Walk - The River Taw
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2021. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the front of Barnstaple Station, head towards the town centre.
- Turn right on the main road and go past the traffic lights to cross the bridge.
Barnstaple's medieval Long Bridge was built around 1280 at the lowest crossing point of the River Taw. It has 16 pointed arches whose spans vary from 18 to 26 feet. It needed major repairs in 1333, and again in 1437 and 1646 when it was partially destroyed. In 1796 it was widened, and in 1832-34 a footway was added at a cost of £4000, although this was removed in 1963 when the bridge was widened again to include a pavement on each side.
- At the end of the bridge take the steps down to the right, behind the museum, and walk along beside the river to Rock Park.
The Albert Clock in the middle of the Square was built in 1862 as a memorial to Prince Albert, who died the previous year. For generations the clock was known in the town as 'the four-faced liar', because each successive face was a minute faster than the last. This became so much a part of Barnstaple tradition that when the clock was overhauled and updated in 2010, the faces were once again set to show four different times.
Although prehistoric flint tools have been found around Barnstaple, the earliest record of the town is from around 930, when King Athelstan is said to have granted it charter status as one of four 'burhs', granting it the right to hold fairs and markets. By the time of the Domesday Book, in the twelfth century, it was important enough to have its own mint, and the earliest of the coins known to have been produced here date back to King Eadwig's reign, between AD 955 and 959.
In medieval times it was an important staple port, licensed to export wool. There were two quays. Pottery and wool was exported, while tobacco, wine and spices were imported. In Tudor days Barnstaple sent no fewer than five ships to help the English fleet repel the Spanish Armada (see the Hope Cove, Bolt Tail & Bolberry Walk). The town's high profile continued through the English Civil War, when it changed hands four times in 1642. In the Penrose Almshouses in Litchdon Street, leading off the Square, there are bullet holes in a door said to date from this year.
- Turn right into Rock Park and carry on beside the river until you come to the old railway bridge.
Rock Park was given to Barnstaple by Victorian printer and poet, William Frederick Rock. Born in 1802, Rock was the son of a shoemaker. His father became a freeman of the borough and as a result was friendly with a parliamentary contestant who took an interest in young William and sent him to London for his schooling. Returning to Barnstaple afterwards, William worked in a bank in Bideford, but was so often in trouble for spending his working time writing poetry that he resigned and went back to London.
In time he went to work with printer and inventor Thomas de la Rue and made enough money to set up a printing business with his brothers and future brother-in-law. The business flourished, and with no family to support William set himself up as a benefactor to his home town. He founded the town's Literary and Scientific Institution in 1845, followed by the North Devon Athenaeum in 1888 and a Convalescent Home in Mortehoe, a short distance away on the North Devon coast.
The obelisk at the entrance to the park commemorates its grand opening, which took place in August 1879. Some derelict cottages, a factory and a limekiln had been demolished to make space for the park, and the 'wide and noisome beach and water courses' were tidied and drained. A lodge was built by the gates as the park-keeper's residence: this is now a listed building and home to a community arts group.
The town's war memorial is in the park. There is also a Millennium Stone, erected in 1930 to celebrate the town's charter from Athelstan 1000 years before.
The River Taw rises on Dartmoor and from there travels 45 miles to where it joins the River Torridge from Bideford and flows into the Bristol Channel in Barnstaple Bay (also known as Bideford Bay). There are a number of tributaries feeding into both these rivers, and North Devon's designation as a UNESCO Biosphere is based on the catchment area of the water flowing from the source of the two rivers and their tributaries into the sea. It is first of only two such Biosphere Reserves in the UK and it was awarded the designation because of its blend of special landscapes and wildlife areas, as well as its rich cultural heritage and the communities that care about it.
- Take the bridge across the river and on the far bank turn right to follow the footpath back down the river to the Leisure Centre.
- Turn left here through the car park, away from the river bank, and carry on ahead to walk past Tesco and turn right to return to the Railway Station.
The area alongside the riverbank by the station is known as Seven Brethren Bank, and for several days every September it hosts the nationally renowned Barnstaple Fair. This was established in 930 as part of Athelstan's charter and is one of the oldest in the country. Traditionally it was held in July and went on for seven days. Drovers would spend several days driving their livestock through North Devon's lanes from outlying areas, and on the Wednesday, sheep and cattle were sold. On Thursday it was a horse fair, attracting Romany traders from all over the country, and Friday was given over to festivities and amusements. Nowadays it is just a four-day funfair, but the traditional opening ceremony still takes place in the Guildhall every year.