We’ve written in awe of US national parks, but what about those on our own doorstep? For a country so small, Britain is home to an incredible variety of different landscapes, from the moors of South West England to the mountains of North East Scotland. So if you’re visiting London, why not take in some of our marvellous countryside too”¦
The Peak District
The UK’s first officially designated national park, the Peak District is the true pride of the north. Its 555 square miles of green hills, rivers and caves crosses the boundaries of six counties and offers just about everything you could want from an English holiday. There are numerous leisurely lakes for rowers and anglers, miles of walking trails for those who like to take it slow and gritstone rock faces for abseiling adrenaline junkies. Hang-gliding and hot air balloons are also options for those who want something a little less down to earth.
The region is also a place of history: Derbyshire’s Buxton is a beautiful old spa town, while Bakewell is justly famous as the home of the original Bakewell pudding, which differs from the similarly named tart and has to be savoured hot. Nearby are some of the district’s many famous stately homes including Chatsworth House, which played a starring role in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. The striking Elizabethan Harwick Hall between Chesterfield and Mansfield meanwhile recently doubled as Malfoy Manor in the final Harry Potter movie.
Among the most mystical of national parks, Dartmoor was famously the setting for the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles. However, its unusual past goes all the way back to prehistoric times, the traces of which can still be seen in the many menhirs and stone circles which dot the landscape. There’s much more to the moors than myths, legends and ancient human history though; the sprawling open scenery is interspersed with valleys, rivers and unusual woodland areas like the moss clad Black-a-Tor Copse, a favourite spot for local birdlife.
Aside from the splendid natural surroundings, Dartmoor is a great place for hearty West Country food and fine ales and ciders, with more than its fare share of great pubs and restaurants. There are also castles and the infamous prison – and those who favour the active life won’t go short of places to cycle, climb and pony trek. The River Dart is one of the best places for canoeing in the UK and is lined with picturesque villages. So when you’re done, drop in for a cold pint or a traditional Devon tea – try Buckfastleigh just outside the boundary of the park or pretty Dittisham, about 15 miles further south.
The Lake District
The Lake District is forever associated with the 19thcentury romantics, especially Wordsworth, and has probably inspired more poetry – not to mention the wonderful works of Beatrix Potter – than any other area of British countryside. Mainly a product of the last ice age, England’s largest national park sits on the highest ground and has some of the country’s most striking scenery including the longest lake (Windermere) and tallest mountain (Scafell Pike). If you like water and walking, ‘The Lakes’ as the region is known in the North West, is the one for you.
A good place to start your exploration is Coniston Boating Centre; admire the landscape from your vehicle of choice – canoe, kayak or rowboat or take in the area’s most beautiful lake, Ullswater, by steamer. For a real adventure, Grizedale Forest near Windermere, with its biking trails and rope bridges, swings and forest sculptures is fantastic. To the southeast, Levens Hall is well worth a visit for its amazing topiary gardens, which were started in 1694. Anyone with a sweet tooth shouldn’t miss out the market town of Kendal, home to the world famous mint cake.
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park covers about a third of Wales and is Britain’s only (mostly) coastal national park. As such, its landscape is hugely varied with sandy beaches, rugged cliffs, hills and small islands. The southernmost section includes the tiny Caldey Island, known for its monastery, while further north across St Bride’s Bay lie Skomer and Ramsey islands, both famed for their populations of numerous species of seabird.
Pembrokeshire beaches are also some of the best places in the UK for surfing, with Freshwater West in the south being especially good, while Newgale a little up from the Marloes Peninsula is great for beginners. Diving, paragliding, kayaking and fishing are among the many other activities well served. For those who want little more than a good country ramble, the Preseli Hills are perfect and are dotted with prehistoric remnants.
Cairngorms National Park
Only established as National Park in 2003, Cairngorms covers 1,748 square miles of Scotland’s north east, making it Britain’s biggest by far; about twice the size of the Lake District. Given its magnitude, it’s hard to think of anything you can’t do within the boundaries of the park. The mountainous terrain makes it a favoured region for hikers, climbers and mountain bikers, while winter visitors are well catered for with three of Scotland’s five ski centres.
There’s plenty of lower ground and lochs for those more into easygoing activities too. The range of wildlife is also second to none, with deer, woodpeckers, birds of prey and even rare indigenous red squirrels sighted around the park. Keen and camera-wielding animal lovers should head up to Rothiemurchus for the best, up-close views. Kids and families won’t go hungry for distractions either, with pony trekking, white water rafting, adventure playgrounds and quad biking being among the myriad pursuits available.