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Want to See More of Britain? Take a Hike!

by Dawn Copeman

Some time ago I wrote that the best way to see Britain was by car. But you can only see so much from a car window! If you want to really see this green and pleasant land, the best way is to walk it! And with over 140,000 miles of Public Rights of Way (trails open to walkers) in Britain, there is bound to be a walk suitable for you wherever you are staying.

hiking in England

But how do you find a walk? Well, that all depends on the type of walk you want to do. Unlike in America, our trails are not graded by difficulty, but they can be grouped into three general categories: gentle strolls, energising walks and hikes.

From Gentle Strolls to Energizing Hikes

hiking in EnglandYou might be surprised to discover that some of the best places for novice walkers to walk are the RSPB Nature Reserves, Wildlife Reserves, Woodlands, Forests and Waterways. These are not only free to walkers, but these organisations actively encourage people to walk. The Royal Forestry Society, for instance, runs a special event every May to encourage walkers; British Waterways, which manages British canals, rivers and lakes, have a list of guided walks and a walk of the month on their website; and English Nature, which manages many nature reserves, has a searchable database of walks for each region. All of these organisations offer well marked trails and generally provide information boards and leaflets to help you to get the most out of your walk.

Another option for novice walkers is to buy a book of local circular walks from a bookstore. These walks are graded by difficulty and often start or finish at a pub, where you can get something to eat or drink on completing the walk. Alternatively, you could phone or visit the local Tourist Information Office, as these often have details of the most popular walks in their region, as do youth hostels.

If you want to see more of the countryside and are not averse to putting more energy and effort into your walk, then one of these walks would be more suitable. I've put these two categories together as they often share the same routes and resources and differ only in the length of the walk and the terrain that they cover.

For walks that are a little more challenging but still follow set tracks, then you could try one of the National Trust's 39 Neptune Walks around the coastline of Britain. Or, if you're feeling a little bit more adventurous, then once again nature reserves hold the answer. The Isle of Rum in Scotland is one huge nature reserve with trails that vary from relatively easy to hikes up mountains.

But if you want to really get out there with a map and see the countryside, the Ramblers Association should be your first point of call. The Ramblers were set up over 70 years ago as a charity to assist walkers. If you visit their website and click on Get Walking, Paths and Routes, and then the Regional Index, you will find an alphabetical list of all Public Rights of Way in that region.

Alternatively, as all trails and Public Rights of Way are clearly marked on Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps, you could buy one of these instead. These maps can be bought at most stationers and bookshops as well as in specialist walking and outdoor shops.

Public Footpath Signpost

When you are choosing a walk you need to bear in mind that there are four main categories of Public Rights of Way, and in the countryside each 'way' is signposted as follows:

  • A yellow arrow indicates a footpath. This is open only to walkers.
  • A blue arrow indicates a bridleway; this can be used by walkers, horse riders and cyclists.
  • A red arrow indicates a byway. Byways are open to all traffic, so watch out for off-road vehicles on these.
  • An acorn indicates a National Trail. These are long-distance trails, often encompassing local Public Rights of Way, which follow historic routes. In Scotland long-distance trails are marked by a thistle.

walking in EnglandAnother useful site to visit is http://www.walking-routes.co.uk, where you will find a comprehensive listing of walks across Britain and useful walking information.

Since 2000, another 3.4 million acres of land has been made available to walkers. This land is known as Open Access Land and is clearly marked on Ordnance Survey Explorer maps. This land is in private ownership and the landowners can still restrict access to it for various reasons. In Scotland, however, walkers have access to all land unless the landowner can provide a very good reason why walkers should not walk there.

Sudip Dasgupta of the Central London Outdoor Group, a walking group, advises new walkers or walkers new to a region to avoid walking on Open Access Land: "You don't know where you're going to end up, or how you can rejoin the walk you are following. Also, open access land doesn't mean it is land that is fit to walk across; it could be very muddy, boggy or blocked. Walkers are better off sticking to well-known and used paths and trails."

So now you've chosen a route, what else do you need to know?

What to Wear, What to Take

hiking bootsFor all walks, including gentle strolls, you should wear a pair of lightweight trousers to protect the legs from scratches, insects and ticks. Ticks carry Lyme disease, which, whilst rarely fatal, can be debilitating. You should also carry a lightweight waterproof jacket, as the weather in Britain is so unpredictable! In summer you should wear a sun hat and take suntan lotion with you. In winter you will need a woollen hat and some gloves.

Tony Jewitt, a walking friend of mine, advises that you wear walking boots to support the ankle. You should 'wear in' your boots before you go walking in them. To avoid getting blisters on longer walks, you should also wear two pairs of socks -- a cotton pair next to the skin and a woollen pair on top. Tony informs me that waterproof socks are now available: ideal if you're out in a downpour!*

For most walks in summer in England and Wales then you don't need to take that much equipment with you. If you're off for a stroll around a nature reserve or woodland, you will only need to make sure you follow the trail, take some water to drink and don't forget your camera!

For walks out in the countryside you will need:

  • A full one-litre water bottle
  • A basic first-aid kit -- plasters [bandaids, to Americans], antiseptic wipes, gloves, sterile dressings and a triangular bandage.
  • A mobile phone
  • A packed lunch or money for lunch
  • A walking stick (useful to help retain your balance when walking down an incline)
  • A map

For walks in the Lake District, the Peak District or Scotland you will also need to take:

  • Extra layers of clothing
  • Waterproof trousers
  • High-energy snacks (i.e. chocolate or Kendal Mint Cake -- a high sugar snack developed for walkers, but just as delicious for non-walkers too!)
  • A survival bag (a foil sleeping bag to keep you warm)
  • Water purification tablets
  • A compass
  • Insect repellent
  • A torch and spare batteries
  • A whistle

walking in England

Tony, who has completed many walks in Scotland and Wales, always takes a two-way radio with him. He has used it once to guide his walking partner, who got lost! Tony always programs the number for the local Mountain Rescue service into his mobile phone, just in case. If you find you need them, ring 999 and ask for Mountain Rescue.

What You Need to Know Before You Go

Wherever you are walking in England and Wales, you need to adhere to the Country Code. This basically states that you should:

  • Leave all gates and property as you found them
  • Take all litter home with you or dispose of it in litter bins
  • Stick only to the signposted routes
  • Keep dogs under strict control
  • Be considerate towards other walkers.

In Scotland you need to follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which states that you should:

  • Take responsibility for your own actions
  • Respect other walkers
  • Take care of the environment


If you are following a long-distance route, there are usually youth hostels, campsites or Bed and Breakfast accommodation close to the trail. Tony advises walkers to always book ahead, especially if you are walking in the Peak District or Scottish Islands. Do note that you cannot camp wherever you feel like it in England or Wales. This is trespass and against the law. In Scotland, however, such camping is perfectly legal.

Walking in Scotland, the Peak District or the Lake District

These are beautiful parts of the country that provide challenging walks. Tony prefers walking in Scotland, particularly on the Scottish Islands, as the scenery is breathtaking and each island has its own characteristics. However, the weather in these areas can change suddenly and walking conditions can deteriorate rapidly, so you should only tackle a walk in these regions if you are an experienced walker and map reader, or are in the company of an experienced walker. When you walk in these regions you will need to alert either the hotel, guesthouse or hostel manager of your walk, when you are setting off and when you will return, so that they can then alert Mountain Rescue if you don't return as planned. On the Isle of Rum there is a Mountain Rescue Post and each walker has to complete a postcard detailing their route and their expected time back before commencing the walk. Then if a walker doesn't return; Mountain Rescue will know where to go and look for them.

Walking Map

Walking Holidays or Walking in a Group

If you'd like to walk in Britain, but you'd rather not walk on your own, then why not go on an organised walking holiday instead? Many organisations offer walking holidays of varying durations and difficulties, from short breaks to fifteen-day walking holidays. Some walking holidays are self-led, which means you will be given the map and off you go. Others are guided, and these guided holidays are an excellent way to get started in walking, as they are led by experienced walkers who know the routes. Before you book your walking holiday, check if they do luggage transfers for you; some do and some don't, and if they don't, you'll need to carry your belongings with you while you walk!

However, if you don't want a walking holiday, but just to go for an occasional walk whilst on holiday, then why not join a local walking group for a walk? There are many groups around the country and most would welcome you. Alternatively, why not attend a walking festival? Many of these are held throughout the year and they offer you the chance to join a group for a specific walk. Some of the Walking Festivals coming up this year include:

  • Flora of the Fells Festival, Lake District. (April to September) Over a hundred walking events of varying difficulty.
  • Step into Cheshire (16-24 September)
  • Richmond (Yorkshire) Walking Festival (21st September-1st October)

More information on walking festivals can be found at: http://www.ramblers.org.uk/info/events/diary.html

So, the next time you're in Britain, don't just look at it through a window of a car or train; get out there, touch it, feel it, live it. As Tony puts it, "There is no better hobby!" What's more, you'd be surprised at what you might find. Walkers in Swaledale in Yorkshire recently found themselves being serenaded by a string quartet at the top of one dale and a guitarist on another, and took part in a barn-dance on third. Now, you wouldn't see that from inside your car!

walking in England

*Editor's note: In the U.S., Band-Aid® (Johnson & Johnson) produces a special "blister block"® bandage for heels. This is a smooth, durable gel bandage that won't rub off your foot while you walk the way an ordinary bandaid will. You can apply it after you get a blister, and it will keep the wound protected so that you hardly feel a thing. However, it can be an even better idea to apply one to each heel before you start walking, so as to prevent blisters from forming in the first place. They are a bit pricey -- a package of four costs between $3 and $4, but each bandage will stay on your foot at least two days (unless you get it seriously wet). I won't leave home without them, whether I'm planning to trek across the moor or just across the mall. Unfortunately I do not know whether they are available in the UK, so I would advise U.S. travelers to purchase them before leaving.

Related Articles:

Get On Yer Bike!, by Dawn Copeman

Cycling on the Old Railways, by Liz Hearn

The Joys of Ordnance Survey Maps, by Lise Hull

Letterboxing on Dartmoor: An Addictive Pastime... for the Brave!, by Jane Gilbert

More Information:

The Ramblers Association
Comprehensive information covering everything you need to know about walking. See the second URL for walking holidays arranged by the Ramblers.

Walking Holidays and Hiking Trips in the UK and Ireland
A site listing all the major operators offering walking holidays in Britain.

Wilderness Scotland
Walking holidays in Scotland

The Woodland Trust
Has information about all its woodlands and information for walkers.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Wildlife Trusts
Lists all the nature reserves owned by the wildlife trust and has information for walkers.

Scottish Wildlife Trusts
List of Scottish nature reserves.

Royal Forestry Society

National Trust Neptune Walks

English Nature: Walks and Events
Searchable database of walks per region.

A list of guided walks along most canals, rivers and lakes as well as the Walk of the Month.

Walking Routes
Site listing all walking routes in the UK and useful walking information.

Walks with 'CragFace'
A series of walks in the Yorkshire Dales, with detailed write-ups, photos and mp3 files.

Central London Outdoor Group Walking Group
They can also be contacted at: +44 (0) 207 485 5544

Youth Hostel Association
Lists all youth hostels, plus costs per night.

Countryside Access Code
Full details of the Country Code in England.

Scottish Outdoor Access Code

Mountain Rescue in England and Wales

Mountain Rescue in Scotland

Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2006 Dawn Copeman
Photos courtesy of Britainonview.com


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