You don’t need anyone to tell you that the pandemic wasn’t the best of times. But even if it was objectively not-so-fun (to say the absolute least), it did change the manner in which many people experienced travel and especially their own country.
It also led to folks getting to know the United Kingdom’s wild places in a much more hands-on, boots-on-the-ground, sleeping-under-the-stars kind of way.
Travel is most definitely back in rude health, but just because you can jump on a quick flight doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. One of the most intimate ways to get to know a landscape is by foot. It allows you to take your time, go at your own pace, and get an up-close-and-sometimes-too-personal feel for the flora and fauna.
And, when wild camping, there’s a sense of untrammelled freedom in setting off in the morning not knowing where you’re going to sleep, searching for that idyllic campsite with a view which puts even the most palatial hotel room to shame. On top of that, and perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the most low-impact, carbon-neutral, responsibly-travelled holidays one can take.
We’ve rounded up five of the ultimate long-distance walks in Great Britain, ranging from the accessible to the epic. A good walk can be transformative. All of these have that potential.
The best walks in the UK
West Highland Way
Easily the OG of Scottish multi-day treks, the West Highland Way wends itself up from the bucolic farmlands of Drymen to the sublime Grampian mountains. What you’ll discover along the way depends on what time of the year you tackle it. Spring is consistently the driest season to visit. Along with Scotland in bloom you might brave a brief snowstorm on a mountain pass. Summer is great for those who are looking for warm weather and lots of company. It’s teeming with other hikers and there’s an incredible bonhomie at wild camping spots and youth hostels (it’s also when the midges go hard). While Autumn is a little less dry than spring, it’s considered one of the best times to experience the West Highland Way for pure solitude and moody vistas. All in, it’s nothing short of spectacular. And rich in diversity: you’ll experience virginal Caledonian forest, luscious lochs, enormous waterfalls, sweeping valleys, endless moors and, of course, some truly great Scots. The West Highland Way is an instant classic and one that demands repeat journeys.
The first and arguably the finest – The Pennine Way is the inaugural National Trail, founded in the halcyon days of 1965, and stretches for a rugged 268 miles from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. Host to Britain’s most infamous and most gruelling ultramarathon – the Spine Race – the Pennine Way does indeed veer up and down the bucolic vertebrae of northern England, threading a path through the Yorkshire Dales, Swaledale Valley, the North Pennines, Hadrian’s Walls, the Cheviot Hills and the Northumberland Moors. Runners taking on the challenge have been known to take down the Pennine Way in less than three days (including Jasmin Paris, who won the Spine Race whilst stopping to breastfeed her one-year-old infant along the way) however, the more sane amongst us (that is: trekkers) usually complete the journey in 16 to 19 days. Whichever way you cut it, you’re sure to have a scenic journey on a trail that showcases England at its most rough and beautiful.
Since the late 18th century, The Lake District has been unparalleled in popularity as England’s most in-demand area of natural beauty. However, it’s amazing how well it distributes its visitors through the hills and dales of its National Park. There’s no better way to experience this than to hike the Cumbria Way, which stretches 73 miles from the market town of Ulverston to the historic city of Carlisle. You’ll find yourself walking up the belly of the Lake District from the shores of Morecambe Bay through some of the most iconic sites in the region. You’ll tramp beyond Coniston Water, Tarn Hows and Dungeon Ghyll before clambering over fiendishly-pitched Stake Pass to Borrowdale – the longest uninhabited valley in England and easily one of its most beautiful. From here you’ll charge past poet-celebrated Derwent Water into the bustling village of Keswick before ascending back into the mountains along the flank of Skiddaw into wild moorland. There’s a reason why the region was canonised by the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge and it’s on full display on the Cumbria Way. More lionhearted hikers can opt for the mountainous high route, which takes on a significant amount of vert.
Snowdonia Slate Trail
In Eric Newby’s adventure travelogue A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, he ditches the London fashion industry to attempt a first ascent in a remote corner of Afghanistan. Where does he go to train, one might ask? He spends a weekend in Snowdonia, Wales. If a Welsh training weekend is good enough for Eric it’s good enough for us, and if you want to get a snapshot of the region, The Snowdonia Slate Trail is the one. It’s an excellent 83-mile circuit trek that kicks off in Bangor before lapping some of the most iconic peaks in the region. We’re talking Tryfan, Cnicht and Snowdon – the trail passes around them all. And if you’re handy with an OS map you can bag some peaks without adding on too many extra miles. The Slate Trail also absorbs a breathtaking amount of raw scenery and open country as well as the man-made features that recently earned its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. Walkers will encounter the otherworldly blue waters of quarries as well as the Tolkienesque man-made mountains of slate refuse tips. The trail was only founded recently and is largely untrod, but it has all the makings of a classic.
South West Coast Path
Mountain routes get all the glory when it comes to long-distance walking but the coast can often be just as challenging, with trails that zip up and down beach ridges, calanques and promontories. The South West Coast Path is a challenge for the charged, stretching a whopping 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset along the toothy coastlines of Devon and Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Recently lionised in Raynor Winn’s memoir and Sunday Times bestseller The Salt Path, in which she and her husband navigate a terminal diagnosis and homelessness walking the South West Coast Path over 85 weeks, the trail has long been popular for those with a passion for bracing, briny sea air, never-ending sunsets and the hard graft of a very long trail. Many walkers break up the South West Coast Path into sections, making it more digestible for those that are time poor.
South Downs Way
Spanning 100 miles from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, the South Downs Way is likely the most accessible long-distance pathway in England and certainly one of its most popular. Only a breezy, fleeting train journey away from the Big Smoke and you’ll be wandering through some of the most beautiful terrain in the south. The trail largely follows the ridge of a chalk escarpment and, while there are some ups and downs, it is a mostly gentle walk, perfect for walking newcomers. Those with the tenacity to make it the entire way will encounter a bevy of iconic features that includes the Seven Sisters, Old Winchester Hill, Long Man of Wilmington and Bignor Roman Villa. You’ll walk through Devil’s Dyke, where legend has it that the devil dug the chasm to drown the Weald’s parishioners, as well as the Chanctonbury Ring, where legend has it if you run seven times backwards around the circle of trees the devil will appear an offer you a bowl of soup. Whether you encounter Old Nick or not, there’s a devilish amount of fun to be had for those willing to go the distance on the South Downs Way.
Cape Wrath Trail
For the truly intrepid, the best comes last. The Cape Wrath Trail is the natural continuation of the West Highland Way, traversing roughly 200 miles (it will undoubtedly be a bit further as you wander off track and double back) of Britain’s roughest terrain from Fort William to Cape Wrath’s isolated lighthouse. It’s not a National Trail per se, more a notional collection of drover’s roads, bridleways and hunter’s paths through bog, moors, peat hags and other inhospitalities underfoot. For those that truly enjoy wilderness and solitude, discomfort is a small price to pay for an embarrassment of natural riches: stunning lochs and moors all to oneself, regal waterfalls and granite gorges, and lonely white sand beaches. From Assynt to Glencoul and An Teallach, you can be sure that the scenery will energise you enough to make the wet feet worthwhile. We once saw a t-shirt with the words “I don’t need therapy, I have Scotland”. The Cape Wrath Trail is probably the most therapeutic of the lot. It will kick your ass but stir your spirit.