A SMALL, CROWDED ISLAND...
Yes, but England, Wales and Scotland can offer a vast diversity of great outdoor experiences between them. Whether you are aiming high for spectacular mountain scenery, or are content to find a serene place in the sun surrounded by fine landscapes, this is the summer to celebrate Britain al fresco.
You can explore the green and pleasant landscape without getting fleeced for foreign currency or frisked at airport terminals. What's more, there's a whole host of exciting new developments in the summer of 2009 – from recently opened walking and cycle routes to nature reserves and farm stays. So forget the passport, pack the sunscreen and check out the attractions on your doorstep.
WHERE CAN I ROAM?
Grab your backpack and Kendal mint cake – there's no shortage of long-distance walking routes in Britain. This year also sees a new reason to lace up your walking boots: the 61-mile waymarked Wat's Dyke Way, which runs parallel to its more celebrated brother, Offa's Dyke. Archaeologists now think that Wat's Dyke is the older sibling and that the giant earthwork construction dates back as far as the 5th century.
The new trail follows public footpaths and winding country lanes along the Welsh border between Llanymynech in Powys and Holywell in Flintshire. Highlights along the way include National Trust property Erddig Hall, Celtic hill forts in Oswestry and Rhosesmor and Caergwrle Castle.
The end of Wat's Dyke Way is marked by the 12th-century Cistercian abbey, Basingwerk. The website, watsdykeway.org , has accommodation suggestions; you could also consult the new guidebook Wat's Dyke Way Heritage Trail by Pete Lewis (£5.99).
If you'd rather join an organised outing, Ramblers Countrywide Holidays (01707 386 800; ramblerscountrywide.co.uk ) has added some new trips for 2009, including four-, five- and eight-day walking holidays in Somerset and Dorset. A guide will lead you through the region's rolling countryside taking in Pilsdon Pen – one of Dorset's highest hills – the Jurassic Coast and parts of the South West Coast Path. Four-day trips start at £363. The price includes half-board accommodation at The Cricket St Thomas Hotel – where the BBC TV series To the Manor Born was set. Also new this year is Highlights of the Cotswold Way: a series of holidays tramping through the bucolic English countryside. A three-night trip starts at £265 per person, including a tour guide and half-board accommodation.
I'D RATHER PACK MY CYCLE HELMET
Head for the West Coast of Scotland. The country has some excellent long-distance bike trails and parts of the new West Coast cycle path between Oban and Fort William are open this summer. Stretches include the section along the old railway between Kentallen and Ballachulish Bridge offering spectacular views of Glencoe ( sustrans.org.uk ).
Or, for a slightly off-the-wall way to see Scotland's wild side, how about a motorised tricycle tour? Trike Tours Scotland (0800 056 7779; triketoursscotland.co.uk ) offers exhilarating chauffeur-driven trips such as a 50-mile, two-hour excursion around Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater loch in the UK at 24 miles long and five wide.
As you flash past, keep your eyes peeled for some of the 200 species of bird and 25 per cent of Britain's wild plants that can be found around here. The trip costs £115 per person and starts at the tourist information office in Balloch.
WHERE CAN I BED DOWN?
How about high in the treetops? You can stay in a treehouse in Deerpark in Cornwall or Keldy in Yorkshire with Forest Holidays (0845 130 8225; forestholidays.co.uk ). Forest rangers co-ordinate activities such as deerstalking at Keldy – where you learn to track the skittish animals – and a tree trail at Deerpark, which teaches you about the native forest.
The company also has two new sites this year. One is beside Loch Long in Argyll, where the cabins have sweeping views of the mountainous Argyll Forest Park. The other is Cropton Cabins in the heart of Cropton Forest on the edge of the North York Moors. Cropton also features new-style cabins: Copper Beech or Silver Birch (with cosy bedrooms and an outdoor hot tub) amid the shady woodland.
You might like to wrap up for a spot of twilight viewing: Dusk Watch gives you a glimpse of the forest's nocturnal creatures such as bats, moths and owls. The rangers also offer wildlife safaris, forest survival courses (which include orienteering and den-building) and half-day guided hikes. You can also go pony trekking or try your hand at archery.
During the summer, a three-day weekend break in a Copper Beech cabin (sleeps four) starts at £439, while a midweek break from Monday to Friday costs £371.
CAN I SLEEP UNDER THE STARS?
Yes. Wild camping is allowed in the UK, although the laws that govern it are slightly different in England and Wales than Scotland. You are allowed to camp in some national parks, although you are supposed to be more than 100 metres from a road and on access land. There are times, such as during a long, dry spell with a high fire risk, when camping is banned. However, one thing that is universal is the need to respect the natural landscape. It might seem obvious, but leave the area exactly as you found it.
Take all your litter away with you, as well as your tent: there are lochsides in Scotland strewn with abandoned tents because they are so cheap nowadays campers can't be bothered to take them home. Be sure your toilet is 30 metres from a lake or river and take a spade to bury human waste.
ON THE SLIGHTLY LESS WILD SIDE?
The Camping and Caravanning Club (0845 130 7633; campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk ) has opened six new sites for 2009, including Tavistock on the western edge of Dartmoor and Polstead in Suffolk.
Its "greenest" site is the new one at Ashbourne in Derbyshire (01335 370 855). The location is perfect for exploring the Dales and there are a series of cycle tracks and walks in the area, such as the Tissington Trail which follows an old railway line from the market town of Ashbourne to Parsley Hay. The site's amenity block uses solar power, while toilets flush with recycled water. You can even bring your horse, as stables are provided. The cost per adult, per night is £8.17, per child £2.54. This is on top of the fee for a pitch: £3.13 for members, £6.46 for non-members.
In the Lake District, a great concept was launched a couple of years ago for walkers and cyclers. Camping Barns (01946 758 198; lakelandcampingbarns.co.uk ) are a cross between camping and youth hostelling – and are located on farms throughout the Lakes, accommodating between three and 12 people. They cost around £7 per person, per night and for that you get running cold water, a flush toilet and a communal sleeping area. It's camping without the tent. Some barns also have hot water, showers and cooking facilities.
You can plan a short break walking or cycling between the barns using the organisation's tailor-made route maps (£3 each). The enterprise has also just re-opened the 14-bed Horse and Groom Court (01946 758 198; horseandgroomcourt.co.uk ), a cycling barn on Hadrian's Cycleway in West Cumbria after major refurbishment. The cost is £8 per person, per night.
WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING A BIT MORE LUXURIOUS?
Feather Down Farms (01420 80804; featherdown.co.uk ) is described as luxury under canvas. The company effectively runs a franchise scheme where working farms are provided with safari-style tents. The tents have beds, duvets, running (cold) water, oil lamps and candles; they come with a hefty price tag for what is essentially a tent in a field. The tents are designed for a maximum of six people and cost from £225 for a midweek break (Monday to Friday) in October – rising to £795 for a week during July and August.
This year, there are eight new locations around the country including Mount Pleasant Farm in Dorset. This is a 300-acre organic grassland farm in the Blackmore Vale, stocking Hereford cattle, Poll Dorset sheep and free-range hens. The owners also train point-to-point horses.
For a "Feather Down Field Spa" in the great outdoors (a sauna, V C hot and cold shower and hot tub in a field), stay at Boswarthen Farm in Cornwall or Hollings Hill Farm in Herefordshire; the experience costs from £87.50 for half a day. Children might prefer the rent-a-chicken-coop option: £10 for a weekend, £15 for a week (hopefully you'll get some eggs out of it).
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO DOWN ON THE FARM?
Fruit-picking, cheese-making, fish-smoking, learning to work sheep dogs... agricultural diversification means there are numerous activities to experience on a farm holiday. Hagley Bridge Farm (01984 629 026; hagleybridgefarm.co.uk ) beside the River Tone in Somerset offers cheese-making courses; new for 2009 is a one-day Mediterranean Cheese Day where you will learn to make some of the cheeses you've tasted on your holidays: feta, halloumi and a variety of Italian cheeses (£57.50 per person; B&B from £35 per person). The farm is close to some picturesque walking routes such The Coleridge Way, the West Deane Way, the South West Coast Path and the gentler Great Western Canal towpath.
Or how about a spot of Wwoofing ( wwoof.org.uk ) to beat the credit crunch? A London secretary, Sue Coppard, founded "Working Weekends on Organic Farms" in 1971. It has now gone global and become World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, but the idea remains the same: in return for helping out with farm work, members get free board and lodgings – as well as a greater understanding of country life. The £20 annual subscription gives you a burgeoning directory or online access to the farms and smallholdings in the scheme. These include a number of Scottish crofts, if you fancy trying your hand at the great outdoors Monty Halls-style.
For example there's a six-acre working croft near Lochaber on the west coast with a Jersey cow, pigs, chickens, ducks and geese. In return for help with gardening, feeding the animals, fencing and composting, Wwoofers get their own caravan with wood-burning stove.
CAN I GET CLOSE TO WILDLIFE?
Yes, for example by reindeer trekking in the Cairngorms. Reindeer were re-introduced to the Scottish Highlands in 1952 by a Swedish herder, Mikel Utsi. There are now around 150 trotting across the heather, mingling with the red deer. At the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre (01479 861 228; reindeer-company.demon.co.uk ) you can sign up for daily walks to hand-feed them on the slopes (£9), or go or a half-day trek with a team of reindeer through the ancient Caledonian forest (£35).
Or how about a safari on a 250,000-acre Highland estate, one of Europe's last great wildernesses? You might spot the magnificent red deer, shy mountain hare, or a golden eagle soaring overhead. On a two-and-a-half-hour Mountain Safari, you will learn about the history and geology of the area while gazing down from the rustic mountain bothy towards Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel. (01887 820 071; highlandsafaris.net ).
For an altogether different experience, head for the RSPB's ew property in the Tees Valley, Saltholme Nature Reserve. This new wetland reserve is home to a wide variety of birds, from common terns to yellow wagtails; great crested grebes to mute swans.
The terns nest on a specially created cockleshell island that you can watch from one of the architect-designed hides. The wagtails are summer visitors and can be seen flitting around the grasslands catching insects.
As well as a state-of-the-art visitor centre, there is a walled wildlife garden designed by TV gardener Chris Beardshaw, cycle paths and a playground complete with treehouses (01642 546 625; rspb.org.uk ). The cost is £3 per car – if you arrive by public transport, by bike or on foot, admission is free.
Steering by the stars
If we all learned how to use the natural world around us to plan our route, there'd be no need for tour guides.
Tristan Gooley has sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic and led expeditions around the world using natural navigation (that is plotting a course using the sun, moon, stars, weather, land, sea, plants and animals).
He has been awarded the Royal Institute of Navigation's Certificate of Achievement and now offers courses at the Royal Geographical Society in London – and out in the field in the wilds of Sussex.
The Beginner's Guide to Natural Navigation is classroom based and is recommended before the outdoor courses where you put the theory into practice: it costs £105 per person. On the one-day outdoor options, such as The Country Navigator (£155), you can see how well you were listening in class. Which side of the lane are the puddles, which side of the tree trunk is covered in moss? How can you tell which way is due south?
Natural Navigator: 0777 552 1693; naturalnavigator.com ).
Wet and wild
Perhaps in response to the recession, foraging for (free) food has become popular. Wildwise (01803 868269; wildwise.co.uk ) offers a variety of bushcraft and wildlife holidays, including new sea-kayaking trips this year off the Cornish coast – camping and foraging for your supper. The next Sea-kayaking Weekend is on 25-27 September; it costs £225 per person.
The National Trust (0844 800 3099; nationaltrust.org.uk ) has jumped on the bushcraft bandwagon this year launching foraging holidays at Attingham Park in Shrewsbury, led by local volunteer, Jane Allsop. Nature's larder, we are all re-learning, is bountiful – something that is becoming increasingly attractive in these leaner times.
In the Shropshire countryside you can find an abundance of ingredients: hazelnuts, walnuts and cobnuts; wimberries (which resemble blueberries); wild garlic, pictured (great in salads); nettles; and mushrooms. The food lovers' holiday from 20-26 September focuses on foraging for local and seasonal food combined with conservation work such as coppicing and fencing on the estate; price £100.