Even if you are, you've probably been inside one without realising it. The national parks, which this year celebrate the 50th birthday of the legislation that created them, cover seven per cent of England and Wales. They contain not just our wildest and most precious landscapes, but also villages, towns and historic sites, manufacturing industries as well as farmland.
WHERE ARE THE NATIONAL PARKS?
Northumbria, the Lake District, the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District, Snowdonia, the Pembrokeshire Coast, the Brecon Beacons, the Norfolk Broads, Exmoor and Dartmoor is the short answer. Their boundaries are defined not by counties but by the various qualities of their landscapes. The North York Moors park therefore juts into Cumbria, and the Peak District covers parts of six counties. Some of them are a surprisingly short drive from our major cities, too. An amazing one third of the population of England lives less than an hour from the Peak District national park, wedged between the industrial centres of Manchester and Sheffield. All are accessible by road and rail.
WHAT HAVE THEY GOT TO DO WITH YOGI BEAR?
Strangely enough, Yellowstone, created in Wyoming in 1872 and the home of Yogi Bear, was the model on which Britain's national parks were based. We take them for granted now, but their origins lie in radical social activism. In 1932 thousands of working people from the Midlands organised the Kinder Scout mass trespass in the Peak District, in which five men were arrested after clashes with gamekeepers.
WHO PAYS FOR THEM?
We do, to the tune of pounds 40m, through our taxes and contributions to the European Union, which in turn awards grants. Most of the land is privately owned. What the national park authorities do is protect the areas both from industry and from the 100 million people who tramp across the parks every year. They also have a duty to the social and economic well-being of people who live within the parks. Grants encourage traditional practices that have shaped the landscape, such as shepherding and dry-stone walling.
WHY ARE THERE NONE IN SCOTLAND?
The Scottish legal system is different so national park legislation doesn't cover Scotland's many areas of natural beauty. But this is due to change. The Scottish Parliament intends to create its first national park in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Other English sites up for membership include the South Downs and the New Forest, which is protected by its own ancient charter.
ENOUGH OF THE LEGAL STUFF. TAKE ME TO THE NEAREST MILLETTS
You've got the right idea. Walking is the most common reason for visiting a national park, and rightly so. Some of the best known long-distance walks run through them: the Pennine Way, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Offa's Dyke Path in the Brecon Beacons, the Cumbria Way, the Dales Way in Yorkshire, the Somerset and North Devon Coast Path and the Tarka Trail on Exmoor, and the new Dartmoor Way.
But there are plenty of shorter walks too, and if you don't want to do your own orienteering you can take a guided walk with a ranger or local guide. The national park information centres will send you a programme of events, or check out their websites (see right).
WHAT ESSENTIAL KIT SHOULD I TAKE?
An anorak, warm clothes, good footwear, a map, compass, torch, sun block, mosquito repellent, binoculars, provisions and, if you're in the Lakes, a great big slab of Kendal Mint Cake. (If you're with a ranger, don't worry about the compass.) Hard luck if you don't want to look like a nerd. You'd look even more stupid on a mountain in Patrick Cox loafers. Besides, Kangol is very trendy and the company has a factory shop at Keswick.
SO WHERE CAN I STAY IN THE PARKS AND HOW DO I GET AROUND INSIDE ONE?
You can stay in anything from a tent to a country house hotel. The park authorities have extensive lists of bed-and-breakfasts within the parks. The Youth Hostels Association network is well represented, and hostelling is a bit more relaxed than it once was: couples can even share rooms if it's not too crowded. Call 01727 855215 for details or join on the spot. In general, campers should stick to designated camp sites, as should camper vans, although it has been known for a National Trust sticker to do wonders in placating the Rangers. Liberal Dartmoor allows "backpacker camping" on the open moor providing you do not pollute the environment and stay at least 100 metres from the road. A new type of accommodation springing up in many of the parks is the camping barn - converted farm buildings with a sleeping platform, cooking facilities and showers.
Public transport inside the parks is improving all the time, with the aim of reducing the scourge of the national parks: traffic. In Snowdonia, if you take the Sherpa bus, you get guided walks for free, and in most of the parks, walks and cycle rides are arranged to tie in with special bus services and train networks (and are very reasonably priced).
WHAT ABOUT BIKES?
Mountain biking is allowed in the parks, providing you follow a code of good behaviour. By law, off-road bikes are allowed on all bridleways (you must give way to horses, though) and RUPPS (roads used as public paths). The national park authorities do have a duty to minimise erosion - and conflict between different groups of park users - which is why the route up Mount Snowdon has been restricted between 10am and 5pm during the summer. You can hire bikes in all the parks and there are also guided cycling tours. The North York Moors is running a Mountain Bike Skills Clinic on 22 August (details 01287 660278).
If you prefer road riding, large chunks of Sustrans' national cycle network run through the parks, notably the Coast to Coast (from Whitehaven to Sunderland) and Lon Las Cymru, the Welsh national cycle route, but there are other signed cycleways besides.
The Landsker route in Pembrokeshire is a 95-mile circular route that links up with railway stations on the South Pembrokeshire line, and the Lake District has a wonderful stretch of cycleway that skirts Lake Thirlmere and follows the river along to Keswick.
ANY MORE OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES?
Horseriding is a big favourite in the national parks, especially on Exmoor, which has some of the best riding country in Britain, not to mention its own breed of pony. West Anstey Farm, Dulverton (01398 341354) and Doone Valley Stables, Lynton (01598 741278) cater for beginners upwards, while Huntscott House Stables (01643 841272) offers riding for "the more experienced adult". Dartmoor and Pembrokeshire also have riding stables listed in their newsletters. Many of the stables have their own accommodation.
WHAT ABOUT WATERSPORTS?
This is where the Norfolk Broads comes into its own. You can hire all sorts of boats, from power cruisers to canoes and take trips on the wherries, the Broads' unique Edwardian sailboats. The most atmospheric sailing is at Hunter's Yard (01692 678263), which has 17 beautifully restored yachts and half-deckers from the 1930s and 1940s. You eat off crockery in the original 1930s designs and lighting is by gaslight. You'll also see more wildlife without the intrusion of electricity.
The Lake District offers anything from rowing boats to water-skiing and windsurfing. You can canoe down the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and sail on Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons. Northumberland national park has the enormous Kielder Reservoir, while the North York Moors has river kayaking.
For a completely new adventure sport, however, how about coasteering off the Pembrokeshire Coast? Wearing a wetsuit, lifejacket and helmet you attempt to get round the cliffs any way you can - climbing, scrambling, swimming, jumping. TYF NoLimits (01437 721611 or: www.tyf.com) claims to have invented the sport and has signed the Pembrokeshire Outdoor Charter, which aims to avoid sensitive sites for wildlife.
WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?
The parks are very much geared up for children. Special events range from kite making and a teddy bears' picnic on the North York Moors, to badger watching on Exmoor. The Brecon Beacons has an open day on 29 July with quizzes and competitions and Break Up The Family Day on 17 August (adults get to go on a relaxing walk while the child-ren are entertained at Craig-y-nos country park). The Lake District's Summer Fun for Kids events include feltmaking and T-shirt printing, while Summer Sundays throughout July and August include duck herding and storytelling with Taffy Thomas.
WHAT IF IT RAINS?
It's a good excuse to look in at one of the National Park visitor centres, which have interactive displays and children's activities. Then there are museums, historic monuments and houses to visit, from Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland to Far Sawrey, Beatrix Potter's farm in the Lake District, Castle Howard in the Yorkshire Dales and Pembrokeshire's coastal castles.
If you're in north Wales, don't miss the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, where the new Sustainable Science project uses kids' theatre, hands-on workshops and a trip to the beginning of time to teach children about saving the planet. Speaking of the weather, the Lake District has an excellent 24-hour Weatherline service on 017687 75757. A ranger actually climbs Striding Edge every day to get the data.
SO WHAT ARE THE SNAGS?
If the cautions given by the park authorities are to be believed, there are dangers galore: climbing accidents, boating accidents, army shooting ranges, Weil's disease (from falling in a Broad), lyme disease (from ticks), angry sheep and ponies (do not feed the animals), and, of course, the Exmoor beast...
STILL ROAMING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS?
Oh yes. Despite the best efforts of rangers and the British Army to catch the marauding beast, it is still out there on the loose. Or rather, they are. At least two different creatures have been identified, one like a puma and one like a black panther. And Exmoor's not the only national park to have one. If you want to know more don't miss "Hide and Seek the Exmoor Beast" on 26 August, when a ranger will show you how to safely track down the big cat . Call 01398 323665 for more details.
BUT SERIOUSLY, WHAT WILDLIFE SHOULD I REALLY BE LOOKING FOR?
Depends where you are. Each national park has its own rare species of flora and fauna. The Peak District has a moss so rare that there's only one square metre of it in the world. In the Dales, keep a look-out for the family of red kites just released into the wild. And one of the most magical experiences is spotting red deer at dusk on Exmoor.
CAN I GET MY HANDS DIRTY?
You certainly can. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (01491 839766) runs holidays that include such wholesome activities as path clearing, dry-stone walling and fighting erosion. Each park also has its own group of conservation volunteers.
AT A GLANCE: THE 11 NATIONAL PARKS
(519 sq miles)
Gentle heather-covered mountains and pointed peaks, with ancient settlements, standing stones and cairns. Contact: 01874 624437 or visit: www.breconbeacons.org
(117 sq miles)
Britain's largest protected wetland has fens, winding waterways, wet woodlands, grazing marshes, broads (shallow lakes) and rivers. Contact: 01603 610734 or visit: firstname.lastname@example.org
(368 sq miles)
Two high boggy plateaus ringed by rocky tors and covered in heather and grass moorland and woods. Includes the densest collection of Bronze Age remains in north west Europe. Contact: 01626 832093 or visit: www.dartmoor- npa.gov.uk
ERYRI - SNOWDONIA
(827 sq miles)
Deep valleys and rugged mountains around Snowdon and a coastline of sandy bays, dunes and estuaries. It is a stronghold of the Welsh language (when you call, the phone is answered in Welsh with an English translation). Contact: 01766 770274 or visit: email@example.com
(268 sq miles)
The tallest sea cliffs in England and Bronze-Age burial sites, Roman fortlets and medieval castles. Nightjars, red deer, merlin and ring ousel out on the moor. Contact: 01398 323665 or visit: www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk
THE LAKE DISTRICT
(885 sq miles)
Sixteen lakes are arranged like spokes of a wheel in a rugged landscape that was the darling of the Romantic movement. Contact: 01539 724555 or visit: www.lake-district.gov.uk
(405 sq miles)
Moorland and forest with the Cheviot Hills to the north and Hadrian's Wall to the south. Home to ruined castles, fortified farmsteads and Kielder Reservoir. Contact: 01434 605555 or visit: www.nnpa.org.uk
THE PEAK DISTRICT
(555 sq miles)
The second most visited national park in the world after Mount Fuji. Deep limestone dales and undulating fields of the White Peak contrast with the Dark Peak's dramatic peat moorlands. Contact: 01629 816200 or visit: www.peakdistrict.org
(240 sq miles)
Rugged cliffs and islands, tree-lined estuaries and open moorland, steeped in Welsh legends and history. Rare wild flowers and seal and sea bird colonies. Contact: 01437 764636 or visit: www.pembrokeshirecoast.org
NORTH YORK MOORS
(554 sq miles)
A large expanse of continuous heather moorland, dissected by dales. At the coast, spectacular cliffs separate bays and fishing villages. Contact: 01439 770657 or visit: www.northyorkmoors-npa.gov.uk
(683 sq miles)
Pastoral valleys, waterfalls, flower-rich meadows, dry-stone walls, field barns and villages. Home of curly-horned Swaledale sheep, Wensleydale cheese and some of the nicest pubs and bed-and-breakfasts in England. Call: 01969 650456 or visit: www.yorkshirenet.co.uk/visinfo/ydales/ydnp.html
THREE HIGH PUBS (AND OTHER GREAT PLACES FOR A PINT)
ENGLAND'S THREE highest pubs are in national parks. Tan Hill Inn in the Yorkshire Dales comes in first at 1,732 feet. It's permanently bracing up there, but a fire and hearty food welcome those who make the trip. Second highest is the Cat and Fiddle, at Wildboar-
clough in the Peak District and third is the Warren House Inn at Postbridge, Dartmoor, where a fire has been continuously burning since 1845. You'll have an appetite when you get up there so try the Warreners Pie, a rabbit feast made to the inn's own recipe.
If you're hiking along Hadrian's Wall, a welcome sight is the Milecastle, on the Military Road near Haltwhistle, named after the small forts which marked out the miles for the Roman soldiers. It serves hearty soups, pies and game with local ales.
Back in Yorkshire, the Red Lion at Langthwaite in Arkengarthdale has been used as a location quite a few times, but the fame hasn't gone to its head. Black Sheep Bitter and Riggwelter are two good local ales. Another Dales favourite is the Sun Inn in Dent, ideal for fortifying yourself before the trek up to the highest station in England.
In Snowdonia, a real climbers' pub is the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel at Nantgwynant. The mountain rescue team hangs out here, and there's also a collection of boots. Down in Pembrokeshire, the Dyffryn Arms in Pontfaen hasn't changed much since the first member of the Davis family took it over 152 years ago. Beer is served from jugs, and pickled eggs are just about the only accompaniment.
On Exmoor the idyllic, thatched Royal Oak at Luxborough is by a stream at the bottom of a valley near Dunkery Beacon. If you want to try the local brew, they have Rich's Farmhouse Cider.
And back again to the Peak District for a village local, the provocatively named Quiet Woman at Earl Sterndale, near Buxton, where you can even buy free-range eggs!
TEN THINGS YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU'D FIND INSIDE A NATIONAL PARK
A prison: HM Prison Dartmoor, at England's highest settlement, Princetown. It houses 600 maximum security inmates.
A power station: See at first hand how a nuclear power station is decommissioned. Trwsfynydd Power Station and Visitor Centre near Dolgellau, Snowdonia: 01766 540622.
Anthony Hopkins: The Welsh thespian is often to be seen on his favourite mountain. He headed an appeal to enable the National Trust to buy a third of Snowdon and it came out pounds 1m over target.
A theatre: Century Theatre, the mobile blue box that toured the lakes has been replaced by a brand new permanent theatre at Derwent Water (it opens on 19 August with a production of Charley's Aunt).
Windmills: The Broads is where you'll find these, all 70 of them, from derelict stumps to proud examples of restoration, sponsored by the Broads authority.
Skinheads: Five of them were found crawling Rambo-style through the undergrowth of the Peak District national park, scared witless by a sheep.
Count Dracula: Bram Stoker wrote his horrifying tale in a bed-and-breakfast in Whitby, North Yorkshire. Visit The Dracula Experience on Marine Parade or book in at a B&B in Whitby.
A rollercoaster: Megafobia in Pembrokeshire national park was voted the world's number one wooden rollercoaster.
Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all: They were all off to Widecombe Fair, in Dartmoor. The fair's still going strong, on the second Tuesday of September every year. You'll have to find your own transport, though.
An island: Skomer, off the Pembrokeshire coast. You'll see storm petrels, guillemots, puffins, razorbills and more. About 150 seal pups are born there every autumn. Call the Dale Sailing Company (01646 601636) for more details.