They don't call England the "green and pleasant land" for nothing. Go walking through England's towering hills and moorlands or along its cliff-guarded shoreline and you'll soon realize how well this line plucked from the country's favorite hymn fits the English landscape.
From the glacier-carved valleys of the Lake District and the empty and evocative Yorkshire Dales to the white cliffs of Dover and the beach-studded coves of Cornwall, the terrain here truly is lush and emerald green, except at higher elevations, where heather adds a paint swish of brown that morphs to vivid purple at the end of summer.
With well-maintained and clearly marked trails, you don't need much more to get started than a good map, comfortable hiking boots and waterproofs that are up to the challenge of the English climate. Here is our pick of the top walking trails in England.
What you need to know about walking in England
England is crisscrossed by a magnificent maze of walking trails, connecting gorgeous landscapes, historic sights, stunning national parks and charming country villages where hikers can look forward to a pint and a pie supper after a bracing day of walking in the hills.
Walking isn't just a hobby in England – it's a legal right, enshrined in law as part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. Hikers have the right to roam almost everywhere without the need for entry fees or permits, including in England’s national parks.
Trails are well-maintained and most are clearly marked, particularly on the country's impressive long-distance National Trails. Armed with sturdy footwear, wet-weather gear for emergencies, a compass and a good map (the Landranger and Explorer maps from the Ordnance Survey are some of the best), you can start a multi-day hiking adventure from almost anywhere in the country, camping or stopping in country pubs or B&Bs along the way.
Before you set off, familiarize yourself with the guidelines of the Countryside Code, which includes advice on crossing farmland, sticking to pathways, removing litter, protecting nature and keeping gates closed.
Mam Tor in the Peak District is our favorite day hike in England
8 miles (13km), 5 hours, moderate
The Peak District – never ‘the Peaks’ as locals will no doubt inform you – is a sampling platter of classic English landscapes, from the moody, gritstone moors of the Dark Peak in the north to the tumbling limestone dales of the White Peak, running south into Derbyshire and Staffordshire. In summer, the green hills are spotted with legions of walkers in rainbow Gore-Tex, but with excellent railway links, you can duck in for the day if you’d rather not compete for camping spots.
Topping the table of Peak District day walks is the climb up 517m (1696ft) Mam Tor, which rises handsomely above the village of Edale. Roll in by train from London, Liverpool, Sheffield or Manchester and you can be out on the slopes within minutes, following stone pathways to the summit and looping back via the villages of Castleton and Hope in around five hours.
For something more ambitious, extend the walk to exposed Kinder Scout (636m/2087ft), where hundreds of earlier English walkers kicked off the fight for the "right to roam" that makes England such a great country for rambling today. The great Kinder Trespass of 1932 still has legendary status today.
Hadrian's Wall Path, Northumberland, is a hike steeped in English history
84 miles (135km), 5–7 days (but it is possible to day walk any section), moderate
Tracing a broken line from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway, Hadrian's Wall may have been built to divide the English from the Scots, but it lies well south of the 21st-century border. The Romans erected this impressive military and psychological barrier between 122 CE and 128 CE, and a remarkable amount of Roman masonry remains today. Needless to say, the 84-mile (135km) national trail that follows the wall is one of England’s most popular hikes, attracting an army of modern-day walkers during the peak season from May to October.
The entire route takes five to seven days on foot, allowing plenty of time to explore the rich archaeological heritage dotted along the trail. Essential stops include the impressively preserved Roman fort at Housesteads, the temple of Mithras at Brocolitia Fort, and the Vindolanda museum, which displays an original Roman sandal (you’ll appreciate your trekking boots all the more after seeing it).
In between these pockets of Roman history, settle in and enjoy the undulating countryside and the sense of mission that comes from walking the entire length of England’s "great wall". Of course, if time or fitness levels prevent you from doing the whole trek, then you can hike a section in a day either by walking out and back, or by arranging taxi transport to return you to your departure point.
The South Downs Way is all uplifting coastal views
100 miles (160km), 8-9 days (or plan a day walk along a section), moderate
Great walking country isn’t limited to the dramatic hills of England's north. The 100-mile (161km) South Downs Way rolls across a series of chalk ridges from Winchester to the legendary white cliffs of Dover, serving up stunning walking within easy reach of London. It’s just a one-hour train ride from London Waterloo to Winchester, and you’ll reach Eastbourne nine days later after tracing the top of the Seven Sisters, England’s most iconic sea cliffs. Alternatively, take the train down to Eastbourne and walk the Seven Sisters section in reverse as a day walk, looping back to Eastbourne via bus or taxi.
There’s something quintessentially English about chalk grassland scenery. Watching kestrels hovering effortlessly overhead in perfect blue skies, it's easy to forget this place rattled with gunfire during the Battle of Britain in 1940. There’s good value accommodation all along the trail – one essential stop is the Belle Tout Lighthouse on the way to Beachy Head, now one of England’s most nostalgic guesthouses. The route is as popular with mountain bikers as walkers and the dry weather in the south of England is an added bonus.
The South West Coast Path ducks between seacliffs and Cornish coves
630 miles (1014km), 40–50 days (or plan a day walk along a section), moderate
Getting away from it all can be a challenge in the tourist-mobbed southwest of England, but the 630-mile (1014km) South West Coast Path provides welcome moments of seclusion. The epic route kicks off in Minehead on the north side of the peninsula, and follows the shoreline through Devon and Cornwall all the way to Poole Harbour in Dorset, taking in dozens of fishing villages, peaceful coves, rocky headlands and holiday hangouts with gorgeous sandy beaches.
If you just want a taster of the trail, the section from Minehead to Westward Ho! serves up some of the most impressive sea cliffs, while the leg from St Ives to Penzance crosses two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. To keep the kids on board, the stretch from Exmouth to Lyme Regis offers some of Britain’s best fossil-hunting along the Jurassic Coast. As well as seascapes, sand and scenery, you’ll encounter plenty of wildlife: peregrine falcons, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots frequent the shoreline, and seals, dolphins and basking sharks can be spotted in the waters offshore.
Scafell Pike & Helvellyn in the Lake District is the best hike for bragging rights
8 miles (13 km) round-trip to either peak, 5–7 hours if you're fit, hard
There’s stiff competition for the title of "best hike in the Lake District." The trek up 950m (3117ft) Helvellyn comes top for untamed drama – particularly when scrambling along the scalpel-thin Striding Edge – but nearby Scafell Pike (978m/3209ft) comes with bragging rights you only get from climbing England’s highest mountain. Either route can be achieved in a strenuous day, with five to seven hours of hard trekking required to reach the top and get back down to a village pub to toast your success with a pint of Yorkshire bitter.
For Scafell, the most popular ascent route starts at Wasdale Head near Santon Bridge, but there are four alternate routes that see slightly fewer trekking boots. For the classic route to Helvellyn via Striding Edge, pick up the trail at the Glenridding Tourist Information Centre on Ullswater. The weather can make or break a Lake District hike; in rain, walking can be a joyless slog, but on dry days, the views can be transcendental. At any time of year bring waterproofs, food, water, and a map and compass.
Yorkshire's Three Peaks Challenge is the best hike for fitness fanatics and superheroes
24 miles (39km), 12 hours (or less), hard
Nothing focuses the mind like a challenge! Since 1968 more than 200,000 hikers have taken up the quest of climbing the summits of Pen-y-ghent (694m/2277ft), Whernside (736m/2414ft) and Ingleborough (723m/2372ft) in less than 12 hours. Known as the Three Peaks Challenge, the circular 24-mile (39km) route begins and ends at the Pen-y-Ghent Cafe in Horton-in-Ribblesdale (where you clock in and clock out to verify your time); succeed and you become an automatic member of the cafe's Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club.
Fancy a more grueling test of endurance in the Yorkshire Dales? Then join the fell-runners in the annual Three Peaks Race on the last Saturday in April, and run the route instead of walking it. Just six people entered (and only three finished) when the race was first held in 1954; today, it has a limit of 1000 entrants, and the impressive course record is two hours, 46 minutes and three seconds.
Escape the crowds on the Shropshire Way and the Long Mynd
202 miles (325km) round-trip, from 15 days, moderate
Scenic Shropshire is often overlooked by tourists rushing to the Peak District, but the hills here are just as dramatic and far less crowded. Tucked against the Welsh border, the county rises in a series of steep ridges, divided by winding rivers, ruined castles and slumbering villages where you can stop overnight and sample some of Shropshire’s famous real ales. Walking trails run in every direction, but they’re rarely busy, so there's little competition for a bed or a table for dinner, even in summer.
The 200-mile (322km) Shropshire Way is divided into two sections – a more dramatic southern loop, taking in the epic scenery around Ludlow, Church Stretton and the Clun Valley, and a gentler northern section – both starting and ending in Shrewsbury (always "shrooz-bury", never "shrows-bury"). We recommend the southern leg, tracing the west side of the Long Mynd, a gorgeous heather-topped plateau inhabited by wild ponies, to the foodie town of Ludlow, with its stocky castle, gourmet restaurants and annual food festival.
The Norfolk Coast Path is the place to spot teeming birdlife
84 miles (134km) one way, 5–10 days (or plan a day walk along a section), easy
Not every walk has to go up hill and down dale. The Norfolk Coast Path rarely climbs much above sea level, but it passes through a meditative landscape of sandy spits, pine forests and dense, reed-filled coastal marshes that shelter some of Britain’s most iconic birdlife. With binoculars to hand, you can spot everything from bitterns, marsh harriers and reed warblers to grey seals as you cover the 84 miles (134km) between Hunstanton and Hopton-on-Sea.
Bring your swimming costume – this week-long walk through Norfolk links together a string of historic beach resorts and the stunning sands in front of the stately home of Holkham Hall, one of England’s finest Palladian mansions. Bring an appetite too – north Norfolk is famous for its seafood, particularly Cromer crab, Kings Lynn brown shrimp and Brancaster oysters.