Britain’s countryside is amazing. Those of you who think it’s all about sheep, cows and bulls are in for a big surprise. Enormous areas of countryside are set aside as national parks that can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to get out into the fresh air. So far, Britain’s national parks are free to enter, unlike many other countries. Some of the national parks are seriously big, so don’t for a minute believe that you will cover them in a day. The largest of the parks is the Cairngorms in Scotland – a gigantic 1,748 miles and home to Scotland’s six highest mountains ..and you don’t need to be a climber to enjoy it’s many other treasures.
At the other end of the scale is The Broads in Norfolk and Suffolk and just 117 miles. It’s a wetlands and inland waterway and has long been a very popular holiday boating destination. There are lots of holiday cottages and pine lodges to rent for a short or longer stay in national parks.
Each park has it’s own character so one is bound to appeal to you more than another. Unlike in other countries, the boundaries of our national parks often include towns and villages – surely wonderful news for all of you rookie countryside explorers who feel that you’ll need the occasional whiff of concrete and asphalt to feel at home!
Admittedly, most of the national parks are in the northern half of Great Britain, but by no means all, the west country and south also have their gems.
In the south there’s the South Downs National Park that only came into being in 2010 and is already drawing more people than any of the other longer established parks. I think this is partly because it’s a mere hour’s journey from London. A full 631 square miles of coastline, hills, heath, grasslands and woods awaits you all.
Spend a day visiting the lovely Kingley Vale National Reserve with it’s 500 plus year twisted Yew trees; some an amazing five meters in diameter. Not only will you get a chance to breath good clean air but you’ll go home believing that depression is just a part of the US’s late 20’s to early 40’s history!.
If you’re a fan Barbara Erskine’s book Daughters of Fire, get a better idea of how her heroine, Queen Cartimandua lived by taking a look at one of the many Celtic Iron Age hill forts in the South Downs National Park: Chanctonbury Ring and Devil’s Dyke are but two.
Find more hill forts in the Northumberland National Park. It’s on the boundaries of England and Scotland and has the additional attraction of Hadrian’s Wall. Take a walk along a section of it’s scenic 73 miles and transport yourself back to AD 120.
If you are looking for somewhere really magical look no further than the Snowdonia National Park.
As the name implies it’s the home of Snowdon (3,560 feet) the highest mountain peak in England and Wales. But you don’t need to be an experienced climber to get to stand on the summit. Nowadays, it’s the Snowdon Mountain Railway (only rack and pinion railway in UK) that takes the strain of the 4 mile journey.
Enjoy the park’s many beautiful lakes and waterfalls. Here as everywhere in Wales there are castles and steam railways, the latter much beloved by the Welsh. Do take the scenic ride on the Bala Lake Steam Railways – it’s a lovely 9 mile trip.
Wherever you go in the countryside you just have to sample the local food. The best way to do this is to look out for farmers markets. But be warned you’ll start off just buying for the afternoon’s picnic and finish up filling the car with sumptuous fresh delicacies to take back to your holiday cottage!
If you walk just one forest let it be old Willie the Conqueror’s old hunting ground, the new forest now the New Forest National Park. It’s just 90 minutes from London and there are 219 square miles to explore.
You can do it on foot or on a bike without any fear of being mowed down by a car. Just look out for the New Forest’s own breed of ponies and the deer, cattle and pigs that still roam the forest. Alternatively hire a horse and cover the ground like William did while hunting deer and wild boar. I can’t guarantee you’ll go home with a wild boar but you’ll definitely not be bored.
It’s also worth having a look at some of the villages that fall within the boundaries of the park. Buckler’s Hard is a good one if you’re interested in marine history. Back in the 18th century this is where the ships for Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet were constructed, using great oaks from the New Forest. There’s even an interesting museum for you to wander around.
If you’re a night owl, you can still enjoy the attractions of a national park. Exmoor National Park’s dark skies have earned it the official title of Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. So professional stargazers and rookies alike grab your telescope or binoculars and get out into the cool night air and enjoy a totally free starlight display. Stay over in the area for a few days and visit the park’s lovely wooded valleys and moors and earn yourselves a traditional west country cream tea.
See I wasn’t talking a lot of old bull when I said the countryside was more than a few cows, bulls and sheep.