While the US National Park Service celebrates its centenary in 2016, it’s been only 65 years since the UK designated the Peak District as its first national park. But a lot has happened in those 65 years. Now, there are 15 such protected places across the country, ranging from the lofty heights of the Cairngorms to the meandering Norfolk Broads, with plenty of spectacular sea cliffs, pony-nibbled forests, moors, lakes, vales and dales between.
This wonderful natural variety is cause for particular celebration this week, during National Parks Week (nationalparks.gov.uk). In 2016, its “adventure” theme focuses on the huge range of escapades available in the country’s open spaces – from underground explorations of the Brecon Beacons (breconbeacons.org/sightseeingunderground) to geocaching across the South Downs (southdowns.gov.uk) to walking with wild goats in Northumberland (northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk).
Of course, the adventurous possibilities of the UK’s protected landscapes are not restricted to one week. There are events in the parks almost daily, year-round. For instance, in Cairngorms National Park (cairngorms.co.uk), there are free, weekly ranger-led walks (from Deshar; Thursdays, 11am) and health walks (from Glen Tanar; Fridays, 10am) to spur people to explore the great outdoors.
In Loch Lomond & the Trossachs, outdoor art is encouraging exploration. To mark Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture & Design, follow the BliSS Trail, taking in 13 installations dotted amid Rob Roy country (robroycountry.com/blisstrail).
More encouragement is provided by the New Forest, which launched a walkers and cyclists welcome scheme for summer 2016 (newforestnpa.gov.uk). Stay at one of the 70-odd affiliated B&Bs and hotels, and you’re assured bike- and hike-friendly facilities, such as drying and cleaning rooms, cycle storage, route info and emergency repair kits.
Another reason to celebrate the UK’s national parks right now is that they’re getting bigger. On 1 August the Yorkshire Dales will be extended by almost a quarter to encompass areas such as the limestone plateau of Great Asby Scar, Howgill Fells (Wainwright’s “sleeping elephants”) and pretty Orton, home to an award-winning farmers’ market (second Saturday of the month). The Lake District is also set to expand by 3 per cent – including Whinfell, Bretherdale and Rounthwaite – meaning the two parks will almost touch. Free events to mark the expansion will be held at Sizergh Castle on 1 August (nationaltrust.org.uk/sizergh). Or plan your own foray into these newly protected patches: look for butterflies and skylarks on Asby Scar or hike into the Howgills to Cautley Spout waterfall, one of England’s highest.
Traditionalists could explore the country’s largest protected wetland (broads-authority.gov.uk) by single-sailed wherry, favoured vessel of 19th-century Broadsmen. Join a public day-trip with Wherry Yacht Charter (wherryyachtcharter.org; from £30pp).
Alternatively, Ferry Marina in pretty Horning has just added an electric-powered, zero-emissions boat to its fleet – the most environmentally friendly cruiser on the Broads (ferry-marina.co.uk; one week from £923). Even more green, you can reach the marina via the Three Rivers Way (threeriversway.org.uk), a network of lanes, bridleways and footpaths designed to enable safe, car-free journeys between villages and beauty spots. The first phase, between Ludham and Horning, opened this month.
Exmoor and Dartmoor
The Two Moors Way (twomoorsway.org), the 185km long-distance trail linking the contrasting wilds of Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with improved trails and signage – a great excuse for a hike via its Neolithic archaeology, wild ponies and rolling hills. Luggage Transfers can move your bags if you want to walk light (luggagetransfers.co.uk).
If you fancy a wild night, stay at the National Trust’s new private Foreland Bothy (nationaltrustholidays.org.uk; from £20 a night, sleeps four), a rustic-but-magic retreat by the sea. The Slow Adventure Company arranges weekend walks, including bothy stays (slowadventure.co).
Biking is big here too. On 9 September, watch Stage 6 of the Tour of Britain finish at Dartmoor’s Haytor. Alternatively, hire a hybrid, tandem, e-bike or mountain bike from Devon Cycle Hire’s new bike shop (devoncyclehire.co.uk); it has direct access to the offroad Granite Way, a former railway between Okehampton and Lydford that offers expansive views.
North York Moors
From tootling on heritage railways to fossil foraging at Robin Hood’s Bay, the North York Moors National Park (northyorkmoors.org.uk) is great for families. Kids will love Sutton Bank National Park Centre: you can exercise their imaginations at the new, free adventure play area, with its treehouse and mud kitchen, and hire cycles from Sutton Bank Bikes (suttonbankbikes.co.uk) to access easy trails including the 5km Cliff, which safely follows the escarpment edge.
For a dramatic history lesson, visit recently revamped Rievaulx Abbey’s visitor centre (english-heritage.org.uk), and follow the clue-dotted family trail around the 800-year-old ruins. Moorsbus’s new Sunday service encourages car-free visits (moorsbus.org).
Then hole up at North Shire (northshire.co.uk). Opened in 2015, this collection of turf-topped cottages and gypsy caravans, tucked into a farm filled with peacocks and miniature ponies, is straight from a storybook.
Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire Coast
The Brecon Beacons has some of the UK’s best mountain biking, with a range of trails (from “easy” to “killer”). However, it’s also excellent for cycle touring. The new Cycle Across the Beacons route stretches across the park from Llandeilo to Abergavenny, following country lanes and canal towpaths (breconbeacons.org/cycleacrossthebeacons). Hire bikes from Hay-on-Wye based Drover Cycles; e-bikes are available if you want to ease the effort (drovercycles.co.uk).
Further west, in craggy, cove-cut Pembrokeshire, swap bikes for boots. In summer, walks along the coast path might reveal seabirds and grey seals, which start pupping from mid-August. Or join a ranger-led seashore safari to find critters that call the coast home (1, 4, 17 August; pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk).
England’s least populated and least visited national park, Northumberland has the darkest skies and best stargazing – in fact, it's part of a designated International Dark Sky Park. In August, it’s getting literary too. Poet Simon Armitage has composed six new works, inspired by the region’s landscapes, which can be heard by following his footsteps and using a mobile app (northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk).
The big news on the horizon is the Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre, due to open in July 2017. Before that, follow its Historic Geocaching Trail (thesill.org.uk/geocaching) – think Pokémon Go gone wild. Use GPS to track down eight hidden treasures across the park, via Neolithic remains and WW2 pillboxes.
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