Our green and boggy isle may be small, but one thing’s for certain: it’s home to some of the most magnificent landscapes in Europe, if not the world. Sure, our much lamented climate means you’ll likely get a soaking or three (four if you’re in Scotland), but with everything from coastal strolls to fearsome scrambles, British boots were, surely, made for some serious walking.
From the suburbs of Newcastle to the Solway Firth, Britain’s most iconic Roman monument doubles as perhaps its most compelling long-distance path, marching some 84 miles across northern England’s most bracing and barren terrain. Sure, you’ll need some imaginative licence in places but enough stones remain unturned – and forts excavated – to project the rather ascetic lot of a second-century legionnaire, blistered feet no doubt included.
As Scotland’s inaugural long-distance path, the 95-mile West Highland Way did much to raise the profile of the hiking opportunities on Glasgow’s doorstep. It’s a rites-of-passage trek that segues beautifully from city suburbs to the forests of Loch Lomond, the desolation of Rannoch Moor and the drama of Devil’s Staircase, eventually winding up near the foot of Ben Nevis: all in all, a perfect introduction to the Scottish Highlands. In high summer, though, it’s also a potentially not-so-perfect introduction to the dastardly Highland midge. Forget that repellent at your peril…
Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall
You likely won’t see any lizards on this Cornish peninsula (the name rather has its roots in the native tongue), but you will breeze through some of Britain’s most spectacular coastline, complete with exotic subtropical plants, rugged caves and exquisite coves, and an endlessly churning sea. And though it makes up a mere fraction of the marathon six-hundred-mile South West Coast Path you could happily spend days exploring its serpentine nooks and filmic crannies.
Wester Ross, Scottish Highlands
Since Monty Halls turned his back on the twenty-first century in favour of the simple life as a crofter in The Great Escape, the coast of Wester Ross has become as popular with would-be escapees as its mighty Munros have long been with hill-walkers and climbers. While both Applecross and the Loch Torridon settlements of Shieldaig and Diabaig all make great bases for some gloriously scenic and relatively easy-going sea walks, the ancient, fortress-like peaks of Torridon itself, not least the twin-pronged bulk of Liathach, the famous horns of Beinn Alligin and the gleaming, quartzite-crowned massif of Beinn Eighe, offer some of the most dramatic ascents on the British mainland.
Helvellyn, Lake District
It’s not the highest peak in the Lake District but it can still stake a claim as the most romantic, with a capital “r” or otherwise. Beloved of Wordsworth, Wainwright and generations of walkers, England’s most popular mountain is a study in contrast, its summit flat enough to land a plane and its deceptively named western arête, Striding Edge, sharp enough – terrifyingly so – to evoke the Sublime in even the most hardened scrambler.
A different kind of ridge entirely from the arêtes of Lakeland, if no less steeped in history, this archaic highway has been chalking up foot traffic for centuries, threading as it does into an old Devon to Norfolk trade route. Its 137-mile course passes through some of the loveliest landscapes in southern England – think intimate woods, hidden valleys and open downlands with views that go on forever – taking in Avebury’s stone circles, the fringes of Salisbury Plain and ancient droving trails in Hardy’s Dorset, en route to the chalk giant of Cerne Abbas and the coast.
It may slop and squelch under some of the heaviest rainfalls in Britain, but Snowdonia is hard to beat. Its serrated, slate-lined peaks cater for a range of abilities, yet it’s also home to the only mountain on the British mainland that demands scrambling as part of the main ascent: regal Tryfan. The famous north ridge route in fact pans out far less intimidatingly than its razor-like fin suggests from the ground, but once you reach the summit – and leap the five-foot gap between the iconic Adam and Eve rocks – you’ll feel like a true mountaineer.
Southern Upland Way, Borders
The Scottish Borders are perhaps still more identified with horseriding than hoofing it, but this coast-to-coast, Irish to North Sea odyssey – 212 miles in total – may one day change that. And while the dome-like hills of the Southern Uplands mightn’t match the Highlands for drama, they more than match them for sheer remoteness – chances are you’ll have your trail to yourself, even in summer. If you don’t fancy hiking the full hog, the thirty-odd-mile Moffat to Traquair stretch makes for an evocative sampler, encompassing the ancient remnants of the Ettrick Forest, St Mary’s Loch and the splendours of Traquair House.
Cradling a hundred-mile swathe from the historic city of Winchester to the spectacular white cliffs of Beachy Head, this clement landscape of ancient woodland, open heath and chalky downs may lend itself more to rambling, cycling and horseriding than hardcore hiking, but its recently awarded national park status reflects a rural charm wholly distinct from Britain’s remoter corners. Tackle it from west to east to take advantage of the prevailing wind, and the psychological appeal of finishing at those vertiginous cliffs.
Stanage Edge, Peak District
A kind of Peak District Table Mountain in miniature, the four miles of gritstone cliff that make up Stanage Edge have been scaled since the nineteenth century, while the surrounding dry-stone dykes, historic buildings and emaciated moors have been sewn into England’s cultural and literary landscape for much longer. Various walks take in the famous escarpment, most conveniently setting out from the village of Hathersage. Whichever route you take, though, you’ll be rewarded by spectacular views, not to mention the haunting debris of long-abandoned millstones and the hair-raising sight of people inching up the Edge’s profusion of iconic climbs – you may even be tempted to don a hard hat yourself.