How to Build an ‘Ancient Monument’: Tarr Steps….

Tarr Steps, is an ‘ancient bridge’ across the River Barle in Somerset, within the boundaries of Exmoor National Park. I was watching the BBC ‘Spotlight’ (early evening local news programme) last week, and saw this report about it:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-21424027

Here’s the ITV version: http://www.itv.com/news/west/story/2013-02-12/tarr-steps-repair/

Tarr Steps is talked about as a ‘famous landmark’ and a ‘tourist attraction’ – I don’t think either website gives much space to its use as a “bridge” as such! The BBC excerpt starts off by talking about the use of “21st Century technology” to repair “one of our oldest [‘us’ being ‘the nation’, I guess] and most unusual ancient monuments” [i.e. it is there to ‘monumentalise’ a sense of ‘ancientness’…?!]. It is variously described as being ‘ancient’; ‘prehistoric’; ‘Bronze Age’; ‘around 1000 years old’; ‘perhaps built in around AD1400′; or of ‘unknown age’ – such heritage items as bridges and trackways are notoriously difficult to ‘date’. But of course the entire news item is about how it is actually being (re)built in February 2013. One could argue that it is the newest bridge in the country!? But I guess they aren’t really building a ‘bridge’ – they are building an ‘ancient monument’: one of the region’s most famous landmarks and tourist attractions…?!

I did a little bit of asking around (I have a postgrad, Tim Wilkinson, working on perceptions of Exmoor): Tarr Steps has also been ‘built’ in 1942 (by the army, as some sort of training exercise – I guess they needed to practise such skills since they knew they’d have to cross the Rhine following the allied invasion of Europe! – a joke!). It was also built in 1952, I guess, following the well-known floods that caused havoc (and killed several people) in Lynmouth. It was also rebuilt in 1979, and again in 2008. During this last building stage, each stone was numbered and electronically tagged so that they could be replaced in ‘exactly the same place’ if they were ever dislodged: I guess the repair crew working there this week are thankful for this. I guess it also makes Tarr Steps one of the more technologically advanced bridges in the world. This technology is being deployed in order to ‘petrify’ Tarr Steps through conservation practises, to act as a totem or icon of…. ‘ancientness’?; ‘national identity’ (as a key site within the Exmoor NATIONAL Park)?

Re-reading the news reports, however, it seems that (as far as I can make out) the repair bill is being picked up by Somerset County Council’s Road Budget – afterall, Tarr Steps is a Public Right of Way. Perhaps what is being ‘preserved’, therefore, is the notion of public access and common rights to free movement. This concept is also difficult to ‘date’ in any standard format, and is surely a flexible and dynamic phenomenon, which would seem to open up a metaphorical and literal ‘pathway’ to the countless ordinary people who have used the bridge to cross the River Barle for “a long time”.

Tarr Steps is a stone-built structure that has been re-built many times because it is ‘useful’. It has recently been used as a ‘heritage icon’, postcard subject and honey-pot tourist site. Its most enduring purpose, however, has been to get across a big river without getting your feet wet.

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