MSO8673 - Tarr Steps clapper bridge over the River Barle (Building)
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Type and Period (2)
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.  Tarr Steps is marked at SS 86783211.  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.  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.  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.  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  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  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  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 , 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  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.  The scheduling has been revised with a new national number (was Somerset 34), on 22/06/2004.  The slabs are raked against the ends to break the river's force and divert debris. Each slab was numbered in a 1949 Survey.  The Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment of 2009 gave the site a score of 3.  A plan of Tarr Steps showing a proposal to replace the central section with concrete ramps and paving stones.  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.  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.  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.  Tarr Steps was mentioned by in an oral history interview of Josie Floyd undertaken for the Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership Scheme.  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.  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. In 2015, the Royal Mail issued a series of stamps featuring famous bridges across the UK. This included a stamp of Tarr Steps. 
- <1> SSO1945 Monograph: Sweetapple-Horlock, H.D.S.. 1928. Guide to Tarr Steps.
- <3> SSO1953 Monograph: Thompson, W.H.. 1934. Somerset Regional Survey. P.57.
- <4> SSO31 Article in serial: 1945. Unknown. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. 91. P.6.
- <5> SSO32 Article in serial: 1947. Unknown. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Society. 93. P.12-13.
- <6> SSO33 Article in serial: Alves, D.A.. 1948. Restoration of Tarr Steps. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. 94. P.159-161.
- <7> SMO5109 Index: Department of the Environment. List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest . Dulverton Rural District, Somerset. -/09/1955. 12.
- <8> SMO4073 Unpublished document: Various. Scheduled Monument Notification . Ancient Monuments of England & Wales. 1961. 84.
- <9> SSO903 Monograph: Delderfield, R.. 1963. Exmoor Wonderings. P.20-21.
- <10> SMO7319 Unpublished document: PITCHER, GHP. Field Investigators Comments. Ordnance Survey visit, 20 August 1965, SS83SE1.
- <11> SMO1436 Photograph: Pitcher, S.. Tarr Steps - Prehistoric Clapper Bridge at Dulverton. OS65/F184/7. B/W. MICROFILM.
- <12> SMO4783 Monograph: Worth, R.H.. 1967. Worth's Dartmoor . David and Charles Limited.
- <13> SMO4578 Monograph: Grinsell, L.V.. 1970. The Archaeology of Exmoor: Bideford Bay to Bridgewater. David and Charles Limited.
- <14> SSO1303 Monograph: MacDermot, E T. 1973. A History of Exmoor Forest.
- <15> SMO5109 Index: Department of the Environment. List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest . District of West Somerset. 04/08/1986. 35.
- <16> SEM7230 Monograph: Burton, R.A.. 1989. The Heritage of Exmoor. Roger A. Burton.
- <17> SMO227 Photograph: Winstone, R.. Oldest Bridge in Britain, if not the World. P31220. B/W.
- <18> SMO15 Photograph: Felton, H.. Oldest Bridge in Britain, if not the World. AA57/00344. B/W.
- <19> SMO7304 Unpublished document: Chapman, H.P.. Field Investigators Comments. RCHME Field Investigation, 26 January 1995.
- <20> SSO1864 Survey: RCHME. Exmoor Survey. 1997. NMR site SS 83 SE 1.
- <21> SMO4073 Unpublished document: Various. Scheduled Monument Notification . English Heritage to Somerset County Council. 01/10/2004.
- <22> SEM7523 Monograph: Dulverton and District Civic Society. 2002. The Book of Dulverton, Brushford, Bury and Exebridge. Halsgrove. P.15.
- <23> SEM7541 Monograph: Siraut, M.. 2009. Exmoor: The Making of an English Upland. Phillimore & Co. Ltd. 1st Edition. P.67, 161, 172-173, Photograph.
- <24> SEM6993 Article in serial: English Heritage. Photo Archive: The Tarr Steps.
- <25> SEM7402 Report: Bray, L.S.. 2010. Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment 2009, Exmoor National Park.
- <26> SEM7904 Technical drawing: Unknown. Unknown. Plan of Tarr Steps.
- <27> SEM7921 Article in monograph: Vowles, A. 1946. Tarr Steps, Exmoor. Minehead Grammar School: July, 1946.
- <28> SEM7940 Article in serial: Briggs, L. 2013. Memories of Bridge Repairs in the 1950s. Western Daily Press. 21 February 2013.
- <29> SEM8003 Report: Riley, H.. 2013. An historical and archaeological study of Tarr Steps, Exmoor National Park: Project report.
- <30> SEM8024 Sound recording: Tucker, M.. 2013. Exmoor: Oral history recording of Josie Floyd.
- <31> SEM8060 Report: Lawrence, G.. 2014. Exmoor National Park: Rapid condition survey of listed buildings 2012-13.
- <32> SEM8278 Report: Gent, T. and Manning, P.. 2015. Exmoor National Park Scheduled Monument Condition Survey 2015. Archaedia.
- <33> SEM8749 Article in serial: Unknown. 1883. Thursday's Excursion. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Nat. 29. Part 1, 58-80. pp 62-66.
- <34> SEM8776 Photograph: Royal Mail. 2015. Royal Mail Mint Stamps: Bridges. N/A. Colour. Stamp.
|Grid reference||Centred SS 8676 3210 (49m by 29m) MasterMap|
|Civil Parish||WITHYPOOL AND HAWKRIDGE, WEST SOMERSET, SOMERSET|
|Civil Parish||DULVERTON, WEST SOMERSET, SOMERSET|
Related Monuments/Buildings (0)
Related Events/Activities (5)
- Historic Event: 1952: HE - Exmoor Flood (Lynmouth Flood) (EEM14559)
- Event - Survey: 1993-1996: TS - West Exmoor Project (EMO6590)
- Event - Survey: 2012-3: SV - Listed Buildings Condition Survey (EEM14564)
- Event - Survey: 2013: DBA - Tarr Steps (EEM14140)
- Event - Intervention: Field observation on SS 83 SE 1 (EMO9699)
Related Articles (2)
External Links (1)
- http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=35762 (Original Monarch entry: 35762)
- 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
- National Monuments Record reference: SS 83 SE1
- National Park: Exmoor National Park
- NRHE HOB UID (Pastscape): 35762
- Scheduled Monument (County Number): 34
- Somerset SMR PRN: 16424
- Somerset SMR PRN: 34593
Record last edited
Jan 17 2022 12:20PM
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