My shoulders were bruised, my thighs screaming. I had sunburn, nettle stings, wind-wild hair, a sweat moustache and pungent armpits. But I had never been happier.
Walking along the South West Coast Path, pack on my back, sea surging to my side, empty trail leading off into the distance… there was nowhere I’d rather be. In a world of complication, to be somewhere so beautiful, and to have no goal other than putting one foot in front of the other, on repeat, was better than, well, anything.
It almost goes without saying that Britain has walks to rival any in the world. We might well be the best place to hike. There are classic routes that inevitably draw walkers overseas, but for all of these we have something to match – maybe not in height or heat, but certainly in variety and drama.
One reason Britain is so brilliant for walking is the history. It’s virtually impossible not to stumble upon something absolutely ancient, from barrows, hill forts and Roman roads to standing stones and crumbled castles.
Leisure walking didn’t catch on until the 18th century; before that, if you were walking, you were probably poor. But the romantic movement – especially the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge – redefined the British relationship to nature. As did the Ordnance Survey. Originally a “magnificent military sketch” ordered for defence-devising purposes, it published its first map (covering Kent) at the beginning of the 19th century. These 1:25,000 marvels open up the nation to anyone with a compass.
May is National Walking Month, promising longer days and more clement weather. Also, of the festivals being held in the UK, most occur from May onwards. That includes the Isle of Wight Walking Festival (May 4-19; isleofwightwalkingfestival.co.uk), which turns 21 in 2019, and the Suffolk Walking Festival (May 11-June 2; suffolkwalkingfestival.co.uk), now in its 12th year.
Urban events such as the Bristol (bristolwalkfest.com) and Greater Manchester (visitmanchester.com) walking festivals, both spanning all of May, reinforce that you don’t have to go deep into the countryside to gain the physical and mental benefits of a walk.
Britain has 15 official National Trails in total, offering more than 2,485 miles (4,000km) of possibilities. But they’re only the tip of the trail network. Visit the website of The Long Distance Walkers’ Association (ldwa.org.uk) and you’ll get lost in a rambler’s rabbit-hole: its database lists 1,600-plus paths, covering more than 86,990 miles (140,000km). Every late May bank holiday weekend the LDWA holds its Hundred event – a walk of 100 miles (160km) in 48 hours; this year (May 25), it will be based around Hadrian’s Wall.
There’s no need to go far to enjoy walking in Britain’s countryside. And there’s nothing to stop you starting right on your doorstep.
The best walks in Britain
South West Coast Path
I challenge anyone to find a better walk than this. Rollercoastering along the shore between Minehead and Poole, this National Trail encompasses all the South West’s good stuff – the coves, cliffs, cream teas, smuggling vibe, moors, valleys and pasties – but avoids the tourist crowds, most of whom don’t venture far from the main honeypots. It also features in the new 124-mile (200km) Cornish Celtic Way. Recently devised by a local vicar, it incorporates 62 miles (100km) of Cornish coast path as well as two historic pilgrimage routes to link St Germans and St Michael’s Mount.
In March 2019 it was revealed that, according to Ordnance Survey data, Edale is Britain’s top spot for starting a walk. Not only is the Peak District village in easy reach of major cities, it’s at one end of the Pennine Way. The first of Britain’s National Trails (opened in 1965), this is Britain’s own Appalachian Trail. Not so long, but similar in ambition and ridge-tracing wildness, the Pennine Way runs along the country’s spine, from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. After crossing the Peaks, it hits the Yorkshire Dales, North Pennines, Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots – a northern best-of in one hit.
Length: 267 miles (431km); duration: 16-19 days (nationaltrail.co.uk/pennine-way).
Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, Powys
Britain’s canal network offers some of the most accessible, easily navigable and relaxing walking. A little like the levadas (water channels) that draw many walkers to Madeira, canals provide flat routes through more challenging countryside, with plenty of wildlife and historic interest too. It’s also hard to get lost. The Monmouthshire & Brecon is one of the prettiest, slicing through the pasture, woodland and wilder hills of the Brecon Beacons.
Length: 34 miles (56km); duration: two-three days (canalrivertrust.org.uk).
Officially opened on May 24 1969 – the second of the country’s National Trails – the Cleveland Way celebrates its 50th birthday this spring. A special event on the actual anniversary will see walkers in Sixties kit hiking from Helmsley to Rievaulx Abbey, while the North York Moors National Park’s annual WalkFest (May 24-27) will be themed around the trail. Shaped like a horseshoe, it’s a route of two halves: part inland yomp across hills and heather moors, part tracing the Yorkshire coast. Castles, Captain Cook, fishing villages, chip shops and seabirds lie en route.
Length: 108 miles (175km); duration: nine-10 days (nationaltrail.co.uk/cleveland-way).
Wales Coast Path
Opened seven years ago, the WCP is still the only trail to outline an entire country – though the England Coast Path, due to be completed in 2020, is hot on its heels. This year sees the inaugural Wales Coast Path Walking Festival (May 4-19), which encompasses guided shore walks in every region. If you don’t have time to complete the whole path, focus on spectacular Pembrokeshire. Not only is this an impressively wild stretch of coast, an excellent bus network (including the Poppit Rocket and the Strumble Shuttle) makes it easy to get between sections.
Length: 869 miles (1,400km); duration: 70-80 days (walescoastpath.gov.uk).
John Muir Way
While most hikers might more readily think of the legendary John Muir Trail through Yosemite, five years ago a new JM route opened in Scotland, his place of birth. It runs right across the country, between Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde and Dunbar, on the North Sea, and passes Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, bits of the Antonine Wall, wildlife-rich canals, the Falkirk Wheel and the bright lights of Edinburgh. It finishes at John Muir’s Birthplace museum.
Length: 133 miles (215km); duration: nine-11 days (johnmuirway.org).