While you need a car, train, or boat to get a comprehensive tour of Britain, arguably the best way to explore the nation is by foot. England, Scotland, and Wales are home to some of the best hiking paths in Europe, from the Lake District that inspired the Romantic poets to the Southwest Coast Path to the demanding Pennine Way trail up the spine of northern England.
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The best way to see Britain is on foot. It’s hard to exaggerate the beauty of the British countryside. There’s also plenty of scope for urban hikers.
Hiking Footpaths and Trails in Britain
The country is honeycombed with public footpaths, on which everyone is entitled to walk across private land. In every rural district, you’ll see signposts that say “Public Footpath,” usually specifying the distance in miles to the next village or landmark. A code of etiquette has developed, such that hikers are expected to carefully close all gates and leash their dogs when animals are in the fields, and to stay on the marked footpaths.
Scenic areas like the Lake District are magnets to hikers. The hills there, known locally as “fells,” are attractive and obliging. None rises much above 3,000 feet, and all can be climbed easily in a few hours. Rapidly changing views from the peaks and ridges create plenty of interest, while rock piles or “cairns,” built by passers-by over the centuries, aid even beginners with route finding, especially when mountain mist reduces visibility. Distances are small but it’s surprisingly easy to get lost, especially in severe weather, when these mountains can be dangerous. It’s always a good idea to take precautions and—this being Britain—it’s always wise to take rainproof gear, but with care and common sense every healthy person can visit the region’s highest points without special training or equipment.
Smart hikers equip themselves with compasses and with Ordnance Survey maps. The Board of Ordnance was the organization in charge of national defense in the 18th century. At first, Ordnance Survey maps singled out militarily significant landmarks, but their growing popularity among civilian buyers led to a more comprehensive labeling of all important objects. For more than 200 years now, they have been available for sale. Maps scaled at one inch to the mile include every road, track, footpath, railway, power line, church, and pub, along with brown contour lines to show hills, valleys, and rock outcrops.
Hike Along History in Britain
In the last half-century, changing patterns of land use have opened up new opportunities for hikers. One is the restoration of Britain’s canal system. Built between 1760 and 1850, canals crisscrossed the country, linking up all the major cities to facilitate economical bulk transportation. Alongside each of them runs the “tow-path,” once plied by the horses that dragged the barges, but now frequented mainly by short- and long-distance hikers. Then it’s fun to pause and watch long-boat travelers cranking the lock-gate handles to lift or lower their boat to the next level.
A second opportunity is provided by converted railways. The main routes, between busy centers, continue to operate up to the present, but hundreds of branch lines never made a profit and soon closed. Bit by bit in the ensuing years, most of these abandoned lines have been converted into footpaths and bike paths—they often go through beautiful country scenery and over spectacular disused bridges. A line that used to run between Derby and Manchester, for example, is now a foot and bicycle path known as the Monsal Trail. The trail runs through a succession of craggy tunnels and over two viaducts, one at Monsal Head and the other at Miller’s Dale. It’s an easy and rewarding day out from Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, or Derby to walk along all or part of this eight-and-a-half mile trail.
Hiking Long Trails in Britain
For most people, a hike is just a few hours out in the countryside, but Britain also possesses some long and demanding trails that demand many days’ or weeks’ commitment to be completed. The best-known is the Pennine Way, which starts in Edale, Derbyshire, very close to the symbolically important Kinder Scout, goes through the wild hill country of north-central England, and ends just over the Scottish border in a village named Kirk Yetholm.
The most famous guide to the Pennine Way is by Alfred Wainwright, whose home-illustrated book told hikers that if they walked the whole route they could order a drink at his expense when they reached the final pub at Kirk Yetholm. At first, this was just a matter of a few pints each year, but the Pennine Way’s growing popularity eventually led to an unsustainable commitment.
Wainwright was also a gifted cartographer and landscape sketcher. In addition to guides for the Lake District and the Pennine Way, he worked out a route across England, starting at St. Bees, on the coast of the Irish Sea in the Lake District, and going across two of the Yorkshire national parks to end on the coast of the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay. This Coast-to-Coast Walk is almost 200 miles long and has become another favorite.
The most famous long-distance trail in Scotland is the West Highland Way, a spectacular 96-mile route. It begins at a stone obelisk at the northern edge of Glasgow, passes Loch Lomond, and crosses some of the most dramatic mountain and moorland scenery in the country, before descending to the picturesque town of Fort William at the foot of Scotland’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
The longest of Britain’s big paths is the South West Coast Path, which follows the crenellated coastline of Somerset, Devonshire, Cornwall, and Dorset. Starting at Minehead, Somerset, taking in Land’s End at the extreme southwest of England, and ending at Poole, Dorset, which is only 100 miles away from Minehead by direct route, it takes hikers about 670 miles, much of which is either steep uphill or steep downhill, as they cross successive river valleys. Numerous national parks, National Trust lands, and areas of special geological interest are included, and hikers have views of the sea almost the whole time. Crumbling cliffs and changes in land use have led to periodic shifts of the trail along particular sections, but the whole thing is a superb eight-week challenge, and is now widely regarded as one of the world’s very greatest walks.
Of course, most people don’t have the time or the stamina to attempt the whole thing. If you’re in the area, however, don’t fail to hike at least one section. I recommend the eleven miles in Cornwall from Crackington Haven to Tintagel, along high cliffs above the Atlantic breakers, and culminating in one of the legendary sites of the King Arthur tales.
The Capital Ring Hike in London
If you plan to spend most of your time in London, you should still walk as much as possible. The center of the city is full of great parks. In addition, the banks of the River Thames on both sides have almost continuous footpaths up and downstream for several miles. The river’s great meanders mean there’s a constantly shifting view, making visible many of the city’s iconic structures.
In 1990 work on the Capital Ring began, and the whole thing was finished in 2005. A circular walk around the perimeter of the whole London area, 78 miles in all, it is well signposted and has been broken up into fifteen very manageable sections. A free detailed guide is available on the web, which gives not merely careful directions and good maps but little nuggets of historical information about the places you’ll see. The Capital Ring is not physically demanding, and you learn the history of the region as you go.
I hope I have convinced you that the very best way of enjoying Britain is on foot. Going under your own steam is healthy, economical, educational, and brings you to places you’d otherwise never get to see. The country’s varied landscapes and mild climate combine to make outdoor life possible all the year round, while the island’s extensive and carefully preserved rural and mountain lands offer countless pleasures.
Map of Locations Mentioned in This Lecture
Suggested Online Reading About Hiking in Britain
The Best Trails in England and Wales
Britain’s Best Long-Distance Walks