A39 from Minehead to Barnstaple

A39

I want moor time

As you get older your soon realise that time flies at an unsettling pace without the need for the corners of your mouth to be curled skywards. I find myself constantly reminded of this when I bump into an old work colleague, hear a song from when Top of the Pops was staple Thursday night viewing or visit somewhere that I can vaguely remember being there before. One such occasion was the last time I was in Somerset. It was a school trip and while the events of that day are pretty foggy I do remember a few things like the naughty kid mooning a lorry driver, finding football stickers in the coach and coming home and watching the Really Wild Show while I had my tea (probably faggots and mash). Many years have past since then and, to be honest, I think Terry Nutkins could count the number of times I've been back since on what's left of one of his hands. This isn't due to any bad memory of the area, quite the contrary - it's a beautiful part of the world, I've just not found myself there, that is, until now.

Heading east out of Minehead is 36 miles of the A39. A stretch of road that takes you from the coastal town of Minehead, to the oldest borough in the United Kingdom: Barnstaple. The journey begins with a couple miles of standard tarmac and hedgerow. The alarm goes off as you pass the village of Porlock and the road wakes up bolt upright as you begin your climb into Exmoor. Pushed back in your seat Porlock Hill lifts you 1,300 ft in less than 2 miles and travelling up this 1 in 4 gradient hill really does feel steep as you head for the heavens. Assuming you've avoided any buses with brake failure coming the other way, you'll find yourself in god-like surroundings very quickly. The tarmac peels away into the distance and urges you to follow. Either side of you the countryside unfolds like a picnic blanket into the distance and the fields on this spring morning are perfectly green and look like row upon row of pregnant putting greens.

Exmoor National Park drapes itself over the border and the moorland surroundings make a stunning backdrop for your transition from Somerset into Devon. This fluid road devours mile after mile of fantastic road with ease but before you know it you've used up all the moorland tarmac and are heading for your plunge back out of Exmoor. Countisbury Hill is the more effeminate brother of Porlock Hill with its mainly gentle, straight descent and a particularly wonderful view of Lynmouth beach. As you come to Lynmouth village however, its sibling rivalry bubbles over with a petulant burst of 1 in 4 gradient for good measure. If you're still feeling frisky by this time make sure you stay on the A39 as you head through Lynmouth by turning left into Watersmeet Road and enjoy an ascent almost mountain-like in its appearance. For the next 4 miles you've got chicanes to keep you busy, tight sections to keep you alert and trees straight from the set of a Tim Burton movie to keep you amused.

The final 16 miles into Barnstaple offer a smattering of hairpins, chicanes and fast straights. When you think of what makes a great driving road the A39 probably ticks all the boxes. It's a lovely drive that has definitely given me a reason to re-visit Somerset again. If someone said I could drive this road every week I'd probably bite their arm off, or maybe just a couple of fingers.

Summary

With something for everyone how can you not like the A39? Ever changing scenery, a road layout that'll keep you guessing and hills so steep it'll make your bum clench. Even the odd farm vehicle and heavier traffic in the summer doesn't de-tract from its charm. With bends to negotiate, hills to climb and Exmoor to soar over, time will bomb past and you won't have a care in the world, whenever you decide to drive it.

Text comments
swinhoe (2014-03-06 10:43:40)

LOVE this road... Lynmouth is a favourite surf break, and driving bakc the A39 after a good surf is the cherry on the cake !

Howard (2012-09-23 07:20:57)

If you are driving this route it is well worth a blast from the top of Lynton to Simonsbath, this road takes you across open moor land where you can see a combination of corners infront of you so you can enjoy the full width ot the road, just be careful of the sheep! Once you arrive at Simonsbath turn around and do it again and finish the A39 or take the B3358 to join back up. Enjoy.

At a glance

Distance.

36 miles

Things you'll love.

Stunning scenery, the sense of freedom the open moorland gives you.

Look out for

The traffic, the climbs and the odd farm vehicle.

In and around Minehead to Barnstaple

Tarka trail

The Tarka Trail is a series of footpaths and cyclepaths around north Devon, England that follow the route taken by Tarka the Otter in the book of that name. It is a figure-of-eight route, based on Barnstaple, and covers some 180 miles (290 km) of path. The route covers a wide variety of landscapes, including: wooded river valleys, rugged moorland, coastal cliffs and sandy bays. Walking varies between easy and strenuous, depending on the location, but, in general, it is comprehensively waymarked.
www.devon.gov.uk/tarkatrail

Pannier Market

Open six days a week through most of the year the market offers a huge range of fresh produce, handmade arts and crafts, a fantastic range of antiques and collectables for all those Bargain Hunters among you and more. With a proud history and tradition the market has been voted amongst the top ten food markets in the country and any visit will bring the chance to enjoy this famous old building and to sample the friendly atmosphere generated by the traders and shoppers alike.
www.barnstaplepanniermarket.co.uk

Cheddar gorge

Cheddar Gorge is a limestone gorge in the Mendip Hills, near the village of Cheddar in Somerset, England. The gorge is the site of the Cheddar show caves, where Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, estimated to be 9,000 years old, was found in 1903. In a 2005 poll of Radio Times readers, following its appearance on the 2005 television programme Seven Natural Wonders, Cheddar Gorge was named as the second greatest natural wonder in Britain, surpassed only by Dan yr Ogof caves. The gorge attracts about 500,000 visitors per year.
www.cheddarcaves.co.uk

Cobbaton Combat Collection

Military museum and tourist attraction, this North Devon collection covers mostly World War Two and the years 1939 - 1945, but with exhibits from the Boer War right up to the First Gulf War. Ranging from military surplus British Army - plus Canadian and Russian Forces - tanks, guns, helmets, artillery, grenades, and bombs to Home Front ration books, gas masks, ARP and Home Guard uniforms and blackout lamps. In 1981 Preston Isaac's runaway hobby was opened to the public, and just keeps growing.
www.cobbatoncombat.co.uk

The BIG Sheep - All Weather Attraction

Situated on the North Devon coast just off the A39 Atlantic Highway two miles west of Bideford, The BIG Sheep is a leading member of Devon's Top Attractions (DATA) and known as one of the best family tourist attractions in Devon. There's a brewery for Dad, garden centre and sheepy shop for Mum, and of course Mum and Dad can run wild in the indoor playground and outdoor laser guns area too! Check website for seasonal opening times.
www.thebigsheep.co.uk/

Butlins

Military museum and tourist attraction, this North Devon collection covers mostly World War Two and the years 1939 - 1945, but with exhibits from the Boer War right up to the First Gulf War. Ranging from military surplus British Army - plus Canadian and Russian Forces - tanks, guns, helmets, artillery, grenades, and bombs to Home Front ration books, gas masks, ARP and Home Guard uniforms and blackout lamps. In 1981 Preston Isaac's runaway hobby was opened to the public, and just keeps growing.
www.butlins.com/resorts/minehead/

Surfing

North Devon surfing is centred around the Barnstable-Croyde area. However, some of the best spots are found outside of this limited region, with sheltered bays providing surprising variety of surfing. Due to the local geology, rock-reefs are found as well as point-breaks and beack breaks. The beach breaks are very affected by the tides, and at weekends the line-ups can get very crowded.

Driving in Britain

Speed

The UK is the only country in Europe to measure their speed in Miles Per Hour, not Kilometers. Along with Malta and Cyprus they are the only country in Europe to drive on the left hand side. The UK speed limits range from as low as 20mph in built-up city areas up to 70mph on the motorway. It's understood that Police will allow you to drive 10% over the speed limit but it's the speed cameras you need to look out for. They are scattered everywhere and will take a picture of your car / plate while speeding. If you're driving a hire car when caught by a speed camera you'll probably be tracked down through your rental agency and issued with your ticket! Speed cameras are always accompanied by warning signs so look out for them while enjoying your drive.

Mobile Phones

The law states that it is illegal to ride a motorbike or drive a car while you are using a hand held communication device. Hands free phones may be used, but they are ultimately a distraction and you are still open to a charge of careless driving should a police officer think you are driving poorly while using one.

Driving Checklist

Things you might want to have with you

Driving licence (if from UK both card and paper licence)
Vehicle registration form
Insurance certificate
MOT certificate.
Headlight beam deflectors
First aid kit
Spare bulbs
Fire extinguisher
High visibilty jacket
Warning triangles

For more information on driving in Europe visit the European Traffic Police Network website www.tispol.org