This year our national parks celebrate their 70th birthday. Sophie Campbell walks us through their story.
Do you ever think about them? I mean really think about them, as you sling on a backpack to walk across the landscape, or stay in a B&B, or go to a remote pub, or photograph the view in one of our national parks? Of course, they’re there! It’s our land, isn’t it?
Well, it wasn’t always that way – not until the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed in 1949, enabling the designation of protected areas in the UK. And that was the result of persistent campaigning in parliament from the 1880s, pressure from lobby groups and, in particular, the incident once described by the politician, Roy Hattersley, as “the most successful direct action in British history” – the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932.
That April, three groups of ramblers converged on a hill in the Dark Peak, Derbyshire, on land owned by the Duke of Devonshire, skirmishing with gamekeepers on the way. Several went to prison for assault (not for trespass, which has never been a criminal offence in this country, bar some recent anti-terror legislation). Three weeks later, 10,000 walkers held a right-to-roam rally in Castleton, and slowly but surely the tide began to turn.
There are now 15 national parks across the UK: 10 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland, though currently none in Northern Ireland.
The first was the Peak District in 1951, and the most recent was the South Downs National Park in 2011. They make up five per cent of Britain and the government is conducting a review to see if we need more. Even London is becoming a ‘National Park City’, with a festival from July 20-28. They’re an amazing resource for our health, rural traditions, history, heritage, outdoor activities and the sheer restorative power of nature. Time to get your walking boots on – or at least head to a very picturesque national park pub.
PEAK DISTRICT NATIONAL PARK
Our oldest national park is generously placed – easy to reach from Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and Sheffield. It’s split into the limestone region or White Peak to the south, surrounded by a horseshoe of forbidding gritstone, and the Dark Peak, to the north.
Haddon Hall, Bakewell: Prince Humperdinck’s castle from The Princess Bride is a 900-year-old fortified manor house, recently used in the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots. Its Long Gallery has tiny windowpanes ingeniously angled to catch the sun.
The George at Alstonefield near Dovedale – good grub, good pub, fine wines.
The National Trust’s Kinder Trespass Walk yomps over the moors and tors of the High Peak, tough walking for eight miles. Gentler souls should potter from Ilam village down pretty Dovedale, in the White Peak, to the river stepping stones.
It’s not called the Peak District because of the mountains (there are none – only hills). The name probably comes from the Anglo Saxon ‘Pecsaetan’, after a tribe in the area.
SOUTH DOWNS NATIONAL PARK
This newbie is our 10th and most populous national park with a dazzling variety of gentle southern scenery, from rolling downs to chalk cliffs. It’s mainly inland, just joining the sea by the Seven Sisters. The South Downs Way runs through it like a spine.
The Weald & Downland Living Museum at Singleton opened in 1970, a charming reminder that the south-east is not all BMWs and golf courses. Its collections cover rescued vernacular buildings, crafts, agriculture and industry – and it stages brilliant events.
The Alice Holt in Hampshire is a 600-acre forest, the remains of a far larger woodland that once supplied timber for English ships. The trees are glorious, and it’s easy access, with cycling, walking and wheelchair-friendly and children’s trails (try the Gruffalo Trail).
BRECON BEACONS NATIONAL PARK
A spectacular chunk of south Wales with four mountain ranges and dramatic glacial geology. It was designated in 1957, the last of the Welsh parks, and became an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2013. It’s dotted with churches, castles and hill forts.
The mind-bogglingly beautiful St Mary’s Priory Church in Abergavenny is Grade-I listed, has the second-largest collection of tombs of any UK church and has an intact 15th-century Tree of Jesse. Then nip into the lovely Broadleaf Books, just opposite.
The Offa’s Dyke Trail from Hay Bluff to 12th-century Llanthony Priory. It runs almost 2,000 feet above sea level, with sensational views, before dipping down to the priory. End at the pub in the crypt or, going the other way, the Blue Boar in Hayon-Wye.
NORTH YORK MOORS
It’s got everything this national park (typical Yorkshire): heather moorlands, managed for valuable red grouse; woodlands and rivers; monastic foundations, including some fine abbeys; and a glorious coast of sweeping beaches and steep fishing villages.
The 24-mile long, 180-year old, volunteer-run North Yorkshire Moors Railway crosses the moor between Pickering and Whitby. Its stations reflect particular eras, and 1922-styled Goathland is most famous for its role as
Hogsmeade Station in Harry Potter.
Rosedale Chimney Bank is bang in the middle of the moor, with arches and a chimney that once belonged to an ironstone mine. It has a trail running along the railway that once carried ore, with fabulous views over the village of Rosedale Abbey in the valley.
The Yorkshire stages of the Tour de France 2014 avoided the infamous Chimney Bank hill climb – over 30% gradient in parts, while European climbs rarely exceed 10 per cent.
DARTMOOR NATIONAL PARK
These wild Devonshire moorlands erupt into dark granite outcrops known as‘tors’, landmarks in their own right. It’s a mysterious place, with 5,000 hut circles, the longest stone row in the world on Stall Moor and Britain’s southernmost blanket bogs.
The Dartmoor Prison Museum, across the road from HMP Dartmoor and isolated mid-moor, is a real insight into incarceration since the 18th century (it once held French and American POWs). Easy to imagine the eerie escape sirens going off.
Make for Widecombe-in-the-Moor, famous for its autumn fair, where the cottagey Rugglestone Inn and the Old Inn both serve good food (including cream teas) and have outdoor space enlivened by oinking and clucking farm animals.
A five-mile circular walk takes in Haytor, Holwell Tor, Saddle Tor and Hound Tor. The latter, allegedly a hunter and his hounds turned to stone, is said to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.
There were three granite quarries on Dartmoor: Foggintor Quarry, now flooded into a deep lake, supplied the granite for Nelson’s Column and the London Bridge built in the 19th century.
BROADS NATIONAL PARK
Unique among national parks, the Broads is one of our largest inland navigation areas and our largest protected wetland. Formed of early peat diggings across Norfolk and Suffolk, it has nine national nature reserves and 28 sites of special scientific interest
Horsey Mere, near the Norfolk coast, is the only broad to be called a‘mere’ because it is walled. It has bitterns (the males ‘boom’ in January and February) and a remaining wind pump (with café) on one of its walls, now run by the National Trust.
Follow Suffolk’s River Waveney from the Old Bridge in the pretty market town of Beccles (check out the parish church) through the wide-open south broads, all marshes and dykes, to Geldeston Locks, where you can swim in the river.
Britain’s largest butterfly, the swallowtail, has two false eyes and two false antennae and lives only in Norfolk. Find it early on windless summer days at nature reserves – see Norfolk Wildlife Trust.
LOCH LOMOND AND THE TROSSACHS
This beautiful park, designated in 2002, stretches north from the Clyde Valley and covers 720 square miles of forest and hill country (the Trossachs boasts 21 Munros and 20 Corbetts) riven by 22 significant lochs, the largest of which is Loch Lomond.
Plot a route using the Scenic Route Viewpoints dotted around the wilderness, designed by young architects to sit as lightly as possible on the landscape. For example, John Kennedy’s ‘Woven Sound’ is a steel trellis cantilevered over the Falls of Falloch.
A great start is the four-mile stroll from Bracklinn Falls car park, on the south-east edge of the park, which switchbacks around past the falls themselves and up on to Callander Crags, with wonderful views of the Trossachs to the west.