The A38 was first classified in 1922 and ran from Plymouth to Derby, as shown on the historic route map.
Bodmin – Marsh Mills
The section of the route from Bodmin to Plymouth as it existed until the completion in 1985 of the new Parkway road at Plymouth became part of the A38 only with the road-numbering revision of 1935. Until then, it had been the A389.
The A38 had originally started in Plymouth, at a junction with the B3244 outside Millbay railway station, southwest of the town centre. From here it headed northeast to pass the eastern end of the A389, then through the centre of the town towards Embankment Road, and so along the northwest bank of the River Plym. Interestingly enough, for the first couple of years following its classification by the M.o.T. there was a one-mile gap in the route's status here, since the road running along the top of the Embankment itself belonged to Plymouth Corporation and remained a toll-road until 1 April 1924. After following the Plym for another mile, the A38 turned sharp right to cross the river by the "New Bridge" (dating from 1753, rebuilt in 1835) by Marsh Mills.
In 1935, following the A38's aforementioned "acquisition" of the A389 from Bodmin, the original first section from Millbay station in Plymouth – along Millbay Road (east) and George Street (west) – was reclassified as a spur of the B3244.
As the A389 crossed the Tamar at the Torpoint Ferry so did the A38 when it was extended west. The Tamar Bridge was opened in 1961 with the number A374 but it was not long before that road and the A38 swapped numbers west of Marsh Mills to allow the more important road the bridge. With the change the A38 took over a road through Crownhill which was numbered B3246 in 1922 and became the A374 in 1935. By the time the A38 ran this way the road had been partially dualled but instead of completing the upgrade another dual carriageway, The Parkway, was constructed just to the south, relegating the old route to become the B3413.
Marsh Mills – Exeter
This section of the A38 still runs along more-or-less its original route, although of course the entire section has been dualled and the majority has been bypassed. This took place in stages from the 1960s to the 1980s to connect with Exeter and the M5.
Exeter – Waterloo Cross
Since the arrival of the M5, this section of the A38 has ceased to exist on its own number, instead running in multiplex with the M5 between junction 31 and junction 27. The A38 through Exeter had already been realigned at least once away from the city centre, and the Exeter Bypass is now the A379 and A3015. After that, things become much simpler and as we meet the former A30 Honiton Road, the B3181 starts, which follows the old A38 (to the extent that many locals still refer to it as such) all the way to Waterloo Cross, and the nearby J27 on the M5.
Waterloo Cross – Bristol
Most of the route through Somerset was upgraded in the 1930s as part of the unemployment relief schemes. South of Dunball/Puriton, more work was done between 1950 and 1970 to keep the road moving until the M5 opened. Since then, no major work has been done to the road, with the exception of the short Wellington Relief Road, built shortly before the coming of the M5. This was built by cobbling existing local roads together, probably as a short-term relief effort for the town.
Moving on to Bridgwater, the A38 used to continue up Taunton Road / St Mary's Street to Cornhill, where it met the A39, and the two multiplexed down Fore Street, across the bridge and along Eastover to St John Street where the A372 diverged. Monmouth Street has simply been widened since the 1922 Road Lists were drawn up, and the A38/A39 diverge has always been at the Cross Rifles. Heading north, out of town on the Bristol Road, the dualled section simply saw a new two-lane road built parallel to the original for northbound traffic, making an S2 road D2 overnight.
Between Dunball and Pawlett, there are various kinks that were straightened, and then the road used to run through Pawlett village along Old Main Road and Manor Road. Two loops either side of Bleak Bridge also mark the pre-1930 route, but heading north through Huntspill and Highbridge, the road has simply been widened where possible. The mini roundabout junction with the B3139 Market Street was built in the 1990s with the new Tyler Way access to Newtown, and the one outside Asda was added in 2007/8 to serve the new store.
At the Edithmead roundabout (M5 / B3140), Tarmac can still be seen running through the middle of the island, and then at White Cross (Fox & Goose), the mini dualled section (now D1) is another on-line widening. At East Brent, the road used to run along the A370's route, forking right at the war memorial along Old Bristol Road (now closed off). There is the obvious realignment for the M5 bridge, then the loops of Old Chapel Road in Rooksbridge, the old bridge at the former New Moon Inn and the lay-by opposite the Badgworth Turning. Otherwise the road has just been widened and improved.
At Lower Weare, the A38 used to go left up Old Coach Road, to what must have been a TOTSO in Cross. This then emerged at Cross Crossroads with the A371. Despite the modern route being called Turnpike Road on some maps, I believe it was constructed in the 1930s. Heading north up Shute Shelve Hill, we used to pass under the Cheddar Valley Railway line, but the next major change comes beyond Churchill Crossroads, where Lower Langford has been bypassed. The A38 formerly travelled along B3133 and Langford Road.
The next obvious realignment is at Lulsgate, opened since 2000?, where the road was diverted to the east in a great loop around an extended runway.
Bristol – Tewkesbury
From Lulsgate, the A38 continues into Bristol along the original route. Around Parsons Street railway station in Bedminster, there is now a one-way gyratory with the the northbound side being the original road. Further north, after West Street, the A38 takes a dogleg down Sheene Road, Sheene Court, Malago Road and Dalby Avenue to avoid the now-pedestrianised East Street. Rejoining East Street, the road crosses the A370 over Bedminster Bridge and carries on over Redcliff Hill, joining the A4044 next to the magnificent Redcliffe Church.
Here the A38 is discontinuous across the city centre, but used to cross via a number of different route. Until 1960s, the A38 would carry on up Redcliffe Street and then multiplex with the A4 across Bristol Bridge and then westwards down Baldwin Street, now the B4053. In the 1960s, the A4044 inner ring road was built and the section between Redcliffe Church and St Augustines Parade was created by upgrading the road across Queen Square. The A38 was then multiplexed with the new A4044 until St Augustines Parade which became the A38, thus forming a useless multiplex. In 1999, this section of the A4044 was removed to allow Queen Square to be restored to its former glory. This provides an interesting problem as there is no direct route between the two ends of the A38 - the old route using the B4053 joins at the wrong end of St Augustines Parade.
The A38 carries on around the north-west corner of the ring road as a dual carriageway, although the two sides of the road are entirely separate and have different names - Lewins Mead northwards and Bridewell Street/Rupert Street southbound - until they join at Haymarket. At St James Barton, the ring road carries on as the A4044 and the A38 turns north through the northern suburbs of Bristol.
At Filton, the A4174 joins from the East and route carries on as a primary dual carriageway route up to the M5. This section was almost entirely an online upgrade, apart from where the road crosses the South Wales mainline railway in Patchway, where a dogleg over the narrow railway bridge was bypassed with new section over the railway and under the old road. The old bridge and connecting slip roads are classified as the B4057, but no longer have any direct connection to the other two sections of the B4057.
After the M5 at J16, the A38 carries on through Almondsbury as a non-primary route before crossing the M4. Some early maps showing the construction of the M4 indicate a junction with the A38 here, but with the proximity of the Almondsbury Interchange (M5 J15/M4 J20), M5 J16 and the fact that the M4 is descending steeply westwards from here, a junction seems a complex and unnecessary addition.
Carrying on northwards, the A38 bypasses Thornbury on the high ground east of the town, with the B4061 taking a loop through the town. At the northern end, the A38 joined the B4061 on a T-junction, which suggests that the original route was through the town, but there is no evidence yet to show whether the bypass was created before or after the route was classified as the A38. The T-Junction has since been cut off with a short section of S3 road, probably in the 1950s.
Between Thornbury and Gloucester, there are 4 very short sections of dual carriageway, each no more than half a mile in length. Between these, much of the road was S3 (until the 1990s), which suggests a series of 1950s improvements before the construction of the M5 in the late 1960s made upgrading the road pointless.
A Slimbridge, there is a roundabout junction with the A4135 - the roundabout dating from around 2000 and the road dating from the construction of the M5. The A4135 previously joined the A38 in Cambridge (that is Cam-bridge with a soft A). Further north, at a hamlet called Claypits, the now defunct A4096 joined providing a slightly circuitous route to Stonehouse and Stroud. This was superseded by the building of a new link road to the M5 and Stonehouse further north, which was reclassified as the A419.
At Hardwicke, the B4008 joins at a roundabout. This is the old route of the A419 to Stonehouse and today provides access to J12 of the M5. Northwards, the B4008 multiplexes with the now primary A38 for quarter of a mile, but southwards, it is a parallel road. The B4008 heads on through Quedgeley and is the original route of the A38, whilst today's road is a dual carriageway bypass. This was originally built with grade-separated junctions at each end, but these days has a roundabout for an industrial estate and traffic lights for a housing estate. At the north end of the bypass is a pair of large traffic light junctions, which provide a junction with the B4008, A430, and the old route of the A38. Today, the A38 turns right at the first junction and we will follow this route first, before returning to the old route.
In the late 1950s, an eastern bypass of Gloucester was created by building a new road and upgrading existing roads. The first section of new road was single carriageway Cole Avenue from the A430 junction up to the A4173 junction. At this busy roundabout, the A4173 (which was the B4072 in 1953) joins from the right, providing a route to the A46 and Stroud, and the B4072 continues into Gloucester. The next section of road was an existing local road reclassified as the A38. After crossing the B4073, the road becomes Eastern Avenue, which again was an existing road, but this time widened to dual carriageway and with extensive retail and light industrial development built up alongside. Halfway along is the junction with the A4302 which provides a link into the city centre and built as part of the inner ring road in the early 1990s. At Barnwood, the A38 turns left whilst the road continues as the 1966-built A417 Barnwood bypass and forms part of the outer ring-road. The A38 now follows the 1930s-built dual carriageway, ring-road (or now the middle ring-road). After crossing the B4063 (the old A40), the road curves around what was then the north of Gloucester before coming to the junction with the A430, which is the old A38 route. The A38 now turns right and carries on northwards, whilst the ring-road carries on south-westwards as the A417.
Going back to the large junction north of Quedgeley, the A38 used to head into Gloucester as "Bristol Road". After the A38 was diverted to head around the east of the city, this road became the A430. After the Gloucester South-Western bypass was opened in May 2007, heading northwards across the canal, this took over the A430 classification and Bristol Road became a unclassified road, although some maps show it as a unnamed B-road. After a couple of miles, we come to High Orchard where the B4072 joins from the south-east and the A430 inner ring-road crosses. Before 1989, the A430 carried on northwards and crossed the centre of Gloucester. In 1989, the new Trier Way (over the ex-LMS High Orchard branch) was opened, taking the A430 around the eastern side of the city centre, allowing the centre to be pedestrianised. The old A38 road continues into the city, past the docks, as the A4301 Southgate Street. At Kimbrose Triangle, the A4301 turns left, and follows the canal to join the A417. Southgate Street now becomes pedestrianised and comes to the central crossroads in Gloucester, where Southgate, Westgate, Northgate and Eastgate Streets all meet. Originally, the A38 came in on Southgate Street, the A40 came in on Northgate Street and left on Westgate Street, and the B4073 came in on Eastgate Street. The A38 multiplexed on Northgate Street for a short distance before heading northwards on Worcester Street. These are all now pedestrianised or semi-pedestrianised, and all unclassified. Today the inner-road crosses Worcester street and the A430 again follows the route the A38 out of the City. After passing Gloucester RFC's Kingsholm ground, we come to the original ring-road and the A38 takes over again.
The A38 Tewkesbury Road heads northwards out of the city before coming to the modern A40 outer ring-road at Longford. The road carries on through a number of hamlets and various speed limits before approaching Tewkesbury. The old route was past the Abbey into central Tewkesbury, now unclassified. Today, the A38 follows the Tewkesbury bypass up to the A438 junction. As the northern bypass hasn't been built yet, the route is back into central Tewkesbury. This part of the route is still shown as the A438, presumably with the A38 multiplexing. In the centre of Tewkesbury, on the original line of the A38, the multiplexing swaps over with the A38 being the primary route and the A438 multiplexing. At the top end of the main street, the A38 turns left over the River Severn and then the A438 turns off westwards whilst the A38 carries on northwards to Worcester.
Tewkesbury – Birmingham
As the A38 heads north of Tewkesbury its route has hardly changed in years, although given that the M5 is only a short distance to the east it is now little more than a local road. M50 J1 is soon met. When this junction was built in 1960 it only gave access to the westbound M50. Two years later the road to the east was opened, which met the M5 end-on as the M5 Tewkesbury bypass was still another couple of years off.
The A38 continues north into Worcester, still along its unimproved 1922 route - and even in the city centre not that much has changed. A short relief road has been built to bypass the now-pedestrianised High Street but this ends near Foregate Street station, which still lies on the A38's route. Strangely, Droitwich, the next town north, has a 1970s dual-carriageway bypass with obvious future-proofing for grade separation.
After another unimproved section of A38, which includes a Roman road and motorway crossing, Bromsgrove is also bypassed - but single-carriageway this time. The B4091 which forms the ex-A38 south of the town centre does not do so to the north and the now-unclassified Birmingham Road rejoins the current route of the A38 a short distance before the M42. Owing to the proximity of the M5 the junction here has no west-facing sliproads onto the motorway. From this point on it looks as though the original route of the A38 was along the B4096. This is not the case - presumably the climb over the Lickeys was deemed too steep for 1920s traffic - and the A38 has always headed north to Lydiate Ash.
When the M5 was under construction south of Lydiate Ash, a new link road was constructed to run from the new motorway junction to connect with the A38 towards Birmingham. The dual carriageway link also upgraded a mile of existing A38 near Spring Pools. This would later tie in with the Rubery bypass. As part of this, a mile of the A459 was reclassified to A38 to link up to the south. The corner that has been cut off, still part of Birmingham Road, no longer links to the A38 at its northern end.
At Lydiate Ash the A38 finally leaves the M5 behind. The next section has obviously been upgraded as an important route into Birmingham from the south. The original parallel route through Rubery is obvious but most of the dualling has been done online. Heading further north, Northfield was bypassed in 2007 to upgrade the old S2 route through the suburb. A short distance further and Selly Oak is reached, where the 2011 upgrade was done with completely different ideas. Not only is the bypass S2 but also requires traffic to TOTSO at its southern end. The old road here was originally renumbered as the non-standard B38, which quickly became the less non-standard B384.
The original route of the A38 through central Birmingham was along John Bright Street and Colmore Row to join Corporation Street and head out of town. The road was later rerouted along Suffolk Street, Great Charles Street and Shadwell Street to reach Corporation Street and this route formed the basis of the Inner Ring Road (which avoided Shadwell Street). This opened as A4400 and lasted less than 30 years before its demise; the ex-A38 on the western side became the A38 again.
Birmingham – Derby
The northern end of Corporation Street currently runs end-on into the A38(M) which came into being in 1972 to link Birmingham to the new M6. The old A38 ran along the A5127, whose out-of-zone number shows its history as having taken over the bypassed sections of A38 from the other side of the A5. The A38 reappears at its junction with the M6 and the A5127 follows its old route through Sutton Coldfield into Lichfield. The current A38 follows the ex-A4097 to Minworth, then the ex-A446 north of Bassett's Pole, with a new-build section joining the two. Although it looks as though the B4148 could have been another A38 Sutton bypass this was never actually the case.
The Lichfield bypass originally ran from Shenstone in the south to Streethay in the north - and the old road became the in-zone A5127. When the A38 was rerouted to avoid Sutton Coldfield, a short section of bypass was taken away from the A38 and became the A5148, which also explains the TOTSO. North of Lichfield the A38 runs mostly along its original route (although Burton is bypassed with the A5121 the pre-bypass road) albeit heavily upgraded. The road then entered Derby along Burton Road (now the A5250) to end on the A6 St Peter's Street in the city centre. Construction of the A5111 ring road in the 1930s did not alter the northern end of the A38 until the 1970s when a spur was built allowing the A38 to end on the ring road just to the south of the A52.
Derby – Mansfield
Later in the 1970s the road from Derby north to the M1 was upgraded. Although the A61 ran along the majority of this route it was decided to extend the A38 there instead, explaining why the A61 has a short section in Derby and then disappears until Alfreton. From here the link road to the motorway was originally opened as A615 and renumbered when the road to Derby was built.
After bypassing Sutton in Ashfield the A38 settles down onto the original route of the A615. It ends in the centre of Mansfield on the A6009 but the A615 used to continue along the now-pedestrianised road ahead to end on the A60 in the Market Place.