Escape to the Country: English National Parks
The British Isles are small and overpopulated, so you might imagine that the Great British Countryside, is a thing of the past. Although some parts of England are being concreted over, however, there are still plenty of huge expanses of protected open spaces where you can get back to nature and breathe the freshest fresh air. When visiting the UK, many travellers never even step foot outside of London, and if they do so it’s only to visit another of England’s big cities, instead of grabbing a comfy pillow and boarding a bus to its countryside. They are blissfully unaware of the stunning countryside that this green and pleasant land has to offer.
Fancy getting away from it all, and immersing yourself in scenery worthy of a Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte adaption? To help you really get under England’s skin and witness the unique charm of the British countryside, I’ve picked out my favourite National Parks, spots of outstanding natural beauty.
The New Forest
The New Forest is a huge expanse of forest and heathland which borders the south coast of England, just to the west of the city of Southampton, less than two hours on the train from central London. Now a National Park, the New Forest was originally created almost 1000 years ago by William the Conquerer, who use it as his hunting grounds. Today, new forest ponies, donkeys and cattle roam free around the forest, and you’ll often see them wandering the charming streets of the villages within the bounds of the national park. You’ll even spot little gangs of tiny Shetland ponies. With streams and rivers running through beautiful, ancient woodland and expanses of open heathland, this area is distinctive and beguiling. Whether you take a walk, hop on a bike or go horseriding, there’s a huge amount to explore. Many people, especially families, come to the new forest to camp amongst the trees.
There are several villages and small towns in the area. Lyndhurst’s quaint high street is lined with tea shops and is a great place to recharge your batteries before heading off on one of the many walks you can do in the area. Lymington, on the edge of the New Forest, is where the countryside meets the sea.
Dartmoor is in the county of Devon, a vast county famed for its natural beauty and impossibly picturesque villages. It has two coastlines, both of which mix the dramatic with the peaceful, with dramatic cliffs and protected bays, and traditional seaside towns. Devon’s crowning glory, however, is Dartmoor. This is a National Park covering nearly 1000 square kilometres of moorland, found between Exeter and Plymouth.
The New Forest isn’t the only place that can boast having its own ponies, Dartmoor ponies roam free here, and if you’re lucky you can spot a foal or two. There are forests to explore as well as open moorland, and rivers and waterfalls to discover. Dartmoor is especially famous for its tors, impressive rock formations rising from the moorland. There are several villages in the area, including Princetown, famous as the home of Dartmoor prison which was used during the Napoleonic Wars. Take a long walk, perhaps making it to the top of a tor, before finding your way to a local pub and sampling a beer from one of the many breweries in the area.
Continuing our journey north, we reach ‘The Lakes’, a name that conjures up visions of sweeping bodies of water surrounded by majestic mountains. This is, in fact, where all the land in England higher than 3000ft can be found, along with its highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and its deepest and longest bodies of water, Windermere and Wastwater. You may associate the Lake District with the poetry of William Wordsworth and his contemporaries, who waxed lyrical about the beauty of this National Park. Such is its beauty, you may find yourself inspired to pen a few lines.
The area is also associated with Beatrix Potter, who lived here and wrote many of her treasured children’s stories, and whose home is open to visitors. Long walks around the many lakes or hikes up the mountains in the area are the biggest attraction, but for those who prefer a slightly less active getaway, the National Park is becoming increasingly well known for its annual cultural festivals, its gastronomy, for which it is said to be one of the best spots in Britain, and its plethora of microbreweries.
There are plenty more National Parks, both in England and in Wales, Scotland and Northern Island, but these are my personal favourites amongst those that England has to offer. Wherever you choose, make sure you pack a notebook or sketchbook in case inspiration strikes whilst you contemplate the view from a peak or the beauty of a babbling brook. Turn your mobile internet off, get your camera out, and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of these parks, where you can find a spot all to yourself even on the busiest of summer’s days.
Leaving the south coast we head north to the Peak District National Park, which became the very first National Park in the country in 1951. This was a result of the Kinder Trespass a few years earlier, when working people took a stand against the fact that the moors were owned by gentry and used for hunting, and those living in the confines of the industrial cities of the north were unable to enjoy them. It’s mostly in the county of Derbyshire and is close to the cities of Manchester and Sheffield, which means it’s very easy to access and attracts plenty tourists all year round, but especially in the warmer months.
The small town of Bakewell is an especially popular spot for people to stop off before or after a long walk or cycle in the area, as it gives its name to the famous Bakewell Tart. Buxton is another big attraction, developed in the 19th century as the north’s answer to the spa town of Bath, thanks to its thermal spring. There are some amazing villages in the British countryside for one to get away to as well.
The main attraction here, however, is the incredible natural beauty and sensational scenery. In the latest Pride and Prejudice adaptation, Lizzie Bennet stands on a rocky outcrop entranced by the view, and I defy you not to be seduced by it too. Even when it rains, which it often does in this part of the country, the peaks have a charm to them. Go and see for yourself.
Is the seaside more your thing? Check out our guide to the Channel Islands!