To mark the 60th anniversary of the legislation that provided protection to our most precious landscapes, Simon Calder celebrates the wealth of history and nature on our doorstep

Where should I start?

On the hill where the campaign for free access to Britain's wilderness began. In 1932, much of the UK's outdoors were out-of-bounds. It took the courage of thousands of people, traipsing from the Midlands industrial belt and the Lancashire mill towns to the raw heart of England, to open up the countryside. They took part in a "mass trespass" of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire, the highest point in the middle of Britain – standing 2,088 feet above sea level. One of the organisers was sentenced to six months in prison for his part, but eventually the case for access to the countryside was recognised with the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. Two years later, Britain's first National Park, the Peak District, was created.

It started a trend: today about 10 per cent of Britain's land area is protected within the 14 National Parks (the 15th, the South Downs, is in the process of creation). Unlike in some countries, the land within the boundaries of each National Park is mostly in private hands. Restrictions on its use help preserve some of the remaining open space in this crowded country.

They get more than 100 million visitors each year – and the Peak District is said to be the second-most visited National Park in the world after Mount Fuji in Japan. Today, the Park offers scenery ranging from bleak hilltops to deep gorges, and from awesome to ornate. You can ascend Kinder Scout by taking the A57 Manchester-Sheffield road to the point where it meets the Pennine Way, the 267-mile long-distance footpath along the spine of northern England. Head south on the path. Flagstones assist the climb, but in a landscape flattened by aeons of lively weather, identifying the summit is tricky: search for the small triangle that marks the highest point. Then look at the surroundings: on a clear day the barren peak of the Peak District bestows a magnificent 360-degree view. To the east, valleys snake towards South Yorkshire, to the west Victorian railway viaducts direct your eye towards the towers of Manchester.

Descend from here via Jacob's Ladder to the softer, rounder landscapes of southern Derbyshire and the village of Edale – the end (or start) of the Pennine Way. At the Old Nag's Head Inn (01433 670291) and the Rambler Inn (01433 670268) you can find beer, bed and breakfast.

Something less demanding?

Southern softies can head for the low-rise National Parks nearest to London: the Broads in Norfolk and the New Forest.

The fine city of Norwich is the gateway to the Broads, which comprise a series of shallow artificial lakes. The Romans first cut peat for fuel; in the Middle Ages, local monasteries began to excavate the stuff as a profitable side-industry. As sea levels rose, the pits they dug began to flood. Despite the construction of dykes and windmills, the flooding continued and resulted in the Broads landscapes of today, with reed beds, woodland and grazing marshes – home to rare wildlife, such as the swallowtail butterfly. It remains very popular as a place to hire a boat to get out and explore the waterways.

The best place from which to survey the waterscape is St Helen's Church in Ranworth – known as "The Cathedral of the Broads". This 15th-century structure has the most perfectly preserved rood screen in the country, embellished with intricate pictures of the disciples, and a stone spiral staircase to the top of the tower from where you can see half of Norfolk. Close by, a boardwalk takes you through the reed beds to the edge of Ranworth Broad.

The Broads has an increasing number of indulgent places to stay, such as the Broad House Hotel (01603 783 567; broadhousehotel.co.uk ), a luxury boutique hotel located in a beautiful 18th-century Queen Anne residence alongside Wroxham Broad.

How new is the New Forest?

As a National Park, one of the latest, created in 2005. But the name is misleading: it is neither new nor particularly forested, and "Old Heath" is a more accurate description. Wild woodland was reduced to bare heathland by mesolithic man, who used primitive tools to clear the trees, tore the goodness from the earth and moved on, leaving thin soil and poor prospects. In 1079, William the Conqueror named the "Nova Foresta" as the first royal reserve. A parcel of land between Winchester and the coast was given over to His Majesty's pleasure and to supply fresh meat for the royal table. Today the New Forest is an ecological curiosity combining heaths and mires, woodland and pasture – and criss-crossed by paths that allow easy exploration on foot, by bike or on horseback on native New Forest ponies.

The hub of the National Park is Lyndhurst (023 8028 2269; thenewforest.co.uk for information). Don't miss Buckler's Hard, which once helped Britannia rule the waves. Two rows of cottages tumble down to the waterside, on either side of a broad green. The biggest dwelling, the Master Builder's House, belonged to Henry Adams – who was responsible for much of the fleet which won the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His home is now a hotel (01590 616253), with 23 rooms and good views across the Beaulieu estuary.

Westward Ho?

This North Devon resort is not actually part of a protected area, but – along with places like Barnstaple, Chumleigh and Exeter, it is well placed for exploring England's two south-western National Parks, Exmoor and Dartmoor.

Exmoor is rare among English National Parks in that it has a long stretch of shoreline, part of the South West Coast Path. The ideal way to approach it is on the West Somerset Railway – which closed down in 1971, but was rescued by enthusiasts and now runs from Bishop's Lydeard, four miles west of Taunton, to the coast. The 15-mile hike from Minehead to Lynmouth and Lynton (the latter stands high above the former) is a demanding one-day hike that takes you through some of the finest coastal scenery in Britain. Horse-riding is a popular activity; beginners are expertly looked after at West Anstey Farm in Dulverton (01398 341354) and Doone Valley Stables outside V CLynton (01598 741278). From Lynmouth, the 102-mile Two Moors Way leads south to the higher and more desolate moorlands of Dartmoor.

"It is a great place, very sad and wild, dotted with the dwellings of prehistoric man, strange monoliths and huts and graves," wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to his mother in a letter penned at the Duchy Hotel in Princetown. The year was 1901, and Sherlock Holmes' creator was researching The Hound of the Baskervilles – his celebrated mystery about a phantom hound and foul deeds.

Dartmoor's central settlement has not changed much since then. The moor, the mist, the walls of HM Prison and the huddled houses continue to make Princetown a study in grey. But the Duchy Hotel has become the High Moorlands Visitor Centre (01822 890414; dartmoor-npa.gov.uk ), which opens 10am-5pm daily (to 4pm from November to March). Here, you can separate the facts from the fiction and wander off safely to explore this slab of ancient rock rising from the county's soft fringes. Devon escaped the ice ages, and during the relatively warm millennium before the birth of Christ the uplands were densely forested. Plenty of evidence of early human habitation survives, chronicled by ancient stones slowly melting back into the dark Dartmoor granite (the stone used for Nelson's Column). Current risks to humanity here include live firing by the forces, and the fickle terrain and weather one-third of a mile above the English Riviera.

England's greenest and most pleasant land?

The North. Draw a line between York and Lancaster, and no fewer than four National Parks are located between here and the Scottish border.

The two Yorkshire parks feel quite different, yet they share a common thread: both have railway lines that reach places off-limits to cars. The western parts of the Yorkshire Dales National Park are served by the Settle and Carlisle Railway (part of the national network; settlecarlisle.co.uk ), while the North York Moors Railway (a heritage line with steam-hauled trains; nymr.co.uk ) cuts between Pickering and Whitby.

The Yorkshire Dales offers two challenging ways to explore the valleys that carve through the county. The first, for walkers, is our old friend the Pennine Way, which cuts south-north through the most spectacular landscapes, linking Malhamdale with the higher stretches of the River Greta on the County Durham border. It passes Hardraw Force – Britain's highest unbroken waterfall, which thunders over a lip of rock to plummet into a foaming pool. It's not Niagara, but don't miss it while you wander through the Dales. Access (£2) is via the ancient and jolly Green Dragon pub (01969 667392; greendragonhardraw.com ), which is also a good place to eat, drink and stay along the Pennine Way (try some Ribblehead Porter, the dark-brown beer from the Yorkshire Dales Brewing Company in Askrigg whose label depicts the arches of the magnificent railway span).

The other great Dale trail is for cyclists: the Yorkshire Dales Cycle Way, a 130-mile circuit best accessed in Skipton, a pretty town on the Park's southern edge with good rail links.

Moor of Yorkshire

The western side of the North York Moors National Park is best explored by bicycle, on the stretch of the Sustrans National Cycle Network Route 1 linking York with Middlesbrough. Once into the Park, you climb quickly (or, in my case, slowly – I was on a three-speed Brompton folding bicycle) through picturesque villages filled with flowers to bleak moorland.

The best places to stay are in the valleys that carve up this lunar landscape. One of the YHA's flagship hostels is the former village school in Lockton, a "Green Beacon" property which has everything from solar panels on the roof to composting toilets.

The North York Moors has a stirring stretch of coastline, and 20 miles north of Lockton on the A169, you find another great youth hostel. It comprises the former monks' quarters in the grounds of ruins of Whitby Abbey, and boasts remarkable architectural features – including the original wattle and daub, on show for the enlightenment of guests and visitors. More information on both properties from 0870 870 8808 or yha.org.uk .

Whitby is an excellent base for exploring the coast, including the fascinating smugglers' village of Robin Hood's Bay.

In the other direction, the North York Moors juts into Cumbria – home of the National Park regarded by many as England's loveliest.

A host of golden daffodils?

Environmental protection for the Lake District was canvassed as long ago as 1810 by William Wordsworth, who urged that the patch of (then) Cumberland and Westmoreland which he loved should become "national property, in which every man has a right". He was born on the coast of (present-day) Cumbria at Cockermouth, but later settled at Dove Cottage in Grasmere. He was an enthusiastic walker, thinking nothing of a 20-mile trek over the fells to Keswick. He composed poetry in his head during such journeys, and dictated the results to the ladies of the house on his return. Dove Cottage (015394 35544; wordsworth.org.uk ) is open to the public 9.30am-5.30pm daily, admission £6.50. Visitors can tour the rooms in which he lived, and also visit the modern museum that houses a collection of the poet's manuscripts and memorabilia.

Close by, Ambleside is a stop for Windermere Lake Cruises (01539 443360; windermere-lakecruises.co.uk ), which operates an excellent schedule of services every day except Christmas, linking Lakeside, Bowness and Waterhead near Ambleside. A ticket allowing unlimited travel for 24 hours costs £15.

Britain's finest park-within-a-National Park is just above Ambleside; nip up the lane between Barclay's Bank and the Market Hall, and you will reach Stock Ghyll Park, where a dramatic half-hour hike reveals a first-rate waterfall on a hillside that, in spring, is bedecked with daffodils.

The classic hike through the whole National Park is the Cumbria Way, a 68-mile walk across the heart of the Lake District, starting in Ulverston and ending in Carlisle. It grazes Coniston, scales Stake Pass and flanks Derwent Water.

Accommodation in the Lake District ranges from campsites to luxurious country-house hotels – such as the place where Beatrix Potter spent her holidays as a child. Lindeth Howe at Longtail Hill on Windermere was later bought by the writer for her mother, and is now a hotel set in six acres of private gardens (01539 445759; lindeth-howe.co.uk ).

At this time of year you won't be wandering as lonely as a cloud; to avoid adding to the chronic summer traffic congestion, use the 555 bus, which runs regularly between Keswick and Kendal, via Ambleside and Grasmere. It takes in much of the beauty of the area that so attracted Wordsworth and his pals. Some services are operated by open-top vehicles, giving a far better view than motorists enjoy (Cumbria Traveline: 0870 608 2 608; traveline.co.uk ).

For those who like the idea of travelling by road, but don't want to negotiate the steep mountain passes and narrow lanes themselves, Mountain Goat (015394 45161; mountain-goat.com ) can offer guided sightseeing trips by car or minibus.

England's final frontier?

Northumberland National Park (01434 605555; nnpa.org.uk ), best visited next month when the heather is flowering on the hills where England collides with Scotland. It encompasses the Cheviot Hills that rise north-west of Newcastle, ruined castles and Kielder Reservoir. But the main feature of the 405-square mile National Park is Hadrian's Wall, the only stone-built frontier in the history of the Roman Empire. This a necklace of stone, which stretches from the Solway Firth west of Carlisle to the aptly named Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east, was created in the second century to keep out the Caledonian "barbarians".

The most scenic surviving stretch is through Sycamore Gap and up on to Housesteads Crags. Housesteads is the best-known fort on Hadrian's Wall, and the most complete such Roman construction in Britain. You should also visit the Roman fort of Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian's Wall, which pre-dates the structure by 40 years and provides a fascinating glimpse of life for the men (and women) stationed at the bitter end of the Roman Empire.

Wild Wales

The Principality possesses the perfect pair of National Parks: in the north, lonely, stirring mountain landscapes; to the south, a corrugated coastline brimming with wildlife.

Although the core of Snowdonia National Park is crammed into a corner of Wales, pinched between the North and Cambrian coasts, from up high the crags seem to spin away endlessly, successively fainter ridges fading into the haze. Yet, just a mile or two away (and hundreds of feet lower), you can find mysterious gorges where only a fast-flowing brook sizzles through the serenity. You can also learn a new skill: at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre (01690 720214; pyb.co.uk ) all are welcome to limber up indoors in preparation for the great outdoors; a two-hour "taster" session in climbing and abseiling allows you to go from 0 to 40ft in 120 minutes with the help of expert tuition. Mountain biking and mountain leadership courses are also available.

Prettiest of all the villages in the Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri is Beddgelert, where the Colwyn and Glaswyn rivers merge, and which is newly connected to the West Highland Railway to Caernarfon. Here, the Sygun Fawr country-house hotel (01766 890258) is a classic of the genre: a handsome 17th-century manor house, offering 21st-century travellers comfort and excellent cuisine.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park celebrates some of Britain's finest shoreline, wrapping around the south-west tip of Wales from Carmarthen Bay to Cardigan Bay (with a few interruptions for less idyllic fixtures such as the oil refinery at Milford Haven. Activities are, naturally, water-based, with surfing, sea-kayaking and coasteering on offer. If you prefer to keep your feet dry, and have a fortnight to spare, the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path will reveal almost all the delights of the Park – but for the very best, you have to board a small ferry from the tiny cove of Martin's Haven (01646 603110; dale-sailing.co.uk ) to an intercontinental hub for avian life: Skomer, a ragged diamond-shaped island measuring barely two miles by one, is home to an astonishing half-million breeding seabirds. Manx Shearwaters, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and, most notably, puffins. After a few days here, you can empathise with the great travel writer Jan Morris, when she wrote "From Reykjavik to Ljubljana / Cheerful Cork to weird Tirana / No exotic route avails / To clear my homesick mind of Wales."

Scotland's national treasures

Scotland, due to its different laws on land use, came late to the National Park party. With the most dramatic land– and seascapes in Britain, and a far more sparse population than England, many would argue that much of the country should qualify for National Park status. This century, though, two specific areas have been designated: the Cairngorms, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

The latter was the first National Park in Scotland, located within easy reach of the largest population centres. The gateway is a frankly tacky retail/tourism complex at Balloch, named Loch Lomond Shores (01389 721500; lochlomondshores.com ). But once you escape from here, and the busy A82 highway that runs along the west side of Loch Lomond, you can enjoy Britain's largest inland body of water in tranquillity.

The most rewarding activities are walking (the West Highland Way leads through the National Park), and canoeing: on the eastern side of the loch, at Balmaha. Lomond Adventure (01360 870218) hires out kayaks. This is a good base for exploration, not least because of the Oak Tree Inn (01360 870357; oak-tree-inn.co.uk ), which is a haven for active travellers. You can also take a noisier option: Loch Lomond Seaplanes (0870 242 1457; lochlomondseaplanes.com ) offers scenic flights over the region.

Callander is the best base for the forested hills and lochs of the Trossachs. In the months of September and October, the crowds evaporate but there is still the chance of good weather.

Hardy (and optimistic) winter-sports enthusiasts maintain that January and February are the ideal months in which to visit the Cairngorms of north-east Scotland, to take advantage of the best skiing facilities in the UK. The unappealing town of Aviemore is the gateway to the park, which spreads south-east from the Spey valley. Nine miles south-east is Cairngorm Mountain (01479 861261; cairngormmountain.com ), the closest Britain gets to an Alp, with a funicular climbing to the ski area.

During the summer, the Cairngorms National Park is good territory for "Munro-bagging", with a dozen 3,000ft-plus peaks within its borders.

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