As the birthplace of many global sports, including football, rugby, cricket and tennis, England can boast sporting events which attract a world audience. If you prefer participating to spectating, the country caters for just about every outdoor activity, too: we’ve concentrated below on walking, cycling and watersports, but there are also opportunities for anything from rock climbing to pony-trekking.
Football (soccer) is the national game, with professional matches taking place every Saturday afternoon from early August to early May, plus plenty of Sunday and midweek fixtures too. It’s very difficult to get tickets to Premier League matches involving the most famous teams (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool): you’ll have more success at Championship (second-tier) games.
Rugby is less popular than football, though no less entertaining to watch. It comes in two forms, which have completely different rules: Rugby Union is played largely in the south of England, while Rugby League dominates in the north. Securing tickets for a top game shouldn’t be a problem, whether you go for a weekly match in Union’s Premiership (Sept–May) or League’s Super League (Feb–Sept) – or one of the many internationals.
Cricket (played April–Sept) has broken out of its idiosyncratically dotty roots to become big business, thanks largely to the invention of the “Twenty20” format, designed to encourage flamboyant, decisive play in short three-hour matches. Big crowds result. Watch English county sides competing for the Twenty20 Cup – or opt for a full-day game in the domestic knock-out competition or a four-day match in the County Championship. Every summer visiting countries play a cycle of international five-day “Test” matches against the English national side at grounds around the country.
Tennis fever bites for two weeks in late June/early July, during the famous Wimbledon championships, with wall-to-wall TV coverage and breathless recountings of how well (or badly) any British players do. The rest of the year, no one gives a hoot.
Cheltenham Gold Cup (mid-March; wwww .cheltenham.co.uk). Centrepiece of this hugely popular steeplechase (fence-jumping) horse race meeting.
Boat Race (Sat in late March; wwww.theboatrace .org). Two crews from Oxford and Cambridge universities race along the River Thames in London.
Grand National (1st Sat in April; wwww.aintree .co.uk). Thrills and spills in the world’s greatest steeplechase, staged at Aintree in Liverpool.
London Marathon (April; wwww.london -marathon.co.uk). The country’s biggest running race, as vicars in gorilla suits trail in behind the speedy pros.
FA Cup Final (mid-May; wwww.thefa.com). Climax of the biggest domestic football competition, staged at London’s Wembley stadium.
Premiership Final (late May; wwww .guinnesspremiership.com). The top two teams in Rugby Union battle for honours at Twickenham stadium in London.
The Derby (1st week June; wwww.epsomderby .co.uk). A parade of top-class nags compete in the 200-year-old Derby horse race, at Epsom near London.
Wimbledon (late June & early July; wwww .wimbledon.org). The world’s top tennis players slug it out at Wimbledon in southwest London.
Twenty20 Cup (mid-Aug; wwww.ecb.co.uk). A fast and furious riot of cricket: both semi-finals and the final take place at the same ground on the same day.
Challenge Cup Final (last Sat in Aug; wwww .superleague.co.uk). Culmination of the biggest knockout competition for Rugby League clubs.
Great North Run (mid-Sept; wwww.greatrun .org). Europe’s most popular half-marathon sees 50,000 competitors running across the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-Gateshead.
England’s finest walking areas are the granite moorlands and spectacular coastlines of Devon and Cornwall in the southwest, and the highlands further north – notably the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, and the Lake District. We’ve highlighted local walks, climbs, rambles and trails, but it goes without saying that even for short hikes you need to be properly equipped, follow local advice and listen out for local weather reports. England’s climate may be relatively benign, but the weather is changeable in any given season and people die on the moors and mountains every year.
Keen hikers might want to tackle one of England’s dozen or so National Trails (wwww.nationaltrail.co.uk), which amount to some 2500 miles of waymarked path and track. The toughest is the Pennine Way (268 miles; usually takes 16 days), stretching from the Derbyshire Peak District to the Scottish Borders, while the challenging South West Coast Path (630 miles; 56 days) through Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset tends to be tackled in shorter sections. Other trails are less gung-ho in character, like the South Downs Way (101 miles; 8 days) or the fascinating Hadrian’s Wall Path (84 miles; 7 days). You’ll find more details on all these walks online and in relevant accounts throughout this book.
The large-scale topographic maps published by Ordnance Survey (wwww .ordnancesurvey.co.uk) are renowned for their accuracy and clarity. Choose from the Landranger series (1:50,000) or Explorer series (1:25,000).
The National Cycle Network (wwww .sustrans.org.uk) is made up of 10,000 miles of signed cycle routes, a third on traffic-free paths (including disused railways and canal towpaths), the rest mainly on country roads. You’re never very far from one of the numbered routes, all of which are detailed online and covered by an excellent series of waterproof maps (1:100,000) published by Sustrans. Major routes include the northern coast-to-coast routes C2C (Sea-to-Sea), 140 miles from the Cumbrian to Northumberland coasts, and the new Way of the Roses (169 miles) from Morecambe to Bridlington, the Cornish Way (123 miles), from Bude to Land’s End, and routes that cut through the heart of England, such as from Derby to York (154 miles) or Gloucester to Reading (128 miles). Most local tourist offices stock a range of cycling guides, with maps and detailed route descriptions.
Sailing and windsurfing are especially popular along the south coast (particularly the Isle of Wight and Solent) and in the southwest (around Falmouth in Cornwall, and Salcombe and Dartmouth in Devon). Here, and in the Lake District, you’ll be able to rent boards, dinghies and boats, either by the hour or for longer periods of instruction – from around £25 for a couple of hours of windsurfing to around £140 for a two-day non-residential sailing course. The UK Sailing Academy (wwww.uksa.org) on the Isle of Wight is England’s finest instruction centre for windsurfing, dinghy sailing, kayaking and more.
Newquay in Cornwall is England’s undisputed surfing centre, whose main break, Fistral, regularly hosts international contests. But there are quieter spots all along the north coast of Cornwall and Devon, as well as a growing scene on the northeast coast from Yorkshire to Northumberland. There are plenty of places where you can rent or buy equipment, which means that prices are kept down to reasonable levels, say around £10 per day each for board and wetsuit.
Activity holiday operators
Most operators offering activity holidays feature escorted (guide-led) trips and self-guided options, the latter usually cheaper. On all holidays you can expect luggage transfer each night, pre-booked accommodation, detailed route instructions, a packed lunch and support. Below is a small selection of favourites.
England's national parks
England's national parks
England has nine national parks (wwww.nationalparks.gov.uk), plus the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, which has equivalent legal status and is effectively a tenth. They account for around 8 percent of England’s land area and attract over 110 million visitors a year.
The Broads wwww.broads-authority.gov.uk. Fine place for a boating holiday: the rivers, marshes, fens and canals of Norfolk and Suffolk make up one of Europe’s most important wetlands, ideal for birdwatching. Forget a car: cyclists and walkers have the best of it. Don’t miss: a wildlife-viewing trip on the Electric Eel.
Dartmoor wwww.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk. In deepest Devon, England’s largest wilderness attracts back-to-nature hikers and trippy stone-chasers in equal measure – the moorland walks can be pretty hardcore, while the standing stones are famous. Don’t miss: Grimspound Bronze Age village.
Exmoor wwww.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk. A slightly tamer version of Dartmoor, straddling the Somerset/Devon border with high, hogsback hills overlooking the sea. Crisscrossed by trails and also accessible from the South West Coast Path, it‘s ideal for walking and pony-trekking. Don’t miss: Tarr Steps, a 17-span medieval bridge.
Lake District wwww.lake-district.gov.uk. The biggest national park, located in Cumbria amid a near-Alpine landscape of glacial lakes and rugged mountains. It’s great for hiking, rock climbing and watersports, but also has strong literary connections and thriving cultural traditions. Don’t miss: Honister’s hard-hat mine tour.
New Forest wwww.newforestnpa.gov.uk. Amid the domesticated landscape of Hampshire, England’s best surviving example of a medieval hunting forest can be surprisingly wild. The majestic woodland is interspersed by tracts of heath, and a good network of paths and bridleways offers plenty of scope for biking and pony rides. Don’t miss: off-road cycling from Brockenhurst.
Northumberland wwww.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk. Where England meets Scotland, Northumberland is adventure country. The long-distance Pennine Way runs the length of the park, while the Romans left their mark in the shape of Hadrian’s Wall, along which you can hike or bike. Don’t miss: the Chillingham cattle wildlife safari .
North York Moors wwww.northyorkmoors.org.uk. A stunning mix of heather moorland, gentle valleys, ruined abbeys and wild coastline in North Yorkshire. Walking and mountain biking are the big activities, but you can also tour the picturesque stone villages or sample the sea at Whitby. Don’t miss: a day out at Ryedale Folk Museum.
Peak District wwww.peakdistrict.gov.uk. England’s first national park (1951) is also the most visited, located between the big cities of the Midlands and the northwest. It’s rugged country, with some dramatic underground caverns, tempered by stately homes and spa and market towns. Don’t miss: a trip down Speedwell Cavern.
South Downs wwww.southdowns.gov.uk. These rolling chalk downlands in Hampshire and Sussex extend to the sea cliffs at Beachy Head and include ancient beech and oak forests as well as open heath. More than 100,000 people live within the park boundaries: this is less a wilderness than a lovely place for long walks on London’s doorstep. Don’t miss: following prehistoric droving paths on the South Downs Way.
Yorkshire Dales wwww.yorkshiredales.org.uk. Probably the best choice for walking, cycling and pony-trekking, Yorkshire’s second national park spreads across twenty dales (valleys) at the heart of the Pennines. England’s scenic Settle–Carlisle Railway is another draw, while caves, waterfalls and castles provide the backdrop. Don’t miss: the train ride across Ribblehead Viaduct.