The Tarka Trail was established in 1987 as the Taw/Torridge Country Park using the disused railway line between Barnstaple and Bideford.
The railway line was purchased for £515,000 in 1986-87 from British Rail. In 1989, the remainder of the line between Bideford and Meeth was acquired in its entirety by Devon County Council for £1.
Conversion of this section to a footpath was enabled by a £60,000 Derelict Land Grant from central government in 1989-90, plus a further £100,000 from Devon County Council and the Countryside Commission in 1990-91. A large proportion of the money was needed to adapt and repair bridges across the River Torridge.
Parish councils, Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities and the National Trust played a part in the development of the rest of the Trail which makes use of the Two Moors Way and the South West Coast path to traverse through open countryside, woodland, coastal paths and beaches. Their co-operation ensured minimal environmental impacts while retaining a large degree of accessibility to the Trail. And of course, the Otter Conservation Officer was involved to ensure there would be no disturbance to otters where the Trail followed water courses.
The section between Barnstaple and Bideford was opened on 21 May 1991 and was made into a combined footpath and cyclepath. The section from Barnstaple to Meeth was named the Tarka Country Park. Once the southern circuit was also incorporated, the Trail spanned 180 miles (290 km). It was opened by Prince Charles in May 1992. The Tarka Country Park identity was finally subsumed by the Tarka Trail in 1994. The route to Meeth was converted into a cycle/walkway in 1997.
In the past, the region had a network of lines carrying people and goods all over North Devon, many of which ran into or through the commercial hub of Barnstaple. With the exception of the Tarka Line between Barnstaple and Exeter, none of the railways still exist although there are still many sections of former railway which have now been incorporated into the Tarka Trail.
Former railway sections include:
- Ilfracombe Branch Line – between Braunton and Barnstaple
- Bideford Extension Railway – between Barnstaple and Bideford
- North Devon Railway – between Bideford and Torrington
There is some further information on the old railway line on the Barnstaple History website.