Martyn Howe's Top Five Long-distance Walking Trails in the UK
February 07, 20227 min read
Which long-distance trail in the UK is your favourite? It is a difficult question to answer as so much depends on more than the trail's geography – it is as much about the weather, who you will meet, and of course the cafes and pubs along the way. These are the top five trails that may surprise and delight you.
(#1) Cleveland Way
The Cleveland Way, at 109-miles, follows the east coast of the North York Moors before heading inland across the northern escarpment of the Cleveland Hills, effectively circumnavigating the northern borders of this national park. It is the only national trail that combines coastal and inland walking into a single trail (if we count Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path as two trails), offering a variety of landscape and terrain for a one-week walk with perfectly spaced options for accommodation to meet a range of budgets. You can choose several youth hostels, a few camping sites, and many B&Bs in the fishing towns and inland villages. I had purposely left my tent at home to meet like-minded walkers and locals and seek out popular cafes and restaurants.
Public art on the Cleveland Way. The Circle by Richard Farrington
You can join the Cleveland Way to the Yorkshire Wolds Way (79-miles) at Filey Brigg for an optional two-week journey and immerse yourself in the county of Yorkshire. The east coast makes for a pleasant change from the southwest facing coastal paths of England and Wales. If you wake early, the sunrise over the north sea is life-affirming. The seabirds colonies at Bempton and Flamborough Head to the south will keep an avid bird watcher happy at the expense of making progress. You can also get delayed at one of many festivals held in Scarborough or Whitby or end up spending too much time in the pubs or cafes at Robin's Hood Bay (with a gaggle of Coast to Coast walkers, celebrating the end of their journey). The temptations to rest are frequent.
Heading inland, you straddle the edge between the moorland and the industrial vales of the northeast. At Roseberry Topping, a famous conical peak (once climbed daily by a local man named Keith Heaviside, in all conditions, for twenty years), you can descend into Great Ayton for a pie and a pint, or a comfortable stay. You will need the rest for the rugged moorland walk further west, where it is advisable to take a compass, should the frequent mist or fog persist. If the weather is clear, the views are remarkable; seen with clarity as your cardiovascular system gets into gear for the frequent short-sharp ascents. It is almost criminal to pass by The Golden Lion at Osmotherly, before the final section to Helmsley, with a cosy youth hostel and bus service to York.
If asked, "Which is my favourite national trail?" – the Cleveland Way is usually the answer: it combines varied scenery, lovely communities and wholesome food that exceeded my expectations.
(#2) Southern Upland Way
Everyone seems to be walking the coast to coast nowadays, from St. Bees Head to Robin's Hood Bay, but why not try a real Scottish challenge and walk from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath across the no-man-land border counties where once reivers and bandits ruled? It is a challenging and remote moorland route but ideal for wild camping and bothy stays. It is a route for the experienced walker to challenge their navigation and backpacking crafts.
At 212-miles, you should allow two weeks or more, taking care to plan each section to coincide with bothies and resupply points in the major towns. Along the way, you can collect coins hidden in Kists near the fingerposts announcing "Ultreia" (on with your quest). There are thirteen in total. I have not met anyone who claims to have found them all on the walk.
Navigation skills are essential on the Southern Upland Way
The towns of Dalry, Sanquhar, Moffat, Traquair, Galashiels and others offer accommodation with character, and the bothies are worth planning around. The high point is Lowther Hill at 725-metres, where you will stop to rest and attempt to find any evidence of human existence across the surrounding moorland. Navigational skills are essential, and an ability to take care of yourself in a remote landscape, where you will rarely come across fellow walkers. It is perhaps not one for the depth of winter or warm hot summers. Spring is ideal before the ferns grow and the midges and ticks are at a peak.
The efforts will be rewarded. You fall easily into a conversation to learn more about a region of the UK that is often under-appreciated. The sense of peace and isolation is sublime, and the communities you walk through are welcoming – they have an understanding of the ruggedness of the landscape.
(#3) Glyndŵr's Way
If remote and isolated appeals to you after a Scottish coast-to-coast expedition, try central Wales. Glyndŵr's Way is a 135-mile circular route touching the Welsh marches to the coast near Machynlleth. There is no other path that takes you back in time, through a landscape that has barely changed in centuries (if we ignore the occasional wind farm). This path is not popular, but that makes it all the more appealing. Take a tent, but also explore what accommodation you can find. I met some wonderful people and received a warm Welsh welcome at many B&Bs, with a character and cosiness far removed from the homogenous branded cultures that plague more populated areas.
Looking back towards Machynlleth, from Y Golfa, near Welshpool
Be prepared for paths kept muddy from frequent rain, yet also get close to the wildlife in the woodlands and forests. You will see more as you tune in and feel a part of nature, observing and reflecting on the beauty of the landscape, often lit with frequent rainbows and a quality of light that comes from a maritime weather system – much like Scotland.
You can complete a circular walk by taking a section of Offa's Dyke (177-miles), and by this time, you will be planning to return to Wales and explore this historical path and the coastal regions – Wales has plenty to offer the keen walker. Highlights include the towns of Machynlleth, Llanidloes, Welshpool, and Knighton. Each with local managed cafes and restaurants and options for inexpensive accommodation.
(#4) Hadrian's Wall Path
By extending this walk by a few miles, you could classify Hadrian's Wall as a coast to coast walk from Tynemouth to the Solway Firth. At 84-miles, it is one of the shortest national trails but so full of archaeological interest that plenty of time to explore the towns and museums is sensible. By immersing yourself in Roman history, you can march on like a true Centurian alongside this stunning ancient monument, saved in the early part of the twentieth century before it was broken up for building materials for modern roadways and buildings, notably the B6318.
Hadrian’s Wall – Milecastle 39
There is plenty of accommodation to cater to the walk's popularity, but consider using bus services or shared cars to daisy chain sections together. If you assume a five-day journey, be sure to savour the central day, as this contains the highlights, and you will recognise many of the vistas from photographs you have seen before. Yet, the sections through Newcastle and beyond Carlisle are of equal attraction, exploring the River Tyne and Eden, respectively.
Hadrian's Wall is one of the finest archaeological sites in Britain and an excellent weeks' walking. I almost did more talking than walking; it is easy to stop and chat with anyone you meet: tourists, walkers, farmers and locals. Everyone seems happy on Hadrian's Wall, knowing they are experiencing a rare opportunity to combine a bit of exercise with the sense of place and heritage that has survived the centuries.
(#5) Wales Coast Path
Until the England Coast Path is completed (sometime this decade, I hope), many will tell you that the South West Coast Path is the longest coastal trail in Britain, if not the world. But this overlooks the Wales Coast Path at 870-miles. I am addicted to coastal journeys, by bicycle and by foot, so attempting this epic walk was always my ambition when I could find the time.
Very few people walk the entire coast in a continuous journey, which could take a good two months to walk. I managed it in three sections over forty-four days, using the coastal train services to mark the section boundaries. I camped often and used several youth hostels and rail services in the more populated areas where it made sense to stay in the same hostel for a few nights. When you reach The Gower, the real coastal drama begins, easily matching or exceeding the Cornish or Devon coastline highlights. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a beautiful route, particularly from Dale to Fishguard. I enjoyed the diverse natural and commercial sections, which give a depth of experience to the walk. Steelworks sit alongside dunes and empty beaches, and you can turn at a headland to leave a city behind.
The Green Bridge, on the Castlemartin Ranges
Further north, the Lleyn Peninsula is remote, rugged and very quiet. Anglesey is an unexpected 125-mile walk alone and full of surprises and panoramic views of the Irish Sea. Out of season, you will have much of the path to yourself. I met only one or two walkers doing the entire path, all of them, in a trance-like state, induced by endless beaches and fern-lined coastal pathways with only Choughs, Stonechats and Chiffchaffs entertaining you with their song or comical flying.
The towns and cities mean resupply is easy, and the cafes and restaurants (and occasional hotels with sea views) are reasonably priced. Keep your eyes open to the sea; if the conditions are calm, you are guaranteed to see feeding bottlenose dolphins or harbour porpoises and maybe even a larger cetacean. Basking sharks are also a distinct possibility, and once seen, you will recognise the telltale fin and tail, lolloping in the waves.
If you have the time and fancy a long long-distance challenge, the Wales Coast Path tops my list.
You can read more about my walks for all of the national trails and long-distance routes in Tales from the Big Trails. I am currently walking around the coast of England, along newly open sections of the England Coast Path and established national trails, and will be walking the South West Coast Path, Cleveland Way and maybe even the Wales Coast a second time. I have an addiction that has no cure.