We are blessed in Britain with 15 national parks, our country’s ‘breathing spaces,’ and every summer we celebrate them during National Parks Week.
Whatever the weather, or season take time out in our beautiful, protected wild places and enjoy the very best of our countryside, heritage and wildlife…
The Vikings called them ‘dalr’, meaning valleys and today we worship these same rolling dales. The glorious mosaic of green, criss-crossed with dry-stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales is home to the Tour de Yorkshire and punctuated with picture-perfect villages. Feast on famous Wensleydale cheese, delight in the purple haze of August heather, bike along routes trail-blazed by the world’s greatest cyclists and recharge your batteries with, according to locals, the best cup of tea in England. Don’t miss the limestone majesty of Malham Cove and the drama of Hardraw Force waterfall. Children will love jumping the cracks in limestone pavement, or crossing the stepping stones at Bolton Abbey, before screaming for ice-cream from nearby Billy-Bob’s Parlour.
For a true sense of space, lose yourself in the largest national park in the UK, in the heart of the Scottish highlands. Home to our highest mountain range and most extensive native Caledonian forest, dominated by striking Scots pines, the Cairngorms is a place to challenge yourself. This might be through hiking, climbing or simply searching for true wilderness and perhaps an elusive pine martin or reindeer. Yes, really. The only place in the UK place guaranteed for skiing, the Cairngorms transform into a snowy arctic expanse in winter. And don’t forget the Scottish hospitality – a wee dram of whisky goes down rather well after a day in the mountains. Cheers!
The singular geology of the Brecon Beacons makes this place stand out. Part of the park is an internationally recognised Global Geopark, and its flat-topped escarpments plunge into glacial valleys and lakes. Red sandstone peaks near Brecon in mid Wales give way to the Black Mountains, and the park boasts the highest peak in south Wales, Pen Y Fan. It’s also a Dark Sky Reserve, making it as beautiful by night as by day. Wild Welsh mountain ponies can be spotted in upland areas and you can also wander or horse ride over countless miles of accessible tracks and paths. Red kites are beloved as Wales’ unofficial national bird and you can view these magnificent raptors jostling for food at the Red Kite Feeding Centre.
In the far north east stretching towards the Scottish border is Northumberland National Park; the largest Dark Sky Park in Europe and one of the best places in Britain to gaze upon our solar system. Hadrian’s Wall meanders east to west across the country and in Northumberland, the last outpost of the Roman Empire’s northern frontier; it snakes along the national park’s southern boundary. Take a walk with a knowledgeable volunteer guide and learn about both natural and human history. If your kids would rather be at a farm park than a National Park, delight them with the Hethpool Wild Goat Walk, taking in an exciting waterfall and affording the best chance to spot the comic, shaggy Cheviot goats.
Loch Lomond & the Trossachs
A city-dweller’s escape providing fantastic opportunities for fishing, boating and(if you’re brave or mad!) swimming. Within striking distance of Stirling, Edinburgh and especially Glasgow – it’s less than an hour from the city – Loch Lomond & the Trossachs is one of Scotland’s most accessible playgrounds. You can mountain bike, walk part of the 96 mile West Highland Way or simply paddle along the bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond itself – Britain’s largest inland stretch of water. Summer brings Highland Games and the melodic sounds of traditional pipe bands. For those in search of serenity, try the calming ponds and towering trees at Benmore Botanic Garden.
A watery wonderland in one of Britain’s driest places, the Broads are our largest protected wetland. 60 broads (wide, shallow lakes created by flooded medieval peat pits) and seven rivers are visited by eight million people every year. Despite this, the combination of fen, woodland and grazing marshes feel like a tranquil getaway and the unique habitat allows our rarest wildlife to thrive. The swallowtail butterfly lives only here, bitterns and marsh harriers are on the increase and water shrews may be glimpsed. Boating is the Broads’ other major draw, with a choice of glamorous cruisers and waterside eateries. Choose a canoe or paddle-board and you can explore all but its very smallest streams.
Pembrokeshire is our only truly coastal nature reserve. And what a coastline! It’s well loved for sandy, safe beaches, abundant wildlife and impossibly pretty shores. If you’re visiting between April and October, beat a different path to Pembrokeshire’s islands. Mostly uninhabited, these remote places support populations of puffins, manx shearwaters and gannets. Take a sea safari, particularly if you have a soft-spot for seabirds. Back on dry land, walk parts of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and drink in ancient heritage with its castles and Iron Age forts. Look skywards for choughs and skylarks and out to sea for basking sharks and unbelievably orcas, who return annually to this wonderful bit of Wales.
Exmoor’s diversity is special, with a sense of wilderness so hard to find in densely populated southern England. The name is synonymous with moorland yet one of the park’s most celebrated features are its dramatic sea cliffs, sweeping into the Bristol Channel and the highest in England. Exmoor is edged by a spectacular coastline to kayak, walk or windsail and is also home to orchards, cider farms and swathes of ancient woodland, splashed bright in spring with bluebells. Though the landscape has been shaped by farming over millennia, this quiet park is a wonderful place to feel alone. Apart from the ponies, of course: you’ll always be pleased to see them.