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A39: England’s remote Atlantic Highway

A 70-mile strip of the A39 is more than just another thoroughfare. It’s where generations of Cornish ingenuity blend with an influx of newcomers seeking a more rural life.

Locals wouldn’t say there’s much romantic about the A39, a national highway that crosses south-west England. To most, it is a convenience at best, a site of accidents at worst – so many accidents, in fact, that it has the unfortunate reputation as Cornwall’s deadliest road, the likely result of everything from its often-narrow, winding nature to some tricky junctions.

But the A39 – particularly the section dubbed the “Atlantic Highway”, a 70-mile strip that runs from Barnstaple, Devon, to Newquay, Cornwall – is more than just another thoroughfare. It is one of the only arteries connecting an especially disconnected part of what is already a remote region.

That remoteness means two things. For one, it helps keep the area relatively wild. To be clear, north Cornwall is not a secret. The summer tide of tourists is felt everywhere, the area’s carparks, beaches and pubs frothing over with visitors. But it’s almost always possible to find a quiet cove or a cafe filled with locals. In the off-season, even the most popular spots can be empty. And aside from Tintagel Castle of King Arthur fame, none of Cornwall’s top 10 most-popular attractions sit here. 

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The remoteness, especially given the area’s lack of train stations, also means that there are few good ways to explore the area.

I lived in this area with my family for two years. In that time, I fell in love with north Cornwall’s ocean views, rolling farmland and dramatic cliffs, but with its lesser-known attractions, too. Despite its remote and rural nature, north Cornwall is dotted with farm-(and sea)-to-table favourites, art galleries and unique museums devoted to everything from witchcraft to military history – the result of generations of Cornish ingenuity and artisanal heritage blended with an influx of newcomers seeking a more rural life, many of them even before Covid.

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