Britain on Foot
The public footpath network of the UK deserves World Heritage status; it is a national treasure, arguably our most priceless recreational resource, with nothing else like it anywhere in the world. That it exists at all is thanks to our forefathers, from the children of the mist who roamed in search of food to the hardy packhorsemen and drovers who pressed trails across the countryside, leaving them for posterity, wraith-like traces embedded in the land. But their discovery by recreational man had to await the 19th century, when working people, desperate to escape the the arduous and polluted urban
scene, formed botanical societies and embryonic walking clubs to walk on the moors of northern Britain.
Today, ever-increasing numbers of people are seeking ways to appreciate our landscape legacy, recognising the benefits to health, body, mind and spiritual well-being that leisure walking brings. We have an amazing heritage of inspirational landscapes in the UK, fashioned by nature and tinkered with by man, and all of them laced with ancient trails, long and short, many imbued with the echoes of times past and of famous people from pilgrims to poets, freebooters to musicians, outlaws and royalty.
There is no better aid to health and happiness than walking for pleasure, fitness and fun. Fundamentally, it is a cost-free pursuit, although a modicum of expenditure on decent boots will go a long way, and it is eco-friendly, especially if you walk, as many do, directly from your home.
But, for others, the call of something more than an hour or a day brings them in search of greater challenges, such as the 700-plus established trails, and 200 lesser routes that offer the walker a lifetime of experiences, sights, sounds and sensations. Some 15 of these routes have been designated as National Trails, the first of which was the Pennine Way. Yet these alone offer over 3,100 miles of walking opportunity. Throw in the rest, and the distances involved become staggering.
These are some of the UK’s most popular routes:
For many walkers, the Pennine Way remains the best of the major trails, rising to greater heights and traversing far more remote country than any other. Inspiration of ramblers’ champion Tom Stevenson in 1935, who imagined “a faint line on the Ordnance Maps which the feet of grateful pilgrims would, with the passing years, engrave on the face of the land”, the route opened in 1965. It provides a challenging trek from the bleak peatlands of the Dark Peak in Derbyshire, northwards to tussle with industrial Lancashire (now much brighter and greener than it was) and on into the delectable Yorkshire Dales before pressing on to the highest of the Pennines, a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, and into the peaty uplands of Northumberland and the Cheviot Hills.
Tens of thousands now set themselves the challenge of this pioneering route, but it is worth bearing in mind that, admittedly in the days of less sophisticated equipment, many of those who started failed to complete even the first day. Get beyond this, and it’s plain sailing....well, sort of.
Coast to Coast Walk
Credit for the original idea for a northern cross-England route, starting at St Bees on the Cumbrian coast and finishing at Robin Hood’s Bay looking out into the North Sea, must go to the late, legendary hill walker and guidebook author, Alfred Wainwright, who first
described it in 1973.
Since then the original line has changed little, but has been improved on here and there, and today offers a challenging but do-able enterprise that for popularity rivals all the other trails. Wainwright never intended this to be a definitive route across England, but simply one of many possibilities, an outline to be modified by whim and weather.
Usually undertaken from west to east, the walk deals first with the Lake District, visiting in the process areas that are often away from the tourist honeypots, but no less pleasurable. Beyond the Lakes, you enter a relaxing interlude of limestone landscapes and prehistory before rising from the market town of Kirkby Stephen to cross into the Yorkshire Dales and Swaledale. The Vale of Mowbray is an agreeable break from rugged landscapes, as you tease a way through farmlands before heading for the Cleveland Hills and a mighty romp down to the coast.
West Highland Way
The West Highland Way is an outstanding trek from the outskirts of Glasgow to the shadow of Ben Nevis at Fort William, and every step of the way is sheer delight. Within minutes of the start, the leafy confines of Mugdock Country Park shepherd you northwards eventually to cross the Highland Boundary Fault and into the Lomond Basin, where the eponymous loch proves to be a charming companion. North of Loch Lomond, Glen Falloch provides a taste of Old Caledon, a once treefilled ruggedness through which the trail threads a pleasing line bound for Crianlarich.
Here, the route changes direction, entering Strath Fillan, and onwards to the scene at Dalrigh of one of Robert the Bruce's skirmishes. North of Tyndrum, the A82 is a delight to drive, but parallel its course on the opposite side of Auch Glen, and you gain an intimacy with Scotland at its best – high, wide and handsome.
Ahead lies Rannoch Moor, a vast spread of lakes, bogs and open moors, where getting lost is not a wise option. Thankfully, old military roads take the West Highland Way onwards into Glen Coe, skirting the Black Mount before tackling the Devil's Staircase to Kinlochleven. If that isn’t enough, the magic of Lairig Mhor, an unseen valley unknown to most, is a spellbinding stretch for Wayfarers leading to a long, final descent to Glen Nevis.
Pembrokeshire Coast Path
The journey from Poppit Sands near Cardigan to Amroth Castle is generally low in elevation, but it is hugely convoluted, with numerous headlands and coves to tax weary legs. Those who covet coastal settings will find this affair with south-west Wales a most enjoyable encounter, taking in the delights of Cemaes Head, Dinas Island, Strumble Head, St David’s Head, Marloes Sands and the cliff coast to Stackpole Head.
Although confined to a relatively small area, an unravelled Pembrokeshire Coast Path will exceed in length both Offa’s Dyke, which runs the full length of Wales, and the English Coast to Coast Walk; a quart into a pint pot is very much the case here.
Exposure to the sea and the prevailing wind can bring days of battling the elements, with heavy seas crashing into the headlands and cliffs. But the calm of a fine day will expose a kaleidoscope of colours, of golden beaches, tidal creeks and cliff-girt promontories where
seabirds nest in profusion. A dearth of towns and villages imbue the route with a keen sense of remoteness, and a need for self-sufficiency that is of paramount importance.
One of the first endeavours of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority was to consider the feasibility of a long-distance coastal path; it was opened by Welsh broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas in 1980.
South West Coast Path
By far the longest of Britain’s national trails, the South West Coast Path owes its origins to smuggling, or, at least, to the network of coastguard paths that evolved to combat it. Only the seriously fit and energetic should contemplate the complete walk; lesser mortals, like the author, will chip away at the route in sections, and in so doing enjoy all the better the sophisticated and extravagant delights of coastal Devon and Cornwall.
In fact, the route is ideal for a piecemeal approach; there is no pleasure other than achievement in consecutive days of poor weather when your appreciation of the landscapes could have been so much enhanced by a warm and sunny day.
This is a walk of massive variety, embracing cliff paths and easy jaunts along seaside promenades. But what remains essential is to allow time to chill out and explore the towns and homogeneous hamlets huddled in hollows that are a hallmark of the route.
Herein lies the heritage of a Celtic nation, and a landscape that is achingly beautiful. No other stretch of British coastline quite compares with that of Devon and Cornwall for unadulterated scenic splendour, interest, history and heritage.
Around the UK, there are hundreds of trails of varying length, some better known than others. The Dales Way (78 miles), which runs from the Yorkshire town of Ilkley via delectable Wharfedale and Dentdale through limestone country to the shores of Windermere in the Lake District, is a perfect route on which to hone your multi-day walking skills, never being far from outside help in the event of an emergency.
The Tamar Valley Discovery Trail (30 miles), follows the river Tamar through Bere Ferrers, Bere Alston, Gunnislake and Milton Abbot in Devon, and while manageable by strong walkers in one day, is best spread over two or three. The trail links with the West Devon
Way and the Two Castles Trail to give a circuit of 90 miles, known as the West Devon Triangle. The Two Castles Trail itself runs for 24 miles along river valleys, ridge roads, open downland and woodland away from the northern edges of Dartmoor, while the Smugglers’ Way is a 37-mile route across Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor, visiting Jamaica Inn – the haunted coaching inn immortalised in Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous novel – then to Dobwalls and Sowden’s Bridge.
Something for everyone
The many walking trails of the UK are not all exclusively the preserve of the grim-faced, do-or-die brigade of walkers; most are available to any reasonably fit person, who takes regular exercise.
And if walking over several days is not for you, then there are many guidebooks detailing shorter walks, up to nine or 10 miles, that can be undertaken with comparative ease, and without the preparation and equipment needed for multi-day trails.
Travel by car or rail, and the landscapes flash by. Walk that landscape and you enjoy a connection with it, whether it is the joy of seeing a new-born lamb, a field bright with wild flowers, or hedgerows loud with birdsong. Walk, and you make contact with nature in the raw. It’s all out there, just waiting for your feet.
Walking Britain facts
When to go
The best time of year to tackle long-distance trails is spring and autumn, notably May-June and September-October; this is especially important if walking in Scotland, where insects, like midges and clegs (horseflies), can be an irritating problem. During the popular months of July and August, getting accommodation can be a trial, too. If time is not an issue, then it is worth beginning your walk out of sync with other walkers, such as by starting mid-week, when accommodation is more likely to be available.
Where to stay
Accommodation is given on trail-specific websites, although the Sherpa Van Accommodation Service (www.sherpavan.com) provides accommodation information for 16 trails, as well as providing a baggage carrying service.
Walking tour specialists
- Pennine Way (270 miles: allow two and a half to three weeks): the Pennine Way website (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/pennineway) also provides details of accommodation.
- Coast to Coast Walk (178 miles: minimum 12 days): there is no specific website for the C2C, although Sherpa Van provides this, at www.coast2coast.co.uk.
- West Highland Way (95 miles: allow seven-plus days): www.west-highland- way.co.uk. The website gives information on accommodation packages. A pack-carrying service (very popular) is provided by Travel-lite (www.travel-lite-uk.com).
- Pembrokeshire Coast Path (186 miles: allow two weeks): information about walking the trail is available at http://nt.pcnpa.org.uk.
- South West Coast Path (630 miles: allow between four and seven weeks to complete): the official website for the South West Coast Path (www.southwestcoastpath.com) provides extensive information about accommodation and services, as well as GPS waypoint downloads to help you on your way
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit.