Walking in Britain
Britain is a great place to go walking, offering an immense variety of landscapes and environments in a relatively small space. Without travelling far you can find rolling green hills, low flat fens, rugged mountains, dramatic chalk ridges, verdant river valleys, tranquil canalsides, parkland vistas, secluded woodlands, historic towns and cities and a coastline that ranges from vast golden sands to dramatic vertiginous clifftops. From the Thames Path through the centre of London to the remote wilderness of the Scottish highlands, there is something for everyone, with a good system of public access bringing it within every walker’s reach.
Britain has no genuinely Alpine areas – the highest peak, Ben Nevis in western Scotland, is only 1.344 m, but there are numerous remote and challenging highland areas and true wilderness, especially in Scotland. There are also many opportunities for gentler and easier walking in lowland countryside.
The weather is generally mild though notoriously changeable and can be wet. Provided you are properly prepared, experienced and equipped for the terrain, it’s safe to walk almost anywhere in Britain all year round, though the weather can turn severe very quickly in upland areas especially in winter. Some summer days can be very hot: up to 30°C or more, especially in the south. Many walkers prefer the spring and autumn, avoiding school holiday crowds and the hottest weather.
Most parts of Britain can be reached easily by public transport, with generally good, though sometimes expensive, rail services and a network of buses and coaches.
Accommodation is also plentiful. You’re never far from a traditional “bed and breakfast” offering friendly, good value accommodation and there are numerous official and independent hostels.
England and Wales
England and Wales have 225.000km/140.000 miles of off-road routes classed as Public Rights of Way. These are short local off-road routes that everyone has a right to use even where they cross private land, and they are recorded and protected by local authorities, although some of them may be illegally blocked. They should be signed at junctions with public roads. Many are also signed or “waymarked” with coloured arrows along the route itself.
There are several different categories of rights of way.
Footpaths are open only to walkers, and may be waymarked with yellow arrows.
Bridleways are also open to horse riders and cyclists (although cyclists should give way to other users) and may be waymarked with blue arrows.
Byways are legally open to all traffic, and may be waymarked with red arrows: although most of them are unsuitable for ordinary motor vehicles, you may encounter off-road vehicles and motorbikes.
Restricted byways are open to all non-motorised users including vehicles such as horse-drawn carts.
There are also numerous other paths open to the public. These include towpaths along canals, off-road multi-user paths created as part of cycle networks, and permissive paths, where the owner has given permission to the public to use the path.
In addition to rights of way, where you only have a right to walk along the path itself, there are over 1.4 million ha of “access land” where you have a right to walk freely, including off the path if you choose. This land is mainly open country: mountain (over 600 m), moor, heath, down and common land. The exact areas covered are shown on official maps, and may be signed on the ground with a special access symbol. Access land can sometimes be closed for short periods.
Many other areas of land are open by permission or policy of the owner, or because of other agreements and arrangements, including parks, country parks and nature reserves managed for public access and recreation, woodlands managed by the Forestry Commission (the state forestry agency) and much land managed by conservation charities such as the National Trust, Woodland Trust, John Muir Trust, Wildlife Trusts and RSPB.
Scotland has a general right of access to most land, even farmland, so long as you behave responsibly, rather like the “Allemansret” in Scandinavian countries. For example you should avoid walking across growing crops when there is a route around the field or across sports pitches when they are in use, and obey advisory signs asking you to avoid certain areas at certain times for land management, safety or conservation reasons. Responsible behaviour is defined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
Access rights apply not only to walkers but to other non-motorised users on land and water, such as cyclists, horse riders and canoeists.
Rights of way exist in Scotland, and you also have a right to walk on other paths and tracks. ScotWays (the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society) keeps a catalogue of rights of way, signs many of them and maps and describes the major rural routes in its publication Scottish Hill Tracks. Scottish local authorities and national park authorities are charged with developing local path networks known as “core paths” and many of these plans have been approved.
Paths and trails
There are now many hundreds of recognised trails, which have largely been created out of the existing network of rights of way and access areas. However many different agencies are responsible for creating, maintaining and promoting them, with no central coordination, so standards vary and information is sometimes difficult to obtain. The Long Distance Walkers Association keeps records of all trails over 30 km long, and documents these in two publications, The Long Distance Walker’s Handbook and The Long Distance Path Chart.
National Trails, the best maintained and publicised trails in England and Wales, have special legal status and receive funding from central government agencies. They are signed with an acorn logo. There are 15 such trails with a total length of 4.000 km, including such well-known routes as the Pennine Way, Thames Path, South West Coast Path and Offa’s Dyke Path.
Scotland’s Great Trails are a suite of 20 nationally promoted longer distance routes in Scotland. Each of these trails is individually waymarked, and collectively branded with the thistle logo. They extend to over 2 000km of trails from the Borders to the Highlands, including well-known routes such as the West Highland Way and Fife Coastal Path.
There are many hundreds of other signed trails, most of them created by walking or other voluntary organisations with the involvement of local authorities, who have the power to sign footpaths and can make improvements such as upgrading infrastructure and creating new links. They include many important routes such as the Dales Way, Cumbria Way, Severn Way. There are no official figures for these because there is no central authority charged with coordinating them. We estimate there are probably around 25.000 km/15.500 miles of specially signed walking routes in Britain in total, including National Trails.
Good access arrangements also make it possible to create “unofficial” trails with no special signing, using existing footpaths and access, simply by publishing a route description in a printed guide or, increasingly, online.
National parks and protected areas
Some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain is included in its 14 national parks, of which three are in Wales and two in Scotland, covering a total of 18.275 sq km. The largest national park is the Cairngorms (3,800 sq km), the smallest the Pembrokeshire Coast (1,865 sq km). A further park is proposed for the South Downs in southern England, as well as a third in Scotland. The national parks provide a good level of facilities for walkers.
The best and most comprehensive walkers’ maps of Britain are the 1:25 000 scale Explorer series covering the whole of Britain and published by the national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey (OS).
OS maps (Waymarked Trails) are available in digital format from various companies of which the best distributed are Anquet, memory-map and Tracklogs.
Another useful publisher is Harvey, who publish excellent quality 1:25 000 and 1:40 000 walkers’ maps of popular countryside areas and strip maps of certain long distance trails.
Other key contacts:
Trails and countryside areas:
National Trails: nationaltrail.co.uk
Scotland’s Great Trails: snh.gov.uk/enjoying-the-outdoors/where-to-go/routes-to-explore/scotland’s-great-trails/
Long Distance Walkers Association: ldwa.org.uk
Rights of way in Scotland: scotways.com
Core paths in Scotland: snh.gov.uk/enjoying-the-outdoors/where-to-go/routes-to-explore/local-path-networks/
National Cycle Network: sustrans.org.uk
Links to online route descriptions: walking-routes.co.uk
National Parks: anpa.gov.uk
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: aonb.org.uk
National Scenic Areas: snh.gov.uk/protecting-scotlands-nature/protected-areas/national-designations/nsa/
yha.org.uk (England & Wales)
Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA)
15 The Green
Stockport SK4 2NP
T: +44 161 432 8391
2nd floor Camelford House
87 – 90 Albert Embankment
London SE1 7TW
T: +44 20 7339 8500
F: +44 20 7339 8501