What's the best way to slow down, meet the locals and get off the beaten track? Simple: go for a walk or get on a bike. Experiencing the great outdoors is much more rewarding than staring at it through a car window or a camera lens.
Walking in England
Sidebar: Top Choices
- Best Long-Distance Walks
Coast to Coast, Hadrian’s Wall, Cotswold Way, South West Coast Path
- Best Areas for Short Walks
Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Cotswolds, Dartmoor
- Best for Coast Walks
Northumberland, Devon & Cornwall, Norfolk & Suffolk, Dorset
- Best Time to Go
Summer (June to August) The best time for walking: weather usually warm and hopefully dry; plenty of daylight, too.
Late spring (May) and early autumn (September) The seasons either side of summer can be great for walking: fewer crowds; days often mild and sunny.
- Best Maps for Walking
Ordnance Survey (UK’s national mapping agency) Explorer series 1:25,000 scale.
Harvey Maps (specially designed for walkers) Superwalker series 1:25,000 scale.
Walking is the most popular outdoor activity in England – for locals and visitors alike – first, because it opens up some beautiful corners of the country, and secondly, because it can be done virtually on a whim. In fact, compared to hiking and trekking in some other parts of the world, it doesn’t take much planning at all.
An established infrastructure for walkers already exists in England, so everything is easy for visitors or first-timers. Most villages and country towns in areas where walking is popular will have shops selling maps and local guidebooks, while the local tourist office can nearly always provide leaflets and other information. In national parks, suggested routes or guided walks are often available. This all means you can arrive in a place for the first time, pick up some info, and within an hour you'll be walking through some of England's finest landscape. No fees. No permits. No worries. It really is almost effortless.
England’s Footpath Network
England is covered in a vast network of footpaths, many of which are centuries old, dating from the time when walking was the only way to get from farm to village, from village to town, from town to coast, or valley to valley. Any walk you do today will follow these historic paths. Even England’s longest walks simply link up these networks of many shorter paths. You’ll also sometimes walk along ‘bridleways’, originally for horse transport, and old unsurfaced roads called ‘byways’.
Rights of Way
Nearly all footpaths in England are 'rights of way' – public paths and tracks across private property. Even though most land in England is privately owned, from tiny cultivated areas to vast mountain ranges, a right of way across the land cannot be overruled by the owner.
If you come from Australia, America or a country where a lot of land is jealously guarded with padlocked gates and barbed-wire fences, this can be a major revelation.
So if there is a right of way, you can follow it through fields, woods, pastures, paddocks, even farmhouse yards, as long as you keep to the correct route and do no damage.
In some mountain and moorland areas, it gets even better: walkers can move beyond the rights of way, and explore at will. Known as ‘freedom to roam’, where permitted it’s clearly advertised with markers on gates and signposts.
When deciding which area of England to visit for walking, a lot may depend on your own experience. Generally speaking, the lower and more cultivated the landscape, the easier the walking, with clear paths and signposts – ideal for beginners.
As the landscape gets higher, conditions tend to get more serious. In mountain and moorland areas, if the route is popular there will be a path (although sometimes this is faint), but not many signposts. This option is suitable if you already have a bit of walking/hiking experience.
In the more remote areas, if the route is rarely trodden, there may be no visible path at all, and absolutely no signposts, so you’ll need to know what you’re doing – and take a detailed map and compass for navigation.
Feature: Weather Watch
While enjoying your walking in England, it's always worth remembering the fickle nature of English weather. The countryside can appear gentle and welcoming, and often is, but sometimes conditions can turn nasty – especially on the higher ground. At any time of year, if you're walking on the hills or open moors, it's vital to be well equipped. You should carry warm and waterproof clothing (even in summer), a map and a compass (that you know how to use), some water, food and high-energy fuel, such as chocolate. If you're really going off the beaten track, leave details of your route with someone.
Feature: Walking Websites
Ramblers (www.ramblers.org.uk) The country's leading organisation for walkers.
Ordnance Survey (www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk) The UK's official map-making organisation; buy printed paper maps, or download them to your phone.
National Trail (www.nationaltrail.co.uk) Good resource for planning longer routes.
Best Walking Areas
Although you can walk pretty much anywhere in England, some areas are better than others. Some are suitable for short walks of a couple of hours, others for longer all-day outings.
One of the most popular areas for walkers in southern England, the Cotswold Hills offer classic English countryside, where paths meander through neat fields, past pretty villages with cottages of honey-coloured stone. The eastern side of the Cotswolds tends to be a gentler landscape, while the paths undulate more on the western side, especially along the Cotswold Escarpment – although the views are better here.
In England’s southwest, Dartmoor National Park boasts the highest hills for miles around, dotted with weathered granite outcrops known as tors. Much of the landscape is devoid of trees and surprisingly wild. Below the hills, valleys cut into the edges of the moor, perfect for picnics and riverside strolls in summer.
Just to the north of Dartmoor, and sometimes overshadowed by its larger neighbour, southwest England's other national park is Exmoor. Heather-covered hills cut by deep valleys make it a perfect walking area, edged with the added bonus of a spectacular coastline of cliffs and beaches.
England's most popular walking area, the Lake District offers high peaks, endless views, deep valleys and, of course, beautiful lakes. Protected by the Lake District National Park (and often abbreviated to simply 'The Lakes' or 'Lakeland', but never, ever the 'Lakes District'), it is loved by walkers, partly because of the landscape, and partly because of the history; thanks to poet Wordsworth and his Romantic chums, this is where walking for pleasure really began.
Isle of Wight
Off the south coast of England, this island is a great spot if you're new to recreational walking, or simply not looking for high peaks and wilderness. Many routes are signposted, and there's a range of short and long options.
In England's deep south lies the New Forest. Visitors love this name, as the area is more than 1000 years old and there aren't that many trees – but the beautiful open areas of gorse and grassland are ideal for easy strolls.
On northern England's frontier, keen walkers love the starkly beautiful moors of Northumberland National Park. For a change of scene, the high cliffs and vast empty beaches on the nearby Northumberland coast are less daunting but just as dramatic – perfect for wild seaside strolls.
Norfolk & Suffolk
In the eastern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk the landscape is generally flat, with quiet paths through farmland and beside rivers and lakes, linking picturesque villages, lakes and welcoming country pubs, while the coastline offers a mix of salt marsh, bird reserves, shingle beaches and holiday resorts.
North Downs & South Downs
Between London and the south coast (and within easy reach of both), the North and South Downs are two parallel ranges of broad chalky hills. On the map, the North Downs appear hemmed-in by motorways and conurbations, and while this area can never be described as wilderness, the walking here is often unexpectedly tranquil. The South Downs are higher, and not so cramped by urban expansion, with more options for walks, and a landscape protected by England's newest national park.
Despite the name, the Peak District has very few peaks. But there are plenty of hills, valleys and moors, making it a favoured walking area in northern England. Protected as a national park, the landscape falls into two zones: the south is mainly farmland, cut by limestone valleys; in the north are high peaty moors with rocky outcrops, and a more austere character.
Cornwall and Devon enjoy the best of the English climate and some of the finest coastal scenery in the country – but the rugged landscape means tough days on the trail. Thanks to those beautiful rivers flowing down steep valleys to the sea, you’re forever going up or down. The coastline in neighbouring Dorset – known as the Jurassic Coast thanks to the proliferation of fossils – is less arduous and another great area for seaside walks.
With rolling hills, wild moors, limestone outcrops and green valleys cut by scenic streams, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is another of England's most popular walking areas. Paths are a little gentler and conditions a little less serious than in the Lake District, with the happy addition of some delightful villages nestling in the dales – many with pubs and tearooms providing refreshments for walkers.
Long-Distance Walking Tips
As well as enjoying walks that take a few hours, avid hikers savour the chance of completing one of England's famous long-distance routes – many of which are specifically named and signposted as national trails, such as the Pennine Way National Trail and South West Coast Path National Trail.
Most long-distance routes take between one and two weeks to complete, although some are longer. There are so many to choose from you'd easily wear out your boots trying to do them all, but it's easy to pick a route that suits your experience and the time you have available.
The Long Distance Walkers Association (www.lwda.org.uk) is a good place to start your research. It also holds organised walking events throughout the year.
Some long-distance walking routes are well-known and well maintained, with signposts and route-markers along the way, as well as being highlighted on Ordnance Survey maps. The most high-profile of these are the national trails, usually very clearly marked on the ground and on the map – ideal for beginners or visitors from overseas (although just because they’re easy to follow, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily easy underfoot). A downside of these famous routes is that they can be crowded in holiday times, making accommodation harder to find. An upside is the great feeling of camaraderie with other walkers on the trail.
Best Long Routes
Some long-distance routes traverse the country from west to east, while many more follow the coastline or traverse national parks and other scenic areas.
- 85 miles; 6 days; www.dalesway.org.uk
A nonstrenuous walk through the delightful Yorkshire Dales, via some of the most scenic valleys in northern England, ending at Windermere in the Lake District.
Coast to Coast Walk
- 190 miles; 12-14 days; www.wainwright.org.uk/coasttocoast.html
Also known as Wainwright’s Coast to Coast (after the man who devised it), this is not a national trail, but it is England's number-one long-distance route for locals and visitors alike – through three national parks via a spectacular mix of valleys, plains, mountains, dales and moors.
- 102 miles; 7-10 days; www.nationaltrail.co.uk/cotswold
A picturesque and dramatic route, delivering England at its most enchanting, from villages in intimate valleys to escarpment ridges with bird's-eye views. It's also a trail through time, passing prehistoric hill forts, Roman reminders and some fine stately homes.
Hadrian's Wall Path
- 84 miles; 7-8 days; www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrianswall
A footpath following the world-famous Roman structure across northern England, via forts, castles, ramparts and battlements, and giving the Coast to Coast a run for its money in the popularity stakes.
- 268 miles; 14-21 days; www.nationaltrail.co.uk/pennineway
The granddaddy of them all, an epic trek along the mountainous spine of northern England, via some of the highest, wildest countryside in the country. Even in the summer, the elements can be dire, and many walkers find it an endurance test – but not one without rewards.
South West Coast Path
- 630 miles; 8-10 weeks; www.southwestcoastpath.com
A roller-coaster romp around England's southwest peninsula, past beaches, bays, shipwrecks, seaside resorts, fishing villages and clifftop castles. Given its length, most walkers do it in sections: the two-week stretch between Padstow and Falmouth around Land's End is most popular.
South Downs Way
- 100 miles; 7-9 days; www.nationaltrail.co.uk/southdowns
A sweeping hike through southeast England, along an ancient chalky highway from Winchester to the sea, mostly following a line of rolling hills, meaning big skies and wonderful views, plus picture-perfect villages and prehistoric sites.
England Coast Path
- 2975 miles; www.nationaltrail.co.uk/england-coast-path
When it opens in 2020, this will officially be the longest trail in England – an epic, round-England trek that (even for the fittest walkers) is likely to require the best part of a year to complete.
A bike is the perfect mode of transport for exploring back-road England. Once you escape the busy main highways, a vast network of quiet country lanes winds through fields and peaceful villages, ideal for cycle touring. You can cruise through gently rolling landscapes, taking it easy and stopping for cream teas, or you can thrash all day through hilly areas, revelling in steep ascents and swooping downhill sections. You can cycle from place to place, camping or staying in B&Bs (many of which are cyclist-friendly), or you can base yourself in one area for a few days and go out on rides in different directions. All you need is a map and a sense of adventure.
Mountain bikers can go further into the wilds on the tracks and bridleways that criss-cross Britain’s hills and high moors, or head for the many dedicated mountain-bike trail centres where specially built single-track trails wind through the forests. Options at these centres vary from delightful dirt roads ideal for families to gnarly rock gardens and precipitous drop-offs for hard-core riders, all classified from green to black in ski-resort style.
- www.sustrans.org.uk Details of Britain's national network of cycling trails.
- www.forestry.gov.uk/england-cycling Guide to forest cycling trails in England.
If you want to explore the hills and moors but walking or cycling is too much of a sweat, seeing the wilder parts of England from horseback is highly recommended. In rural areas and national parks such as Dartmoor and Northumberland, riding centres cater to all levels of proficiency, with ponies for kids and beginners, and horses for the more experienced.
- British Horse Society (www.bhs.org.uk) Lists approved riding centres offering day rides or longer holidays on horseback.
England may not seem an obvious destination for surfing, but conditions are surprisingly good and the large tidal range often means a completely different set of breaks at low and high tides. If you've come from the other side of the world, you'll be delighted to learn that summer water temperatures in southern England are roughly equivalent to winter temperatures in southern Australia (ie you'll still need a wetsuit). At the main spots, it's easy enough to hire boards and wetsuits.
Top of the list are the Atlantic-facing coasts of Cornwall and Devon (Newquay is surf central, with all the trappings from Kombi vans to bleached hair), and there are smaller surf scenes elsewhere, notably Norfolk and Yorkshire in eastern England.
Windsurfing is hugely popular all around the coast. Top areas include Norfolk, Suffolk, Devon and Cornwall, and the Isle of Wight.
- www.ukwindsurfing.com Good source of info on windsurfing.
- www.surfinggb.com Listings of approved surf schools, courses, competitions and more.
After walking, fishing is England's most popular outdoor activity. As well as sea angling, there is excellent fishing for brown trout, grayling, pike, perch, carp and other coarse fish all over the country, while the famous chalk streams of Hampshire and Wiltshire offer some of the world's finest fly fishing for trout and grayling.
Fishing rights to most inland waters are privately owned and you must obtain a permit to fish in them – these are usually readily available from the local fishing-tackle shop or hotel, which are also great sources of advice and local knowledge. Permits cost around £5 to £20 per day but salmon fishing on some rivers – notably the Tyne in northeast England – can be much more expensive (up to £150 a day).
As well as a permit you will need a rod licence, which can be purchased online (www.postoffice.co.uk/rod-fishing-licence) or from post offices all over the country. This costs £3.75/10/27 for one day/eight days/one year for all freshwater fish except salmon and sea trout, which costs £8/23/72.
Fishing in the sea is generally free (except for salmon and sea trout), and neither permit nor rod licence is needed.
- www.fishpal.com Information and booking portal for fishing (mostly salmon and trout) all over Britain.
England has a long history of rock climbing and mountaineering, with many of the classic routes having been pioneered in the 19th century. The main rock-climbing areas include the Lake District, the Peak District and Yorkshire, plus the sea cliffs of Devon and Cornwall, but there are also hundreds of smaller crags situated all over the country.
Comprehensive climbing guidebooks are published by the Fell & Rock Climbing Club (www.frcc.co.uk) and the Climbers Club (www.climbers-club.co.uk).
- www.ukclimbing.com The UK Climbing website is crammed with useful information.
Southwest England's coast, with its sheltered inlets and indented shoreline, is ideal for sea kayaking, while inland lakes and canals across the country are great for Canadian canoeing. Although tame by comparison with alpine torrents, the turbulent spate rivers of the Lake District, Northumberland and Devon offer challenging whitewater kayaking.
Equipment rental and instruction are readily available in major centres such as Cornwall, Devon and the Lake District.
- www.gocanoeing.org.uk Lists approved canoeing centres in England.
If sometimes a simple clifftop walk doesn't cut the mustard, then coasteering might appeal. It's like mountaineering, but instead of going up a mountain, you go sideways along a coast – a steep and rocky coast – with waves breaking around your feet. And if the rock gets too steep, no problem – you jump in and start swimming. Coasteering centres provide wetsuits, helmets and buoyancy aids; you provide an old pair of training shoes and a sense of adventure. The sport can be done all around England, but the mix of sheer cliffs, sandy beaches and warm water make Cornwall and Devon prime spots.
- www.coasteering.org Info on coasteering in Devon and Cornwall.
Sailing & Boating
The south coast of England, with its superb scenery and challenging winds and tides, is one of Europe's most popular yachting areas, while the English canals offer a classic narrow-boating experience. Beginners can take a Royal Yachting Association training course in yachting or dinghy sailing at many sailing schools around the coast. Narrow-boaters only need a quick introductory lesson at the start of their trip.
- www.rya.org.uk The Royal Yachting Association's website.
- www.canalholidays.com For more info on narrow boats and lessons.