Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

If roads have personalities, then the A39 in south-west England is certainly one of the most memorable. It meanders from Georgian Bath to the south coast of Cornwall, taking in some of the most engaging scenery in England. For part of its length (west from Barnstaple) it is called The Atlantic Highway. We hop aboard the 319 bus to explore The Atlantic Highway, encountering along the way some the finest bus shelters around.

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Buttered toast and crumpets are staple fare at the bus station in Barnstaple. Edith opts for a cuppa (“two sugars, please”) and a round of toast (“extra butter if you don’t mind, love”), then points out the sign that recalls the Barnstaple elephant. “They dug up the poor beast over there. Just where that 319 to Hartland is waiting,” says Edith with evident Devon pride.

Actually, it was way back in 1844 that workmen unearthed a fossilised elephant, long before Barnstaple had buses. Long before the 319 ever ran out to Hartland. The story of Barnstaple’s most famous fossil done and dusted, Edith turns her attention to the destination of the 319. “I cannot imagine who goes all the way to Hartland,” she reflects. “I’ve heard say it’s like the end of the world out there. Very wild, so they say.”

We had been toying with the idea of heading north-east from Barnstaple to the Exmoor coast, using the Filers Travel bus to Lynmouth. Odd, isn’t it, how a chance meeting at a bus station can change your plans? Were it not for the elephant and Edith, we would never have boarded the 319 bound for Devon’s Atlantic extremity.

We had no intention of going to Hartland until a little before we went but we were led on by circumstances… Some may call those circumstances accidental; but I call them providential — and that is how our chapel came to be called Providence.

William O’Bryan, who in 1815 founded the Devon-based Bible Christian Society

Since then, we’ve thoroughly explored that route to Hartland, which several times each weekday is served by one of the smart double-deckers operated by Stagecoach. There are bus routes in England which distil greater social magic, and there are journeys which take in more dramatic scenery. But the 319 captures quite perfectly the sense of heading out to the end of the world. Hartland is just as Edith suggested: very wild.

Crossing the Taw

North Devon has two great tidal estuaries, the Taw and the Torridge. Route 319 takes in both of them before sweeping west to Clovelly and Hartland — high ground to port, the sea off to starboard. Grand stuff, but the departure from Barnstaple is more prosaic. The bus tussles with Barnstaple traffic, eventually making its escape from the town centre across Long Bridge which has for over 700 years escorted travellers across the River Taw — though presumably mediaeval man did not plan the original structure with doubledeck buses in mind. No doubt the bridge’s sixteen masonry arches have been many times widened and strengthened over the centuries.

“An ancient and respectable market town,” we read of Barnstaple in our 200-year-old copy of Crosby’s Gazetteer. The editors then go on to praise the town’s “handsome piazza, ornamented with a statue of Queen Anne.” Cast a glance back, as the bus purrs over Long Bridge, and Barnstaple looks handsome enough. Look forward to the far bank of the Taw and we are confronted by quite another Barnstaple. Where once the woollen industry was diligently prosecuted, now there is an urban wilderness of vast supermarket sheds and DIY stores. Come, come now! This is not the Devon of the tourist brochures, but rather a soulless Tescoland, a triffid sprawl impertinently casting a maze of modernity over the banks of the River Taw.

Our bus driver rather depressingly follows the road sign marked ‘superstore’, though this turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Buried away amid the shopping park (a scarred wasteland that is anything but park-like) is Barnstaple station, a little gem of antique railway architecture that is mightily inconvenient for travellers bound for the middle of Barnstaple.


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About the authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 38.