The Atlantic Highway. It’s a catchy name. One designed to stir the imagination.
To me it brings a nostalgic sense of relief. The satisfaction of the final little leg of a long hot July journey from Yorkshire to Cornwall in a cramped old car. Camping gear crammed in the back, Mum at the wheel, dog at my feet, and my little brother kicking the back of my seat. The hotness, the stress and the squabbles of a long family road trip. They’d always calm down once we hit the scenic road to the Seven Bays. The north Cornwall coast road; the A39 Atlantic Highway.
It starts up in Devon then heads past the Cornish border at Bude, where the first long, sandy beach of the last county in England spreads out across Widemouth Bay. Then it rolls on, dipping and curving south west, past the cheese factory at Davidstow and the moors near St. Breward. It drops like a roller-coaster on the viaduct at Wadebrige. Then rises up through Whitecross and on to wide views of the coast and inland. A smooth passage made up of old turnpikes, modern bypasses and sections of Roman road. It’s flanked by hedgerows and fields full of cattle or barley, with scattered glimpses of ocean views.
It starts up in Devon then heads past the Cornish border…where the first long, sandy beach of the last county in England spreads out.
But it’s not the road itself that’s the greatest reward. It’s the little pockets of Cornwall that it links up with the world. B roads offshoot from the highway, leading to the coves, villages, beaches and headlands that define this glorious forty mile stretch of coast.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE SOUTHWEST
Boscastle comes first, tucked away down steep roads, where the village centre straddles a narrow gulley running down to the sea. Beyond the harbour walls lies a natural winding channel leading out to open water. A high craggy outcrop stands tall at its end, like a battlement looking out across Meachard Rock, to the wild Cornish sea.
The village was all but washed away by a flash flood in 2004. They’ve since dug down, deepening the river bed incase of future flooding. While the village has rebuilt looking like nothing happened, but for signs on some buildings with the high water mark.
Just a few miles down the road is the ruined castle of Tintagel. All but cut-off from the mainland it sits, exposed to the Atlantic weather, on a chunk of headland reached only by a footbridge. Richard, Earl of Cornwall built what remains of the castle in the 13th century. But it’s thought that the site itself was used as far back as Roman times. Steeped in Arthurian legend as the supposed site of King Arthur’s conception, it’s a spectacular setting for the weather beaten ruins. Waves race onto the rocks like an onrushing army and engulf Merlin’s Cave down below while the wind whips through the old castle walls when south westerlies howl on through.
The next port of call is the fishing village of Port Isaac. A scenic safe haven on a fifteen mile stretch of unforgiving coastline, between the mouth of the Camel and the tiny harbour at Boscastle. The coastal paths either side of the village trail high above gullies and wide rocky inlets teeming with wildlife. On calmer days I’ve seen seals bobbing around in the water. Dolphins swim by sometimes, dipping and rising as they carve their way up the coast. Cottages huddle on the headland like gulls on a rock above the town. The little harbour below makes a fine spot to eat some local crab after a walk along the coast. In the summer season, local singers stand out on the front some nights and entertain locals and holidaymakers with choruses of sea shanties.
Some years ago one hot September, when a few long days of high pressure had flattened the sea to a millpond calmness, I walked along a stretch to the west of Port Isaac, where the coast path skirts along a steep cliff-top. Down below, a large sunfish floated just beneath the surface. This odd looking giant with its round thin body and two pointed fins, laid flat on its side showing off to the sun. A seagull floated close by, pecking at the fish with its beak to clean its skin of parasites. It seemed an odd but playful interaction. Every now and then the fish would flap one of its fins at the gull, or spray it with a jet of water. At one point the gull appeared to peck the fish too hard, perhaps in revenge for the previous soaking. The fish reacted fast and sprayed the bird, before diving down deep and well out of sight. It reappeared moments later, coming up fast under the gull and scaring it right out of the water.
WADE IN THE WATER
As the coastline turns inwards at the Camel Estuary, the B road snakes its way inland via the village of St. Endellion. It links back to the Atlantic Highway at the Wadebridge bypass, a viaduct with great views to the town and the estuary.
Wadebrige bustles during the summer, as holidaymakers flock to cycle the Camel Trail; a level pathway built along a disused route of the old western railway. They rent bikes and ride inland through the wooded Camel Valley, past the vineyards and beyond to the foot of Bodmin Moor. Alternatively, they follow the estuary as the water rises and falls with the tide up to Padstow for boat rides, hair braids and the finest, freshest Cornish cuisine.
With our hair full of salt, we’d look out to sea as the sun set beyond dark rocks, and the sands glowed warm, in the low red sunlight.
Just a few miles past Wadebridge, those old family journeys of mine would turn off the main highway and we’d take the narrow shortcut through Little Petherick to Padstow. Now when I return each summer, I take the long road round and keep on the A39. I pass the splendid views of rolling green fields and the hills to the south, before saying goodbye to the Highway to turn north at Winnards Perch. From there the road rises up to the crest of a hill and opens out to an Atlantic coast horizon. The view stretches from the other side of the Camel River all the way southwest, way past Trevose Head – that huge chunk of headland that juts out into the ocean, where the lighthouse stands tall and proud. It’s flanked either side by a cluster of beaches, known together locally as the Seven Bays.
It’s there that I’d spend my teenage summers, camping in a field with family and friends. By day, we’d catch waves on the beaches at Harlyn or Treyarnon. In the evenings, we’d sit on the sands at Constantine Bay. With our hair full of salt we’d look out to sea as the sun set beyond dark rocks, and the sands glowed warm, in the low red sunlight.
Nowadays I hope for the flat calm days, when the sea turns to dappled glass and the wind drops to nothing. It’s perfect for snorkelling over the reefs and the gullies, when the sea’s at its mildest and young sea bass hunt in packs. Or for when the spring tides come, bringing mackerel and pollock close into the shore where I know a few good marks to cast out from the rocks.
Just to the north is a spot where a cliff drops like the land’s been torn off. Huge rocks sit stranded…like galleons run aground, fallen foul of the sea.
The A39 Atlantic Highway stops at the Indian Queens junction. Where the A30 takes over all the way to Penzance. An unremarkable end to a great stretch of road. Just a meeting of highways, with no views to be had. But just to the north by eight miles or so, is a spot where a cliff drops like the land’s been torn off. Huge rocks sit stranded at Bedruthan Steps, like galleons run aground, fallen foul of the sea. It’s a fine place to perch, up above the bay, as the tide rolls in fast to reclaim the beach, and the red Cornish sun finally drops down beneath the sea.
Words & Images by Joe Marshall (unless otherwise stated) Published 19th March 2015
Words & Images by Joe Marshall (unless otherwise stated)
Published 19th March 2015
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