It may be the birthplace of the steam train and (ahem) Megabus, but even today Britain is often at its most rewarding when explored by foot. The mild climate, gently undulating terrain and variety of landscapes make a winning combination for hikers, amateur and experienced alike. Whether you’re after serene coastline and soaring hills, or you’re drawn to disused railways and abandoned villages, we’ve scouted out some top country walks for you – so read on, gear up and head out into the great outdoors…
1. Walk a fell with Wainwright
The irascible, obsessive Alfred Wainwright – author and illustrator of seven indispensable fell-walking guides to the Lake District in the 1950s – has made an unlikely appearance in a distinctly 21st-century medium. A Cumbrian Tourism podcast now enables you to trudge the 1,100 feet up the Lion and the Lamb with your headphones full of the stubborn poetry of the pipe-smoking loner. The voice is that of actor Nik Wood-Jones, but his narration – using Wainwright’s original 1958 account of the climb – has the approval of the Wainwright Estate.
2. Look out to sea at Land’s End or the Lizard
Britain’s most westerly and southerly points, Land’s End and the Lizard battle it out for the tourists with differing displays of rugged brawn. The dramatic rocky outcrop of Land’s End is home to a theme park that peddles crystals, model dragons and fudge – but thankfully it’s little more than a pimple on the beautiful face of Cornwall. Bypass the tourist tat and the bloke who takes your photo next to the corny signpost (New York 3,000 miles) and walk south-east along three miles of springy footpath over the cliffs to Porthcurno. You’ll be spellbound by the scale of it all, and the foamy violence below.
Lizard Point is a very different beast. It’s less impressive to look at (although a tiny café on the edge of the cliff provides a steamy, welcoming refuge), but the forces of nature wink at you from hidden nooks. The lighthouse, now a youth hostel, sweeps the bay with its warning beacon. A footpath from Rosenithon leads to the Manacles – a rocky ‘graveyard of ships’ lurking at sea – and the little bays are full of quicksand. But don’t forsake one Cornish coast for the other; visit both, and see where you feel more alive.
For more information, head to www.cornwalltouristboard.co.uk.
3. Ramble across the Rumbling Kern
One of the best walks in England is from the Rumbling Kern at Howick to Dunstanburgh Castle (01665 576 231). For a long walk, follow the coast from Alnmouth, passing Seaton Point, Boulmer, the Rumbling Kern and Craster before the stunning walk up to the castle. Or park at Howick to explore the great rock formations of the Kern, and walk from there. If you want a much shorter, simpler walk, start from Craster.
Stay at the White Swan in Alnwick (0844 693 2966).
4. Walk the Crab & Winkle Way
This evocatively named seven-mile walking and cycling trail runs from Canterbury to Whitstable, following the disused railway track of the Crab & Winkle Line. Mainly traffic-free, the route meanders through the Kentish countryside and ancient woodland at Blean Woods, before emerging close to the harbour at Whitstable.
You can hire bikes at Kent Cycle Hire (01227 388 058), a few minutes’ walk from Canterbury West Station.
5. Ramble through a firing range
Signs warning of unexploded ordnance are generally a good reason to avoid hiking in an area, however tempting the terrain. But the Ministry of Defence is now inviting ramblers onto its land, posting details on its website of a dozen walks across its 590,000 acres. MoD land doesn’t suffer from the ravages of being farmed to within an inch of its life: tank tracks aside, the environment is as nature intended – a haven for wildlife. Enjoy heather moorland and views of the Firth of Forth at Castlelaw, Edinburgh (01314 453 383); investigate long and round barrows on Salisbury Plain (01980 674 763); or walk through the deserted village of Tyneham in Dorset (01929 404 819), whose inhabitants were forced to leave after the valley became a firing range in the 1940s. Exercise caution: speak to an access officer before heading out, and note that red flags indicate live firing.
6. Follow the Coleridge Way
Opened in 2005, this 36-mile footpath stretches through Somerset’s glorious countryside, from Porlock in the west, via Exmoor, the Brendon and Quantock Hills to Coleridge’s old stamping ground of Nether Stowey. A keen walker, the poet once made it to Porlock in a day, drinking in nature along the way – although you might want to take it a little easier. An excellent and detailed route-planner can be found online at www.quantockonline.co.uk.
7. Ramble the South Downs Way
Running over 100 miles of rolling chalk downland from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, the South Downs Way is a National Trail, open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Although it never rises higher than 700 feet, the horizons stretch 40 miles over land and sea; closer to your path lie butterflies and orchids, stone circles and dew ponds, windmills, woods and the imperious Seven Sisters cliffs.
8. Take off on the Tarka Trail
Henry Williamson first came to north Devon by motorbike, escaping suburban London and his experiences in World War I. His forays into the local countryside and experiences of caring for an abandoned otter cub inspired his classic novel, Tarka the Otter, first published in 1927. The name ‘Tarka’ has since been adopted for a railway line (running between Exeter and Barnstaple and following the Taw river) and a walking and cycling route – not to mention dozens of tea shops throughout the region.
The unspoiled countryside that provides the backdrop for the trials and tribulations of the eponymous mustelid is best seen via the impressive 180-mile Tarka Trail. Alight from the train at Eggesford to join the route, which loops in a figure of eight from Barnstaple south to the rural heartland of the county, north to the cliffs and beaches of the north Devon coast and east into Exmoor. For 32 miles between Braunton and Meeth, it follows a disused railway line – a flat, traffic-free route that’s perfect for cycling.
9. Ramble over Kinder Scout – without getting arrested
Kinder Scout, midway between Manchester and Sheffield, played a crucial part in the great ‘right to roam’ debate. Its open moorlands had always been the private domain of the grouse-shooters – but in 1932, several hundred ramblers lobbying for open access to the moors set off on a mass trespass. As they tried to ascend the plateau, they clashed with gamekeepers in the ‘Battle for Kinder Scout’, and six arrests ensued. Kinder was officially opened to the public in 1953, though it wasn’t until the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 that wider rights of access to the moors really opened up.
You may not get arrested on Kinder Scout these days, but the right to roam has caused problems: the peat layer is being seriously eroded, partly due to the number of walkers. You can see why they come, though; at around 1,970 feet above sea level, the windswept plateau affords stunning views. The National Trust is taking steps to tackle the damage: in 2007, to mark the 75th anniversary of the mass trespass, members of the public helped to plant over 150,000 cotton grass plants and re-seed the bare peat with heather. If you want to follow in the footsteps of the trespassers, the National Trust’s website has a downloadable walk sheet and map, designed to allow access to the area while preserving the environment. And a map is what you’ll need: if you get lost, there’s no mobile reception.
10. Stand atop Britain’s highest mountain
Mostly, Ben Nevis has gale-force winds – not to mention rain and snow. Visibility is often so poor that you’re lucky to see more than a few metres in front of your nose at the summit plateau, which tops out at 4,409 feet. Most visitors go up via the path known as the ‘tourist route’ – an unremittingly long slog from Glen Nevis, behind the small Lochaber town of Fort William. (The alternative route via the Carn Mor Dearg arête is for experienced climbers only). But if you’re lucky and time it right, on a clear day you can see everything from the Cairngorms to Ben Lawers in Perthshire, Ben Lomond down south, the peaks of Jura, Skye, Mull, and much, much more.
For further details, plus vital safety information, visit www.visit-fortwilliam.co.uk.