Skip to content

Taw Valley

taw valley landscape picture

This is an intricate, complex and varied landscape within a dramatic valley, which contrasts with the surrounding open, elevated farmland.  Woodland and slopes combine with bends and spurs in the valley to hide views onward and create constant surprises. Tightly wooded sections unexpectedly open out to display wide vistas across the valley. Around Eggesford, the steep valley sides and mixture of broadleaved and coniferous woodland is evocative of continental Europe. Elsewhere, tranquil parkland gives the valley a soothing atmosphere.

  • Context

    thumbnail-dca57-tawvalley-This area comprises the main valley of the River Taw, plus its tributary valleys, including the River Bray, River Mole, Crooked Oak Stream, and Mully Brook. The area forms a rough ‘T’ Shape, surrounded by areas of higher land. The Codden Hill and Wooded Estates and the South Molton Farmland lie to the north, Witheridge and Rackenford Moor to the east and the High Culm Ridges to the west. To the south is the High Taw Farmland.

  • Constituent Landscape Character Types

    Constituent LCTs: 1F: Farmed Lowland Moorland and Culm Grassland, 3A: Upper Farmed and Wooded Valley Slopes, 3C: Sparsely Settled Farmed Valley Floors, 3G: River Valley Slopes and Combes, 3H: Secluded Valleys, 4A: Estuaries, 5A: Inland Elevated Undulating Land
    Part of NCA: 149: The Culm

  • Distinctive Characteristics

    • Underlying Culm Measures geology of Carboniferous mudstones, siltstones and sandstone which have been cut through by the rivers.
    • Dramatic steep-sided valleys with flat valley floors cut through the surrounding landform.
    • Fast-flowing, clear rivers meander through valleys; lower course of the Taw is tidal.
    • Extensive areas of woodland on valley sides, with broadleaved and coniferous woodland merging quite naturally and riparian and parkland trees adding to the pastoral character of valley bottoms.
    • Generally pasture in valley floodplains, and on valley sides; some arable land use on better-quality agricultural land on shallower valley-side slopes.
    • Fields generally regular in shape, but with pockets of much older enclosures which are irregular and smaller in shape; valley floor generally open.
    • Field boundaries comprising hedgerows or hedgebanks, with some fences, particularly in arable areas.
    • Semi-natural habitats associated with the river, including tidal salt marsh through Barnstaple, wetlands and watermeadows.
    • Historic features including bridges, weirs and mills which add to the time-depth of the valley landscape.
    • Eggesford medieval castle on the valley side overlooking the river and strong parkland influence from estates including Tawstock Park and King’s Nympton Park.
    • Small orchards throughout the area adding to the diversity of trees, particularly in the main Taw valley.
    • Settlement in main valley generally clustered around railway stations (e.g. Umberleigh, Chapelton) or industrial sites (Colleton Mills), with villages higher up the valley sides or in tributary valleys.
    • Historic farmsteads on valley sides overlooking the rivers, linked by steep, narrow, tunnel-like lanes.
    • Transport routes, including the ‘Tarka Line’ railway between Exeter and Barnstaple, and the A377, formerly the main road between Exeter and Barnstaple.
    • A quiet, peaceful, visually-attractive landscape, often with a strong sense of remoteness.


  • Special Qualities and Features:

    • High scenic quality and strong sense of enclosure, contrasting with the surrounding open farmland.
    • Eastern part of the area visible in views to and from Exmoor National Park, contributing to its setting.
    • Locally-high levels of tranquillity (particularly in the tributary valleys) and dark night skies away from the influence of Barnstaple and South Molton.
    • Park Gate quarry designated SSSI for its carboniferous fossil exposures.
    • Extensive areas of ancient woodland (both semi-natural and replanted) and CWSs including valley-floor and woodland habitats.
    • Entire area is within North Devon Biosphere Reserve.
    • King’s Nympton Park (listed Grade II on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens) 18th century landscape developed from a 15th century deer park.
    • Eggesford Castle (a medieval motte and bailey) SM.
    • Strong local vernacular of cream/whitewash thatched cottages; some exposed stone and slate roofs.
    • Many Conservation Areas including the historic village cores of High Bickington, Ashreigney, King’s Nympton and Chulmleigh.
    • Wealth of historic buildings throughout the area, including houses, bridges and industrial features.
    • Cultural associations with the book Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, and the associated film.
    • The Tarka Line railway, a distinctive feature which is well-integrated into its surroundings and provides an excellent way to access and view the landscape.
    • Accessible forests popular for recreation, particularly around Eggesford.

Forces for Change and Their Landscape Implications:

  • Past and Current

    • Coniferous plantations on former ancient woodland, changing the character of the landscape.
    • Parkland planting reaching maturity and/ or poorly managed, potentially leading to the loss of this important element of the landscape.
    • Water-borne invasive weeds such as Himalayan Balsam and Japanese Knotweed affecting river-bank habitats.
    • Loss of orchards, reducing landscape diversity and wildlife value.
    • Agricultural intensification, resulting in changes in grazing patterns, increased land in arable use, and loss of landscape features such as hedgerows.
    • Increased levels of farm, recreational and other traffic on narrow rural roads, reducing the area’s tranquility and damaging roadside banks and vegetation; unsympathetic highways measures.
    • Main roads and railway line locally reducing levels of tranquillity (although traffic levels on the A377 through the Taw valley have been reduced by opening of the more northerly A361 route).
    • Visual intrusion and light spill from urban development of the town of Barnstaple, lying just outside the area.

  • Future

    • Potential planting of new woodlands to reduce flood risk, and improve water storage and carbon sequestration.
    • Loss of parkland trees and woodland as a result of poor management, trees reaching maturity, storm damage and drought due to climate change, and new pests and diseases (e.g. Phytophthora).
    • Uncertainty over future levels of agricultural grants and funding, potentially threatening grazing levels and the management of landscape features such as hedgerows and hedgebanks.
    • Continued expansion of Barnstaple causing visual intrusion into the valley landscapes.
    • Incremental changes such as intrusive signage eroding the character of the landscape.
    • Renewable energy schemes, particularly potential hydro-electric power schemes on rivers, and wind turbines affecting the skylines above the valley; planting of bio-energy crops which would change the pattern of the agricultural landscape.
    • Increased levels of water pollution reducing fish stocks and affecting river-based wildlife.


  • Overall Strategy

    To protect the landscape’s scenic quality, peaceful character and strong sense of place through retention of its mosaic of parkland, woodland and farmland. Woodland and parkland trees are well-managed and replanted where necessary to ensure their continuation into the future. Agricultural land and associated hedgerows and hedgebanks are maintained. Semi-natural habitats such as wetlands and woodland are linked and enhanced to increase their resilience to climate change. Historic features such as bridges are repaired and maintained. Visually-intrusive new development within or visible from the valley is discouraged, particularly in areas which contribute to the setting of Exmoor National Park.


  • Protect

    • Protect the lightly settled and tranquil character of the valleys, and their dark night skies.
    • Protect traditional building styles, making sure that any limited new development is sympathetic in terms of form and style (whilst incorporating sustainable design).
    • Protect and restore/ repair historic features within the landscape such as bridges.
    • Protect rural lanes, resisting unsympathetic signage and highways measures.
    • Protect and manage remaining traditional orchards.
    • Protect open skylines on adjacent high ground which form the backdrop to the valleys.
    • Protect tidal habitats and the associated bird life.

  • Manage

    • Manage parkland estates, resisting conversion from pastoral to arable use, managing grasslands extensively to prevent damage to tree root systems through compaction, nutrient enrichment and overgrazing; and retaining old trees for their wildlife habitats, and replanting trees where necessary to ensure their continued presence in the landscape.
    • Manage woodland, including through traditional techniques such as coppicing and extensive grazing to maximise age and species diversity and a rich ground flora.
    • Manage plantations for sustainable timber production and wildlife interest.
    • Manage wet woodland and floodplains through traditional grazing and land management regimes to enhance their wildlife value and roles in flood prevention.
    • Manage agricultural land and associated landscape features such as hedgerows.
    • Manage and control/ eradicate where possible invasive water-borne weeds.
    • Manage in accordance with North Devon Biosphere Reserve guidelines.

  • Plan

    • Plan to enhance opportunities to access the valley floor on foot and by cycle.
    • In adjacent towns, plan to ensure development that is well-integrated into the landscape to minimise visual impact on this area.
    • Plan to revert coniferous plantations to broadleaved woodlands on maturity or felling, possibly retaining some sites for recreation facilities such as mountain-bike trails.
    • Plan to re-introduce traditional orchards, possibly as community schemes.
    • Plan to extend and link woodland and wetland semi-natural habitats.