Traveller's guide: Great British trails
New footpaths and themed walks are springing up all over the country. It's time to put your best foot forward, says Mark Rowe
Saturday 24 August 2013
Politicians have often been accused of allowing bankers to sleepwalk us into recession. But we may now be walking our way out of economic gloom – or at least escaping from it. Hiking trails are sprouting up like green shoots all over the country, though it's fair to say there's always been an insuperable vigour to the British appetite for the great outdoors. According to Natural England, we've made 2.85 billion countryside visits in the past year – the Long Distance Walkers Association (ldwa.org.uk) – which defines "long distance" as more than 20 miles – has accepted 200 new trails in the past two years. Perhaps the late, great walker Patrick Leigh Fermor was right with his motto for all problems: solvitur ambulando (it is solved by walking).
"You see all this beautiful scenery and, whether by yourself or with others, trails take you out into the great outdoors, to places you may never have heard of. It's brilliant," says John Sparshatt, chair of the LDWA. Among the recently opened trails that catch John's eye are the Six Dales Trail (sixdalestrail.org.uk) through Nidderdale in Yorkshire, which cuts across from Wharfedale to Wensleydale; the Winchcombe Way (winchcombewelcomeswalkers.com), a figure-of-eight trail deep in the Cotswolds which has more steep hills than you might expect for an area with such a snug and cosy reputation; and northern and southern extensions to the Chilterns Way (bit.ly/ChilternsWay) which probes deeper into Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire.
Britain's leading walking charity, Ramblers (ramblers.org.uk), has also been active in opening or reopening routes. Its volunteers have helped to revive the Greensand Way (bit.ly/GreensandWay), which had become neglected. The 108-mile route is a gem that runs from Haslemere in Surrey to Hamstreet in Kent between the North and South Downs and includes the Devil's Punchbowl in Hindhead and the Surrey Hills.
Meanwhile, a 16-mile circular trail, the Arrowe Park-Parkgate Circular (visitwirral.com), has opened up the mid-Wirral peninsula, again supported by Ramblers. It takes in woodland picnic sites and offers spectacular views across the Dee estuary to North Wales.
We punch well above our weight when it comes to footpaths: England and Wales have 15 national trails – long-distance routes covering some 2,500 miles through countryside that is frequently stunning. They are the only routes to have a unified legal status, but there are also many new trails compiled by individuals or special interest groups.
Scotland weighs in with 26 Great Trails (bit.ly/GreatScotTrails). Perhaps next year's independence referendum will lead to some trails adopting a more international flavour as they cross a newly minted border. Might you, for example, need a passport one day to walk the thrilling Berwickshire coastal path (bit.ly/BerwickPath) winding through stirring coastal villages such as Eyemouth? This is where the A1, the East Coast main railway line and the coastal path all converge, giving one another glancing blows as they thread their way above a fracturing coastline.
The great grandaddy of all the long-distance trails, the Pennine Way (nationaltrail.co.uk/pennineway), is nearing its 50th birthday (in 2015), and there are also a number of walking festivals too, many of them taking in some great trails. The National Trust's Great British Walk, this autumn, is a two-month festival running throughout September and October (nationaltrust.org.uk/greatbritishwalk) that will take in hundreds of trails including some brand new walks along the White Cliffs of Dover, Cornwall's Fal estuary and the Yorkshire Dales.
Bill Bryson once said that the problem with the British countryside was that there was nowhere you could ever be entirely confident of having a leak without being overlooked: however, some of the newer trails featured here may just prove him wrong.
If you tire of birdsong or mountain vistas, then dip into the emerging urban walking trails springing up around Britain's cities. The trailblazers are still London's Capital Ring (walklondon.org.uk), a 72-mile loop through inner London which is sometimes promoted as the "North and South Circular for walkers", and the M25 equivalent, the London Loop, which runs for 152 miles.
Other cities are beginning to offer sizeable, waymarked trails too. Manchester (bit.ly/WalkManchester) is linking its canal walks, above, into a wider Cheshire ring and Edinburgh (bit.ly/WalkEdinburgh), has routes that can take you up Arthur's Seat or across the Forth Bridge.
Along the coast
The Wales Coast Path, above (walescoastpath.gov.uk), which officially opened last year, is getting into its stride. The longest continuous path along a nation's coast now links with Offa's Dyke (nationaltrail.co.uk/OffasDyke), raising the tantalising possibility of walking around the entire edge of Wales. Again, for those who prefer shorter walks, there is a bus, the "Offa Hoppa", to connect between various sections.
Back in England, the North Sea Trail (northseatrail.co.uk) is expanding down the coast through the North York Moors National Park, following the Cleveland Way (nationaltrail.co.uk/ ClevelandWay) for some of its journey from Saltburn to Filey. The plan is for this romantic trail one day to link up the entire east coast of Britain with walks on mainland Europe that will eventually peter out only somewhere near the Norwegian-Russia border.
There are several trails where you tread in the footsteps of saints or mystics. I once bumped into Arthur Pendragon – still claiming to be King Arthur reincarnate – along the Ridgeway (nationaltrail.co.uk/ Ridgeway) that runs to the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, left.
From there, you can now pick up the embryonic 38-mile Great Stones Way (greatstonesway.org.uk). The route is still subject to agreements with landowners such as the Ministry of Defence on Salisbury Plain, but it will run through the countryside between Avebury and Stonehenge.
The Borders Abbey Way (bit.ly/AbbeyWay) in Scotland is attracting interest ahead of 2015 when it will benefit from the opening of the Borders railway at Tweedbank. The 68‑mile trail takes in the quartet of great abbeys – Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh – founded in the 12th century.
This year saw the opening of a 60-mile path, the Shipwrights Way, above (hants.gov.uk/ shipwrights) that cuts through rural Hampshire's chunk of the new South Downs National Park. Jane Austen was among those who lived on the route which navigates across steep wooded hills and valleys. So too did the great war poet Edward Thomas and the naturalist Gilbert White. Separately, but also within this area, the shorter Jane Austen trail (bit.ly/AustenWalk) wanders for 4.5 miles from Chawton, Austen's last home.
Further west, the 2014 centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas is being marked by a series of trails in Carmarthanshire (bit.ly/Dylan2014). These meander through places central to Thomas's later life: a trail around Laugharne takes in the bakery where he would buy his daily loaf, the boathouse where he and his family spent the last four years of his life, as well as his favoured drinking den, Browns Hotel (01994 427688; browns-hotel.co.uk; B&B from £85).
Walking with giants
Alfred Wainwright is best known for his descriptions of Lakeland fell walks. Yet, 75 years ago next month, this curmudgeonly epitome of "wandering lonely as a cloud" set off on a 247-mile circular Pennine route that has become a classic challenge of its kind. The Pennine Journey (penninejourney.org.uk), starting and ending in Settle, North Yorkshire, can be broken down nowadays into more manageable chunks over 18 days (Wainwright took 11 days), through the Yorkshire Dales to Northumberland National Park and a brief slice of Hadrian's Wall, above.
Next year marks the centenary of the death of East Lothian-born John Muir, the man who went from Dunbar to establish eventually the American national parks network. It will be commemorated by the John Muir trail (bit.ly/JohnMuirTrail). The route extends 44 miles to link Edinburgh with East Lothian and the Scottish Borders.
Wander amid the wilderness
You may just be able to attain Bill Bryson's ambition for a private call of nature along the remoter stretches of the Scottish National Trail (bit.ly/ScotNatTrail), a 470-mile hike from Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders to Cape Wrath, the most north-western point of the British mainland. The entire walk takes up to six weeks to complete and is the first walking route exclusively through Scotland.
If you make it to Cape Wrath then you can gaze west across the Minch at an adjacent challenge, the Outer Hebrides Way (visitouterhebrides.co.uk), which is to run for 230 miles from the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly tip of the Isle of Lewis, to Heillanish Point, the most southerly point of Vatersay. The final route is still being ironed out with landowners, but the southern stretch, known as the Machair Way from Berneray to Vatersay, is now being waymarked.
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