While the A39 has been extended to the north of its original route, and re-routed to the south, the central section has remained largely the same, albeit with a few bypasses and realignments. Much of the route, as with so many other A roads in the South West, follows old Turnpike roads, and in places even Roman Roads. Below some of the key historical aspects of the route are identified.
Section 1: Bath - Wells
Allowing for the fact that the A39 originally started on the A361 at Ashcott, we shall still start our journey in Bath! From the Globe Inn, the first section of the route was originally the A368, as far as the traffic lights at Marksbury. Before those lights were installed, the A39 still met the A368 at a TOTSO here, reflecting the old priority, changed fifty or more years before! The only significant change on this section of the road is the brief dualled section just north of Marksbury itself.
The extension of the A39 to Bath dates from 1935.
At Marksbury we would have picked up the original A369, before that number became temporarily defunct. This took us south, across the Mendips to Wells where our first bypass is met.
The A39 section of the Wells Bypass is not a large sweeping modern road cicrling around this historic city. Mainly because of the geography of the site, but also because it is more of a relief road for the city centre. The original A39 continued down New Street (now the B3139, see right) and met the A371 from Shepton Mallet at The Liberty. Wells City Centre was then a box of A-roads, forming a partly one-way system in later years, and its easier to describe all the streets involved, rather than trying to pick out which was A39 and which A371. Starting at the northern corner, and working clockwise, we follow Sadler Street, High Street, Broad Street and the Priory Road, where the A39 to Glastonbury left. As you can see from the map, that was the extent of the A-roads in 1946. However, the main 'box' of later years turned north up Princes Road into Portway - the A371 to Cheddar, with St Cuthbert Street also being an A road at one time. Returning eastwards now, along Chamberlain Street to our starting point. The Wells Bypass / Relief Road opened in the late 1990s.
Section 2: Wells - Bridgwater
Leaving Wells then as now on Priory Road, the routes deviate once more when we reach Glastonbury. Here the new bypass (as in Wells) uses an old railway line, while the old road curved more tightly around the Tor on Wells Road. We used to meet the A361 at the top of the High Street, with the two routes multiplexing through the town centre on High Street and Magdalene Street, picking up the A361's modern route along Street Road. The Glastonbury Bypass opened in the late 1990s.
Still multiplexing (you can see why the A39 originally terminated further south), the two routes also passed along High Street and West End in Street. The bypass of Street is much older than those outlined above, and dates back to the 1970s. It is also partially dualled, although this is more due to the numerous turning lanes.
Finally, at the Pipers Inn to the east of Ashcott, we pick up the start of the original A39. We also pick up the Roman Road along the Poldens, which has come up the B3151 and across Walton Hill from the Fosse Way at Ilchester. This Roman Road originally ran all the way to the River Parrett at Combwich, although as the river has flooded and changed course many times over the last 2000 years, it precise western route is now lost. It is probable that the Roman Road across the Polden Hills followed the line of an even older Ridgeway. The road is still narrow today, although reasonably straight.
At Crandon Bridge, we meet the original Turnpike route from Bridgwater to Bristol, although the route taken by the modern A38 was built in the 1850's. The spur to the M5 is part of that old route, although it wasn't until the motorway opened that it became part of the A39. The original route across where the motorway now lies, took Puriton Hill, then the footbridge to Pawlett Road in Downend, emerging on the A38 between Pawlett and Walpole.
Section 3: Bridgwater - Minehead
The A39 has always met the A38 at the Cross Rifles Roundabout, and multiplexed down Monmouth Street. However, before the dual carriageway relief road was built in the 1960s, the two turned up Eastover, over the Town Bridge and on up Fore Street to Cornhill. Here, the A38 forked left down St Marys Street, while the A39 continued to the right up High Street and Penel Orlieu to rejoin its modern route on North Street.
The historic Turnpike route then followed the B3339 through Wembdon, but by the 1920s, this route had already been replaced with the modern route along Quantock Road. At the far end of the B3339, the Turnpike would have followed Charlynch Lane and then Limestone Hill, the new road surprisingly being called 'New Road'! A few miles further on, we find the Cannington Bypass, opened in the early 1990's, with the old road following Brook Street, Fore Street and High Street. The wide S2 unclassified route leaving Cannington along Rodway was built in the 1950s when the first Hinkley Point Reactor was built, and further improved in the 1960's when Hinkley B was built.
West of Cannington, various layby loops suggest older alignments of the road, and after Keenthorne, the side road to Over Stowey shows where a new road has been built to bypass Halsey Cross. Most of these improvements were either done by the Turnpike trusts, or in the improvements of the 1930's. However, at Nether Stowey we find a bypass dating back to the late 1960's. The old road passed through the village along St Mary's Street and Lime Street. Further west again, Holford was probably bypassed in the Turnpike era, but a number of laybys and parking areas in the trees along this stretch show older alignments of the road.
At Kilton Cross, Rowditch Lane shows the old alignment, and appears to be straighter than the modern route! We pass through Kilve and reach West Qunatoxhead where the Turnpike Trust bypassed The Avenue and Staple Lane. At the same time, they realigned the main Minehead-Bridgwater road away from Watchet. Up until then, the road passed through Doniford to pick up the B3191. However, presumably by using pre-existing lanes for most of the route, the Turnpike Road was moved south to pass through Williton and Washford. In the latter village, the old road can still be identified curving north across the Washford Brook, rather than south as it does now.
From Carhampton to Minehead, the Turnpike trust did build a brand new road, with the old road taking Park Lane, and then the track across to Gallox Bridge in Dunster. A short zig-zag through Dunster onto St George's Street, to rejoin the modern A39 on Church Street in Alcombe. However, the road was imrpoved once more in the 1960's, when the A396 junction at Dunster was widened and reprofiled.
Section 4: Minehead - Lynmouth
The peculiar history of the A39 and its uncertain route through Minehead are described in the main article, and from there to County Gate beyond Oare the modern road still follows the original Turnpike road. There are, inevitably, short loops and laybys in places identifying minor upgrades along the way, but essentially there is no change.
However, before the Turnpike Trust was established, it is possible that the 'main road' across northern Exmoor would have travelled from Headon Cross into Selworthy, rejoining the modern route at Holnicote. The modern road was built by the owners of Holnicote House, who also built the pretty cottages at Selworthy in the 1820's. A little further west, at Allerford, a narrow lane signed unsuitable for motor vehicles fords the stream and passes alongside an old Packhorse Bridge. This was bypassed early on by the Turnpike.
The only point of interest along this section is Porlock Hill, a very steep 1:4 climb out of Porlock onto Exmoor, which is only avoided by using narrow and meandering private Toll roads. Before the advent of the car, passengers used to have to get out of the carriage and walk up as the horses struggled up the hill. The innkeepers of Porlock used to keep horses to help out (and presumably became rich from it!), and on occasion the passengers would have had to carry their luggage!
At County Gate, we are in Doone Country, the northern combe and hills of Exmoor made famous by RD Blackmore in 'Lorna Doone'. Today the area thrives on this association, with various small tourist attractions just across the county boundary in Devon.
Section 5: Lynmouth - Bideford
The next stop is Lynmouth, a town devastated by a flood in 1952. The A39 originally left Lynmouth up the steep hill now numbered B3234; it was rerouted in the 1920s presumably to avoid the hill - although it is questionable why this was necessary given that the road east to Porlock is just as steep if not steeper and that was not bypassed.
The road from there to Barnstaple is largely unchanged from 1922, although priorities at the Blackmoor Gate crossroads have changed and the occasional bend has been straightened. In Barnstaple the A39 used to run along Boutport Street to cross the Long Bridge and run out through Fremington along what is now the B3233. With the construction of the North Devon Link Road in the 1980s the A39 was rerouted along a short relief road to meet it, although the relief road was numbered A361 until that road moved onto the new bridge in 2007 and took over the southern bypass which was opened as A39.
Section 6: Bideford - Indian Queens
Old and new routes of the A39 cross to the north of Bideford just before both cross the River Torridge. The old A39 to the west of the town is now unclassified, running along Clovelly Road, which is met at a roundabout. The next couple of miles were upgraded as part of the North Devon Link Road scheme so it comes as a shock to reach the bends after Fairy Cross (although if you've been following the entire route of the A39 this is nothing compared with west Somerset!). The road is then unimproved into Cornwall, where the A39 is the only classified road to cross the border without crossing the Tamar.
There have been a few improvements south of Bude - and later on the road has been straightened to avoid a detour via Tresparrett Posts and Marshgate. The road through Camelford still follows its 1922 route and little has changed until Wadebridge, which was bypassed in the 1990s.
St Columb Major has also been bypassed, after which the A39 follows a new route to meet the A30 at Indian Queens; the old road is now unclassified but still obvious.
Section 7: Indian Queens - Falmouth
Until 1995 the A39 had a short multiplex along the A30 through Blue Anchor before continuing south through New Mills to meet the A390 near Probus. It then ran west into Truro. In that year, with the upgrading of the A30 the multiplex was lengthened and the A39 did not leave until Carland Cross, taking over the ex-A3076 to get to Truro; the old A39 is now partly B3275 and partly A390.
As far as the Truro River the A39 has been upgraded online, after which there is a short bypass. The next section has the occasional offline upgrade until Treluswell is reached. The road ahead here was originally the A394 but in the 1990s this first section was taken over by the new Penryn bypass (the old road is now the B3292). Old and new roads meet again on the far side of town but not for long. The original route of the A39 continued ahead along North Parade and alongside the estuary via Falmouth High Street to reach Marine Crescent. It then went under the railway line on Bar Road to end on the B3290. In the 1970s the old route was declassified and the A39 rerouted along the B3290 to bypass the centre of Falmouth but still give the road the same end point.