Britain is home to an almost endless number of world-class rambling routes. We’ve narrowed down the choice to eight of our favourite spots for a brisk walk or a challenging hike, but do add your own favourite picks below.
One of the last remaining vestiges of the ancient woodland that once blanketed England, Epping appears in local annals from at least the twelfth century. Rambling along sandy, dappled paths on foot, galloping on horseback through meadows of waist-high grass, or splashing cross-country through muddy puddles on a dirt bike, it seems impossible that you are not, in fact, deep in the countryside, but only thirty-five minutes away from the city.
Though exploring by bike or on horseback gives you a sense of the sheer scale of the forest, the greatest pleasure is in meandering through Epping’s 50,000 veteran trees, twisted by pollarding into living sculptures, which rise in spring from a sea of pristine bluebells. A popular route begins at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, now somewhat marooned by the side of a busy road in Chingford. From here it’s a delightful stroll across lush meadows where longhorn cattle graze and rare butterflies flutter by, down to Connaught Water, one of many wetland areas in the forest, thronged with reeds, water lilies and royal ferns.
The soaring, curving grey-white amphitheatre walls of Malham Cove soon hove into view as you approach across the green Yorkshire fields. A 260-foot-high waterfall without the water, formed fifty thousand years ago when the outflow from a melting glacier poured over the lip of a high limestone cliff, it’s a truly grand sight, on a different scale from the surrounding dales.
It’s an easy walk from Malham village – you can push a stroller all the way to the foot of the cove – but there’s work to be done if you want to unlock Malham Cove’s real secrets, which lie on top of the cliff, up the breath-sapping steps to the side. From here, the views down the dale are magnificent, while underfoot is an extraordinary limestone pavement fractured into broad slabs (known as clints) and deep fissures (grykes).
To complete the circuit you can descend back to Malham via Gordale Scar, a deep ravine that requires strong nerves and a head for heights – the last part is nothing less than a hands-and-feet scramble down a waterfall. If you find yourself praying to the moorland spirits, you can thank them for your safe descent in nearby Janet’s Foss, a mossy, wooded dell rich with the scent of wild garlic, where dippers and wagtails flit over the pool of a charming waterfall.
Malham National Park Centre (www.yorkshiredales.org.uk) has maps and route guides for local walks.
The Peak District
Wedged between Sheffield, Manchester and Derby, it’s no surprise that the Peak District is Britain’s most visited national park. The park divides into two areas: the brooding Dark Peak in the north and the gentler White Peak in the south, each named on account of their different geologies.
These two geologies produce very different yet equally enticing landscapes, both of which can be easily explored in a weekend. Higher and wilder, the Dark Peak is formed of tracts of wind-whipped moorland interspersed with “edges”, outcrops of the underlying millstone grit that create dramatic escarpments such as Stanage Edge. Although modest in height they still offer panoramic views across seemingly endless miles of heather and grass. There’s little human habitation here – this barren landscape is the lonely home only to sheep, grouse, rabbits and hares.
See www.visitpeakdistrict.com for more information.
Offa’s Dyke Path, Wales
Sitting on a gravel beach trying to put hiking socks over cold, wet feet might not seem like an auspicious finish to one of Britain’s oldest long-distance trails, but this is the classic finale to Offa’s Dyke Path. Purists wade at least ankle deep into the Irish Sea at the path’s northern terminus, Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast – a repeat of the performance twelve days or so earlier at Sedbury Cliffs, near Chepstow on the Severn Estuary, where (minus blisters) they began. In between, hikers negotiate 177 miles of some of the finest and most varied landscape that the Welsh Marches has to offer, from gentle green valleys to wild moors and ancient woodland by way of historic towns and hidden hamlets.
The path is named after Offa’s Dyke, a massive earthwork (ditch and rampart) up to twenty feet high and sixty feet wide built in the eighth century by Offa, King of Mercia, to separate his territory from rival kingdoms – whether to keep out the Welsh or to keep out the English, opinion divides. The path broadly follows the course of the rampart, though while it was being developed in the 1960s the route planners made a few judicious improvements: rather than follow the dyke through Wrexham and other industrially marred areas they diverted it through the Wye Valley, over the Black Mountain in Brecon Beacons National Park and along the Clwydian Range with its long views over north Wales to Snowdonia. The result is one of Britain’s finest national trails – never too crowded and never monotonous.
For more information consult the National Trail website (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/offasdyke).
Britain’s most dangerous walk, Morecambe Bay
Backed by the Lakeland fells and famed for its spectacular sunsets, Morecambe Bay may look dramatically beautiful, but with its shifting sands and fast-moving tides this vast expanse of tidal mud flats is one of the most dangerous stretches of coast in Britain.
To attempt to ford this treacherous terrain by yourself would be sheer folly. There are quicksands, hidden channels and swirling currents, and when the tide roars in, its speed is said to be faster than any horse can gallop – as testified by the countless stories of disappearances over the years. Once upon a time, monks from Cartmel Priory conducted travellers safely across the bay. But following a petition in the 1530s, the sands were deemed so dangerous that an official guide was appointed by royal command. Step forward Cedric Robinson, 25th Queen’s Guide to the Sands.
For almost half a century, Cedric has earned his keep by his intimate knowledge of the ever-changing terrain; he claims he can read the sands in the way that others read newspapers. He plants laurel branches to mark the route – when rain and fog descend it’s the only way to trace a path back to safety. Once a fortnight between May and September, Cedric takes groups out at low tide on the eight-mile walk. It’s an exhilarating hike in the strangest, most ethereal of landscapes. Cedric leads the way, followed by a tractor and trailer and up to 150 hikers, many of whom attempt the walk for charity.
Numbers are limited, so you should register in advance on 015395/32165. The schedule is at www.grange-over-sands.com.
The Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury
The Garden of England is a tourist-board cliché, but one that does perfectly describe the lush country explored on the Pilgrim’s Way. The landscape is domesticated but beautiful, with rolling vistas, apple and pear orchards and the odd scattering of tile-hung or half-timbered cottages. And you are following in some very ancient footsteps: this was an Iron Age trading route, acquiring its pilgrimage status only after the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. The original Pilgrim’s Way was an amalgam of country roads and paths leading from Winchester and serving pilgrims from south and west England and continental Europe (via Southampton). At Harbledown, just outside Canterbury, this route merged with Watling Street, the route for the main body of pilgrims from London and the north.
This abundant countryside is especially appealing in April or in late summer and early autumn. You can make a selective two-day pilgrimage yourself, exploring a particularly bucolic stretch of the route, and arriving at the pilgrims’ goal – magnificent Canterbury Cathedral. The walk begins at Charing in Kent, leading through woods and farmland to Boughton Lees, home to the Flying Horse pub which has been serving pilgrims for hundreds of years. From here you continue to idyllic Chilham where you can stay overnight at the friendly Woolpack Inn before hiking across fields and through dense woodland to Canterbury.
The Chilham to Canterbury stretch of the Pilgrim’s Way follows the North Downs Way (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/northdowns).
The Pennine Way
The Pennine Way begins at the village of Edale in the Peak District and meanders 270 miles north to Kirk Yetholm beneath the Cheviots, a mile across the Scottish border. Along its course, it leads through some of England’s most beautiful and least crowded countryside. In the early stages, it passes the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – today, stone slabs from the derelict mills and factories have been recycled into winding causeways over the once notorious moorland peat bogs. This is Brontë country, too, grim on a dank, misty day but bleakly inspiring when the cloud lifts.
The mires subside to become the rolling green pastures and dry-stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales that rise up to striking peaks like the 2278ft-high Pen-y-ghent – the “Mountain of the Winds”. The limestone Dales in turn become the wilder northern Pennines, where no one forgets stumbling onto the astounding glaciated abyss of High Cup Nick. The Way’s final phase begins with an invigorating stage along Hadrian’s Wall before ending with the calf-wrenching climax over the Cheviots.
See www.nationaltrail.co.uk/pennineway for more information.
The Pembrokeshire coast
In Welsh, Pen-fro, which was anglicized to create Pembrokeshire, means “land’s end”. While the coast at Wales’s southern tip bears a passing resemblance to Cornwall, it is nowhere near as famous – indeed, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path may be the best long-distance walk in Britain that no one knows. For now.
The trail follows the shoreline of Britain’s only coastal national park. Most walkers set aside a fortnight to complete the 186-mile route from Poppit Sands at St Dogmaels near Cardigan to Amroth by the seaside resort of Tenby, passing west to east from solitary cliffs to family-holiday favourites. Tracks are good throughout, campsites are abundant, and you’ll never be more than two days’ walk from fresh supplies.
For Bear Grylls-style bush-bashing head to the Highlands. For the rest of us, however, the sheer variety of scenery makes the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path a superb tramp, especially in the bloom of late spring. Most of the way you cling to the clifftops, teetering along fabulous coastlines around Fishguard, St David’s Head and Marloes, and occasionally dipping down to one of the 58 beaches en route, where low-tide crossings at Dale and Sandy Haven keep things interesting.
The path is managed by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (www.pcnpa.org.uk); see also www.visitpembrokeshire.com.
Where are your top walks or hiking spots in Britain? Let us know below.
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