5 fab things to do on a West Devon country walk

A woman walking in a field in West Devon.

Along the Tarka Trail after Yeo Bridge. - Credit: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne

Try this farmland walk in West Devon, where SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE follows in the paw prints of Tarka 

Deeply rural, this appealing walk ambles back and forth across the River Taw, winding through countryside immortalised in Henry Williamson’s enduring tale of Tarka the Otter.  

Published in 1927, it has remained in print ever since, and the legacy of Tarka, the ‘little water wanderer’, lives on: in the book, in a more enlightened and humane awareness of the need to respect wildlife and in the Tarka Trail, a long-distance path that explores his habitat and which some of this route follows. 

Be well booted, Devon winters are never mud-free, and pick a blue-sky day to enjoy the views and some glimpses of history. 

Route:

1. The walk starts at Bondleigh’s mostly-18th century stone bridge, with its triangular ‘refuges’ to keep walkers away from occasional cars. Follow the road from Bondleigh Bridge Cross, past the red phone box, now a book/jigsaw exchange which also houses the village’s ‘Flora and Fauna Observations’ record book.  

The River Taw is across the grass to your left. As you follow the road there is a view over the right-hand hedge, up to the parish church which we visit near the end of the walk. The area beside the church is, despite its elevation, dubbed Lower Town.  

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The road bends right in 350m and in another 500m arrives at Bondleigh Wood Cross. Turn left and, as the road bends right in 20m, keep ahead along a ‘no through road’ passing Wood Farm on your left. This is the Tarka Trail. The track initially climbs then passes an isolated house as it begins its descent back down the river. 

2. About three-quarters of a mile from Wood Farm the Tarka Trail reaches an aqueous area known as Bailey’s Ford, beside a three-way fingerpost. Look for the diminutive boundary stone to the right of the path denoting NT 2000, marking the parish boundary between Bondleigh and North Tawton.  

At this meeting of ways we leave the Tarka Trail and cross the footbridge, heading for North Tawton. At the end of the bridge turn right and follow the track until you reach the hamlet of Yeo in just over a quarter of a mile. 

The track becomes surfaced and after about 60m, opposite Cider Cottage, turn right on the signed footpath, which leads past barns to reach Yeo Bridge in just over 100m. Cross this old stone bridge and about 20m beyond look for the three-way fingerpost. Turn right here, entering a field and walking through it with the river meandering to your right; we are now back with Tarka for a while. 

A boundary stone in Devon hidden in leaves.

A boundary stone between the parishes of North Tawton and Bondleigh. - Credit: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne

3. In 200m the river bends back beside the path. Follow it and, just as it wanders away again to the right there is a multi-arrowed gatepost. Here we leave the Tarka Trail and stay in this field, keeping ahead with the hedge to our right. (This is now the Devonshire Heartland Way, though I saw nothing to indicate that.) As the hedge bends left stay beside it, climbing up through the same field and just before you reach the field corner turn right through an arrowed gate. 

As you enter this next field there is a small, arrowed footbridge on the right, which seems superfluous to requirements. Walk uphill through this field, bearing slightly left – you may spot a wind turbine. As you crest the hill you’ll see a tree-lined boundary below, hiding a stream (this is where we saw roe deer). Walk downhill towards the arrowed metal farm gate, recessed in the treed boundary. 

4. Pass through this gate and climb steeply beyond it, beside the left-hand hedge. As the hedge ends, keep ahead uphill, passing beside an ancient boundary of lovely old trees. Continue uphill beyond them to another arrowed gate and pause; there are views behind across the countryside just travelled and to Dartmoor. 

Continue through the next field bearing very slightly right – the buildings of Haywoods are to the left and you are aiming for a yellow-arrowed stile about 50m to the right of a farm gate. Cross this and follow the narrow tree-covered path beyond, crossing a stream then ascending steps.  

The path winds through a patch of woodland; Lake Farm can be glimpsed to the right. Within 100m a telegraph pole in front bears an arrow directing right. Follow this, woodland and Lake Farm still to your right, to reach a footpath gate. Beyond it turn sharp left to arrive at the road. 

An art sculpture of a giant mosquito.

A giant mosquito keeps watch over the footpath at Lower Town. - Credit: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne

5. Turn left and follow the road for 200m to find a public footpath signed right along the surfaced drive of Handsford. There’s a good view to the right to Bondleigh Church. Follow the drive for about 100m then go through a footpath gate on the right, continuing beside the left-hand hedge through the field.  

The path veers away from the hedge, passing an arrowed telegraph pole over to the left and aiming for another arrowed gateway. Go through and veer slightly left across the field towards another arrowed gate, the barns of Handsford are down to the left. 

At the gate pass through and follow the left-hand hedge away from the farm towards the next gate. Beyond this head straight across the field, the church is ahead to the left. This line brings you to another arrowed gate, recessed down in the boundary.  

6. Head across the next field, aiming for a hedge-corner that juts into the field 120m away. When you reach this hedge-corner continue ahead beside it, keeping it to your right, to reach another gate in the field corner. Go through and continue beside the right-hand boundary to another gate.  

Beyond this, walk ahead through a scrubby area, woodland to the right, then bear left to pass a building on your right (this is slightly at variance with the map). Pass through an arrowed gate adjacent to the building, then continue ahead to reach the road. Turn left, towards the church. 

The River Taw in Devon.

The River Taw meanders in and out alongside the Tarka Trail. - Credit: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne

7. Follow the road down, then up, to Bondleigh Cross and its bench in 300m. If you wish to shorten the walk by half a mile, go right on the road back to the bridge, but I would recommend keeping straight ahead here, crossing the road and walking uphill towards the church. 

In 150m a footpath next to a giant metal insect goes right – this is the final stretch once we’ve visited the church. St James the Apostle is just ahead and worth exploring. He’s been there since the 15th century – some bits even longer. There are some venerable memorials in the churchyard.  

The church warden, who has researched some of them tells me: “The big grave with the chunky stone is Richard and Grace Seldon and their son Thomas who lived at West Seldon Farm. The writing is quite difficult to read. Richard died in 1886 aged 73, Grace in 1904 aged 87 and their son in 1900 aged 49.  

“The grave behind railings is William and Mary Dart and their daughter Charity. They lived at Town Living (now The Barton) next to the Church. William died in 1871 aged 81, Mary died in 1867 aged 69 and Charity died in 1861 aged only 26.” Glimpses into lives and hints of sadnesses they encountered. 

Return to the insect and follow the footpath towards the houses of Lower Town. The drive bends left and soon the footpath goes right through an arrowed footpath-farm-gate combo. Walk through three fields alongside the right-hand hedge, to reach the road.  

Cross the road, veering right to join the continuing footpath, then descend steeply down into the field – mind how you fall down the steps. As the path flattens out keep ahead towards the footbridge. Don’t cross it, but turn right by the fingerpost, re-joining the Tarka Trail as it passes through two fields, River Taw once more to your left. When you reach the road turn left. You’re soon back at Bondleigh Bridge. 

While you’re here...five things to do while you’re in the area

Okehampton is about ten miles from remote Bondleigh and offers many points of interest: 

Exeterior of Okehampton Castle.

Okehampton Castle is deliciously haunted. - Credit: English Heritage

Okehampton Castle is an atmospheric medieval ruin in the care of English Heritage. Dating back to the 11th century, it is deliciously haunted. 

The Museum of Dartmoor Life is also in Okehampton and offers historic snapshots of all aspects of life around and about the moor. 

War Horse Valley Country Park at Iddesleigh has been farmed by the same family for nearly 100 years and is the farm that inspired the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. 

The Waie Inn at Zeal Monachorum is great for food and is also home of Waie 2 Play, a magnet for youngsters 

Bow Garden and Aquatic Centre, on the edge of Bow Village, offers a café as well as a place to browse and find supplies for your garden and pond. 

All the walk info you need

Start point: Bondleigh Bridge. Grid ref: SS658045; nearby postcode: EX20 2AH 

Parking: There is limited parking near the phone box by the bridge, or on-road near the Gospel Hall, just uphill from the bridge – please park with consideration for residents 

Directions to start: Bondleigh is accessed via country lanes, between the A377 and the A386, nine miles north of Okehampton 

Map: OS Explorer 113 Okehampton 1:25 000 

Terrain: Tracks, field paths and some very quiet roads 

Distance: 4½ miles  

Dog alerts: Animals grazing, a couple of stiles and some road walking 

Exertion: moderate, with some short, sharp uphills  

Refreshments: None en route, though there are options in North Tawton, 2½ miles away 

Exterior of Bondleigh Parish Church in Devon.

The Grade l listed St James the Apostle, Bondleigh. Some elements of the church are pre-15th century. - Credit: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne

Look out for

Grade l listed church 
Roe deer 
Occasional wind turbines 
Views to Dartmoor