Henry Williamson
Canal Bridge on the River Torridge near Great Torrington, on the Tarka Trail, North Devon
Water Meadows on the River Torridge, near Weare Gifford, North Devon
Torridge Bridge, circa 1300, Bideford, North Devon
On the Tarka Trail, Weare Gifford, North Devon
Tarka Trail blaze

Born in a holt “[b]elow Canal Bridge on the right bank” of the River Torridge near Great Torrington in north Devon in a “dry upper hollow of [a] fallen oak” (15, 22), Tarka the otter is the eponymous hero of Henry Williamson’s 1927 novel. Williamson’s animal fable anthropomorphizes its subject. His name, “given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut-circles on the moor,” Williamson claims “means Little Water Wanderer, or Wandering as Water” (24).  But the novel avoids the worst Disneyesque excess, although the Disney Corporation tried unsuccessfully to option the book (A. Williamson 281).  What saves Tarka the Otter is the exactitude with which Williamson describes the river valleys, marshes, and seacoast of North Devon: “Soon the oaks above the river would break into leaf.  Magpies had topped their nest with thorns, and buzzards were soaring long after owl-light.  Kingfishers and dippers had hatched their eggs—there was a dipper’s nest, hanging disheveled like a beard of moss, under nearly every stone bridge spanning the river” (131). His biographer (and daughter-in-law) asserts that “Henry Williamson did indeed tramp every inch of Tarka’s route, wanting his tale to be authentic and perfect” (A. Williamson 107). His vivid depictions of animal behavior are especially well-observed, as when the cub Tarka is attacked by a short-eared owl:  “The great bird . . .dropped with taloned feet spread for a clutch. . . [thinking] that Tarka was a small rabbit. . . [It] dropped, while screaking to terrify and subdue its prey. . . [and] turned with clacking beak to peck the base of the cub’s skull when the paw-stroke of the bitch [Tarka’s mother] tore half the feathers from its breast.  She stood on it, bit once, twice, thrice, . . . and so the owl died” (34).


Driven from his home by hunters, Tarka is forced into an exile that takes him down river to Bideford and “the ancient Long Bridge, which the monks built across their ford two centuries before the galleons were laid down in the shipyards below to fight the Spanish Armada” (76). Through the Taw and Torridge estuary to the sea, across Exmoor and back upriver to the headwaters of the Taw, in Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor, Tarka’s wanderings cover a rich and complex landscape which inspired writers as different from Williamson (and each other) as Charles Kingsley, R.D. Blackmore, and Ted Hughes. Tarka’s journey has also inspired a thriving eco-tourist industry based on a 180-mile network of North Devon footpaths and bike trails that follow the “Tarka Trail” (www.tarka-country.co.uk/tarkatrust) and a “classic” railway route from Exeter to Barnstaple along the Taw.


Williamson’s own legacy is more problematic than that of his hero Tarka. While Williamson wrote dozens of novels and travel books after Tarka including a fifteen-novel series set on Exmoor, nothing approached it in popularity.   In the 1930s, fascinated with the Hitler Youth movement, he allied with Oswald Mosley and joined the British Union of Fascists, although Anne Williamson claims that he was drawn primarily by Mosley’s charismatic personality and agricultural policies: “to label Henry a political fascist is to grossly misrepresent him” (222).  Nonetheless, his writings still sometimes attract the enthusiastic attention of the extreme right-wing.


Williamson, Anne.  Henry Williamson:  Tarka and the Last Romantic.  Stroud, Gloucestershire:  Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995.

Williamson, Henry. Tarka the Otter:  His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers.  London:  Bodley Head (1927), 1965.



© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007