Historic Environment Record images

MSO8673 - Tarr Steps clapper bridge over the River Barle

ENPHER Number:MSO8673
Name:Tarr Steps clapper bridge over the River Barle
Type of Record:Building
Grid Reference:SS 8676 3210

Please read the Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Record caveat document.


Tarr Steps is a 55 metre long clapper bridge of 17 spans, across the River Barle. The bridge is probably medieval in origin, possibly formalising an earlier prehistoric crossing place. It has been restored several times following flood damage.


Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009  © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009 © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009  © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009 © Exmoor National Park Authority

Detail of raking stones at Hawkridge end  © Hazel Riley

Detail of raking stones at Hawkridge end © Hazel Riley

Looking upstream at the central span  © Hazel Riley

Looking upstream at the central span © Hazel Riley

Raking stones and causeway at Dulverton end from southeast  © Hazel Riley

Raking stones and causeway at Dulverton end from southeast © Hazel Riley

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009  © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009 © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009  © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009 © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009  © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009 © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009  © Exmoor National Park Authority

Tarr Steps clapper bridge, 2009 © Exmoor National Park Authority

Monument Types

Designated Status

  • Listed Building (I) 1247822: TARR STEPS
  • Scheduled Monument 1021325: Tarr Steps
  • Listed Building (I) 1058008: TARR STEPS AT NGR SS 8677 3211


Tarr Steps Bridge is one of the earliest examples of a stone bridge constructed before the use of the arch became known. It consists of 17 spans, the covering stones being laid flat, without mortar or cement, on pillars of rough stone placed upon the river bed. The pillars are 4 to 6 feet apart and about 3 to 4 feet high. Most are spanned by one stone only, the slabs varing from 6 to 8 feet long, although one is over 10 feet long. The origin of the name is not known. [1]

Tarr Steps is marked at SS 86783211. [2]

Tarr Steps (partly in Withypool Parish) is listed Grade I. It is an impressive stone 'clapper' bridge of an unknown origin. It spans the River Barle. It's length is 180 feet, including paved approaches. It's width is 5 feet, the piers extending beyond the pathway 5 feet on either side. There are 17 openings, the widest in the middle. The horizontal slabs have an average length of 7 feet, the longest being 8.5 feet. There is no mortar or cement. [7]

The middle section of the bridge was carried away by floods in the winter of 1941-1942. It was fully restored by the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society and the Royal Engineers in 1952, but was again destroyed by floods in August of the same year. The stones were recovered and the bridge was again reconstructed by the Royal Engineers. [9]

The reconstruction of the bridge is complete and apparently authentic. [10,11]

Tarr Steps clapper bridge over the River Barle is medieval in origin. Sections of the bridge have been frequently rebuilt after flood damage, most recently in 1942, 1952 and 1979. It is built with local grit sandstone slabs, weighing up to 1-2 tons apiece. There are seventeen spans, 55 metres in length, set about one metre above the river. [15]

Tarr Steps is a 55 metre long clapper bridge spanning the River Barle at SS 86783211. It is constructed from large slabs of roughly hewn local gritstone, which Grinsell [13] suggests originate from Pickwell Down, and which average 2 - 2.9 metres long, 1 - 1.6 metre wide, and 0.2 - 0.3 metres deep. There are 17 spans, of which 12 are single stones, 4 are paired and one is three stones. The slabs rest upon piers which are arranged at about 2 metre intervals. The piers are constructed from blocks of stone, each about 2.2 metres long, 0.7 metres wide, and 0.7 metres thick. Against the sides of each pier rest at least one and often up to three slabs, which appear to be functional: helping to prevent damage to the piers on the upstream side and support for the bridge on the downstream side. However, these slabs are probably later additions to the monument. The date of the bridge is a matter of debate. A prehistoric date has been suggested in the past for two reasons. Firstly, it is believed by Burton [16] to be a point where a number of supposed prehistoric tracks converge, but this only indicates a possible date for the site and not necessarily the bridge, which could be a formalisation of something much earlier. Secondly, Grinsell [13] dates it by the place-name association of "Tarr", with the Celtic "Tochar" or "Toher" meaning "causeway (across water)", although this evidence is unsubstantiated.
However, the 1279 Perambulation of the moor described by McDermot [14], crossed the River Barle at Three Waters about a mile to the south of Tarr Steps, which suggests that there was not a bridge here at that date. It has been suggested that clapper bridges replaced stepping stones, which were rendered useless in times of high water. Worth [12] speculates that clapper bridges on Dartmoor do not date before about AD 1400. Tarr Steps has been damaged on several occasions by high waters, most notably in 1948 and 1952, but now a debris arresting cable has been positioned upstream of the bridge. However, this type of damage is probably a recent phenomenon reflecting the efficiency of drainage on the moor, which increases the volume of water entering rivers, rather than something which would have happened in the past. [20]

The scheduling has been revised with a new national number (was Somerset 34), on 22/06/2004. [21]

The slabs are raked against the ends to break the river's force and divert debris. Each slab was numbered in a 1949 Survey. [24]

The Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment of 2009 gave the site a score of 3. [25]

A plan of Tarr Steps showing a proposal to replace the central section with concrete ramps and paving stones. [26]

The bridge was damaged by floods on several other occasions. In 1939 and 1940 heavy floods, floating timber and ice blocks totally destroyed 4 of the 16 piers and seriously damaged others, while 7 of the 25 great slabs which form the footway crashed into the River Barle. In August 1945 volunteers (including 5 pupils of Minehead Grammar School) strengthened the bridge by lifting 48 protecting and supporting stones into position against the remaining piers. [27]

An article in the Western Daily Press February 2013 provides further information on the 1953 rebuilding of the site after flood damage, when Wally Bartlett of Glastonbury provided his breakdown crane for use of moving the stones. [28]

Tarr Steps was the subject of a study in 2013 following damage to the structure in the severe floods of December 2012, to gain better understanding of the structure and its age and to understand how it has been altered through time by flooding and repairs. The study reviewed source material relating to the site dating from the 19th and 20th Centuries and included site visits in March and May 2013, when record photographs were taken. While various dates for the structure have been suggested, the study concluded that Tarr Steps was built in the 15th or 16th Century to provide a dry way across the river by a long established ford, taking its name from the settlement (Tarr or Torr) already established on the Dulverton side of the river. The bridge provided access to a water grist mill, sited close to the Barle on the Hawkridge side of the river, and a leat, over 1.5km long, which can still be seen in North Barton Wood, channelled water from West Water to drive the water wheel.
The bridge is constructed of local gritstones from the Pickwell Down basement beds. It is composed of large flat stone slabs (or clappers) supported by piers, which rest on the river bed and are protected against the current by raking stones. A stone causeway leads from the tarmac roads on both sides of the river. It is 38.5 metres long, measured from river bank to river bank, with the total structure (including causeways) reaching 58 metres. A central stone, laid crosswise, was used to mark the parish boundary until 1940, when the bridge was damaged in January in the ice floods of that year. Subsequent reconstructions have failed to reinstate both the central slab laid crosswise and the distinctive 'arching' of the causeway at the centre which was evident before. The central slab has now become part of the central pier, apparently since 1941.
The structure has, at various times, been displaced, damaged, or wholly washed away. Its importance is emphasised by the tradition that the farmers of both parishes used to remove fallen timber and replace displaced stones at Tarr Steps. Rather than the top stones themselves being numbered, a lantern slide in the SAHNS collection shows the stone piers were numbered by the late 19th Century.
The report also provides information on the legends surrounding Tarr Steps, including that it was built by the Devil but never fully completed because his apron strings broke, dropping stones in the woods nearby and on Mouncey Castle. The Devil then denounced destruction on the first creature to venture across but a cat was then sent across, being torn to pieces as she touched the other side. The parson then crossed without harm, trading insults with the Devil. Another tale suggests that the Devil liked to sunbathe on the beach, but not if the sun was too hot. [29]

Tarr Steps was mentioned by in an oral history interview of Josie Floyd undertaken for the Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership Scheme. [30]

The building was visited in March 2012 as part of the rapid condition survey of Exmoor's Listed Buildings 2012-13. It received a BAR score of 5A. [31]

The site was surveyed in June 2015 as part of the 2015 Exmoor Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment. It was given a survival score of 8.[32]

<1> Sweetapple-Horlock, H.D.S., 1928, Guide to Tarr Steps (Monograph). SSO1945.

<3> Thompson, W.H., 1934, Somerset Regional Survey, P.57 (Monograph). SSO1953.

<4> 1945, Unknown, P.6 (Article in serial). SSO31.

<5> 1947, Unknown, P.12-13 (Article in serial). SSO32.

<6> Alves, D.A., 1948, Restoration of Tarr Steps, P.159-161 (Article in serial). SSO33.

<7> Department of the Environment, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest , Dulverton Rural District, Somerset. -/09/1955. 12 (Index). SMO5109.

<8> Scheduled Monument Notification , Ancient Monuments of England & Wales. 1961. 84 (Index). SMO4073.

<9> Delderfield, R., 1963, Exmoor Wonderings, P.20-21 (Monograph). SSO903.

<10> Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Field Investigators Comments, F1. Pitcher, G.H. 20/08/1965. SS83SE1 (Unpublished document). SMO5103.

<11> Pitcher, S., Tarr Steps - Prehistoric Clapper Bridge at Dulverton (Photograph). SMO1436.

<12> Worth, R.H., 1967, Worth's Dartmoor (Monograph). SMO4783.

<13> Grinsell, L.V., 1970, The Archaeology of Exmoor: Bideford Bay to Bridgewater (Monograph). SMO4578.

<14> MacDermot, E T, 1973, A History of Exmoor Forest (Monograph). SSO1303.

<15> Department of the Environment, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest , District of West Somerset. 04/08/1986. 35 (Index). SMO5109.

<16> Burton, R.A., 1989, The Heritage of Exmoor (Monograph). SEM7230.

<17> Winstone, R., Oldest Bridge in Britain, if not the World (Photograph). SMO227.

<18> Felton, H., Oldest Bridge in Britain, if not the World (Photograph). SMO15.

<19> Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, Field Investigators Comment, Chapman, H.P. 26/01/1995 (Unpublished document). SMO5111.

<20> RCHME, Exmoor Survey, 1997. NMR site SS 83 SE 1 (Survey). SSO1864.

<21> Scheduled Monument Notification , English Heritage to Somerset County Council. 01/10/2004 (Index). SMO4073.

<22> Dulverton and District Civic Society, 2002, The Book of Dulverton, Brushford, Bury and Exebridge, P.15 (Monograph). SEM7523.

<23> Siraut, M., 2009, Exmoor: The Making of an English Upland, P.67, 161, 172-173, Photograph (Monograph). SEM7541.

<24> English Heritage, Photo Archive: The Tarr Steps (Article in serial). SEM6993.

<25> Bray, L.S., 2010, Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment 2009, Exmoor National Park (Report). SEM7402.

<26> Unknown, Unknown, Plan of Tarr Steps (Technical drawing). SEM7904.

<27> Vowles, A, 1946, Tarr Steps, Exmoor (Article in monograph). SEM7921.

<28> Briggs, L, 2013, Memories of Bridge Repairs in the 1950s (Article in serial). SEM7940.

<29> Riley, H., 2013, An historical and archaeological study of Tarr Steps, Exmoor National Park: Project report (Report). SEM8003.

<30> Tucker, M., 2013, Exmoor: Oral history recording of Josie Floyd (Sound recording). SEM8024.

<31> Lawrence, G., 2014, Exmoor National Park: Rapid condition survey of listed buildings 2012-13 (Report). SEM8060.

<32> Gent, T. and Manning, P., 2015, Exmoor National Park Scheduled Monument Condition Survey 2015 - Draft (Report). SEM8278.

Related Pages

Other References

  • 2012-3 Building At Risk Score (5A): 1076/18/167
  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MSO10239
  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MSO11979
  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MSO9321
  • Local List Status (No)
  • National Monuments Record reference: SS 83 SE1
  • National Park: Exmoor National Park
  • Pastscape HOBID (was Monarch UID): 35762
  • Scheduled Monument (County Number): 34
  • Somerset SMR PRN: 16424
  • Somerset SMR PRN: 34593
Date Last Edited:Jul 20 2016 1:12PM


Your feedback is welcome. If you can provide any new information about this record, please email us.

Powered by HBSMR-web and the HBSMR Gateway from exeGesIS SDM Ltd

© 2016 Exmoor National Park Authority