8 great ‘undiscovered’ British big trails
Kathy Rogers, the co-author of Big Trails: Great Britain & Ireland, reveals five spectacular long-distance routes across the UK. Big Trails: Great Britain & Ireland is a guide book for all kinds of people, whether you are walking, trekking, fastpacking or running.
8 great long-distance trails in the UK
A Dales High Way
A Dales High Way offers a quieter, wilder alternative to the popular Dales Way. The trail begins by Titus Salt’s utopian mill in the model village of Saltaire. It climbs on to the beautiful high moors above Ilkley, where the moorland paths are so deserted that it is a surprise to encounter the Yorkshire Three Peakers on Ingleborough and the daytrippers on Malham’s other-worldly limestone pavement.
The bronzed Howgills are England’s best kept secret; grassy trods rise over rounded peaks, where you can enjoy views across the Lake District and north-western coast. On the moorland tops, you may glimpse red kites; by the banks of Hoff Beck, near the picture-perfect Rutter Mill, you may encounter red squirrels.
If the heathered moors, green pastures and sparkling waterfalls are not enough to persuade you to tackle A Dales High Way, you should walk it for the Dales towns and villages en route, their high streets full of teashops, pubs and independent shops, particularly some of the country’s best independent bookshops.
Route: Saltaire to Appleby-in-Westmorland
Length: 143 km
Pitstop: The trail passes the Angel at Hetton, one of England’s first gastropubs which won a Michelin star in 2020. Muddy booted walkers fresh from the trail may prefer to relax in Settle’s famous Ye Olde Naked Man Café.
Best Day Walk: From Skipton to Settle, the route climbs over Malham’s limestone pavement, although you might first choose a short diversion to the towering cliffs and waterfalls of Gordale Scar. You leave the crowds behind as you follow the Pennine Bridleway towards the teashops and pubs of picturesque Settle.
Must See: Salts Mill is now an art gallery, specialising in the works of locally born painter, David Hockney. It also houses a café and independent shops, including a bike shop, outdoors retailers and one of Yorkshire’s best independent bookshops.
Unusual Stay: Those who want to reward themselves for completing the trail might stay in the luxury of Appleby’s Castle, once the preferred residence of Lady Anne Clifford. You can enjoy the great hall, games room and tennis court.
Official website: www.daleshighway.co.uk
Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path
The Peddars Way takes the arrow-straight path of a Roman road from the heart of Norfolk to the sea, where it joins the Norfolk Coast Path.
Two paths for the price of one, this is a flat route that crosses gentle farmland and the sandy heathland of the Brecks. The landscape is rich in history, from Castle Acre’s Cluniac priory to the Bronze Age tumuli at Harpley Common and Cromwell’s ammunition magazine.
The path meets the coast at Hunstanton with its striped cliffs and one of only a few places on the east coast where you can watch the sun set over the sea.
Brancaster Staithe is still a busy fishing port and you should sample the lobsters and crabs of North Norfolk, which are said to owe their sweetness to a submarine chalk ridge.
After Blakeney Point, famous for its seal colony, you must climb to Norfolk’s highest point, Beeston Bump, although it is only 63 metres tall.
The Peddars Way is the last link in the Great Ridgeway, an ancient route stretching from Dorset to Norfolk, and this National Trail across wide, flat farmland and sandy beaches, under impossibly vast blue skies, is the perfect family adventure.
Route: Knettishall Heath to Hopton on Sea
Length: 214 km
Pitstop: From April to October, at the Crab Hut at Brancaster Staithe, you can enjoy baguettes stuffed full of fresh, local crab or lobster, the perfect hiker’s lunch.
Best Day Walk: From Holt to Sheringham offers some of North Norfolk’s finest coast views, marine wildlife and seaside towns, and you can enjoy a ride on a steam train on the North Norfolk Railway’s Poppy line to return to your starting point.
Must See: At Holme Dunes nature reserve, you may spot egrets, redshanks or pied avocets on the grassy path through the Dunes.
Unusual Stay: The Tower windmill at Burnham Overy is owned by the National Trust, and offers bunkbed accommodation, although there is a three-night minimum stay.
Official website: www.nationaltrail.co.uk/en_GB/trails/peddars-way-and-norfolk-coast-path
Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path
Anglesey sits at the very edge of Wales, an island disappearing into the sea. Its low coasts offer golden beaches, rugged cliffs and tiny islands.
The Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path encircles the small island, beginning at the busy port town of Holyhead. At Bull Bay, you may spot dolphins or porpoises, and puffins on the island off Penmon Point.
Beaumaris, once the county town, is home to Edward I’s most ambitious, but unfinished, castle. Along the Menai Strait, the Path offers spectacular views of Snowdonia and the man-made wonder, the Menai Suspension Bridge – before its construction, Anglesey had no connection to the mainland, and farmers would force their cattle to swim the Strait.
The shining sands of Traeth Cymyran offer a route past the airfield at RAF Valley, where Prince William once served. Nearly at trail end, from the flanks of Holyhead Mountain, the island’s largest hill, the Irish mountains of Wicklow can sometimes be seen. The Isle of Anglesesy Coastal Path offers an opportunity to explore an entire island, rich in history and myth, and enjoy along the way some of Wales’ finest golden beaches.
Route: Holyhead (circular)
Length: 201 km
Pitstop: Beaumaris offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy local food. For those who want to try fresh local fish, Welsh beef and lamb and local specialities, the Bishopsgate House Hotel has an AA Rosette awarded restaurant.
Best Day Walk: Grey squirrels have been eradicated from Anglesey, and the forest of Newborough is a good place to spot them. You can also explore the tidal Llanddwyn Island – where Dwynwen, unable to marry the man she loved, became a hermit – before finishing at Aberffraw.
Must See: The Britannia Bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson but it was accidentally set alight in May, 1970, by a group of bored teenagers. The tunnel within a tunnel construction of the bridge acted like a chimney, causing an uncontrollable fire that severed the island’s only rail link. The subsequent rebuilding of the bridge obscured the magnificent limestone lions that guard the bridge, but walkers on the Coastal Path can still enjoy a view of these now hidden monuments.
Unusual Stay: At Port Lynas, you can stay in one of two clifftop Keeper’s Cottages beneath a working lighthouse.
Official website: www.visitanglesey.co.uk/en/about-anglesey/isle-of-anglesey-coastal-path
The Cotswolds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, have long been a refuge from grey city streets. The Cotswold Way offers an opportunity to enjoy the rolling hills, gentle farmland and honey-stoned cottages. The trail starts in Chipping Campden, once a centre for the Arts and Crafts movement.
On Broadway Hill, you’ll find Broadway Tower – on a clear day you can see 16 counties from the top. Near Beckbury Camp, an Iron Age fort, Thomas Cromwell once stood and watched the destruction of Hailes Abbey, the ruins of which the Way passes.
Postlip Hall is home to a pioneering co-housing community and, every July, they host the Cotswold Beer Festival in their medieval tithe barn. Cleeve Hill, at 317 metres, is the highest point on the Cotswold Way but there is another climb over Cooper’s Hill, famous for the cheese-rolling race. You may curse the trail’s creators who decided that the Way should meander through the tourist-thronged streets of Bath but you are led to a stunning trail end in the shadow of the medieval Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths.
Route: Chipping Campden to Bath
Length: 168 km
Pitstop: At Dursley – a name that perhaps inspired J.K. Rowling, who grew up not far from here – you can visit the Old Spot Inn, a pub named for the local pig breed, which has been the recipient of many rewards including the CAMRA National Pub of the Year in 2007.
Best Day Walk: From the chocolate-box village of Broadway to Winchcombe takes you past an iron fort, a castle that was home to Catherine Parr, wife of Henry VIII, the ruins of Hailes Abbey and Belas Knap, a Neolithic long barrow.
Must See: Near North Nibley, you can climb 121 steps to the top of the Tyndale Monument, built to commemorate William Tyndale who first translated the bible into English (and was executed for his pains).
Unusual Stay: The Cotswolds have long attracted artists and writers, and you can stay in Little Orchard, a luxury holiday cottage in Chipping Campden with golden walls and a thick, thatched roof, that was once home to novelist Graham Greene.
Official website: www.nationaltrail.co.uk/en_GB/trails/cotswold-way
Icknield Way Path
The Ridgeway reaches its end on the high Chiltern hill of Ivinghoe Beacon, but the Greater Ridgeway continues on towards the Norfolk coast. The Icknield Way Path, which starts where the Ridgeway ends, follows the route of one of England’s oldest roads.
The trail passes Neolithic settlements, Roman battlefields and medieval villages as it crosses the lands of Boudicca’s Iceni. The green farmland, gentle flowered hills and ancient woodlands were beloved by war poet Edward Thomas who wrote an account of walking the Icknield Way in 1913 and, more recently, it has inspired Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.
Highlights along the Way include the Whipsnade White Lion, etched into the hill to warn pilots not to scare the animals at the nearby zoo, the elaborately carved Royston cave beneath the town’s crossroads, and Capability Brown’s parklands at Euston Hall. The Icknield Way was once busy with traders, soldiers and pilgrims but now lies quiet. This is a trail for those who love solitude, for those who want a peaceful path that is a haven for lapwings and skylarks, badgers and dormice.
Route: Ivinghoe Beacon to Knettishall Heath
Length: 182 km
Pitstop: Euston Hall, home to the Duke of Grafton and one of East Anglia’s most spectacular stately homes, has a tearoom where you can enjoy home-made cake.
Best Day Walk: From Ivinghoe Beacon to Toddington, a village with six pubs, you can enjoy the Chiltern hills, glimpse wallabies and bison at Whipsnade zoo and cross the Dunstable Downs, the highest area of Bedfordshire.
Must See: Seeing the evening light glow through a copse of trees, Edmond Blyth conceived a memorial to his friend, and all the others, killed during World War I. The Icknield Way passes Blyth’s Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, the walls of which are of beech, ash and oak.
Unusual Stay: At Great Chesterford, you could choose to stay at the Crown House Hotel. There is rumoured to be a secret, subterranean tunnel that connects the hotel to the church and vicarage. The church’s silver bells were hidden in it during the Civil War but have never been found.
Official website: www.icknieldwaypath.co.uk
The London LOOP encircles the city, revealing the hidden woodlands, grassy hills and green-fringed rivers squeezed between London’s dual carriageways and golf courses. Even the city dweller can find outdoor adventure on their doorstep; every city has its secret green spaces and forgotten histories.
The trail, which starts in Erith, follows riverside paths and muddy tracks to pass the Tudor manor Hall Place, the historic oak beneath which Wilberforce and Pitt the Younger discussed the abolition of slavery, the fragrant Mayfield Lavender Farm and Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge in Epping Forest.
Rainham Marshes are a haven for peregrine falcons, lapwings and water voles while you’ll encounter giant redwoods in Havering Park and the Domesday Oaks, believed to be at least 700 years old, on West Wickham Common. These fields and forests on the urban fringes were once the playground of kings and queens but are now yours to enjoy.
Route: Erith to Purfleet
Length: 230 km
Pitstop: At Mayfield Lavender Park, you can enjoy a lavender cream tea. They also offer less floral sandwiches, snacks and home-made cake.
Best Day Walk: From Kingston upon Thames, the route passes through Bushy Park, famous for its deer. London’s explosive history can be explored in Crane Park, once home to the Hounslow Gunpowder Mills – you can climb to the top of the Shot Tower on Sundays. The riverside paths by the River Crane offer a surprising urban respite as you pass through Hounslow and on to Hatton Cross.
Must See: On the bleak shores of the Thames, near the Tilda rice factory, concrete barges sink into the river – these were built to carry fuel during the Normandy landings when steel was in short supply. By the barges, a lonely figure stares out across the Thames – this is the Diver, a modern sculpture – it is completely submerged at the highest tides.
Unusual Stay: If you’ve never camped in a city, you might choose to visit the Lee Valley campsite at Sewardstone for a cheap city adventure under the stars. Less hardy hikers could choose to stay in a cocoon or camping cabin.
Official website: tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/loop-walk
John Muir Way
The John Muir Trail follows a low route from the Victorian holiday resort of Helensburgh on Scotland’s west coast to the cliffs of Dunbar on the east coast.
Scotland’s coast-to-coast trail offers spectacular views of the Trossachs and Loch Lomond, the Campsie Fells and North Berwick’s sandy dunes. The trail passes Scotland’s last paddle steamer, Mary Queen of Scots’ birthplace at Linlithgow and the ship that never sailed. It was at Kinneil House that James Watt worked on his steam engine and you can marvel at the ingenuity of Scottish engineers as you pass the rotating Falkirk Wheel Boat Lift, the canal tunnel through Prospect Hill, the Avon’s long aqueduct and the Forth’s famous bridges.
The trail generally follows towpaths, forestry tracks and cycle paths (there is also a cycle route) so it’s a good choice for those who want to avoid stiles or uneven paths. John Muir, the man of the mountains, wrote that “wilderness is a necessity” and the John Muir Way allows you to discover the landscape that inspired this passionate environmentalist. Muir was born in Dunbar before sailing when he was a boy with his family to America.
- John Muir Way joins stable of Scotland’s Great Trails.
- On the path of local history.
- Burncrooks Reservoir loop on the John Muir Way.
Route: Helensburgh to Dunbar
Length: 213 km
Pitstop: The 14th century Callendar House, remodelled in the 19th century in the style of a French chateau offers a stunning backdrop for afternoon tea. You can also visit the House’s museum to learn more about Falkirk’s history and the Roman’s Antonine Wall.
Best Day Walk: From Berwick to Dunbar is a birdwatchers delight – the shores are famous for their seabirds and are home to the world’s largest colony of northern gannets. This section offers golden beaches, salt marshes and stunning red cliffs.
Must See: At Carbeth, Allan Barns-Graham gave camping rights to soldiers returning from World War I so that they could recuperate in the fresh air of the forest. From scrap and salvage, with socialist principles at the heart of the community, holiday huts were constructed, which provided shelter from those fleeing World War II’s bombing raids. The Carbeth Hutters – who, after bitter disputes with the landlord, bought the land in 2013 – were pioneers of minimalist, low-impact living.
Unusual Stay: Walkers seeking an alternative to Edinburgh’s popular hotels could stay in the heart of the city at Edinburgh’s first “boatel”, the Four Sisters, which is moored in the Lochrin Basin.
Official website: johnmuirway.org
The Cambrian Way is an adventure of a lifetime, one of Britain’s wildest, toughest long-distance trails that traverses all of Wales’ mountain ranges. This route, which crosses Wales from Cardiff to Conwy, is unmarked over the rugged mountains and you will often find yourself far from any village.
The first mountains encountered are the Brecon Beacons, wilderness so hostile that the SAS train there. Tom Drake, who pioneered the Cambrian Way considered Doethie to be it most beautiful section. Britain’s only native population of red kites still soar over Elenydd, or Wales’ Green Desert.
The Way takes you over South Wales’ highest mountain, Pen y Fan, and the national giant, Snowdon, but also offers respite at the seaside resorts of Barmouth and Conwy. The Cambrian Way is not even a route, but rather 41 checkpoints that must be visited to claim completion. This rugged, boggy trail is an opportunity for you to find your own way to cross a country and climb its highest mountains.
Route: Cardiff to Conwy
Length: 462 km
Pitstop: Hebog Café and Bistro in Beddgelert offers hearty lunches of jacket potatoes, filling baguettes and Welsh faggots and mash, perfect for the hungry hiker or tired trailrunner.
Best Day Walk: You could choose to eschew the busy slopes of Snowdon for the challenging traverse of Cnicht, Wales Matterhorn. The route – from Maentwrog to Beddgelert, named for Prince Llewelyn’s faithful dog, is one of the most difficult but spectacular sections of the Way.
Must See: Devil’s Bridge is a modern bridge, built on top of an eighteenth-century bridge, built upon a medieval bridge where you can stop to admire the waterfall. You may recognise it from S4C’s Welsh-language drama Hinterland.
Unusual Stay: Eleven kilometres from the nearest village, the simple and basic hostel at Ty’n Cornel is the most remote hostel in Wales. It was saved from closure by the Elenydd Wilderness Hostels Trust.
Official website: www.cambrianway.org.uk.
Big Trails: Great Britain & Ireland is an inspirational guide to the most iconic, spectacular and popular long-distance trails in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The book is available to buy from bookshops, online and direct from Vertebrate Publishing: www.v-publishing.co.uk. Also buy from Amazon: Volume 1 and Volume 2. (I receive a small commission form sales through Amazon. It keeps me in cups of coffee.)