For A Weekend
The Cleveland Way stands out for its mix of inland and coastal walking. Start at its inland end to trace the edge of the North York Moors, then hug the coast from Saltburn to Whitby and beyond. Only Forrest Gump in his prime would take on the whole 109-mile trail in a weekend, but there’s an obvious option for a mini break. In one of his last restaurant reviews, the great AA Gill took a helicopter to Whitby just for the five-star fish and chips at the Magpie Café. Follow his lead and start at Saltburn, refuel overnight at Whitby (the 17th-century White Horse & Griffin is a standout option) and finish at the southern end of the trail in Scalby Mills, near Scarborough.
Best For: Rugged coastline (and fish & chips)
On the northern border of England’s most misunderstood county and Suffolk, Dedham Vale has been a poster child for our green and pleasant land ever since John Constable put oil to canvas and came up with ‘The Hay Wain’ in 1821. As the double centenary of the landscape painter’s masterpiece approaches, it’s a good time to find out what all the fuss is about. Just over an hour from London by car or train, the Sun Inn at Dedham itself is a proper old coaching inn with open fires if it’s cold and a terrace if it’s not. If you want to break up the on-foot explorations of the surrounding Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the pub can sort you out with bikes and even a boat to float down the river Stour on. When you’re ready to leave the vale, follow the Stour estuary a few miles out to Wrabness, where you’ll find Grayson Perry’s A House For Essex.
Best For: Easy walking in pleasant greenery
NORFOLK COAST PATH
Out the other side of Suffolk, there’s another AONB. Norfolk’s coast path runs 84 miles from Hopton-on-Sea up to Hunstanton, and is easily broken down into manageable sections for weekenders. The real highlights are clustered between Hunstanton and Cromer on the county’s north-facing coast, where vast sandy beaches disappear into huge skies. Journey the 45 miles between the two towns over a long weekend and take breaks at atmospheric old resorts like Cromer and Wells-next-the-sea, or handsome stately homes like Holkham Hall, in the grounds of which you’ll find the Victoria Inn pub with rooms.
Best For: Sandy beaches
For A Week Off
PEMBROKESHIRE COAST PATH
In far west Wales, the principality’s oldest national trail remains one of its best and most dramatic. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path was joined up with other routes to create one 870-mile Wales Coast Path a few years ago, but the 186 miles from Poppit to Amroth still stand out for the sheer variety of the landscape. Climb rocky headlands and sandy dunes before dropping into golden beaches, where the surfing is worth stopping for (check out Freshwater, Newgale and Whitesand). The full route demands a fortnight – over the course of which you’ll ascend the equivalent of Everest – but you can easily take it in stages. You just have to decide whether you want the accessible, family friendly stretches of flat footpaths or something a little more challenging.
Best For: Sea views and surfing
WEST HIGHLAND WAY
The West Highland Way is 40 years old this year. Its official website breaks the 96-mile route down into eight stages of nine to 15 miles that span gentle loch foreshores to wild moorlands and steep mountains. If you’re reasonably fit, the whole thing can be done (and still enjoyed) in five or six days – if you take advantage of the bag-carrying services to ferry your luggage each day. Start at the Glasgow end of the trail in Milngavie and you’ll finish in Fort William, giving yourself the option of summiting Ben Nevis before heading home. Right now, make it easy on yourself by taking Caledonian Sleeper trains to and from Euston (no masks are required in cabins). It’s also autumn, so the midges that plague the Scottish summer should be on their way out.
Best For: Dramatic landscapes
SOUTH DOWNS WAY
This route starts (or ends) in olde-worlde Winchester, taking you quickly into the countryside and from Hampshire to Sussex. The latter is England’s sunniest county, making the South Downs Way as sure a bet for decent weather as you’ll find in the UK at this time of year. It’s also one of the few national trails that’s as good for cycling as it is walking (you’ll want an off-roader for some of the chalkier paths). As you follow the ridgeline from West Sussex into East, you’ll pass through some fine villages with outstanding pubs – plan a stop in Amberley, where The Sportsman has a terrace looking out across the marshy Wild Brooks, on which you can see herds of deer running freely. Eventually, you’ll catch sight of the English Channel and its white cliffs, and you’ll know you’re on the home straight, crossing Beachy Head and finally descending into Eastbourne.
Best For: Sunshine
For A Fortnight Away
NORTH DOWNS WAY
Running from Farnham in Surrey to the white cliffs of you-know-where in Kent, the 153-mile North Downs Way spans not just one but two AONBs – a pretty remarkable effort for a trail that’s so close to London. Like its sister in the South Downs, it follows a chain of gentle chalky hills, passing through ancient countryside to emerge on top of some magnificent coastal cliffs. An old pilgrimage route, the North Downs Way is a long one, but easily broken down into stages. As its name suggests, the Surrey Hills section is a little more challenging than the Kent Downs AONB, but the rewards of both are great.
Best For: Official Areas Of Natural Beauty
A few years back, Lonely Planet included the Thames Path in its 1,000 Ultimate Adventures and identified it as the second-best urban walk in the world (apparently only Rio de Janeiro’s has a better one). Starting at the river’s source in the Cotswolds, the 184-mile route follows the waterway through Oxford, Henley and Windsor then on into the capital, where it becomes a highlights reel of some of the city’s finest sights, taking you through maritime Greenwich and right out to the Thames Flood Barrier. Great transport links mean you don’t have to do the whole thing in one go – Henley is a decent stopping-off point if you’ve only got a week to spare and want to do either the big city section or retreat more quietly into the river’s more rural early stages.
Best For: World-class riverside rambling
For A Full-On Career Break
SOUTH WEST COAST PATH
At 630 miles, the South West Coast Path is England’s longest national trail, starting in Minehead, then passing through Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. Thanks to its beginnings as a path for the Coastguard to track smugglers in isolated coves, it stays faithful to the coast all the way to Poole Harbour. The average time to complete it end to end is around eight weeks, but if you’re a record-breaking ultra-runner you might be able to do it in around ten days. There are, of course, plenty of ways to break this monster up, including a 47-mile option from Clovelly to Tintagel known as the ‘Path of Legends’. Now schools have gone back, the south-west is quieter again and autumn is a good time to explore it.
Best For: Impressing your mates.
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