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Chris Rundle: Somerset may be a happy place to live, but A39 roadworks will wipe the smile of our faces

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: October 30, 2013

  • Jack Roocroft driving his tractor in Monmouthshire – such modes of transport could be essential on Exmoor as the A39 through West Somerset is closed for roadworks Picture: Chas Breton

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You will doubtless be enthralled to know that down where I live we are content. And (should you be inclined to doubt the veracity of that statement) don't just take my word for it.

The assertion has, indeed, been confirmed officially. This end of Somerset has been singled out by the Office of National Statistics as one of the areas of Britain where people are happiest.

How statisticians have managed it I know not, but they have now produced a chart plotting levels of contentedness which shows those out in the sticks are by and large much more cheery about life than those in urban areas, and those in this corner of the sticks more pleased with their lot than most.

Country-dwellers may not be as well off as their city-dwelling cousins. But it's not about material things: money, or big houses, or possessions. Rather it's everything to do with access to green spaces and a sense of community typified by the simple, pleasurable experience of being able to walk down a street and meet and talk to people you know rather being an anonymous member of an anonymous crowd.

To some extent this is merely an attempt to formalise and quantify something we have always taken for granted without making a song and dance over it. Cider maker Julian Temperley defines one of the characteristics of Somerset in general as its classlessness. "We don't doff our caps to anyone," as he puts it.

That's evident all around at this end of the territory. No-one puts on airs and graces. People dress down. The only time anyone wears a suit is for a wedding, a funeral or to answer charges in court. The bloke shambling around in a Barbour which looks as if it's just done a six-month stint lining the dog's basket is probably the local landowner who owns everything out to the horizon.

The pace of life is considerably relaxed. Everything that needs to be done will be done – dreckly. (Arriving on the Scillies to take up a new parish, a clergyman who was unfamiliar with the patois asked a local boatman what this 'dreckly' word meant. "Well," said the boatman, "'tis a bit like manana – only without the urgency.")

One of my sisters, who quit the area for one of the snittier parts of Surrey several decades ago, says she notices a palpable difference in people whenever she returns. One night we got chatting to a scruffy-looking bloke who had just rocked up at the pub in a battered VW Golf. While he was up at the bar my sister asked who he was and I explained he was the MD of a rather successful local company.

She was astounded. Back home, she said, anyone in such a position would have arrived in the pub looking like he had been dressed from top to bottom by Jermyn Street – and would make sure everyone noticed his personalised-plate Bentley parked conspicuously across the front door.

However, the generally-held feeling that all is pretty much right with the world in this vicinity is about to be severely imperilled because Somerset County Council has decided to dig up the only main road into the area, the A39.

Now, anywhere else this would be regarded as a country lane. It is narrow – too narrow for two lorries to pass in places. It sends traffic to thunder through villages whose inhabitants spend their days and nights cowering from the passage of lumbering 40-tonne juggernauts, protected by nothing more than a nine-inch skin of brickwork and a skim of pebbledash.

Most of the A39's line still follows the old turnpike route. Its inadequacy was recognised in the 1930s when plans were drawn up to dual it – but later abandoned because there was a war on.

Bypasses for some of the villages were proposed in the 1980s but, thanks to the county council's appalling record on road improvements – and some underhand shifting of the financial goalposts by a Lib Dem administration 20 years ago – never built. But if that wasn't bad enough, the county council is now closing the A39 completely for drainage works. Between 9am and 3.30pm every day. For three weeks.

Now you might have thought, given the route's strategic importance, that the job might have been scheduled nocturnally. Anywhere else in the county it probably would. Here, no. Because we have never shouted the odds about such things – or indeed anything, really, being the contended souls we are – it's been assumed we will put up with the inconvenience uncomplainingly.

That is unlikely to be the case. People have to get to and from places. They have appointments to meet, trains to catch, meetings to attend, even shopping to do. And while there are alternative routes they consist of little more than single-track lanes – one running through the longest ford in the country, which will be interesting if we get even more heavy rain – the others looping up over the hills along byways where cars are seen so seldom the inhabitants of the isolated cottages still come out to watch them pass, and wave. It is all looking like a recipe for total and utter chaos.

Travellers using the bus services between Taunton and Minehead, on the other hand, are in for a real treat. Public transport will be required to follow the same deviation as stipulated for HGVs which, given a difficult right turn in Wheddon Cross (the highest village in Somerset, so you get some idea of the terrain) will perform a spectacular dogleg down to within a couple of miles of the Devon border.

Thus bus passengers from Taunton will travel across the Brendon Hills by way of Ralegh's Cross and Heathpoult Cross where they will turn sharp left and head down to the quaintly-named Machine Cross on the Exe Valley road. At this point they will be 20 miles from Minehead – only six miles closer to their destination than they had been when they left Taunton, despite having been in transit for well over an hour.

Ahead will lie a twisting ascent to Wheddon Cross and an equally tortuous, if scenic descent to the Aville valley and Dunster, where the delights of the single-track, lights-controlled section of the main street await them.

In other words, a tour of some of the more scenic parts of West Somerset that GK Chesterton's rolling English drunkard would have been proud of as he designed the rolling English road.

I am told the estimated journey time will be well over double the normal hour and 20 minutes and is in fact likely to be nearer three hours and, further, that PCSOs are being detailed to ride shotgun on the buses, not merely to protect the drivers in case of extreme passenger unrest but also to reassure visitors that they have not been shanghaied to become chattels in the white slavery trade that still flourishes on Exmoor.

What the mood of the locals will be after three weeks of delayed, detoured journeys; angry encounters with the oncoming traffic on country lanes and raging arguments over who should be backing up; or solid jams of vehicles in locations where currently one car a day counts as busy, I have no idea.

But I doubt, somehow, it will still be possible to categorise them as being among the cheeriest in the country.

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