You know the highways, but do you know the byways?

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Alan Payling offers a helping hand for those who might get stuck in traffic jams on the major routes heading to and from the south west by sharing a bit of local knowledge

It was a series of traffic newsflashes on DevonLive, the online version of Torquay’s local paper, the Herald Express, that yet again cauaght my eye. The bulletins concerned a regular issue on the major roads round here – accidents bringing traffic to a standstill, causing lengthy delays.

A trip on the old A30 is a trip back in time in more ways than one. ALAN PAYLING

It was a Wednesday morning. At 0935hrs there had been a three-car collision on the A30 to the east of Exeter near Pathfinder Village. Traffic heading for Exeter and the M5 was at a standstill. The road was fully reopened at 1120hrs, by which time there was a four-mile tailback to clear. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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If you don’t know the A30 in that area, it’s a dual carriageway that once you’re on it and the traffic stops dead, you’re stuck. If you’d been leaving Newquay after an early(ish) breakfast to get a move on, you would have run right into the back of the tailback. Jams like the one described seem to be happening with greater frequency from what I see when I look at DevonLive.

Normally it all goes pear shaped on the M5, but the A30 and A38 round here also have their moments – being vulnerable due to the volume of traffic, particularly during holiday periods.

Map misunderstandings

So, what’s the answer as the main roads get ever busier? Is there one? There might be. Hereabouts, and north of Bristol, when the M5 was constructed, they built an entirely new road. That’s not always the case with the A38 Devon Expressway south of Exeter and the A30 south and east of Exeter; some stretches of those old A roads were upgraded. However, it still means that long and useful bits of the old roads – original stretches of the A38 and the A30 – are still there. Where they don’t run through major urban centres, they are largely unused, and they link up easily with the new stretches of the A30, the A38 and the M5.

Using the old road could have saved time in bypassing the new A30 because it would have taken the driver in the know round the three-car accident mentioned above. You just have to know where they are and how to get on and off them. The problem is finding them and being confident of using them. Now that more and more drivers rely on sat nav, that may not help here.

Even with good map reading skills, because the old parts of the former A roads have been downgraded and are now unclassified, they are marked on maps as very minor roads. In Devon, they look like single-lane back roads on the map. But they’re not. They’re still very good two-lane and in some cases three-lane roads that carried traffic to the west country for many years, and can now save time.

The signposting on the old A30 doesn’t help. Most of the time it’s trying to get you back onto the new A30, while the signposting on the old stretches is only to local villages and is not designed for or helpful to through traffic. There are some stretches that you would want to stay well clear of, however. The old A38 still goes right through Bristol, and for those who remember using it back in the day, it’s worse now – much worse. Unless the Avonmouth Bridge on the M5 is closed, Bristol is to be avoided. Gloucester is the same.

While the old A38 doesn’t run right through the city centre as it does in Bristol – and even though the city has a road that was built as a bypass – well, it got so busy, that’s why they built the M5. I doubt a bypass for the M5 will be built, so my feeling is is that it might be time to check out some of the old roads so that when you run into the back of a four-mile tailback in this part of the world (as you no doubt will at some point) you stand a chance of keeping good time and not wasting it sitting in a static or very slow moving tailback.

The first question will be: are these stretches of the old A30 and A38 suitable for a coach? When I first came to Devon in 1988, I worked for Express Dairies out of Honiton, driving 38-tonne milk tankers throughout the south west and beyond to the many dairies then operating in the west country. I spent a lot of time on the ‘back’ roads, not just to avoid holiday traffic but because I simply enjoyed seeing the countryside.

Also, a la the Little Feet song, Willing, I used the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed. Loading bulk tankers’ milk at the time was not very scientific, so you never really knew how much you were carrying. So, yes, you will get a coach down them. I have also been having a drive round recently not just to check them out, but because I still really enjoy driving in the countryside round here, so the info I am providing is up-to-date.

A tip or two. If you can, it might be an idea to try these alternative routes out before you need them so that when you do, you have a good idea of where to go. You might lose a few minutes, but they make for pleasant and scenic drives on largely traffic-free routes. You’ll have to watch out though if the police decide that an accident is so bad that the main A30, say, remains closed for a while. Then the world and his wife will be diverted down the back roads and you won’t gain anything by using them. The trick will be to keep an ear open for traffic reports, know where you can get off the main road and where to get back on.

Using the back roads on a Friday at the end of a half term week or at the end of summer holiday weeks will avoid the volumes of traffic coming up out of Cornwall, too. With more and more car drivers relying on sat navs, my guess is that they will stick with the jam while you can scoot round it. Have a look. But if you decide not to use the back roads, make sure you’ve got plenty of hot drinks on board and the toilet’s empty. It could be a long wait.

Old A30, Launceston to Exeter

The old A30 is used by the occasional bus, but it’s still a good road. ALAN PAYLING

There are two really good stretches of the old A30 covering some 40 miles that run from just east of Launceston to just south of Exeter, where the new A30 meets the M5. I say two stretches because unfortunately Okehampton is right in the middle. Even so, getting onto them is easy.

Travelling east, you want to come off the new A30 and take the road signposted to Polson A388, Liftondown, Lifton, Tinhay and Lewdown. When you come off, you then want to follow the signs for Lifton, Lewdown and Bridestowe. Welcome back to the world of the 1950s and ‘60s. There are no road numbers to follow as the old A30 is now unclassified. You now have a clear run until you hit the junction of the A386 Tavistock/Hatherleigh road at Sourton Down. Turn left under the new A30.

Just past the services it is best to go back onto the new A30. If it is still sticky, then you could drop off at the B3260 Okehampton turn, but only if it is really blocked and you’re the only one going down there. If all was going well on your journey until you reached this point, once past Okehampton on the new A30, you can come off at the next junction signposted for the B3260 and the services, but now, you want to follow the signs for Sticklepath, South Zeal and later for Whiddon Down. Again, you’re back in the 1950s without the jams.

Just past Whiddon Down, cross over the new A30, then turn right following signs for Crockernwell, Tedburn St Mary and Pathfinder Village. On this stretch, you will keep seeing signs for the A30.

If it looks clear, and you’re not just sightseeing, then get back on the new road. Eventually though, you will then hit the B3212 Exeter/Moretonhampstead road. Do a left and a quick right. Do not miss the right turn or you’ll be heading into Exeter. Not good.

You then hit the A30/A377 junction that takes you back onto the new A30, as mentioned above, just before the A30/M5 junction. Welcome back to the 21st century. Most of the time you will have the old road to yourself apart from cyclists, the odd farmer, the occasional bus driver and milk tanker drivers admiring the countryside.

A385 Totnes/Dartington for A38 to Plymouth

This tip is not so much to save you time but to prevent possible damage to your coach. If you’re going to Plymouth from Torbay, once you’ve gone through Totnes you arrive at the roundabout by Dartington Cider Press, the junction of the A385 for Plymouth and the A38 south and the A384 for Buckfastleigh, Buckfast Abbey and the A38 north.

If you follow the road for Plymouth, you will be sharing it with all the heavy traffic and buses that come up from Plymouth and Cornwall heading into Torbay. There’s a lot of them and they take no prisoners. The problem is the road. For long stretches, it’s just wide enough for two large vehicles to pass and high hedges in places make you feel penned in.

Common sense would suggest that drivers of large vehicles should/would/could slow down on such roads when they’re passing each other. But that wouldn’t be any fun now, would it? Particularly when you’re driving 44 tonnes of heavy metal. The ones to look out for are the local kamikaze eight-wheel tipper drivers, the ones with platinum shields on their mirrors.

I swear, having looked into their eyes, that when they see a coach heading their way they drop a gear, put their toe down and having got you in their cross hairs, scream something along the lines of ‘Banzaii’, ‘Geronimo’ or ‘Bandits at one o’clock’ as they tear past you leaving millimetres between you and an expensive new mirror – if you’re lucky. The closer they get to your coach, the happier they seem to be.

So, if you want to avoid mild heart attacks when you’re going to Plymouth or somewhere like Looe, Polperro or the Eden Project, instead of taking the Plymouth Road at Dartington Cider Press, turn right on to the A384 for Buckfastleigh. You will be driving along two sides of a triangle. The road to Buckfastleigh is a better, wider road apart from the Dart bridge where any traffic has to slow down anyway, there is much less heavy traffic and you’ll be on the A38 sooner.

By the time you get down to the junction with the A385 and the A38 you would have come out of if you had gone along suicide alley, it will have taken the same time, your coach will be intact and your blood pressure will be normal.

Caravan Alley, A38/A380 Haldon Hills, Northbound

We get a lot of caravans in this part of the world. When they’re heading home, lots of them have to go up and over the Haldon Hills before they hit the M5. Problems arise when the caravanners who have been belting up one side of the hill on the A38, which is a long steady drag, get to the top. The road on the other side of the hill is a lot steeper going downhill, and catches people out because they’re simply going too fast.

Part the way down, they decide to brake. The physics of all this means that the forces at work are trying to persuade the caravan to overtake the car that’s towing it. Centrifugal force all too often wins. The caravan then ends up looking like an IKEA kit that’s been chewed by the Beast of Dartmoor. Actually, make that mauled. The problem is, the sad-looking debris of someone’s pride and joy is all over the carriageway. Your carriageway.

Help is at hand. When you get to the crest of the hill, just as you’re about to go downhill, there is a turning that forks off to the left. This is the old A38 that goes right to the bottom of the hill and round the dead caravan. Beware, this is not one-way. People still live off this road, so keep left. Also, slow down as this is an old, winding road. It brings you out at the bottom of the road that comes down from Telegraph Hill on the A380, so watch out for very fast traffic as you filter in.

If a caravanner coming from Torbay on the A380 has committed hari-kari on Telegraph Hill, just before the garage at the top of the hill, turn off following signs for Plymouth (A38) and follow the road until it links up with the A38. Make sure you then follow signs for Exeter (A38) by going under the A38 and turning left to get on the right road. It would really help if the sign warning that Telegraph Hill is steep hill wasn’t placed just as the road heads downhill. Slowing up and getting into a lower gear at that point leaves it all a bit late.

Hope that helps. The next time I’m heading up the M5, I’m going to check out the A38 that runs parallel to the motorway. I’ll let you know what I find as there are stretches of the old highway to the west country that could take you round traffic that is snarled up on the M5.