North Devon: You can still spot an otter on Tarka's Trail

Eighty years ago this month, a wildlife tale hit our bookshelves which was destined to become a classic. Kieran Falconer travels to North Devon where the story has inspired a multimillion-pound tourist industry

As a young boy I remember seeing the film Tarka the Otter on television. Peter Ustinov's calming tones narrated Tarka's adventures with a hunting pack of dogs chasing the furry fella. Disney it wasn't but real life it was. Hunting is no more, and otter numbers have been rising in the past few decades but I wanted to go back to where the story began.

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Tarka the Otter, a book following the life of an otter from birth to finish. It won its author, Henry Williamson, the Hawthornden prize. It incidentally inspired a huge tourist industry worth millions of pounds in North Devon.

Driving down there with my partner Shula it was impossible to avoid Tarka. There's Tarka Springs water, the Tarka Inn at Heanton, Tarka Tots nursery and even a Tarka Plumber with the slogan "we get it 'otter". In fact, Tarka is everywhere – except on the riverbank.

Henry Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter with real North Devon locations in mind. After enduring the horrors of the trenches in the First World War, Williamson recuperated in the village of Georgham where Tarka paddled about. Today, it is as quiet and relaxed a village as it was in his day. You can easily find his house (with blue plaque) and he rests in the churchyard. By all accounts Williamson was a difficult, temperamental man whose flirtation with fascism in the 1930s left him in disgrace. After the war he churned out nearly a book a year, most of which are out of print.

The most important focus for all things Tarka is the Tarka Trail. This path covers 180 miles of North Devon, mostly for walking but with stretches for cycling. One of those cycling paths passes through Great Torrington. This pretty town is home to two wonderful eccentric museums: Barometer World and the Gnome Reserve, where you meet more than a thousand gnomes and pixies. But this urbanite found himself by the Puffing Billy, a pub just outside the town. A disused station with a few old carriages, it's the gateway to 30 miles of track that has been replaced by tarmac and attracts 30,000 cyclists a year.

It's here we meet Ben Totterdell, the local countryside officer. " Otters have been increasing their numbers for the past few years," he says. "The river pollution held them back. But as the rivers get cleaner we're seeing more of them; sadly we know there are more because they're often roadkill." En croûte? "No, not tasty. Better off with badger."

Otters need a large area to survive in because their prodigious fish diet can be hard to come by. They also need to be undisturbed to bring up their young. Because they're nocturnal you're most likely to see them early in the morning or on a summer's night. As we walk along, the path intersects a U-bend of the river Torridge and this is where the otters are spotted most often. We watch for the tell-tale row of bubbles rising to the surface.

Oak woodland covers the banks and on a sparkling winter's day it is pleasant to hear the water's rush over Beam Weir and stare at nature. There is a heron on the shore; I can smell a fox and a raven croaks from somewhere in the coppice. "It's just like Cornwall," confides Totterdell, " but prettier."

Sometimes, when you least expect it, you'll see a flash of otter, though we didn't. North Devon has plenty of other nature on offer if the otters are unsociable. The biosphere reserve covers the North Devon coast and countryside as far south as Okehampton. One of the most dramatic parts is Braunton Burrows, the largest dune system in the UK. Waves of sand banks yards high are covered by 500 types of plant. The grasses, closely cropped by rabbits, keep the sand in place. Once you've climbed over half a dozen of these sand banks, you can hear the rumble of the faraway surf on Saunton Sands. At low tide the water is so far out that it's a good half-mile if you fancy a paddle. It is peaceful, and the tarnished gold of the dry sand gives way to the light-blue glass of the wet sand reflecting the sky.

Up the coast, Croyde and Woolacombe are busy with scores of surfers but it all seems too noisy now. So Shula and I double back to the Hoops Inn, a fine big pub with local beers.

This is the perfect romantic weekend: furry animals, endless beaches and our beautiful thatched George's Cottage. Then Shula read the history of the village of Buck's Mills. Our cottage's "George" had hanged himself in the garden. Seems he was unhappily married. Shula dived like an otter under the covers.

How to get there Kieran Falconer stayed at George's Cottage courtesy of Marsdens Cottage Holidays (01271 813777). It sleeps four and a week costs from £302. Hertz (08708 448844) offers weekend car hire from £42.



Further information

For free leaflets about the Tarka Trail contact Barnstaple TIC (01271 375000). For a copy of the North Devon & Exmoor Visitor Guide call 01271 336070 or visit northdevon.com. North Devon's Biosphere Reserve

Further reading 'Tarka the Otter', by Henry Williamson, Puffin Modern Classics, £6.99

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk