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1,000-year-old bridge on Exmoor is washed away, as cliffs on Jurassic coast crumble in wettest year on record

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 31, 2012

  • Martin Hesp and his lurcher, Monty, on what remains of Tarr Steps, the ancient Exmoor bridge, washed away by winter storms and floods. Massive trees snapped the steel hawsers designed to protect the bridge Picture: Nancy Hesp

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One of the region's oldest bridges – Exmoor's Tarr Steps – has been swept away by a raging, swollen river as what is likely to be the wettest year on record comes to a soggy end.

The iconic 1,000-year-old clapper bridge is the latest landmark to be hit by the aftermath of weeks of relentless downpours. Other areas all around the Westcountry are still threatened by landslips, saturated ground and the continued risk of flooding.

The damage to Tarr Steps – a well-known beauty spot on the fast-flowing river Barle – comes as sections of the cliffs along the Jurassic Coast began sliding towards the waves at the weekend, threatening luxury beach chalets and creating a risk for beach-goers and fossil hunters who were warned to stay away from the cliffs.

More than three quarters of the 50-metre long, ancient clapper bridge, which crosses the Barle between Withypool and Dulverton, has been washed away in the rain-swollen river which has reached depths 10 feet deeper than normal levels.

So strong was the force of water washing down the deep Exmoor valley that the twin steel hawsers designed to protect the bridge were snapped by massive trees being swept downstream in the flood.

The hawsers were strung across the river exactly 60 years ago after an extreme flood damaged the bridge – and the cable debris-trap has stood the test of time ever since, despite bad weather in the past.

"They say the bridge only gets damaged in a year that ends in the number two," commented a barman at neighbouring Tarr Farm Inn. "It was damaged in 1982 and before that in 1952 – and apparently in the past they've brought the Army in to help retrieve the stones and put them back again."

All the massive slabs incorporated into the 17-span bridge have been numbered so that they can be retrieved and put back in exactly the right place.

A spokesman for the Exmoor National Park Authority said: "The stones forming the spans weigh between one and two tons each and have on occasions been washed up to 50 yards downstream. A distinctive feature of Tarr Steps is the slabs that are raked against the ends of each pier to break the force of the river and divert floating debris.

"Despite this, much of the damage has been due to debris such as branches floating down with the flood and battering the bridge."

Meanwhile around a quarter-mile of Swanage Bay in Dorset, at the eastern end of the the Jurassic Coast, started sliding towards the shoreline at the weekend. Coastguards are mounting a vigil near the beach and beach huts as chunks of cliff threaten to fall.

Lyme Regis was also being monitored by emergency services following days of persistent torrential rain.

At Monmouth Beach near the town one privately-owned £130,000 beach chalet lying at the foot of cliffs began shifting and leaning following a landslide on Saturday.

There are around 100 chalets and beach huts in the area.

If further movements occur and the properties are pushed over the edge the cost could hover around the million pound mark, according to locals.

An eyewitness told the Western Morning News he saw people leaving the chalets as police sealed off the area.

He said: "It was a very serious incident. There were police all over the place and the force helicopter was flying overhead to survey the damage.

"Engineers from Western Power turned up to isolate the power supply while police threw-up a cordon around the chalet in an area including six or seven other chalets.

"Landslides happen over time but if all the chalets end up going over the edge you're looking at damage of around a million pounds."

Philip Chappell, a coastguard in Weymouth, said: "Parts of the Jurassic Coast are notoriously fragile, particularly following this bad weather.

"The amount of rain we've had recently is turning parts of the cliff into a potentially dangerous porridge."

Simon Dennis of Portland Coastguard said: "With the poor weather continuing, we're dealing with a number of landslips and mudslides along the Devon and Dorset coastline.

"In Lyme Regis, coastguards and Dorset Police are dealing with an area to the west of the town, with very significant movement."

Elsewhere, Joanna Tribe, 40, a teacher from Tavistock in Devon, was at the beach at Watchet in Somerset on Saturday during a visit to relatives with her children Luc, aged seven, and Edie, five, when they heard a 'thunderingly loud' rumble before a boulder and a section of cliff collapsed.

She said: "We had deliberately kept well away from the cliffs after reading about the risk of collapses in the Western Morning News but the noise it made was still quite scary, even though we weren't in any danger.

"We heard this thundering noise. It was really loud. Then a boulder rolled out from the cliff.

"It was a shock that it happened while we were on the beach."

The weekend's incidents happened as Sheryll Murray, Conservative MP for South East Cornwall, called for more to be done to alleviate the impact of flooding on Westcountry victims.

She said she has been in contact with Environment Minister Richard Benyon about the issue.

Ms Murray, whose constituency was hit particularly hard during the recent deluge added that local authorities do not have unlimited funds to cope with the aftermath. Ms Murray said: "The first priority is to make sure that those constituents who have this dreadful thing happen to them get as much help as they can.

"The second is to stop the problem happening in the future." Environment Agency officers have issued 17 warnings across Devon and Cornwall which remained in place last night.

Met Office bosses issued a warning of heavy rain and strong winds overnight last night for Devon and Cornwall indicating flooding and disruption in some areas.

A spokesman said: "The most persistent heavy rain is likely to affect areas of high ground in western parts exposed to the very strong south-westerly winds."

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