8 best hikes to discover England’s beautiful countryside

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

The Lake District is England's favourite hiking playground © Stewart Smith Photography / Shutterstock

The English countryside is crisscrossed by a magnificent maze of walking trails, connecting gorgeous landscapes, historic sights, stunning national parks and atmospheric villages where hikers can look forward to a pint and a pie supper after a bracing day of walking in the hills.

Walking isn't just a hobby in England – it's a legal right, enshrined in law as part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. Hikers have the right to roam almost everywhere without the need for entry fees or permits, including in England’s national parks. With well-maintained and clearly marked trails, you don't need much more to get started than a good map, comfortable hiking boots and waterproofs that are up to the challenge of the English climate.

England is a green and pleasant land ripe with incredible hiking opportunities, many very accessible from London. So what are you waiting for? Go get out there. 

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

Mam Tor and Kinder Scout rising handsomely above the Peak District © AllTrails

Mam Tor in the Peak District

Best day hike in England

8 miles (13km), 5 hours, moderate

The Peak District – never ‘the Peaks’ as locals will no doubt inform you – is a sampling platter of classic English landscapes, from the moody, gritstone moors of the Dark Peak in the north to the tumbling limestone dales of the White Peak, running south into Derbyshire and Staffordshire. In summer, the green hills are spotted with the rainbow colours of legions of Gore Tex-clad walkers, but with excellent railway links, you can duck in for the day if you’d rather not compete for camping spots.

Topping the table of Peak District day walks is the climb of 517m Mam Tor, which rises handsomely above the village of Edale. Roll in by train from London, Liverpool, Sheffield or Manchester and you can be out on the slopes within minutes, following stone pathways to the summit and looping back via the villages of Castleton and Hope in around five hours.

For something more ambitious, extend the walk to exposed Kinder Scout (636m), where hundreds of walkers before you kicked off the fight for the "right to roam", which makes England such a a great country for rambling today, with the Kinder Trespass in 1932.

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

Sunset over Rapishaw Gap on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland © Nigel Eve / 500px

Hadrian's Wall Path, Northumberland

Best hike for history

84 miles (135km), 5-7 days (but it is possible to day walk any section), moderate

Tracing a broken line from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway, Hadrian's Wall may have been built to divide the English from the Scots, but it lies well south of the 21st century border. The Romans erected this impressive military and psychological barrier from 122 CE to 128 CE, and a remarkable amount of Roman masonry remains today. Needless to say, the 84-mile national trail that follows the wall is one of England’s most popular hikes, attracting an army of modern-day walkers during the peak season: May to October.

The entire route takes five to seven days on foot, allowing plenty of time to explore the rich archaeological heritage dotted along the trail. Essential stops include the impressively preserved Roman fort at Housesteads, the temple of Mithras at Brocolitia Fort, and the Vindolanda museum, which displays an original Roman sandal (you’ll appreciate your trekking boots all the more after seeing it).

In between these pockets of Roman history, settle in and enjoy the undulating countryside and the sense of mission that comes from walking the entire length of England’s "great wall". Of course if time (or fitness levels) is against you doing the whole trek, then you can hike a section in a day either by walking out and back, or by arranging taxi transport to return you to your departure point.  

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

The coastguard cottages at Seaford Head have featured in dozens of movies © krzych-34 / Getty Images

South Downs Way

Best hike for iconic views

100 miles (160km), 8-9 days (or plan a day walk along a section), moderate

Great walking country isn’t limited to the dramatic hills of England's north. The 100-mile South Downs Way rolls across a series of chalk ridges from Winchester to the legendary white cliffs of Dover, serving up stunning walking within easy reach of London. It’s just a one-hour train ride from London Waterloo to Winchester, and you’ll reach Eastbourne nine days later after tracing the top of the Seven Sisters, England’s most iconic sea cliffs. Alternatively train down to Eastbourne and walk the Seven Sisters section in reverse on a day walk, looping back to Eastbourne via bus or taxi.

There’s something quintessentially English about chalk grassland scenery. Watching kestrels hovering effortlessly overhead in perfect blue skies, it's easy to forget this place rattled with gunfire during the Battle of Britain in 1940. There’s good value accommodation all along the trail – one essential stop is the Belle Tout Lighthouse on the way to Beachy Head, now one of England’s most nostalgic guesthouses. The route is as popular with mountain bikers as walkers and the dry weather in the south of England is an added bonus.

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

Be prepared for all weather and potentially muddy paths, even in the warmer months in England © Paul Nash/ Shutterstock

South West Coast Path

Best hike for coastal exploration

630 miles (1014km), 40-50 days (or plan a day walk along a section), moderate

Getting away from it all can be a challenge in the tourist-mobbed southwest of England, but the 630-mile South West Coast Path provides welcome moments of seclusion. The epic route kicks off in Minehead on the north side of the peninsula, and follows the shoreline through Devon and Cornwall all the way to Poole Harbour in Dorset, taking in dozens of fishing villages, peaceful coves, rocky headlands and holiday hangouts with gorgeous sandy beaches.

If you just want a taster of the trail, the section from Minehead to Westward Ho! serves up some of the most impressive sea cliffs, while the leg from St Ives to Penzance crosses two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. To keep the kids on board, the stretch from Exmouth to Lyme Regis offers some of Britain’s best fossil-hunting along the Jurassic Coast. As well as seascapes, sand and scenery, you’ll encounter plenty of wildlife: peregrine falcons, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots frequent the shoreline, and seals, dolphins and basking sharks can be spotted in the waters offshore. 

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

Striding Edge emerges from the mist below Helvellyn ©Dave Melsome/Getty Images

Skafell Pike & Helvellyn, Lake District

Best hike for mountain bragging rights

8 miles (13 km) round-trip to either peak, 5-7 hours if you're fit, hard

There’s stiff competition for the title of "best hike in the Lake District". The trek up 950m Helvellyn comes top for untamed drama – particularly when scrambling along the scalpel-thin Striding Edge – but nearby Scafell Pike (978m) comes with bragging rights you only get from climbing England’s highest mountain. Either route can be achieved in a strenuous day, with five to seven hours of hard trekking required to reach the top and get back down to a village pub to toast your success with a pint of Yorkshire bitter.

For Scafell, the most popular ascent starts at Wasdale Head near Santon Bridge, but there are four alternate routes that see slightly fewer trekking boots. For the classic route to Helvellyn via Striding Edge, pick up the trail at the Glenridding Tourist Information Centre on Ullswater. The weather can make or break a Lake District hike; in rain, walking can be a joyless slog, but on dry days, the views can be transcendental. At any time of year bring waterproofs, food, water, and a map and compass.

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

The Three Peaks Challenge takes in classic Yorkshire Dales countryside ©Andrew Montgomery/Lonely Planet

Yorkshire's Three Peaks Challenge

Best hike for fitness fanatics and superheroes

24 miles (39km), 12 hours (or less), hard

Nothing focuses the mind like a challenge! Since 1968 more than 200,000 hikers have taken up the quest of climbing the summits of Pen-y-ghent (694m), Whernside (736m) and Ingleborough (723m) in less than 12 hours. Known as the Three Peaks Challenge, the circular 24-mile route begins and ends at the Pen-y-Ghent Cafe in Horton-in-Ribblesdale (where you clock in and clock out to verify your time); succeed and you become an automatic member of the cafe's Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club.

Fancy a more gruelling test of endurance in the Yorkshire Dales? Then join the fell-runners in the annual Three Peaks Race on the last Saturday in April, and run the route instead of walking it. Just six people entered (and only three finished) when the race was first held in 1954; today, it has a limit of 1000 entrants, and the impressive course record is two hours, 46 minutes and three seconds.

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

Heathland landscape on the Long Mynd in Shropshire ©Shutterstock/EddieCloud

Shropshire Way & the Long Mynd

Best hike for solo hiking 

202 miles (325km) round-trip, from 15 days, moderate

Scenic Shropshire is often overlooked by tourists rushing to the Peak District, but the hills here are just as dramatic and far less crowded. Tucked against the Welsh border, the county rises in a series of steep ridges, divided by winding rivers, ruined castles and slumbering villages where you can stop overnight and sample some of Shropshire’s famous real ales. Walking trails run in every direction, but they’re rarely busy, so there's little competition for a bed or a table for dinner, even in summer.

The 200-mile Shropshire Way is divided into two sections – a more dramatic southern loop, taking in the epic scenery around Ludlow, Church Stretton and the Clun Valley, and a gentler northern section – both starting and ending in Shrewsbury (always "shrooz-bury", never "shrows-bury"). We recommend the southern leg, tracing the west side of the Long Mynd, a gorgeous heather-topped plateau inhabited by wild ponies, to the foodie town of Ludlow, with its stocky castle, gourmet restaurants and annual food festival.

8 best hikes to discover England's beautiful countryside

Empty beaches and silent marshlands line the Norfolk Coast © Shutterstock / Bealf Photography

Norfolk Coast Path

Best hike for beginners and birdlife

84 miles (133.5km) one way, 5-10 days (or plan a day walk along a section), easy

Not every walk has to go up hill and down dale. The Norfolk Coast Path rarely climbs much above sea level, but it passes through a meditative landscape of sandy spits, pine forests and dense, reed-filled coastal marshes that shelter some of Britain’s most iconic birdlife. With binoculars to hand, you can spot everything from bitterns, marsh harriers and reed warblers to grey seals as you cover the 84 miles between Hunstanton and Hopton-on-Sea.

Bring your swimming costume; the five- to ten-day walk links together a string of historic seaside resorts and the stunning sands in front of the stately home of Holkham Hall, one of England’s finest Palladian mansions. Also bring an appetite – north Norfolk is famous for its seafood, particularly Cromer crab, Kings Lynn brown shrimp and Brancaster oysters.  

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