Heading down the Atlantic Highway in Devon

by Simon.Heptinstall

Take the Devon highway that’s the best in the west for views, bends, hills and places to stop along the way

You’re heading into the west country on the M5, it’s boring and there’s the threat of a jam as every mile passes. But at junction 23 there’s an option - and it leads to the best driving road in the west.
Turn onto the parallel A38 dual carriageway then pick up the A39 across the River Parrett at Bridgwater, a busy little market town on the Somerset Levels. There are historic river docks here, museums and an arts centre. More importantly for drivers, when you head west out of town you’re now on ‘The Atlantic Highway’. From Bridgwater to Bude, this road will take you 100 miles over moorlands, rolling countryside, woods and farmland. You’ll cross The Quantocks and Exmoor, the rivers Taw and Torridge, passing some spectacular views. And all the while, the sea will be twinkling away on your right.
On a quiet day you could drive to Bude in two and a half hours but I’d recommend spending a day savouring the views or stopping off on the way. Dunster, Porlock or Lynton make the best overnight stays.
At first the road potters through pretty Somerset villages like Kilve and Holford. Nether Stowey is the best place if you fancy a break. The quaint old village centre, just off the A39, has pubs, shops and the atmospheric old cottage where poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once lived.
From the road you can see the coastal plain leading to the sinister cube of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station on the shore. The Quantock Hills roll grandly away to the south, the inspiration for poets like Coleridge and his pal Wordsworth, who lived at Holford. The road crosses the West Somerset Steam railway before passing Cleeve Abbey on the left. Sleepy villages up in the Brendon Hills here deserve exploration - Monksilver’s Notley Arms is one of my favourites.
You’ll see the sea off to the right now, with the Welsh coast in the distance. Take the left turn into Dunster. Even if you haven’t time to stop, just loop round the High Street and back. This immaculate medieval village, overlooked by a castle on a wooded hill, is one of the best sights of the West Country.
You’re now into the prime part of the Atlantic Highway, cutting across Exmoor’s foothills as they plunge to the sea. Bypass Minehead or pop into town for a glimpse of a charming old seaside resort.
The A39 now curves round to the impossibly cute National Trust village of Selworthy. As you approach Porlock the loop round Bossington is worth the short detour. That’s another extraordinarily pretty village. The A39 winds right through Porlock. It’s a good place to stop for pubs, restaurants, teashops and shops. The car park is on the left as you enter. A lane to the right leads a mile to Porlock Weir harbour, with another good pub and the excellent Andrews on the Weir restaurant with rooms.
The steep one in three gradient out of town is the notorious Porlock Hill. At the top, the Atlantic Highway continues across high moorland, with views into Doone Valley to the left, and hidden in the tiny lanes to the right is Britain’s smallest church at Culbone.
At the border with Devon the road passes through the open ‘county gate’, then a little further there’s a good picnic spot at Countisbury Common, near the excellent Blue Ball Inn.
Passengers can enjoy the descent into Lynmouth - the views are stupendous. Drivers are trying to concentrate on the precariously steep cliffside road. Lynton and Lynmouth, essentially the same place, make another excellent break. There are pubs, cafes and shops in touristy Lynmouth at the foot of the cliffs, and in the more genteel Lynton at the top. Take the Victorian water-powered cliff railway between the two.
Beyond them, the road twists through steep wooden valleys. Look out for teashops, campsites and old pubs. It cuts across the west of Exmoor, heading for the big junction at Kentisbury Ford. The drive down to Barnstaple is good - especially as you pass the National Trust estate of Arlington Court; but the loop up to Combe Martin and Ilfracombe may distract you. There are some great seascapes that way.
Around North Devon’s ‘capital’ of Barnstaple you’ll see different water views - the twin estuaries of the Taw and Torridge Rivers. These gentle green landscapes were home to the fictional Tarka the otter. The dramatic new bridge over the Torridge gives you a fantastic view of the river and the waterside town of Bideford before the highway whisks you further west.
The high farmland between here and Bude is less dramatic and there are fewer glimpses of the sea. But there are plenty of little diversions along the way. The timeless fishing village of Clovelly is one of the west’s most essential sights, but it's expensive to park here and it gets crowded. The little village of Buck’s Mills or small town of Hartland are quieter, cheaper alternatives.
Finally, the road descends into the quirky seaside resort of Bude, with the Atlantic Ocean hopefully sparkling in the sun. Stay on the A39 to head into the heart of Cornwall, stop at Bude and enjoy the sandy beaches and busy little town centre… or simply turn round and do the whole drive again.


Where to eat and drink

The Notley Arms, Monksilver: classic English village pub with stream-side garden and great food.

The Hood Arms, Kilve: stylish pub, restaurant and hotel in beautiful old inn right on the A39.

Andrews on the Weir, Porlock Weir: top-rated restaurant with rooms upstairs overlooking tiny harbour.
Where to stay
The Hood Arms at Kilve: as above.

The Rising Sun, Lynmouth: ancient inn with good restaurant and rooms overlooking the harbour.

Luttrell Arms, Dunster: find creaking boards and crackling fires at this ancient country inn.

Red Lion Hotel, Clovelly: 11 rooms, all with a sea or harbour view.
Sights along the way

Coleridge Cottage, Nether Stowey: atmospheric home of world-famous poet, philosopher and journalist.

Dunster Castle: grand stone fortress on wooded hill overlooking picturesque village.

Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway: extraordinary Victorian water-powered cliff railway is still a thrill.

Arlington Court: fascinating stately home surrounded by lush gardens and parkland.