was going to pick them up. A few of the walkers seemed rather sceptical about the idea that I had willingly walked all the way from Plymouth.

The chatter gradually receded behind me as I set off along Kitridge Lane with a tall hedgebank of trees on the left sheltering me from the cold wind (picture 17). The tarmac ends at a gate after about 1,500 metres and the Way goes through to join a rough track along the edge of Withypool Common, still beside the tall hedgebank (picture 18).

After about 400 metres the track crosses Landacre Lane and after another 200 metres the track begins to bear away from the hedgebank. A little further on the Two Moors Way forks right, leaving the well-worn track at an unsignposted junction that is easily missed.

That's exactly what I did, missing the turn and walking on for about five minutes before I realised that I had gone the wrong way. Back on the correct route, I was relieved to find the next fork well-signposted (picture 19), with the Two Moors Way taking the left path for Simonsbath via Cow Castle. The path now winds its way through patches of gorse then starts to descend a grassy slope into the Barle Valley on a path marked out by tussocks (picture 20).

Halfway down the slope I was approached by a couple asking for directions. They had an OS map but were confused about where they were on the map. It didn't take me long to set them straight and they headed off again, looking much more relaxed than they were a couple of minutes earlier.

I'm always surprised by how often people ask me for directions in places that I have never visited before, and I'm even more surprised by how many of those times I have managed to provide the requested information. Perhaps I give the appearance of knowing where I am going, even when that's far from the truth and I've just made a wrong turn myself.

View into the Barle Valley

(21) View into the Barle Valley

Ford across White Water

(22) Ford across White Water

Path circling around Cow Castle

(23) Path circling around Cow Castle

Tree catcher on the River Barle

(24) Tree catcher on the River Barle

The River Barle comes into view ahead (picture 21) before the path swings away to the right to find a gate on the edge of Withypool Common. A broad track now parallels the river, gradually descending to the riverbank over the next kilometre, ignoring a long wooden footbridge over the river before crossing a smaller one just to the right of a ford of the side-stream of White Water (picture 22).

Ahead behind a small conical hill is a larger hill. This is the Iron-Age hillfort of Cow Castle, whose flat(-ish) top is ringed by a bank and ditch earthwork enclosing almost a hectare. The Way goes around the left side of the smaller hill (contrary to the fictional route shown on the OS map) and then turns away from the River Barle to skirt three sides of the base of Cow Castle (picture 23) before returning to the Barle near another kind of tree-catcher, quite different from the one near Tarr Steps (picture 24).

Path beside the River Barle

(25) Path beside the River Barle

Beech trees beside the River Barle

(26) Beech trees beside the River Barle

Ruins of Wheal Eliza Cottage

(27) Ruins of Wheal Eliza Cottage


(28) Flexbarrow

The Way goes through the gate beside the tree-catcher and continues alongside the river, hemmed in by a stone wall (picture 25) until the path shortcuts the next bend in the river behind a line of moss-covered beech trees (picture 26).

A gap near the far end of the line of trees gives access back to the riverbank, which is followed around a few more bends before the path climbs steeply above the river to the site of Wheal Eliza, a mid-19th-century copper mine that failed to produce any copper and was quickly abandoned. Today, the scant ruins of a slate cottage (picture 27) stand up the hill from the disused mineshaft and a footbridge over the Barle.

I stopped at Wheal Eliza to rest and eat my lunch, but no sooner had I taken off my backpack than it started to rain lightly, just enough to send me fishing through my pack for my waterproofs.

Beyond Wheal Eliza, the river loops around the left side of Flexbarrow (picture 28), while the Two Moors Way follows a stone wall along the right side of the elongated hill.

Path beside the River Barle

(29) Path beside the River Barle

Birchcleave Wood

(30) Birchcleave Wood

The Exmoor Forest Inn

(31) The Exmoor Forest Inn

Simonsbath Bridge

(32) Simonsbath Bridge

When the river reappears around the end of Flexbarrow, the path runs across the side of the next hill (picture 29) then gradually bears away from the river to run along the lower edge of Birchcleave Wood (picture 30) for the last kilometre to the village of Simonsbath.

Emerging from the wood onto the B3223, the Two Moors Way turns right past Pound Cottage and The Old Pottery toward the large Exmoor Forest Inn (picture 31), my overnight stop. It was an early finish for me, being just after two o'clock and with only 16.6km covered from Tarr Steps, though I was happy to have avoided having to tackle the next stretch of high moorland (or camp up there) in worsening weather.

Before I settled into the cosy pub, I walked a few minutes back down the B3223 and turned off past the small water-powered Simonsbath Sawmill (where, among other things, many of the wooden footpath signs, gates and footbridges in the Exmoor National Park were made) to have a look at the village's medieval stone bridge over the River Barle (picture 32).

Back at the pub, I had only just dropped my gear in my room and sat myself down in the bar with a pint of Exmoor Ale when heavier rain arrived outside. As I sipped my beer and read a little about the history of the inn, I discovered that some of the walkers who have come before me would not have been quite so fortunate, as the inn was a temperance hotel (a sad establishment with no alcohol) for the first third of the twentieth century. I'm not sure how I would cope with walking a long-distance trail without the reward of a nice pint to look forward to.