The Tarr Steps is a 50 metre long clapper bridge situated on the River Barle in the Exmoor National Park. It is the largest example of its type and is a well known landmark and tourist attraction. The bridge is designated as a grade 1 listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument by English Heritage.
The exact age of the Tarr Steps is unknown, many theories say the bridge dates from the Bronze Age whilst others claim is was built from 1400 AD onward, however most clapper bridges were erected in medieval times. The word ‘clapper’ comes from the medieval Latin word ‘claperius’ meaning ‘pile of stones’ which is descriptive of this style of bridge, they are constructed from large slabs of rock, commonly granite or schist which weigh between one and two tonnes each, these are supported by stone piers if the bridge is placed across a river, or the slabs rest on the banks of smaller streams. Clapper bridges are mostly found on the moors of Devon and other upland areas of the UK.
There are several local legends associated with the Tarr Steps, it is said that the devil placed the bridge across the River Barle and would kill any person who tried to cross over, he was eventually confronted by a brave local parson who challenged the devil, he finally conceded and agreed to let people cross the bridge, except when he was sunbathing upon it. It is said he still has the right to sunbathe on the bridge to this day.
Another legend states that the Tarr Steps will only be damaged in years ending in the number two, and this seems to be eerily true. It was partially ruined by flooding in 1952, and again in 1982, however the worst harm in living memory happened in December of 2012. Cables had been installed upstream of the bridge to protect it from raging flood water, but these were themselves broken by fallen trees. Following weeks of heavy rain, the River Barle had swollen dramatically and the fast flowing waters, filled with debris washed around a third of the bridge away. Some of the slabs travelled a long way downstream, luckily however all the stones had been numbered following previous floods so they can be retrieved and put back into place to keep the bridge in situ.
The bridge was again damaged during Storm Angus in 2016 however, several thousand pounds had been spent on repairs prior to the storm, with winter coming, and more storms on the way lets hope the bridge stays put for the foreseeable future.