From Roader's Digest: The SABRE Wiki
|Length:||195 miles (313.8 km)|
|Meets:||M5, M40, A4, A5, A36, A37, A38, A39, A40, A44, A45, A399, A419|
|Former Number(s):||A39, A373, A398, B4036, B4038|
|Now part of:||A39, A44, A4361, B3227|
|Banbury • Barnstaple • Frome • Glastonbury • Shepton Mallet • Swindon • Taunton • Trowbridge •|
|Route outline (key)|
At the very first glance of the overview map, the A361 looks like it could be a key through route from the South and East Midlands to the south-west of England, taking a fairly direct route south-west until hitting Devon and then slowly turning northwards. And at approximately 195 miles long, it is the UK's longest 3-digit A road - a long distance route indeed.
However, even the newest road enthusiasts know that simply isn't the case. The dominance of non-primary sections is noticeable, and it pretty much sums up the route - a long but essentially local road. With the possible exception of the Devon section (which links north Devon to the motorway network), you would have very little reason to use it if you were on a journey other than hopping between two local towns - nobody in Barnstaple would have any feasible reason to travel along the route to Swindon, for example.
And that's part of its charm. It's a local road where the scenery changes at every corner. You come across stunning views. Historical landmarks. Quaint little villages. And Trowbridge.
This is summed up very nicely by Brad Jackson, the founder of SABRE, who says:
"This is without doubt a blessed road. How could it not be, taking in both Avebury (okay, a bit of nifty renumbering – A4361 there's wit – to deter people using it around Avebury) and Glastonbury. It is the road to the promised land. I love it, cos I'm going somewhere nice when I'm on it."
It runs through an amazing seven different counties, although with some of those visits being quite brief, it's easier to split it into the sections as shown here in the Wiki. And it's apt that it is split into local sections - sections that would by themselves form a reasonable route. Together, they create a varied, meandering, fascinating road.
Section 1, Devon: Ilfracombe (A399) - Waterloo Cross (M5 J27)
The A361 starts its journey in the north Devon coastal resort of Ilfracombe. It begins as a nondescript light-controlled junction as a continuation of the A399 in Ilfracombe High Street - at the junction with Northfield Road. You have to know the local area to know where it starts as there are no signs or markings of any description stating where the road number changes. It is only through various public notices during roadworks that we can work out exactly where the change happens.
The A361 begins as a WS1 road as it passes through Ilfracombe's narrow streets, before widening to a standard S2 urban road as it gets closer towards the edge of town. After about a mile, it leaves Ilfracombe altogether and, in contrast to the start of the route, it gains a crawler lane as it climbs up to Mullacott Cross roundabout where it meets the A3123 to Combe Martin and the B3343 to Woolacombe. The A361 then proceeds through a valley for a few miles before passing though the villages of Knowle and Braunton. Braunton is notorious for its summertime congestion as it meets another significant holiday route, the B3231 from Croyde at a light controlled junction in Braunton village centre.
As the A361 heads out of Braunton, it gradually starts to head east as it follows the banks of the Taw estuary. There are two more roundabouts - one for a Tesco supermarket, and an older one for RMB Chivenor. Soon after, there is a mile-long dual carriageway before entering Barnstaple. Here, the A361 TOTSOs onto the new Western bypass which opened in May 2007. We pass over the Taw Bridge (known as the Downstream bridge during construction), cross the A3125 at a gyratory, and meet the A39 at the Lake roundabout, where there is another 90 degree turn onto the older southern bypass. The southern bypass has two more roundabouts - one with the A377 to Crediton and Exeter, and one with the A39 to Lynton.
From Barnstaple the A361 follows a relatively new route which was opened in two stages through the 1980s. The North Devon Link Road (NDLR) provides a fast route between north Devon and the M5 motorway, replacing the slow, twisty, narrow road which ran to Taunton. The NDLR was downgraded from Trunk Road status in 2002.
The current A361 runs parallel to the old road between Barnstaple and Aller Cross Roundabout near South Molton. The old road is now unclassified, as it passes through the villages of Landkey, Swimbridge and Filleigh. The A361 then meets, for the second time, the A399 at Aller Cross roundabout, before it carries on to form a bypass of South Molton. The old road, now parts of the B3226 and B3227, goes through the centre of South Molton.
Just east of South Molton, the NDLR rejoins the old A361 and follows an upgraded version of the old route for about half a mile before the two roads split at a GSJ. The old A361, now the B3227, heads towards Bampton, Wiveliscombe and Taunton, whilst the new road runs parallel with the old B3221 to Tiverton.
The road between South Molton and Tiverton is very hilly, and there are some overtaking lanes to let cars overtake slow moving lorries on the uphill stretches - although not enough to prevent traffic bunching up at regular intervals. We eventually reach the Bolham Road roundabout - the A396/A3126 junction at Tiverton. The road between here and Barnstaple was opened in 1988, while the dual carriageway ahead of us opened in 1983. The dual carriageway was opened as the A373, with the A361 sticking to its old route via Wiveliscombe. Traffic heading from the M5 to Barnstaple between 1983 & 1988 was directed to Tiverton and then up the existing A396 to the old A361 at Black Cat, near Bampton.
The A361 reappears a few miles north-east of Taunton on the A38 (its original western end), where it branches to the right off a dual carriageway, and almost immediately crosses the M5. At this point it is a non primary road. It crosses Sedgemoor, a flat part of Somerset, via Athelney, where King Alfred reputedly burnt the cakes. It intersects the A372, not far from the site of the Battle of Sedgemoor.
The A361 then joins the primary A39 for a while, which bypasses Street. (For a while this section of road couldn't make its mind up if it was the A39 or the A361, but it seems to have settled on the A39.)
At Glastonbury it leaves the A39 at a cannon, and then takes over as the primary route. The road runs close to Glastonbury Tor and through West Pennard to Pilton, site of the Glastonbury Festival (the festival site is actually closer to Pilton than Glastonbury). Just after this, the B3136 leaves for Shepton Mallet, which is the original route of the A361 – today's route runs along a former unclassified road to bypass the town. There's then a slightly awkward junction with the A37, where the adjoining road bears round from the right. At Cannard's Grave, there are two fairly new roundabouts, at the second of which the A361 is once again diverted along a former unclassified road.
At the end of this stretch, the A361 meets a spur (which is the original route), coming in from the A371 in the centre of Shepton Mallet across Charlton crossroads (A37 junction). This section has seen a significant amount of widening and straightening to serve local quarry traffic. The A359 joins near Nunney, and then there's a bypass round Frome (the old road is the B3090), which leads on to the junction with the A36. Traffic runs along the dual-carriageway Beckington bypass before rejoining the A361 to cross the Wiltshire border.
The A361 continues past the village of Rode towards the boundary with Somerset and Wiltshire. To the right, there is a chambered burial ground known affectionately as "The Devil's Bed And Bolster". A few miles into Wiltshire, it enters its county town of Trowbridge. For many years, Trowbridge was a prosperous regional centre of textile cloth production, though the last mill closed in 1982. It is also well known for the Ushers brewery which has existed since 1824, and its annual music festival, held in nearby Stowford Manor. The A361 used to go through the centre of Trowbridge past the site of its castle, but nowadays runs on a short bypass to the south instead.
Past Trowbridge, the A361 heads along a fast straight section of road towards the village of Semington, where it crosses the A350 at a roundabout. Here it loses its primary status, which it never regains for the rest of its journey.
The next section of road winds its way through rural Wiltshire farmland, running parallel to the Kennett and Avon Canal. It collects the A365 from Melksham at a strange "triangular" junction with traffic lights and heads uphill towards the canal, which it crosses just after the canal's flight of 29 consecutive locks - the most impressive along its entire length.Just beyond this, the A361 picks up the A342 from Chippenham, and enters the historic town of Devizes.
At this point, the A361 changes direction to generally head northwards rather than eastwards, which it has been doing ever since Barnstaple, and heads in a reasonably straight line alongside Roundway Hill, the site of the first Civil War battle in 1643. It continues alongside the North Down and the Wessex Ridgeway, with impressive views on both sides of the road. This area is a popular tourist attraction, not least because of its many ancient tumuli, burial chambers, white horses and crop circles. The frequency of these increases as the A361 heads closer and closer to the historical site of Avebury as it meets the A4 at a roundabout in Beckhampton.A4361, to discourage its use as a continuous through route to Swindon. Passing the prehistoric man-made Silbury Hill on the right, it runs right up to the Stone Avenue of Avebury and takes a dramatic turn to the left as it reaches it, the Avenue itself being the narrow single lane B4003, before entering Avebury itself.
The A4361 leaves Avebury to the north and passes Windmill Hill on the left. It follows the path of the River Kennett as it slowly climbs uphill towards Wroughton, best known for its WW2 Airfield and Science Museum, which holds one of the largest collections of historical aircraft and transport vehicles in the country. Immediately afterwards, the view of Swindon unfolds in the distance, where traffic on the M4 is clearly visible as the A4361 passes into Wroughton itself. There is a bridge over the motorway, but no junction, as the road approaches the urban sprawl of Swindon - the largest town in Wiltshire.
Swindon was merely a small market town until it was thrust into prominence in the mid nineteenth century to become the home of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway works, which effectively split Swindon into the original "Old Town" to the south, and the purpose-built "New Town" to the north. This reflects the odd discontinuity of urban areas within Swindon, as well as its redevelopment during the twentieth century. Shortly afterwards having passed through the Old Town, the A4361 disappears entirely - the road to the left, Bath Road, being the A4289.
This is where things get complicated, because the original A361 route through the New Town has been largely obliterated by subsequent redevelopment in the area. Roughly speaking it ran as follows : Wood Street (unclassified), Cricklade Street (B4289), Drove Road (B4289), Shrivenham Road (unclassified), Stratton Road (unclassified) and Swindon Road (B4006). The B4006 crosses the Roman road of Ermin Street at Stratton St Margaret, and then meets the A419 Swindon Bypass near the well known Honda factory. At this point, the A361 reappears and continues on its northward journey towards the Cotswolds.
The A361 runs past various industrial estates on the edge of Swindon and then heads towards Highworth. This picturesque village seems to be under threat of becoming a Swindon suburb, but it has held out for now! It then heads north into open countryside, with some burial enclosures to the left before reaching Inglesham, a village best known for its polo club that attracts jetsetters from around the world.
Just beyond this, it crosses the River Thames at Ha'Penny Bridge and leaves Wiltshire to briefly run in Gloucestershire as it enters Lechlade, where it meets the A417. Due to the presence of the Thames and the intersection of two main routes, it was an important staging post since medieval times. The A361 heads north out of the village towards the Horseshoe Lake, crosses the River Leach, and enters Oxfordshire.
The A361 now winds its way around the foothills of the Cotswolds, bypassing the twin villages of Broughton Poggs and Filkins. It runs past the Cotswold Wildlife Park just before meeting the A40 at a roundabout. The A361 runs into the village of Burford, over the River Windrush, and swings to the right towards Fulbrook, the road to the left being the A424. A few miles north of this, it arrives at the attractively named village of Shipton Under Wychwood, where it crosses the River Evenlode and the main Oxford - Worcester railway line.
From there, the A361 starts to climb uphill towards Lyneham Barrow, which is situated just before the summit along with an ancient settlement ground. It then snakes around the hillside towards the picturesque town of Chipping Norton, where it meets the A44. These two roads multiplex with each other through the market square and past the castle grounds towards the north of the town. At this point, the A44 branches in two - the right hand road being its original course, the left hand being the A361 in disguise. A mile or so ahead, it reaches the former A34 at a roundabout - now renamed A3400 to discourage through traffic to Stratford-upon-Avon - at which point the A361 reappears.
The A361 now has a long straight run along Over Norton Common, before climbing over hills to South Newington. It snakes around the village and heads for Bloxham. After this it has a reasonably straight run down to the historical town of Banbury, where the A361 originally terminated on what was then the A41.
Since the completion of the M40 from Oxford to Birmingham in 1991, the A41 has been downgraded to the B4100, so it is the A361 that takes over its old route through the centre of Banbury, going right past the cross made famous in the nursery rhyme. Originally, however, there were three crosses of Puritan origin - these were destroyed in the early 17th century, before the rhyme was written. The current cross was built in Victorian times.
The original route of the A361 through Banbury prior to the arrival of the M40 went through the now mostly pedestrianised town centre, and out along Bridge Street, past Banbury train station. Running through the area of Grimsbury, the route then turned northwards, and ran along what is now just a residential road which is blocked off from the first roundabout on Hennef Way. It then ran through what is now Wildmere Industrial Estate, and out of Banbury, meeting up with the current road at the turning for Chacombe.
At the Southam Road Roundabout on the northern edge of Banbury, the A361 multiplexes with the A422, with the latter heading east towards junction 11 of the M40. This section of road, known as Hennef Way, was built to coincide with the construction of the motorway and provide better access to the town. At junction 11 itself, the A361 ends its multiplex with the A422 and heads north east towards the town of Daventry. This final part of the A361 was originally designated the numbers B4036 and B4038, but was later upgraded to A road as recognition of it being a significant link road between the South and East Midlands. There are a number of sections where it is clear that land has been bought up to straighten the road out when it was promoted from its former B road classification. Many of these however remain unused, and the route retains a notorious accident record, with a number of fatalities. The extent of the road's dangerous nature reached a head when Northamptonshire County Council announced their intention to investigate the potential of downgrading the road back to B road status in the late 2000s, something that was never progressed.
From the M40, the A361 runs nearby to both the Oxford Canal and River Cherwell, briefly into Northamptonshire for half a mile or so before reverting back to Oxfordshire. This section has been very prone to flooding in recent years, and a scheme carried out by the Environment Agency has resulted in the road being raised by about six inches, in addition to the creation of much better drainage and an enormous catchment basin to the north of Banbury alongside the M40. This resulted in the closure of the road for some six months from March to October 2011, with the work significantly over-running its completion date due to a mistake in the re-construction of the road which resulted in it being too narrow. Despite the furore this caused in the local media, the mistake was not actually the fault of the Environment Agency and was just a nature in the road's design, with the wider section up to the M40 built later than the narrower original road. Since the correction there is now a noticeable narrowing of the road on the northbound side halfway through the scheme.
Rising up the steep Calibargo's Hill, the A361 passes to the east of Cropredy, once a Civil War battle site in 1644, but now better known for the annual festival run by folk-rock stalwarts Fairport Convention. It then winds its way through the village of Wardington, the tight bends and narrow road are the scene of many near misses between lorries, with one incident ending with a lorry crashing through one house's living room. This section had a bypass proposed for it during the 1970s when the re-classification came into effect, but it never progressed beyond the planning stage. After crossing the River Cherwell at Hay's Bridge, it settles in Northamptonshire, running through the village of Chipping Warden. Once in Northamptonshire, the intentions of the County Council are clear, with a host of warning signs, and speed cameras. The A361's most improved section runs between Chipping Warden and Byfield, with a number of long, cambered, sweeping corners and straights allowing a much higher average speed to be taken.
The A361 climbs slowly uphill to meet the source of the River Cherwell at Charwelton. The village has a long 30mph section through it, which was reduced from a 50mph limit when the whole road was given that treatment a number of years ago. It winds through the village to the north and crosses the Nene Way at Badby, where there are a series of 40mph limited bends. A few miles beyond this, it meets the A45 at a trumpet junction just outside Daventry. Daventry was a key town in the Civil War as the headquarters of King Charles I, from which he controlled the Battle of Naseby in 1645, and a significant staging post between the West Midlands and Northampton.
The original route ahead is no longer accessible; instead follow the A45 westwards around Daventry. The A361 reappears after a mile and joins up with its old alignment at Drayton Reservoir. Just after this, it passes over the Grand Union Canal which runs underground in the Braunston Tunnel, making its 137 mile journey from Brentford to Birmingham.
The section north of Daventry has recently received serious attention which has enshrined its multiple bends and dips between hard kerbing to ensure errant HGVs desperately trying to get to fast-expanding Daventry don't try old fashioned road widening techniques, but still can overturn on the bends!
The final furlong of the A361 appears here. After crossing over the M45, one of Britain's oldest motorways, it ends near the 800 year old village church of Kilsby at a roundabout with the A5. Were it to continue for eight more miles, it would have reached Naseby - the most famous Civil War battle site of them all.
As we have seen, the A361 is truly a bizarre beast and it may be worth asking how it came by its long and tortuous route. The original 1922 route from Taunton to Banbury is rather more coherent but still a remarkable length for a three-digit road. One might have expected the A39 number to be used for the North Devon Link section rather than a country lane running over the top of Exmoor. The sharp change in direction around Avebury makes little sense - it would have been more logical to terminate the route on the A4 at Beckhampton and allocate a zone 4 number to the rest of the road.
The extensions to the road both west of Taunton and north of Banbury appear to have been done simply because the A361 was the most suitable number available to signify a major continuous through route, yet neither really bears much relation to the course of the rest of the road. One could get the feeling that this is a road that simply doesn't know when to stop.