From snow-capped mountains to isolated islands and windswept moors, the United Kingdom is home to an astonishing variety of landscapes where Mother Nature is still very much in charge. To promote their conservation and ensure their survival for future generations, 15 of the nation's most precious landscapes have been designated as national parks since 1951. They're the perfect places to experience a taste of Britain's natural bounty, whether that means hiking along an empty trail or camping out under clear starry skies. Here are our seven top picks for where to go for a walk on the wild side.
Tucked away in England's northwestern corner, the Lake District is the UK's most popular national park and the nation's favourite hiking destination. Studded with lakes, valleys and rolling hills (known locally as 'fells', from the Norse word fjall), it's criss-crossed by a network of stunning trails, so it's an ideal place to strap on your walking boots and get the blood pumping. This is especially true if you tackle the dramatic ridge-walk to the summit of Helvellyn, or the challenging ascent of Scafell Pike, which at 978m is England's highest mountain.
The Lake District is also well known for its literary connections: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter are just a few of the famous writers who retired here in search of inspiration, and the area is scattered with related literary sights.
For vast, raw and starkly beautiful views, the unique landscape of Dartmoor is just the ticket. This massive moorland stretches for 954 sq km across central Devon, and there are few places in England that feel quite so wild and windswept. Carpeted in gorse and heather and almost entirely devoid of trees, it's pockmarked by hundreds of granite outcrops known as tors, which have been sculpted into myriad weird and wonderful shapes by centuries of natural erosion.
Dartmoor is famous for its fickle weather – it can be bathed in blazing sunshine one minute, blanketed in thick fog the next – so it's a landscape that repays repeated visits. Hiking and biking are popular pastimes, but you'll need to know how to use a map and compass, as once you get away from the main roads, signposts are few and far between. History buffs will also want to seek out some of the moor's many ancient monuments, including spooky stone circles and Neolithic burial tombs.
It's hard to believe today, but most of Britain was once covered by a vast forest that stretched practically the whole way from the south coast to the Scottish Highlands. Although much of this ancient woodland has been lost, a few pockets still survive – notably the New Forest, the UK's largest remaining expanse of broadleaf woodland. Covering 556 sq km, this huge expanse of forest and heathland contains some of Britain's oldest trees and supports all kinds of indigenous flora and fauna, including the renowned New Forest pony. There are miles of trails to explore – cycling is particularly popular, but you can also travel by foot or horseback. If you can, time your visit for September or October, when the forest's canopy blazes with a spectrum of spectacular autumnal colours.
Relatively few people make it to the gloriously wild countryside of Northumberland National Park, which spans 1030 sq km along the Anglo–Scottish border. It's one of the least-visited of England's national parks, but also one of its most varied, stretching from the humpbacked Cheviot Hills all the way to the deep, dark woodlands of Kielder Forest. With only around 2000 inhabitants, it feels wonderfully remote, and also harbours some of England's rarest wild species – including the critically endangered red squirrel, which has largely been wiped out across the rest of England by its hardier grey-coated cousin. The park also contains some of the longest surviving sections of Hadrian's Wall, the massive stone fortification that once stretched for 120km along Roman Britain's northerly frontier.
While England offers many beautiful panoramic views, for more mountainous scenery you'll need to head north across the Scottish border into the Cairngorms, the spiky chain of mountains that runs across much of the Eastern Highlands. Carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age, this dramatic mountain range encompasses five of Scotland's tallest peaks, and is the UK at its most wild. A lot of the landscape remains snow-covered for much of the year: snow bunting, ptarmigan, snowy owls and golden eagles can often be seen circling the skies, while mountain hares, pine martens and wild deer roam across the slopes. As such, the Cairngorms are a paradise for wildlife spotters, as well as for people who simply want to experience some of the most pristine natural scenery left in the UK.
Although not quite as high as the Cairngorms, Snowdonia still packs a mightily impressive mountain punch. Centring on the lofty summit of Mt Snowdon, Wales' tallest peak at 1085m, this craggy massif is the spiritual heartland of British mountain climbing. Many of the nation's top climbers have earned their spurs clambering up Snowdonia's rocky peaks, and if you fancy learning the basics, Capel Curig is home to the Plas Y Brenin National Mountaineering Centre, which runs skills courses and training programs for new and experienced climbers. For those who prefer to stay rooted to terra firma, the hike to the top of Snowdon is a must for every self-respecting British walker, with magnificent views stretching all the way to Ireland on a clear day. Of course, you could cheat and catch the historic Snowdon Mountain Railway to the summit – but while you might save on shoe leather, you definitely won't have quite the same sense of achievement.
Sprawling across southern England between the cathedral city of Winchester and the chalk-white cliffs of Beachy Head, the South Downs is Britain's newest national park. It's only officially been on the statute books since 2011, but the idea of making the South Downs a national park dates all the way back to the 1920s. It's the epitome of England's 'green and pleasant land', encompassing wooded hills, quiet vales and the nation's largest remaining area of chalk downland, a precious natural habitat populated by many endangered insects, butterflies and birds. But for most people, it's the alabaster cliffs of Beachy Head that are the park's most impressive assets: rising 162m above the grey waves of the English Channel, they're the highest chalk cliffs anywhere in Britain.