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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 A disused station with a few old carriages, it's the gateway to 30 miles of track that has been replaced by tarmac and attracts 30,000 cyclists a year.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