HENRY Williamson’s novel Tarka the Otter, published 90 years ago this August, has inspired a thriving tourism industry in North Devon, helped in part by the creation of the 180-mile Tarka Trail in the 1980s. Tracing Tarka’s journey during the book, the figure-of-eight trail is suitable for walkers and, on some stretches, cyclists. It follows the fictional otter’s footprints along riverbanks and coastlines, and through moors and woodland, all of which Williamson describes vividly, but with minimal sentimentality, from an otter’s-eye view.
During his short but eventful life, Tarka wandered across vast swathes of North Devon hunting for food, searching for a mate and, all too often, escaping the terrifying and persistent otter hunts. Today much of his catchment area is within North Devon’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This protected area has been conserved to enhance its natural beauty and support the diversity of its wildlife-rich habitats. And it’s for this reason that the rich and varied landscape is readily recognisable through Williamson’s descriptive prose.
Tarka’s journey along the rugged North Devon coastline provides familiar descriptions of a stretch of land designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty since 1960. We learn that he slept in the disused lime kiln at Heddon’s Mouth, a relic of the 19th century industry supplying lime to fertilise the acidic soil of Exmoor, and accessible today after being restored in 1982. He passes other well-known landmarks, including Bull Point Lighthouse and the distinctive protruding rock, Morte Stone, before crossing Morte Bay to reach the craggy west-facing headland of Baggy Point, a favourite haunt of Williamson during his years living in nearby. There’s even reference to HMS Weazel, the sloop that ran aground at Baggy Point during a storm in February’ 1799, with the loss of all crew. Today her cannon is displayed outside the museum in Mortehoe.
At the core of the North Devon Biosphere Reserve is the expansive Braunton Burrows, the largest dune system in the UK and home to 500 species of wildflower and 33 species of butterfly, along with numerous rabbits. At night Tarka and his mate, Greymuzzle, leave the shelter of Baggy Point “returning to the Burrows, and hunting rabbits in the great warren of the sandhills”. In Exmoor we follow Tarka as he travels across the wild and open moorland known as The Chains, the origin of the Exe, Barle and West Lyn rivers, and perfectly described by Williamson as a “tussock-linked tract of bog”. We witness Tarka and a pair of talkative ravens – krok-krok-kro-n-n-n-k! – hunting frogs at a “deep and brown and still” tam, familiar today as Pinkery Pond.
After journeying through the woodland goyal, or valley, of Hoar Oak the otter arrives at a place “where two waters met, to seek the sea together” – better known as the National Trust’s visitor attraction, Watersmeet, where Hoar Oak Water meets the East Lyn Paver before it tumbles over rocks to the sea at Lynmouth. It’s here that Tarka grapples with his mortal enemy, Deadlock the Otterhound, miraculously escaping both hound and hunt. Aside from a diversion to Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor at the start of the second part the book, another significant setting is the rivers Taw and Torridge and their shared estuary. It’s in this watery’ wilderness that Williamson bookends his story: firstly with the birth of Tarka near Canal Bridge-in reality an aqueduct near Beam Weir on the River Torridge – and finally with the dramatic death of Tarka and his nemesis Deadlock in the ebbing tide at the mouth of the Taw-Torridge Estuary after a gruelling nine hour hunt.
The tale of Tarka, the Water Wanderer, was meticulously researched and written over a four-year period, with the manuscript famously rewritten 17 times by Williamson. Ninety years later and although the writing style is dated, it’s easy to transfer the story to the present day and imagine a descendent of Tarka wandering the North Devon countryside; thankfully not at the mercy of the now banned otter hunt. As Williamson later wrote: “It’s all here in Devon if you just happen to see and hear or smell it”.