The narrow river gorge smells of leaf-mould and damp earth. Dense, ancient woods line the steep valley sides. The river coils and tumbles beside us, fresh from the moor, rushing over smooth stones and gurgling among tree roots and ferns. It is the perfect place, surely, to see an otter.
“Do you think Tarka would like a bit of my jammie dodger?” my daughter Nelly asks as we peer hopefully into the dark water.
“I think he’d prefer fish and frogs to biscuits,” I reply, watching for tell-tale rows of bubbles rising to the surface.
We’re sitting on a mossy river bank in north Devon, home of the most famous otter of them all. The classic tale Tarka the Otter was written 90 years ago and my daughter and I thought we’d experience for ourselves some of the places author Henry Williamson brought so vividly to life.
We soon discover that you cannot come to this part of Devon and avoid Tarka: there is the Tarka Trail, the Tarka Inn, a Tarka Pottery and even Tarka Home Improvements … In fact, Tarka is everywhere it appears, except on the river bank. The offering of a few crumbs is appreciated by two grey wagtails, but our search continues.
Born in 1895, Williamson served in the trenches during the first world war. It was an ordeal from which he never recovered. Tormented by the horrors he’d experienced, he sought solace and refuge in this wild and lonely place and, in the village of Georgeham, began his writing life.
Day and night he walked the nearby cliffs and beaches or the high moors drained by the rivers Taw and Torridge. He covered hundreds of miles, often barefoot, slept outdoors and crawled on hands and knees among the tree roots and reeds of the riverbanks. Eventually, his empathy with this landscape and its wild residents was total. But putting the otter’s-eye view into words was no easy task. He rewrote his manuscript 17 times before he was satisfied. “Each word,” he later confessed, “was chipped from the breastbone.”
On publication, Tarka the Otter was a resounding success. It catapulted Williamson into the literary limelight, which he found very uncomfortable. He was a man of contradictions: he was a romantic, but also an acerbic and difficult character. In the 1930s, his flirtation with fascism turned friends and family against him. Williamson retreated into solitude once again. He built a small wooden writing hut in a field above Georgeham and closed the door on the world. Dozens of books followed, but it will always be Tarka’s “joyful water-life and death in the two rivers” for which he is best-known.
Our explorations start at Braunton Burrows, the largest dune system in the UK and home to nearly 500 species of wildflower and 33 species of butterfly. A Unesco biosphere reserve, the Burrows and surrounding area are protected for their richness and diversity of wildlife. The reserve stretches from moor to sea, encompassing the land between the Taw and Torridge rivers, from source to estuary, and out to Lundy Island, 12 miles out in the Bristol Channel.
We roam over sand hills knotted with marram grass and wildflowers, singing in case we disturb sunbathing adders, imagining Tarka ducking in and out of warrens. Soon towering dunes appear, with kids and adults sand-surfing and tobogganing down the sides. The distant rumble of waves crashing on Saunton Sands can just be heard.
Early the next morning we head north towards Baggy Point, a craggy west-facing headland pitted with secret coves – a favourite haunt for Williamson. Sea mist clings to the cliffs, draining the beaches of colour. We have the place to ourselves. Stonechats, warblers and linnets chatter from the heathland. Shags and guillemots wheel and call overhead. It’s a rugged, weathered place, with dark angular rocks pounded by a foamy sea. The mist dissolves. The golden arc of Woolacombe Sands comes into view and beyond is Morte point, where Tarka once hunted for bass.
There have been recent otter sightings at Beam weir, further south near Great Torrington. Hiring bicycles from beside the Puffing Billy cafe we set out down a stretch of disused railway track towards Bideford that forms part of the Tarka Trail. We meet few others on the path and it’s hard to believe that thousands of cyclists pedal this same stretch each year. For the most part the only sound we hear is the whirring of our wheels and birdsong.
Williamson’s classic story has inspired a thriving tourism industry, but conservation is also the key to its success. The well-marked, 180-mile Tarka Trail winds through undisturbed countryside and is inaccessible by car. Terrain varies from flat family-friendly sections to more challenging stretches. Walk or cycle almost anywhere here and you’ll find that Williamson’s careful descriptions of the landscape are very much alive.
As we cycle down river, the Torridge opens to wide mudflats, pock-marked with the footprints of wading birds. Perhaps there are webbed paw-prints too. Essentially nocturnal creatures, otters are shy of humans and, as Nelly points out, perhaps they are still terrified of dogs too.
Williamson painted nature in all its beauty and brutality. At times there is menace in the writing: his otters drag rabbits “squealing” from their burrows and, when starving, kill a swan in the estuary and drink blood from its throat. Deer “sleep into death” in the winter; a deadly Greenland falcon “drops from the storm” upon its victim. But the otter hunt is the most savage of all. Within 30 years of the publication of Tarka, these beautiful creatures had been hunted to near extinction in southern England. Thankfully, their numbers are once again increasing.
Compared with some beauty spots, this remains a relatively unfrequented corner of Britain. There are no mainline stations here. The tiny station at Barnstaple is the terminus for the aptly named Tarka Line – a two-coach service that runs to Exeter, and driving here involves negotiating a network of winding rural roads, which can be excruciating for passengers who suffer from motion sickness. The extra effort involved in reaching the area is worth it.
As the sun sets on our travels through Tarka Country, we at last ascend the heights of Exmoor. In the distance, the Chains – the most wind-worn and desolate area of the moor – is bathed in a rose-peach haze. Bracken, gorse and dry moorland grass appear to be aflame. It is heart-stoppingly beautiful. There are few wildernesses left in England, but this is a glimpse of a place untouched. We may not have met Tarka, but in the process of looking we’ve discovered so much more. As Williamson said: “It is all here in Devon, if you just happen to see and hear or smell it.”
Way to go
Accommodation was provided by the Poplars Guest House (doubles from £70) and the Old Vicarage (doubles from £90). The Tarka Line runs from Exeter to Barnstaple, with day returns from £5. Cycle hire from £9 adult/£6.50 child for half a day. The Tarka Trail Guide (£6.95) has advice on routes. More information at visitdevon.co.uk
• Kari Herbert is co-author of Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure (Thames & Hudson, £29.95). To buy a copy for £25.46 go to bookshop.theguardian.com