Briatin’s finest national parks

Richard Madden recommends highlights from Britain’s finest national parks.

1 Ancient footsteps

Dartmoor National Park has heather-covered moors, valleys, tors and the remains of more than 5000 hut circles from the Bronze Age. There are also stone circles, standing stones and stone rows, including Stall Moor Stone Row — the longest in the world at more than 3km.

2 Peaks of perfection

The Peak District National Park’s moorlands, valleys, dales, gorges, wild flower grasslands and ancient broadleaved woodlands cannot be matched for variety. Surrounded by Derby, Manchester, Sheffield and Stoke-on-Trent, its 1400sq km of wilderness are the living, breathing, green lungs of the region. At the heart of it all is Chatsworth House, a popular stately home.

3 Best view in Britain

Snowdonia National Park is dominated by Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, often voted the best view in Britain. Parents with young families can take a 7km journey from Llanberis to the summit of Snowdon aboard the narrow-gauge, rack-and-pinion railway. This is walking country but visitors should not forget its historic castles (Harlech, Dolwyddelan) and fine, sandy beaches.

4 Dark skies

Northumberland National Park is one of the most tranquil in England, its quiet roads a stark contrast to the Lake District to the west. It forms part of Europe’s largest area of protected night sky — the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park. The Cheviot Hills are a walkers’ paradise while cycle routes offer some of the most spectacular views in the land. Hadrian’s Wall, plus a 3rd-century Roman temple to the Sun God Mithras, are among the attractions.

5 Water, water, everywhere

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park offers breathtaking views across its many and varied waterways, which include 22 large lochs and 50 rivers. These can be enjoyed from the vantage point of its 21 Munros (mountains more than 900m high). The West Highland Way crosses the park and stretches 155km from Milngavie to Fort William, running along Loch Lomond. On Loch Katrine, day trips can be enjoyed on the steamship SS Sir Walter Scott; cruises on Loch Lomond can be taken from Tarbet and Balloch.

6 Just Coasting

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is Britain’s only fully coastal park with 620sq km of cliffs, beaches, fishing villages, harbours and coves. Spectacular stretches include St David’s Head (Pembrokeshire’s most spellbinding headland), Stackpole Nature Reserve, the Marloes Peninsula (in the west of the park) and Barafundle, regularly included in lists of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Here you can spot numerous types of seabird, dolphins, seals and even basking sharks — or take to the water for sea-based activities including coasteering and kayaking.

7 Three Peaks

Although the Yorkshire Dales National Park is mostly in North Yorkshire, a sizeable chunk is in Cumbria. Its landscape of rolling moors and valleys is scattered with traditional field barns and drystone walls and is famous for its Three Peaks — Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent — whose devotees raise thousands of pounds for charity each year by taking on the 39km challenge of climbing all three in less than 12 hours. The park’s fascinating geology includes the limestone cliffs of Malham Cove, carved out of the hillside over millions of years. The area is also a magnet for serious walkers, mountain bikers, potholers and climbers.

8 Wetland wonders

The Broads National Park adds water in abundance to the catalogue of wide-ranging wilderness experiences available in Britain. This 200km network of waterways in Norfolk and Suffolk includes 43 “broads” (lakes) and six rivers navigable by watercraft such as dinghies and sailboards, windsurfers, canoes and kayaks. Distinctive features of the landscape include historic windmills (used in the past to drain the land). Heigham Sound, Hickling Broad, Horsey (where you can see seal pups in winter) and West Somerton are all Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) with abundant wildlife.

9 Wainwright wonderland

The Lake District National Park is the most popular in Britain, with almost 16 million visitors a year. Keen walkers enjoy exploring its fell walks — popularised by Alfred Wainwright’s legendary pictorial guides. Be sure not to miss Wainwright’s more remote, and arguably more beautiful routes in the western regions, including Crummock Water and Buttermere. Designated a World Heritage Site in 2017, the park has 16 main lakes and many smaller tarns which are popular for boat trips, sailing, canoeing and wild swimming. The national park is also home to Scafell Pike, which, at 978m, is England’s highest mountain.

10 Ups and Downs

The 1554sq km of chalk downland and lowland weald that make up the South Downs National Park are a walker’s treasure trove, featuring everything from Bronze Age forts and figures carved in the hillside (such as the Long Man of Wilmington) to ancient woodland, epic downland views and meandering river trails. The 160km escarpment of the South Downs Way links Winchester in the west to Eastbourne on the south coast, and towers like a green tsunami over the rolling fields and woodland of the weald, with its venerable villages and country pubs.

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