Secret Britain (part 2): The best places in the country for wildlife, heritage and scenery

Get off the beaten track. David Randall guides you to the best places in the country for wildlife, heritage and scenery that have managed to stay under the radar – until now
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The Independent Online

Welcome to the second week of our series revealing some of Britain's best-kept summer secrets – the usually unheralded places that might form the basis of an agreeable day out, or even weekend trip. To compile it, we went to the experts, approaching a huge variety of organisations that actually care for our countryside and heritage and asked them: what are your hidden gems? The National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, VisitBritain, National Piers Society, Woodland Trust, English Heritage, heritage bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and several others, such as Roger Borrell, editor of Lancashire Life, and Paul Jones of the Press Association, all responded keenly.

The results, plus a few of our own selections we could not resist including (even at the peril of now having them "discovered") follow, as we present the final 50 places. Last week it was Coast, Woodlands and Gardens; today it is Wildlife, Heritage and Scenery. A few of the places may seem at first glance to be familiar, but they have been included because of some little-known aspect.

Yet for all the expertise behind our nominations, the organisations we consulted are not infallible. And so, this being The Independent on Sunday, a less dogmatic publication than some of its rivals, we want to hear your suggestions, too. Send them by email, via the IoS message board, or by letter to the editor. Next week we will share them with everyone.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit

Secret Britain: Wildlife

To enjoy wildlife, you need knowledge. Field guides are good, but experts are better. At the sites below, look for someone with a particularly well-worn pair of boots – and ask. It is a rare enthusiast who will refuse to help a beginner.

1. Slievenacloy Nature, Reserve, Belfast

The Ulster Wildlife Trust calls this "a lush and secretive valley hidden behind the Belfast Hills and offering breathtaking views". On a clear day, every county except Fermanagh can be seen. It has heath, unimproved grassland and waters that attract dragonflies. There are seven species of orchid found here, the skylark's rising song is ever-present in summer and Irish hares are resident. Bilberry grow here, and the presence of waxcap fungi indicates the grasslands are of high quality. The devil's-bit scabious grows, sustaining a population of marsh fritillary butterflies.

2. Loch of the Lowes, Perthshire

This is the best, and least crowded, place in Britain to watch ospreys, who have built their eyrie just 200 metres from a hide. They first appeared just weeks after the Scottish Wildlife Trust opened the reserve in 1969. It is six miles from Perth, has a visitor centre, and hides with wheelchair access. From these hides you can see not only the big fish hawks, but also roe and fallow deer, red squirrel, crossbill, kingfisher, and three species of grebe – Slavonian, great crested, and little – breed here. In winter thousands of greylag geese descend on the loch, joining the goldeneye, wigeon and pochard.

3. Salthill Quarry, Lancashire

This site, near Clitheroe, is remarkable not only for its wildlife, but for its geology. Fossilised rocks are common in parts of the reserve, and children are often captivated by the ones that look like a pile of Polo mints. These are crinoids, the remains of sea lilies cast in stone, and thought to be 340 million years old. Ones lying around can be collected, although any hammering at rocks is completely banned. Outstanding plants include the autumn gentian, now coming into flower, there are painted lady and common blue butterflies, and it's a rare visit when you don't see a hovering kestrel.

4. Wye Valley Reserves, Derbyshire

One of the very choicest parts of the Peaks – three reserves that stretch for four miles near Buxton. Chee Dale has a 200ft deep limestone gorge, whose river is home to water voles, grey wagtails and dippers, the bird that keeps on flexing its legs. Miller's Dale, an old quarry, has steep ash woods that are good for orchids (coming to an end now, so hurry). Priestcliffe has wonderful grasslands and superb views, and on the Monsal Trail you can walk the old Manchester-London railway line. Butterflies include the dark green fritillary and the brown argus, and there are always kestrel hunting.

5. Thorswood, Weaver Hills, Staffordshire

Here is 150 acres of grassland full of flowers, upland heath, open water and stunning views. In the meadows that have been kept mercifully free of chemicals are growing devils-bit scabious, ox-eye daisy, betony (often mistaken for an orchid), and knapweed. There are hares (they're bigger than rabbits with black tips to their ears), Iron Age barrows and dragonflies hunting over the pools. There are trail leaflets available and its important to keep to the designated tracks, as this is old mining country and falling down a disused shaft would rather spoil your day. If it's a bit chilly or damp, there's a barn in which to picnic.

6. Gigrin Farm, Rhayader, Powys

One of the great wildlife spectacles in Britain can be seen at this working sheep farm. Every day at 3pm in the summer (2pm in winter), what BBC 'Wildlife' magazine described as "the largest, most fantastic bird table in the world" is laid. Food is put out for the area's red kites, and often hundreds swirl in from miles around to take their meat. They are joined by buzzards, ravens and there is even a five-year-old kite with a completely white plumage. Viewing (and photographing) is from five hides, three with wheelchair access, and admission costs just £4 for adults, and £1.50 for children over five.

7. Cors Goch, Anglesey

Fen, grassland and heath in a long and shallow valley near Bangor. This was the North Wales Wildlife Trust's first reserve. The last of its impressive variety of orchids is now showing, and the meadows have enough wild flower colour to thrill the painter or photographer. The marsh gentian, and grass of Parnassus are the late-summer summer specialities, soon approaching their best. There are boardwalks through the wettest parts, which is just as well since this is one of the few Welsh sites for the medicinal leech. Birds include snipe, buzzard, stonechats and, in autumn and winter, marsh and hen harriers.

8. Horner Woods, Somerset

This is one of the finest ancient oakwoods in Britain. Set in a deep combe, through which Horner Water tumbles, it is the original enchanted wood, up whose rising tracks to the moorland you can walk for miles. There are more than 330 types of lichen (an indicator of the wonderful air here), dippers by the rocky waters, pied flycatchers in the trees, and butterflies like the silver-washed fritillary. Just a few miles from Minehead, the wood is grazed by red deer, and is a wonderfully cool sanctuary on a hot day. Fungi include the shaggy ink cap and sulphur polymore, and there is a quality tea-room by the car park.

9. Bovey Heathfield, Devon

Lowland heath reserve run by the Devon Wildlife Trust, which has more than 60 notable, endangered, or protected species. There are three types of heather here, and within them lurk slow worms, adders and lizards. Over its waters are no fewer than 20 species of dragonfly, and over the whole of the 50-acre site are more than 300 species of spider. Birds include the Dartford warbler, and, at dusk you might hear the churring of nightjars, often likened to a distant, low-powered motorbike. Plants include the insect-eating sundew, and the parasitic lousewort (prettily pink, despite its name) and the stringy dodder.

10. Chobham Common, Surrey

A vast Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve you could lose yourself in, even on a Bank holiday. Lowland heath at its finest – more than 100 bird species have been recorded including the Dartford warbler, nightjar, hobby and dragonfly-eating hawk, attracted by 22 species of dragonfly. The site is also outstanding for insects (such as this silver studded blue butterfly), and the best place in the country for ladybirds, bees and wasps. There are also pools with water voles, one of 21 different mammals that live here.

11. Noar Hill, Hampshire

A western outcrop of the South Downs near Selbourne, home of naturalist Gilbert White who called it "a noble chalk promontory". The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust has cleared much scrub on what is now one of the most valuable chalk downlands in Britain. Here are 11 types of orchid, most of which are now over, but the autumn gentian is just coming into its own. Some 35 species of butterfly breed here including the brown hairstreak, Duke of Burgundy, marbled white and silver-washed fritillary. There are glow-worms, and the curious fairy shrimp, which lives in puddles, and survives drought as an egg.

12. Ebernoe Common, Sussex

An ancient Low Wealden woodland, with oak and ash growing on the clay to the north of the 385-acre site, and beech to the more acidic south. There are wild service trees too, and, in parts, the lemon-scented fern. Bluebells and wild daffodils sprout in spring, but one of the chief glories is still to come: the fungi. More than 840 species have been recorded, including the stinkhorn, beefsteak, and chanterelle. It is one of the best sites in the UK for bats, with 14 of our species being recorded at this Sussex Wildlife Trust site.

13. Camley Street Natural Park, London

Visit this oasis a mere 10-minute walk from King's Cross, and you would never guess it was once a coalyard. Created in 1984, it has woodland, a pond, and marshy areas beside the Regent's Canal. Kingfishers and heron are regularly seen. There are reed warblers, willow warblers and coot, and the rare earthstar fungi. Dragonflies include the emperor, migrant hawker and ruddy darter, and among the butterflies are the holly blue, orange tip and Essex skipper. The site's volunteer staff welcome children. There is an education centre and a lively school holiday programme, including pond dipping.

14. Rye Meads, Hertfordshire

Ancient flood meadow, marshes, reedbeds, wet woodland, old gravel pits and lagoons in the Lea Valley wetlands complex that stretches from the Thames way up into rural Herts. Run jointly by the Hertfordshire Wildlife Trust and the RSPB, it has snipe, golden plover, teal, kingfisher, little ringed plover, common tern, redshank and, in winter, you might hear bittern (their boom sounds like someone blowing over the top of a large, empty milk bottle). A good place to see autumn migrants, it also has thriving populations of water voles, water shrews and harvest mice and is a stronghold of the otters that have re-colonised the Lea Valley recently.

15. Warburg, Oxfordshire

This Wildlife Trust reserve near Henley contains some of the most peaceful landscape in all Oxfordshire. Set in a secluded Chilterns valley, it has 264 acres of woodland, chalk grassland, coppice and little waters over which bats can be seen hunting in twilight. By day, this is red kite country: at times a dozen or more can be seen wheeling overhead, easily recognised by their size and forked tails. Early summer is a choice time for orchids (15 species have been recorded) and, in late summer and autumn this is one of the best places in the country for fungi with more than 900 different varieties.

16. Redgrave & Lopham Fen, Suffolk

This is the largest valley fen left in England. After peat-cutting and reed harvesting stopped, and post-war drainage was in full cry, the fen began to dry out. But the Suffolk Wildlife Trust has brought back the water, and the result is a flora good enough to count among it butterwort, and plentiful dragonflies, upon which the hobbies feed. There are 27 species of butterflies and Polish Konik ponies, brought in for their discriminating grazing.

17. Snettisham, Norfolk

This relatively well-known RSPB reserve near Hunstanton is included for a spectacle that takes place daily. The incoming tide forces thousands of wading birds on this southern edge of The Wash to leave the mudflats and crowd on to a diminishing area of ground near the hides. Especially good site for common tern, avocet and bar-tailed godwit, and, as the nights draw in, the vast flocks of knot arriving at sunset. Guided walks through August and September.

18. Brockadale, Yorkshire

This dale's geology has given it a good variety of habitats, and one of the richest floras in the country. Ancient woods, crags, water courses, flood meadows, plantations, scree and magnesian limestone grassland are home to more than 300 species of flowering plants, including rock rose, four species of violet, and lily of the valley. This Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve, near Kirk Smeaton, also has a good crop of butterflies, with marbled white, speckled wood, holly blue, ringlet and comma. It is one of only two sites in England where the tiny snail, truncatellina cylindrical is found.

19. Low Barns, Durham

More than 120 acres of wetland run by the Durham Wildlife Trust. Developed after the ending of gravel digging along the banks of the Wear, it is a series of interconnected lakes and marsh, criss-crossed by wooden boardwalks. There are plenty of butterflies and dragonflies, stoat, fox and roe deer, but the chief glory is the birdlife. Bittern, hoopoe and wryneck have visited recently, summer migrants include the pied flycatcher, and the wildfowl are at their best in the autumn and winter, with tufted duck, goldeneye and goosander.

20. Falls of Clyde, Strathclyde

This Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve near New Lanark is notable for its four fantastic waterfalls, breeding peregrines, and bees. There are also five species of bat, badgers, water birds such as the dipper and kingfisher, and a wealth of fungi in autumn. It features regular exhibitions and the most recent, a timely Bee Hotel, allowed visitors to peer into a hive containing a colony of around 15,000 bees. The programme of events also includes bat walks, and dusk safaris plus, later in the summer, a tour of some of the site's fungi. All that and an excellent visitor centre too.

Useful organisations:

Wildlife Trusts ( and find your county on the reserves page); Scottish Natural Heritage (; Forestry Commission (; Woodland Trust (; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (

How to watch wildlife:

* Go to nature reserves – you're then guaranteed to see something. Arable farmland can have less wildlife than a city.

* Get a decent pair of binoculars. Anything under £100 new is unlikely to do the job properly. Pay attention to field of vision as well as magnification. Wide field is good, narrow will be dim, and show up every tiny shake of the hands.

* Get good field guides, but leave them at home. Use your digital camera as a notebook, record that unfamiliar bird, plant or insect, and then check it out with the books at home.

* The best way to identify what you're seeing is ask someone who knows what they're doing – a passing warden, or someone with a scope. Most will happily share their knowledge.

* If with young children, go to somewhere structured and child-friendly, like the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust venues.

* Go to what seems a promising location on a reserve and let the wildlife come to you. It's what nature cameramen do.

Secret Britian: Heritage

Heritage venues are often a matter of individual taste. One person's fascinating old castle is another's big yawn. So we have tried to avoid niche interests, and gone for places that are, well, fun.

1. Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk

The definitive medieval moated manor house, featuring secret doors, priest's hole, walled orchard, kitchen garden, and Tudor gatehouse. Run by the National Trust, it has been occupied by the same family since 1482. It has strong connections with Mary, Queen of Scots, some of whose embroidery is on display. It also featured in an episode of 'Dad's Army'. There are tours by guides in period dress, and, in the Armoury, children (and adults) can try on historical costumes. There are also woodland walks and trails.

2. Downham, Lancashire

If you had to choose one place to symbolise England at its best, it would be this village in the Pendle Hills. Unspoilt hardly does it justice. Still owned by the local squire (Lord Clitheroe), there are, at his behest, no TV aerials, road markings, overhead wires, satellite TV dishes, and the like. Instead, stone houses and cottages that drape over the hill towards the brook and its bridge. The setting for the Bryan Forbes-Richard Attenborough film 'Whistle Down the Wind', and television's 'Born and Bred', it has a car park hidden by trees, and gives anyone under 50 a sight of what many of our villages used to look like.

3. Heights of Abraham Cable Car, Derbyshire

One of Britain's oldest tourist attractions, now refurbished. The Heights of Abraham (so-called because an army officer thought them similar to the cliffs outside Montreal) welcomed their inaugural tourists in 1780, and just over 200 years later, the country's first alpine cable car system was built to carry people from Matlock Bath to the summit, with its views of the Derwent valley. The new cars, installed in 2004, have floor-to-ceiling windows for extraordinary views. Once up top, there is the Victoria Tower, and two show caves, which are partly natural and partly the result of lead mining.

4. Sewer Tours, East Sussex

You've produced the effluent – now see the result, at Britain's only regular sewer tours. Southern Water, whose responsibility these tunnels are, runs twice-weekly summer tours, starting at Arch 260, beneath the entrance to the Palace Pier, Brighton. The sewers date to 1865 and carry 22 million gallons a day. As well as a hard hat, visitors need a strong nose. It's a pleasure to find a tourist attraction without a gift shop. Tours must be booked (01903 272606), there are vacancies for August and September. Adults £10.

5. Lark Hill Place, Salford

Highly detailed, imaginative re-creation of a Victorian Northern street, as it would have been at tea-time on a winter's eve. Tomlinson's corner shop has everything from sugar cones to gas mantles and sweets made from their original moulds by Terry's of York. There's Louisa Greenhalgh's haberdashery, a music shop, tobacconist, Bracegirdle's the wheelwrights, a printer's shop, John Hamer the chemist and druggist, Renk's the pawnbroker (where many went to afford the drugs they needed), a toy shop, the Blue Lion pub (with fixtures and fittings from demolitions), Mrs Driver and her leeches, and more.

6. Anderton Boat Lift, Cheshire

One of Britain's freakiest bits of industrial archaeology, which does exactly what its name suggests: it lifts boats over the 50ft vertical drop that divides the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal. The world's first such contraption, it was built in 1875 near Northwich, and operated until 1983. It was then restored, and re-opened six years ago. You can try it for yourself aboard the 'Edwin Clark' (named after the lift's designer), which also offers visitors a further ride along the Weaver Navigation, once crowded with freight, now with wildlife. There is also an exhibition and picnic areas.

7. Rousham, Oxfordshire

One of the most refreshing heritage sites in Britain: no souvenir shop, no café, no tea towels or mugs – just one of the best-preserved 18th-century gardens in the country (the work of William Kent), and a beautifully proportioned house. There are ponds, cascades, temples, other romantic "ruins", a cold bath, statuary, arcades, rills, a herd of picturesque long-horn cattle, the River Cherwell and a walled garden with parterre, borders, wall-trained fruit trees and a pigeon house. Everywhere you look is a view. Note: children under 15 are not admitted, and neither are dogs.

8. Chyauster Ancient Village, Cornwall

One of the oldest preserved villages in Britain. Situated three miles north of Penzance, it consists of nine stone-walled courtyard houses about 28 metres long, of a type found only on the Land's End peninsular and on the Isles of Scilly, built in the late Iron Age, some 2,000 years ago. Each house has its own terraced garden and courtyard, off which rooms are arranged, and the whole village is encircled by a stone wall. The roofs would have been thatch, supported by a large post. These, of course, are gone, but walls, up to three metres high, remain. An English Heritage property.

9. Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent

These very well-preserved remains near Eynsford, just off the M25, are a chronicle of the opening 400 years of the first millennium AD. Here, in places, are walls and steps, not mere foundations, and there are the oldest wall paintings cared for by English Heritage. This large Roman farmstead, extended over successive generations, was taken over by Christians and the chapel and its symbols are some of the earliest evidence of the faith in Britain. The extensive mosaics are, like many in this country, charming but rather naïve versions of the best that can be found in Italy. Open daily.

10. Royal College of Music's Museum of Instruments, London

The definitive place in Britain to see the history of music-making. The collection, started more than 100 years ago, now has more than 600 instruments. The earliest is a "clavicytherium" made in Germany in 1480. It is the earliest known stringed keyboard instrument. Most of the items on display relate to western classical music, with a clavichord once owned by Haydn, and a spinet belonging to Handel. Like some of the best, but little known museums, this is not open daily.

11. Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, London

Here are all the colourful lids, wrappers, tins, bottles, packets and cans that will evoke your childhood more effectively than anything else. There are 12,000 items from the collection that consumer historian Robert Opie started when he was 16 with a packet of Munchies. Previously in Gloucester, the collection moved to Notting Hill three years ago. The exhibits cover the whole of consumer history, allowing you to not just wallow in the memory of kitchens and Christmases long ago, but also appreciate that trying to beguile customers is no recent aspiration. Open daily, except Mondays.

12. No 78 Derngate, Northamptonshire

The only house Charles Rennie Mackintosh ever designed in England. It was a commission carried out for Wenman Bassett-Lowke, whose firm was famous for its superb models of locomotives. Curiously, the man whose work evokes such nostalgia was an ardent modernist and he refused to have anything in his house older than he was. Rennie Mackintosh's designs for this small Georgian-fronted house are startling: black walls, a reception room decorated with golden triangles and chequered trees, and a canopy of severe stripes over a bed. Plus displays of models, and refreshments. A gem.

13. Maud Foster Mill, Lincolnshire

Widely regarded as Britain finest working windmill, the towering Maud Foster (seven floors tall) has stood sentinel beside the water at Boston since 1819. It fell out of use in the late 1940s, and was at one time destined to become flats. But Basil Reckitt (of Reckitt and Coleman fame) came to the rescue, and the mill re-opened in 1988. Its four pairs of millstones now produce a variety of different kinds of flour, porridge oats and muesli. Visitors can climb all the way to the top, and, thankfully, there is a tearoom as well.

14. Shambellie House Museum, Dumfries and Galloway

Scotland's National Museum of Costume shows how our dress evolved from the 1850s to the 1950s. Set in a country house near New Abbey, it displays costumes on mannequins in room settings: a summer dining room in 1895, a drawing room of 1945, a family setting out from the library for Hogmanay 1952, a playroom in 1913. There are also displays of accessories, showing the parasols and bits and pieces without which no Victorian or Edwardian lady would dream of leaving home. Open daily.

15. Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire

This is the NHM's weird, wonderful and slightly spooky northern branch. Based on the collections of animals, birds and insects accumulated by Walter Rothschild in the 19th century, it has 4,000 stuffed or preserved specimens from around the world, including some extinct species, polar bears, apes, flying fish and hummingbirds. One of the most striking collections is the 88 stuffed and mounted domestic dogs. A great centre for research, especially on birds, the museum is also adept at entrancing children with the natural world. Open daily.

16. Dukes Wood, Nottinghamshire

This is one of the most remarkable places in Britain – the site of the country's first onshore oilfield. It operated between 1939 and 1966, producing 280,000 tonnes, some of which was invaluable during the war, when it was pumped across the Channel in the Pluto pipeline. Some of the nodding donkey pumps have been preserved. The oak, ash and hazel woodland (which camouflaged the oil workings during the war) has red deer, stoat and badger instead of oilmen. Now a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve, there are common blue, peacock, brimstone, gatekeeper, and wall brown butterflies.

17. Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire

Just the place to take the kids when they've been acting up and demanding more and more money for summertime baubles: Britain's most complete workhouse. Let your little darlings see how the other half lived not so many decades ago – the workyards (the men broke stones and picked oakum, the women washed and knitted), the dormitories, cellars, the enforced silence, and the meagre meals that were theirs. Opened in 1824, it ran several decades into the 20th century, and has been restored to its bleak heyday by the National Trust. A therapeutic day out for all the family.

18. York Cold War Bunker, North Yorkshire

English Heritage says this is its "most unusual and spine-chilling site" – a semi-sunken shelter dating from 1961 in which the 60 Royal Observer Corps and associated bureaucrats, who might have had to repopulate Yorkshire after Armageddon, would have monitored nuclear bombings. Behind the bomb-proof doors are control rooms, sleeping quarters, decontamination rooms and sewage ejectors. All very quaint, until you realise the place was on high alert during the Cuban missile crisis. It retains all its period fittings, and is now a scheduled monument. At weekends and bank holidays, tours every half hour; weekdays for groups only.

19. Warkworth Hermitage, Northumberland

A short stroll along the banks of the River Coquet, with the magnificent cross-shaped keep of Warkworth Castle glowering over you, leads you to a point opposite a late medieval hermitage. In summer months, visitors ring a bank-side bell to summon the ferryman, who crosses the river to row them to the far bank where the hermitage stands. There is a small entrance fee, allowing pretentious visitors to ask: "Who pays the ferryman?" The hermitage, carved out of the rock, is a small, rib-vaulted chapel, with rooms adjoining, where lived the hermits. Open Wednesdays, Sundays and bank holidays.

20. Barter Books, Northumberland

This is, at 32,000 sq ft, one of the largest second-hand bookshops in Europe, and is housed within the old Victorian Alnwick railway station, built on a grand scale to suit the Duke of Northumberland's orders that it should be suitable to receive royalty. They have an innovative system whereby you can take your unwanted books in, and the shop will then give you a barter value for them which you can use when selecting from their stock. There are 22 different sections, including oversize books housed in the former Ladies First Class Waiting Room. All that, plus coffees, cookies and open fires in the winter.

Useful organisations:

English Heritage (; National Trust (; Historic Houses Association (; National Trust for Scotland (; Historic Scotland (; Cadw (

Where do you go to escape the crowds?

Many readers will have their own ideas of the best little-known places in Britain: those favourite picnic spots, coves, villages, views and days out that few others seem to know about. At the risk of finding them over-run with Independent on Sunday readers, we would like to hear of these, so we can, at the end of our 'Secret Britain' series, share them with everyone. Send your suggestions to us via the link at the bottom of the page.

Secret Britain: Scenery

If you want clichés, buy a 'Beautiful Scotland' or 'Picturesque England' calendar and visit the places shown. Even allowing for a bit of retouching, you won't be disappointed. For a few surprises, visit some of our selections.

1. The Coffin Route, Cumbria

A special part of the Lakes, being the track along which the dead were carried for burial from Ambleside to Grasmere Church. No mourners have ever had such a view. The route passes Rydal Hall, Wordsworth's Rydal Mount, the poet's writing hut, St Mary's Church, and Rydal and Grasmere Lakes. Instead of walking into Grasmere, take the fork going uphill to Alcock Tarn, beautiful, but a mere puddle in Lakeland terms. Here is one of the great scenes of the North, denied, of course, to those who cannot bear to stray far from their car.

2. Keith & Dufftown Railway, Moray

Here, from the window of an old diesel train, are 11 miles of classic Scottish scenery. Starting at Dufftown, "malt whisky capital of the world", you trundle past the Glenfiddich distillery, the 13th-century Balvenie Castle, on a viaduct over the river, up a steep climb, through woods, beside hills, Loch Park, by the shores of the river Isla, past Drummuir Castle, into pine forest, out across farmland to Auchindachy and its water mill, over the river twice, before rolling into Keith Town station. Runs Friday, Saturday, Sunday in August, weekends only in September, and closed thereafter.

3. A3055, Isle of Wight

If there is a better coastal road in all England than that from Ventnor to Freshwater, then we have yet to meet it. A rolling road of steep climbs and descents, with the downs on your right and the coast and English Channel on your left. All along the southernmost edge of the island the cliffs rise and fall, and so do you, since the road tracks them wonderfully. Well worth taking time to pull into the car park above Blackgang Chine, where the view makes even the screams from the fun-fair out of sight below, seem tolerable.

4. Ingram Valley, Northumberland

The sluggish River Breamish runs through the valley, and on sunny days it has got to be one of the country's best picnic spots. In a wooded area just outside the village, there is a visitor centre for Northumberland National Park. After lunch, take the two-mile track up the hill to see Linhope Spout, at about 60ft, reputedly England's highest single-drop waterfall. Another of the many walks hereabouts will take you through the bracken to Brough Law, featuring an Iron Age hill fort, and magnificent views of the northern Cheviots.

5. The Ercall, Shropshire

If you want to do more than merely look at scenery, but understand how it is composed, then this is the place to come. Here, aside from oak woods and stunning views, are the evidence of the forces that formed the landscape: the remnants of lava from volcanoes, and a fossilised beach revealing that 20 million years ago shallow seas invaded the area's arid desert (and left behind ripples in the sand that can be seen today). Internationally famous for its geology, the Ercall also has butterflies such as the dingy skipper and green hairstreak, among the 821 species of invertebrates recorded here.

6. Pistyll Rhaeadr, Powys

This is the highest waterfall in England and Wales, a stupendous crash of water from a height of 240ft. This, believe it or not, makes it considerably higher than Niagara Falls (although the immense width of that cascade rather makes up for this). The waters, from the Afon Disgynfa river, fall in three stages over the wooded cliff face, and finally reach a deep pool at the bottom. The falls – named as one of the Seven Wonders of Wales – are reached through the village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, Powys, 12 miles west of Oswestry. There is a car park nearby, and a café.

7. Greenham Common, Berkshire

This is one of the UK's most uplifting bits of scenery, mainly because of what it once was. The cruise missile base, scene of constant protest in the 1980s, was closed in 1992, and by 2000 was fully open to the public. Since then the Greenham Common Trust has restored its 750 acres, and it now has heaths, dry gravel areas, grassland, and, at the edge, woods. Plants include autumn lady's tresses, orchids, heather, and the 5ft tall silky bent grass; there are peregrines, ringed plover and Dartford warblers; and a healthy population of adders.

8. A39, Above Porlock Hill, Somerset

You might think the A39 road from Bridgwater to Porlock is fine enough, what with the Quantocks, Blackdown Hills and Exmoor looming on your left and odd glimpses of the sea on your right. But climb Porlock Hill, go a little beyond and pull off into one of the car parks on the right, and you will be rewarded with one of the views of England. From left to right: the Bristol Channel, Porlock Vale scooping between the heights away from the sea, purple heather as the moors rise to Dunkery, and, in between, steeply wooded combes.

9. Viewpoint, The Verne, Portland, Dorset

Nearly everyone knows about Chesil Beach, the 18-mile long shingle beach that runs with its graded pebbles from West Bay to Portland, but few know the best place to see it. The beach is pretty impressive at ground level, viewed across the saline lagoon which little egrets, those small, white heron-like invaders of the last 20 years, have found so congenial. But it is best seen on high, spread out before you like the coastline of a megalomaniacal railway modeller. Head, then, to Portland's Verne viewpoint above at Foretuneswell.

10. Peter Scott Walk, Norfolk

You won't find this featuring in any "Beautiful Britain" calendar of chocolate-box views. This is the southern part of the Wash – a sea, sand, and mudflatscape giving visitors vistas as open (some, especially on a rainy day, would say bleak) as any in England. But this walk around the habitat of artist and conservationist Sir Peter Scott is oddly uplifting, a sort of sand-blasting for the soul. From the sea defence bank can be seen clouds of waders and geese, the nearest these parts get to commuters, all swarming in for a feed on the flats when the tide is right.

Useful organisations:

National Trust (; Scottish Natural Heritage (; VisitBritain (

Compiled and researched by Sophie Clayton-Payne, with thanks to the National Trust, VisitBritain, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, English Heritage, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, National Piers Society, Paul Jones of the Press Association, and many others.

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