“Why don’t more people do this?”
This thought crossed my mind as I summited yet another empty, sprawling ridge in Northumberland National Park. I was halfway through a 7-day hike along the 84-mile-long Hadrian’s Wall Path. My route stretched across the neck of England, from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Newcastle in the east, and yes, that means I can tell people I walked across England.
Despite being a grey day, the scenery was spectacular. A thin mist blew across the tops of the crags and rain fell lightly from the cotton sky, pattering against the hood of my jacket. To my right, a patchwork of fields filled with weather-worn cows and thick, woolly sheep. To my left, the remains of the ancient wall followed by a steep drop down a rocky ledge to the valley below. Beyond this, the moorland of Northumberland stretched rugged and wild into the distance before disappearing in a blanket of mist on the horizon.
My path traced the foundations of the once great Roman wall built in AD 122 under the rule of Emperor Hadrian. As I walked, thoughts of Roman soldiers pacing the wet stone battlements flashed in my mind. It was easy to imagine them during a night watch, peering out into the dark, eyes straining under the flickering glow of a torch, where, hidden among the shadows, Britannic hoards lay in wait.
Hadrian’s Wall has the prestigious title of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site – 1 of 32 in the UK. Amazingly, there’s actually a National Trails walking path that follows the length of the wall from end to end. Yet, apart from the occasional dog walker or cheery farmer at work in a field, I walked the majority of this path in isolation. There were hubs along the wall where people gathered at National Trust cafes and museums, but a mere stone’s throw from these sites the wall was empty, and I walked alone.
It was at this point I had my revelation. Why, with this incredible historical feature and sensational walking path right beside it, was there no one else about? It was staggering to have this wonderous place in my home country so seemingly under appreciated.
I walked the wall in August – prime time for summer holidays. But, even considering the travel restrictions in place, it seemed that most holidaymakers wished to have the security of summer sun at a popular Mediterranean beach resort rather than discovering what’s back home.
This struck me as a great shame considering the range of fantastic destinations we have on offer in the UK. Some of the most amazing National Parks in the world are right on our doorstep.
Pembrokeshire Coast Path
Perhaps it was the weather. My walk did take place during the tail end of Storm Francis after all. So, with this in mind, I returned from the north and 2 weeks later embarked on another National Trails hike to a different part of the country. This time choosing a renowned beach destination: the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in Wales.
There could be no complaints about the weather this time. I was graced with 2 weeks of glorious September sun. The cool Autumn air brought clear blue skies every day. Atlantic Seals lined the coves and beaches, nurturing their chubby white pubs and ushering them into the foaming surf for a first swim in the chilly Irish Sea. Day after day brought endless golden sand beaches, wind blasted cliffs, and untouched coves.
In a word, it was magnificent. Yet of course, for most of the 186-mile-long path, I walked alone. Some of the bigger beaches and towns were bustling but even these seaside spots were surprisingly quiet. Once more, few people were venturing to the more remote and pristine areas of the National Park.
I felt there were many who would whole heartedly welcome a little exploration but perhaps just didn’t know where to look. It occurred to me that many people might not even be aware of the range of nature in the British Isles and this was the reason National Parks were being overlooked.
So, in case you didn’t know, here’s a little more information about them!
UK National Parks
There are 15 National Parks in the UK with the same number of National Trail walking paths running through many of them. These trails are a wide range of lengths and cross numerous landscapes with varying difficulty. From rugged coast walks in Pembrokeshire and the South West to epic mountain hikes along the Pennine Way and Offa’s Dyke Path; from the rolling fields of the South Downs and Cotswold Way to winding feature walks beside the River Thames and Hadrian’s Wall Path. There really is a walk to suit every interest.
Wherever you are situated in the UK, you’ll have a National Trail nearby. This doesn’t mean you have to take weeks off work and hike the whole thing in one go. You could visit for a weekend walk or experience the National Park for a couple of days on a camping trip instead. There’s really no better time to enjoy what’s close to home rather than looking for far flung escapes.
Each path is continuously maintained and signposted to ensure they are always walkable even for an outdoors newbie! Just follow the acorns – the National Trails symbol – and you can’t get lost. Many of the paths run through idyllic villages, clustered beach towns, and peaceful countryside hamlets, meaning you don’t have to be an experienced adventurer to explore these trails. It’s still possible to visit an area, and if you desire, put your feet up for a relaxing B&B staycation filled with café and pub trips.
Who knows how long these travel restrictions and quarantines will be in place – so why worry about going abroad? There’s no better time to get out there and see what’s in your own backyard, it may surprise you. The more people who’re willing to embark on a new adventure the better! I implore you, squeeze on your walking boots, grab a jacket, and step outside to discover the fantastic landscapes of our United Kingdom.