Keen to escape the crowds? Head for these six beautiful but unsung British National Parks and you will be walking back to happiness
- In the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, you’ll see cliffs, caves, islands, sea stacks and 50 beaches
- Exmoor National Park has wide-skied moorland, rivers, a dramatic coastline, ravines and waterfalls
- The Broads National Park is a walkers’ paradise with abundant trails from two-mile teenies to longer treks
There are an extraordinary 15 National Parks in the UK and as wonderful as the likes of the Lake District, New Forest and Snowdonia decidedly are for walkers, they can get rather busy.
If you prefer more serenity during a hike, head instead to one of the UK’s six less famous National Parks.
Not only do they promise quieter paths, but also excellent places to eat, relax and stay. You may even spot a red squirrel or porpoise or two…
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
On the wild side: Wild horses at sunset near Strumble Head lighthouse in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
Hugging the coast from Amroth to the Teifi Estuary – via Tenby and teeny cathedral city St Davids – this park is anchored by the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path.
You’re promised cliffs, caves, islands, sea stacks, a high chance of spying dolphins or porpoises and 50 beaches.
See Strumble Head Lighthouse, lonely on its islet, or St Govan’s medieval chapel, built into the rockface. And don’t forsake emptier inland idylls, chiefly the wooded Gwaun Valley and moor-covered Preseli Hills.
Top walk: A long sandy shore, jagged rock formations and clifftop views of Skomer Island along the Marloes Peninsula.
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park hugs the coast from Amroth to the Teifi Estuary – via Tenby and teeny cathedral city St Davids
Stay: For Strumble Head or the Preseli Hills, stay at Llys Meddyg, a Georgian coaching house with boutique rooms and a superb restaurant. B&B doubles from £160 (llysmeddyg.com). Further south, ancient Slebech Park Estate affords estuary views and serves home-grown food. B&B doubles from £80 (slebech.co.uk).
If you’re a family group or friends looking for an autumn break and want to enjoy the sunsets of Strumble Head then the two stone cottages at Trefechan Wen are ideal.
Each sleep four and welcome dogs. You’re close to the hamlet of Llanwnda and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a 15-minute walk. From £325 per cottage per week (trefechanwen.co.uk).
HQ: Alongside an art gallery and cafe, the national park’s visitor centre is just outside St Davids (pembrokeshirecoast.wales).
The Broads National Park
Hickling Broad in Norfolk, pictured, is a circular route and a good bet for seeing otters on your journey around the Broads
Until 1960, it was thought that the low-lying Broads were natural; in fact, they’re flooded medieval peat excavations. Today the 63 lakes and connecting rivers, sprawled across Norfolk and Suffolk, are best-known for boating adventures.
Yet this is also a walkers’ paradise with abundant trails – from two-mile teenies to long-distance treks such as the Weavers’ or Wherryman’s Ways, and most yield waterside pubs, windmills, birdlife and butterflies (visitthebroads.co.uk).
Top walks: In the north, Hickling Broad’s circular route is a good bet for seeing otters; further south, the ten-mile Bigod Way leaves regal market town Bungay to follow a valley, traverse wooded hills and overlook the River Waveney.
Today 63 lakes and connecting rivers, sprawled across Norfolk and Suffolk, make up the Broads
Stay: Combine bases to see it all: perhaps Loddon’s smartest pub The Swan (B&B doubles from £90, theloddonswan.co.uk) and the more northerly Norfolk Mead, a riverside country-house hotel and spa (B&B doubles from £135, norfolkmead.co.uk). Both have two-AA-rosette restaurants.
HQ: Open from Easter until Halloween, the two visitor centres are found by the River Bure close to Hoveton and in a Victorian eel-fishing family’s cottage turned museum at How Hill Nature Reserve.
As well as being northerly, both run wildlife-watching boat trips (visitthebroads.co.uk).
North York Moors National Park
The North York Moors National Park, pictured, is wilder and emptier than its rival The Yorkshire Dales
Who needs The Yorkshire Dales? You’ll actually find deep dales aplenty in its wilder, emptier rival, as well as helter-skelter coastal cliffs, steep Cleveland Hill slopes, much woodland and that titular, vast moorland plateau, dotted with sheep and, right now, heather blooming bright purple.
Accompanying cycling paths and bridleways are some 1,400 miles of footpaths. Headline spectacles include Farndale’s spring daffodil displays, sandstone crags The Wainstones and seaside waterfall Hayburn Wyke, while Sutton Bank, an escarpment facing the Vale of York, has ‘the finest view in England’ according to James Herriot of All Creatures Great and Small fame.
History fans bee-line towards trails connecting ruined Helmsley Castle with Rievaulx Abbey’s extensive Cistercian remains.
There are some 1,400 miles of footpath in the North York Moors National Park. The Wainstones, sandstone crags (pictured), are an eye-catching feature of the landscape
Top walks: To combine coast and moorland, trudge the long-distance Cleveland Way. Otherwise follow the 11.5-mile Rosedale circular, partly along a Victorian railway forged during the area’s iron-ore rush; such history is enhanced by panoramic hilltop views and the lonely Lion Inn.
Stay: The famed Black Swan is a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms, but The Hare, a 12th-century inn close to Rievaulx, is similarly superb but more of a secret. Half-board doubles from £335 (thehare-inn.com). Consider also staying outside the park in Scarborough’s trendy new Bike & Boot boutique – B&B doubles from £105 (bikeandboot.com) – or high on cliffs at tiny Alum House, for whom fish is a specialty. B&B doubles from £140 (alumhouseluxurybandb.co.uk).
HQ: Find the visitor centre – and cafe, and gallery – near Danby in the scenic Esk Valley (northyorkmoors.org.uk)
Exmoor National Park
A hiker in Exmoor National Park, where you might spot an otter. It extends from Somerset into North Devon
Dunkery Beacon, pictured, is the highest point in Exmoor National Park at 1,705ft. From here, the views are outstanding
HOW THE PEAK DISTRICT SET THE STANDARD FOR PARKS
In 1951, the first national park was designated – the Peak District.
By the end of the decade the Lake District, Snowdonia, Dartmoor, Pembrokeshire Coast, North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Exmoor, Northumberland and Brecon Beacons National Parks had all been established.
The last ones to join were the New Forest in 2005 and the South Downs in 2010.
Extending from Somerset into North Devon, Exmoor sees wide-skied moorland, speckled by rivers and the odd hamlet, segue into a dramatic coastline featuring Britain’s highest sea cliff, Great Hangman, a sheer funicular at pretty Lynmouth, plus ravines and waterfalls.
Ramblers are drawn to the Valley of the Rocks, where Coleridge found inspiration; another classic stroll traces the course of the East Lyn River through a gorge amid locations from 19th Century novel Lorna Doone.
Visit in the autumn to see otters, red deer noisily rutting and splashing, leaping salmon (exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk).
Top walk: The southerly Tarr Steps, near Liscombe, is Britain’s longest clapper bridge. Cross it on a 12-mile circular from Dulverton uniting riversides and fields.
Stay: An Edwardian lodge near to its namesake, Exmoor’s highest point at 1,705ft, Dunkery Beacon Country House matches superb views with high-quality dinners. B&B doubles from £89 (dunkerybeaconaccommodation.co.uk).
Just under half a mile from the South West Coast path in Martinhoe, you’ll find a stylish little gem in The Old Rectory Hotel, with ten modern rooms and a restaurant whose motto is ‘local all the way.’
Expect fresh fish and delights from the kitchen garden. B&B from £180 per night, DB&B from £220. (oldrectoryhotel.co.uk).
HQ: Visitor centres in Lynmouth, Dulverton and Dunster, in the northeast, list details of expert-led themed walks and can loan out telescopes to stargazers (exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk).
Northumberland National Park
A ford on College Burn in the Cheviots in Northumberland National Park – Britain’s least-populated 400 square miles
Britain’s least-populated 400 square miles, the NNP stretches from Hadrian’s Wall through moorland and part of Kielder Forest to the Cheviot Hills.
In the southern half, you might make for Hareshaw Linn waterfall or farmhouses fortified against Middle Ages marauders the Border reivers.
Further up is the idyllic Coquet river valley, containing a ruined castle and rock art, plus Linhope Spout, a cascade and swimmable pool. This is also Europe’s largest protected Dark Sky Park, meaning stellar stargazing (northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk).
Northumberland National Park stretches from Hadrian’s Wall, pictured, through moorland and part of Kielder Forest to the Cheviot Hills
Top walks: Any in the Cheviots’ remote College Valley area (college-valley.co.uk). While tramping forested floors or high ridges, watch for wild goats, curlews, roe deer and red squirrels.
Stay: Halfway up the park in Otterburn, the William de Percy Inn & Creperie surprises with a plant-filled bar and boudoir-style bedrooms. B&B doubles from £130 (williamdepercy.com). Alternatively, kick back after a wonderful walk at the cosy Pheasant Inn in Kielder Water. Expect simple and immaculate accommodation, including a separate cottage and hearty fare on the menu. (thepheasantinn.com).
HQ: The Walltown visitor centre neighbours a former quarry on Hadrian’s Wall. Nearby attraction The Sill educates tourists about the Northumberland’s landscape, history, culture and heritage (northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk).
Loch Lomond And The Trossachs National Park
High drama: The arched bridge over stunning Bracklinn Falls near Loch Lomond, Britain’s largest lake
Not far north of Glasgow, this classic swathe of Highlands scenery has four subsections that each offer different hiking challenges. At the loch, Britain’s largest lake, families can undertake circular tours involving a waterbus return or easy trudges up Conic Hill for picnic-worthy vistas.
Also here is Ben Lomond, as gentle as ‘Munro’ (peaks more than 3,000ft) ascents ever come. A little east, the Trossach hills enclose glens and more lochs, while northerly, steeper area Breadalbane provides tougher, more technical climbs plus the curving Glen Ogle viaduct, reached via disused railway tracks.
Westwards, beyond Loch Long, short hill-walking challenges such as The Cobbler predominate amid the forested Cowal Peninsula and Arrochar Alps (lochlomond-trossachs.org).
Top walk: Above the town of Callander, a four-mile Bracklinn Falls & Callander Crags circuit takes in cascades, an imposing arched bridge and a viewpoint.
Looking across to Ben Lomond from Loch Ard, one of the 22 lochs in ‘Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park’
Stay: At Callander’s Annfield Guest House, a Victorian puddingstone home, full Scottish breakfasts feature haggis. B&B doubles from £95 (annfieldguesthouse.co.uk).
Stay: Set in five acres, just back from the banks of Loch Lomond is East Cambusmoon Farm, offering two modern eco-friendly cottages which can sleep 14. Expect underfloor heating, wifi and free top-ups of log baskets. From £600-£900 per week (lochlomondholidaycottage.com).
HQ: Although the park’s visitor office in Balmaha, on Loch Lomond, remains closed, two information centres run by tourist board VisitScotland are open at Balloch a little south, and Aberfoyle, close to Callander (lochlomond-trossachs.org).
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