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Britain's National Parks: As nature intended

It's National Parks Week – a chance to celebrate Britain's varied wilderness, from wetlands to moors and mountains, says Sarah Baxter

What's the attraction?

Variety, that's what. Great Britain has 15 diverse national parks, from the New Forest's pony-grazed heath and woodland to the high mountain plateau of the Cairngorms. They are spectacular landscapes, and we love them: according to a 2012 survey, nine out of 10 English people say national parks are important to them.

The parks are also lived in and welcoming. And this is never more true than during National Parks Week (until 4 August; nationalparks.gov.uk), which encourages us all to get the most out of Britain's wild places. There are special events going on until Sunday – for example, Northumberland's Walltown Quarry (northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk) is transforming into a zipwire-and-zorb adventure world – but the main aim is to highlight the wealth of adventurous possibilities that national parks provide year-round.

Get wet

As the country's largest protected wetland, The Broads (broads-authority.gov.uk) in Norfolk is the park for waterborne fun. The most traditional option is to wend through the bird-rich reeds on a wherry – the single-sail, gaff-rigged boats beloved of 19th-century Broadsmen. Wherry Yacht Charter (01692 630674; wherryyachtcharter.org) offers skippered trips on historic 10-berth boats, from £450 per day or £2,200 per week; you can assist the skipper as much or as little as you like.

To up the adrenalin levels, head for the Pembrokeshire Coast (pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk). On TYF's No Limits weekend offered by GreenTraveller, you'll kayak, surf, coasteer and abseil the craggy shores, retiring to a posh bell tent each night (bit.ly/NoLimitsPC; from £290pp plus £7pppn campsite fees).

Learn from the land

Pick up heritage skills at Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland (northumberlandnational park.org.uk). Here, plans are afoot to create a new Landscape Discovery Centre in Once Brewed by 2016; called The Sill (01434 344396; thesill.org.uk), it will run a range of outdoor courses. Trial workshops, giving a taster of what The Sill will offer, include Stone Carving (14 September; £60pp) and Pole Raising – the art of turning wood into table legs (29 September; £60pp) .

You can also learn a traditional rural skill in the South Downs (southdowns.gov.uk). The Weald & Downland Open Air Museum (01243 811363; wealddown.co.uk), 50 acres of preserved buildings dating from between 1300 and 1910 near Chichester, teaches everything from scything (one day; £60pp) to heavy horse ploughing (one day; £85pp).

Spy wildlife

The Cairngorms (visitcairngorms.com) is home to a quarter of Britain's rarest wildlife. The Wild Cairngorms hiking trip, run by Scot Mountain Holidays, aims to spot some of it; there are guided walks through varied habitats – from ancient pine groves to high plateaus – plus a dusk visit to try to glimpse elusive pine marten (01479 831 331; scotmountainholidays.com; four nights departing 17 October costs £431pp, full board).

At the other end of the country, Exmoor (exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk) is another wildlife haven. Experience Exmoor offers luxury Land Rover safaris; it has exclusive access to National Trust tracks as well as expert spotters who can point out ponies, red deer and more (01271 889 316; experienceexmoor.co.uk; three hours £30pp).

Take to two wheels

With Yorkshire hosting the grand départ of the 2014 Tour de France, the Peak District (peak district.gov.uk) in neighbouring Derbyshire is getting in on the pedal revolution, too. The first Peak District Cycling Festival will be held 7-15 September this year, with more than 60 guided rides and activities; Peak Cycle Hire (www.peakdistrict.gov.uk/cycle) will offer half-price hire during the festival.

Or book a whole holiday: Peak Tours' four-day self-guided Heart of the Peak trip visits Buxton, Stanage and Chatsworth via spectacular cycle rides (01457 851 462; peak-tours.com; from £230pp).

For white-knuckle fans, the Brecon Beacons (beacons-npa.gov.uk) has some of the UK's best mountain-biking trails – there are 14 single-track routes, offering plenty of choice; waterproof maps are available (01874 623 366; mtbbreconbeacons.co.uk; from £5).

Lace up

Head to the Lake District (lakedistrict.gov.uk) to raise a glass to Wainwright, the author of the famous illustrated guides to the area. Ramblers Holidays' new one-week Ale & Amble trip, based at Hassness Country House on Lake Buttermere, combines hikes (including Haystacks, Wainwright's favourite) with its best pints, stopping frequently at atmospheric Lakeland pubs; departs 28 September (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk; £469pp including room and most meals).

Or delve into the Yorkshire Dales (yorkshiredales.org.uk). Inntravel's four-night self-guided Classic Yorkshire Dales break wanders between the park's castles, comely villages and drystone-walled slopes, stopping at characterful inns and guesthouses each night, between March and October (01653 617 001; inntravel.co.uk; £378pp B&B).

Fuel your adventures

All this activity can build an appetite. Happily, Britain's protected areas often produce fine foods. Take the North York Moors (northyorkmoors.org.uk), where Real Staithes' new Mackerel: Catch, Cook, Consume trip sees you sail out from seaside Staithes, land your own fish, then learn how to prepare it (01947 840278; realstaithes.com; two hours £20pp).

In Snowdonia (snowdonia-npa.gov.uk), sample the local delights on one of Snowdonia Safari's day-long food tours. Options include the Tipple Trail, which visits small wine, ale and liqueur producers, and the Cheese Chase, a fromagey foray around Wales's best dairy farms; next trip 20 September (07528 771483; snowdonia-safari.com; £75pp with lunch).

National park stays

Loch Lomond View's smart two-bed apartment on the lakeshore is part of a private castle (07710 409 299; loch-lomond-view.com; four nights from £365). You can get cosy in a shepherd's hut in the South Downs (023 92 632990; wrigglytinhuts.co.uk; from £75pn), or hide away in a Swedish-style wood cabin – complete with hot tub – in the Peak District (Bilberry Lodge; 01275 395 447, canopyandstars.co.uk; from £80pn). For that classic cottage feel, try Widecombe Hay Loft, a snug Dartmoor retreat for two (01237 426 256; holidaycottages.co.uk; from £250pw) or Rhyd-Fudr, an 18th-century mountain eyrie, perched above a Snowdonia lake (0844 5005 101; underthethatch.co.uk; two nights from £181; sleeps four).

Who Said That?

"[The Lake District is] sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy." William Wordsworth, poet

"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." John Muir, naturalist

Insider information

"Visiting a national park is a wonderful journey of discovery. Start at national parks.gov.uk and look at the listings – there are events almost every day, from ranger walks to family activities. Do learn something about the park you're visiting and try to put something back – for instance, by buying locally sourced food." – Jim Dixon, Lead Officer for National Parks UK