If you’ve ever visited north Cornwall, the A39 road will already be well known to you. Some who visit over the summer might remember it for traffic jams, over-eager local drivers and signs reminding you of its reputation as one of Britain’s deadliest roads.
If that’s the case for you, then you’ve been missing what the A39 – or at least the section known as the Atlantic Highway – really has to offer. Recently named as one of the best road trips in the UK, this 70 mile stretch runs from Newquay in Cornwall to Barnstaple in Devon. Take a leisurely ride with plenty of pit stops, and it slowly reveals some of north Cornwall’s most beautiful and lesser known delights.
This route is named after the famous Southern Railway line, the Atlantic Coast Express, which once connected London and Cornwall. It’s a slight misnomer though – while there are frequent views of the Atlantic sea, the road doesn’t pass especially close to the coastline. But that’s part of its beauty: reminding the well worn traveller that there’s so much more to Cornwall than the sea.
Exmoor to Bude
If you’re travelling to Padstow or Newquy by road, join the A39 around the Quantocks before the official start of the Atlantic Highway. It then cuts along the edge of Exmoor National Park before reaching Barnstaple, where you can visit the River Taw and explore the bucolic surroundings.
Further south is Bideford, home to the Tarka the Otter trail, then on to Stratton with its nature reserve and fine beach at Sandymouth Bay. It’s just a spit from here to the Devon-Cornwall border, and you’ll likely be dying for a proper (Cornish) cream tea – so take a diversion to the traditional tearooms at Rectory Farm. A few miles further south is Bude, a town rich in history and boasting the fine Summerleaze beach whose famous tidal pool is unmissable.
Bude to Tintagel
The second leg features Tintagel Castle – one of Cornwall’s most famous locations and said to be the birthplace of King Arthur – and also some truly magical scenery off the tourist trail.
Detour west onto the B263 and you’ll pass St. Juliot, a church partly restored by writer Thomas Hardy and the inspiration for his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Continue to Boscastle, a bewitching harbour town probably best known for the fascinating Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
Back on the highway visit St Nectan’s Glen. With its sixty-foot waterfall and trees decorated with prayer flags and ribbons, it has a far more spiritual feel than nearby Tintagel.
Tintagel to Newquay
Start the next stretch heading towards Padstow, and be prepared to take it slow while you appreciate the ride. The coastal delights of Port Isaac, Port Quin and Rock are in easy reach of the Atlantic Highway, and Bodmin Moor is nearby if you want to explore further inland.
Regular visitors to the area will already be well aware of Padstow’s foodie attractions, as well as its proximity to some of Cornwall’s best beaches. But if this road trip is your first time here, make sure to explore the coast – particularly Treyarnon, Constantine Bay and Booby’s Bay.
Continue to the end of the highway in Newquay and you’ll pass close to some of the best of Poldark country. Porthcothan and Park Head are quintessential north Cornwall beauty spots with strikingly beautiful cliffs that are rich in wildflowers, wrapping around sandy coves and sparkling waters.