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Simon Heptinstall
By Simon Heptinstall

It stands to reason that England (and the English) are mad about walking. The country originated in the dim and distant past, long before road, rail or – perish the thought – flight shrank all distances to nothing. Back in the day you got around by horse if you were lucky, and by foot for everyone else. And it’s a habit we’ve not managed to shake off in the millennia since. You could say we’re a stubborn bunch.

A “walking holiday” in England is a quintessentially English pastime. You’ll find no wilderness here: You’re never more than a few miles from the closest village pub (or a motorway service station), there are no real mountains to conquer, no jungles to hack through, no bears to watch out for. Here we go walking, not hiking, and certainly not trekking!

Walking in England is a more subtle pleasure to hiking the rest of the UK's more dramatic landscapes. It’s a midsummer's morning in Sussex, in the fresh afterglow of a morning rain shower. A footpath leading to a Norman church tower. A friendly – if vaguely dated – bed & breakfast (B&B), and a solid day’s walking rewarded with a pint of ale and a hearty pie in the beer garden of an old pub. Walking upon England’s pastures green may not always promise the thrills of more adventurous expeditions further afield, but it is still, in my opinion, one of the most interesting places to walk in the world. In one trip you can walk from windswept moors to sandy seashores, passing prehistoric remains, Georgian cottages and a mediaeval castle where Turner once painted and Wordsworth penned poetry. I can’t think of many places with this concentration of things to see along the way.

One of the wonderful things about walking in England is our vast network of public footpaths, rights of way and permissive paths (more on the differences below). There are something like 160,000 miles (260,000km) of public rights of way – many of which are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Treading these ancient trails puts you in the footsteps – literally – of uncountable generations who’ve passed this way before you.

Ready to stride out for yourself? Here are a handful of my favourite walking holidays in England, plus some of my personal tips on what to look out for – and what pitfalls to avoid.

Wooden signpost on the coast of Cornwall England UK

Next stop France: Land's End, Britain's furthest southerly point and the starting point of many an epic walk

The best walking holidays in England

Some popular – and lesser-known – picks

Simon Heptinstall
By Simon Heptinstall

Do a search for England's best places to walk and no doubt you'll be confronted by all the obvious contenders: the Cotswolds, the Lake District, and so on. I won't deny these are glorious places to visit, but there are plenty of quieter and less touristy corners. Here are some of my favourite hidden gems, as well as the more obvious honeypots:

  • South West

  • England

  • Lake District

  • The Peak District

  • Northumberland

  • Yorkshire Dales National Park

  • England

  • Worcestershire

  • South Downs

  • Wiltshire

  • Isle of Wight

  • Yorkshire Wolds

Walking holidays in England

Everything you wish you'd known before you booked

Long distance vs centre based walking holidays

There are two broad categories of walking holidays in England: single location (‘centre based’) or long distance (‘inn-to-inn’) walks. When I've been walking with a big group or with kids in tow, it can work better being based in one location and heading out on day hikes as the group (and weather) sees fit. Places like the Lakes, the Yorkshire Dales and the Cotswolds are great locations for centre based walking holidays.

Long distance inn-to-inn walking holidays typically means undertaking some, or all, of an official waymarked path, of which there are many in England. You’ll spend each night in a new place, and you can usually arrange to have your baggage transferred by car from inn to inn, so it’s waiting for you when you arrive at each night’s stop. The most popular routes have walking holiday companies available to organise everything for you, and can tailor the itinerary to suit your pace.

Things to check before you book

If you're booking an organised inn-to-inn walking holiday, check the distance of each nights' accommodation from the footpath – some might arrange for you to stay several miles away from the path. That can be an unwelcome finish to a long day's hiking and not quite what you signed up for. So it can be worth asking if they can arrange a pick-up/drop-off for you.

On inn-to-inn walks, it’s also worth checking where they suggest eating each night – and whether places are open the evening you're there. Pub food hours are changeable – I've been caught out more than once in a village with no open pubs or a pub where ‘the kitchen is closed on Tuesdays’. A good walking holiday company will be on top of these details but it doesn't hurt to check.

And a final point that’s relevant to England’s frequently damp climate. Decent walker-oriented accommodation will have dedicated drying rooms for boots and gear. This is worth checking whatever the time of year. There can always be sudden showers and no one likes pulling on a pair of damp boots in the morning.

Walking in England: FAQs

Your questions, our expert answers

Question

When is the best time to go walking in England?

Answer

England has a temperate-maritime climate with wet winters and warm(er) summers, but the weather here is famously fickle. I’ve regretted being in shorts with a freezing wind biting my knees in midsummer in the Lake District, and have been left carrying surplus layers on a bright sunny winter’s day in Oxfordshire.

Although summer heatwaves are now becoming more frequent and severe, it remains the rule of thumb that summer is rarely too hot to walk, and is mostly dry. Those affected by pollen might want to watch out for hayfever season(s). Note that accommodations over the peak summer months are often booked out months in advance.

Winters in England are cold although, thanks to the Gulf Stream, not as cold as our northerly latitudes imply. But cold is compounded by the damp and the wind, which, along with short daylight hours, can make winter walking a bit of a chore. There are few things as glorious as a crisp winter’s morning, but they’re an infrequent pleasure and I wouldn’t plan an entire walking holiday around it.

My advice is to aim for the “shoulder seasons” of late spring and early autumn, which offer the best balance of fewer crowds, greater availability, and a decent chance of agreeable weather.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

Which is your favourite region for walking?

Answer

I’m easily bored, and much prefer rolling hills and dales of northern and western England to the flat landscapes of the east and southeast. We may have few mountains but we have lots of hills!

It’s hard to pick just one so here are a few: Parts of Northumberland could be a film set. The Yorkshire Wolds are criminally underrated, but I’d also vote for the (often overpopular) Cotswolds and Lake District.

But if I had to choose just one place to walk for the rest of my life it would be my native southwest; Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Maybe I’m biased but we’ve got the sunsets, favourable prevailing winds, pasties, cider and clotted cream. The southwest has the mildest climate and most varied coastline, which explains why it’s the UK’s most popular holiday area. Don’t panic – it’s easy to avoid the crowds, simply avoid the big resorts.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

What’s your favourite long distance (inn-to-inn) walk?

Answer

Without hesitation, the Southwest Coast Path. This world-class 630-mile route skirts the shoreline from Watchet in Somerset to Poole in Dorset but there are hundreds of other routes, from the 600 miles of trails in Exmoor National Park to circular day-walks like the National Trust routes around Cheddar Gorge or Avebury. It’s well served by organised walking holiday companies, but do book ahead if you’re coming in summer.

Other favourites include the White Horse Way, the Yorkshire Wolds Way and Striding Edge in the Lakes.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

Where in England would you recommend for a centre-based walking holiday?

Answer

Can I say the southwest again? Okay, I’d also recommend the Lake District, the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles; all of which have plenty of easy access day hikes, and lots to do for kids on non-walking days.

A pro-tip: our national parks and other protected areas are tiny in comparison to other countries, and you don’t need to base yourself within the park boundaries where availability may be limited and prices higher. Often there are excellent (and more affordable) places to stay nearby. For example you can save money by visiting the Cotswolds from north Wiltshire, south Warwickshire or west Oxfordshire, and you can make forays into the Lake District from places like St. Bees and Ulvaston.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

Can you recommend any quieter or less popular walks?

Answer

Ours is a compact and densely populated nation, but it’s surprisingly easy to find a quiet corner even in the most touristy honey-pots. Some of my favourite lesser-visited walking spots include the Blackdown Hills in Dorset, the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire or the Wolds in Lincolnshire or Yorkshire. There are some brilliant little-known walks around Offa’s Dyke in Herefordshire, in the crazy up-and-down Shropshire hills and in the surprisingly craggy countryside of West Yorkshire.

OS, our national treasure of a mapping agency, produces a handy rundown of the country’s most popular walks. If it’s peace and quiet you’re after, just do anything but these!

Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

How do self-guided walking holidays work?

Answer

Walking holiday companies use “self-guided” as opposed to an escorted or guided tour. England is easy to get around, safe, and the locals are (usually) easy to understand. There’s no real wilderness and most long distance footpaths are well waymarked, meaning you don’t need much in the way of navigational skills. All of which makes self-guided a popular choice.

So what are you paying for? The cost of your walking holiday is primarily each night’s accommodation, plus baggage transfer (so you only need to carry a light day pack) and perhaps a connection to the start/end point. The big advantage of a self-guided trip, in addition to being much cheaper than a guided holiday, is that the company can tailor your itinerary and accommodation to suit your preferred pace.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

Can walks be tailored to different levels and abilities?

Answer

Yes – on a self-guided walking holiday. Most of the major long distance walks have fairly well established itineraries for different paces. For example you can do Hadrian’s Wall in anything from 8 to 12+ days, depending on how much distance you want to cover each day.

Beware of a walking holiday operator’s grading of walks. I usually find them geared to inexperienced walkers. I’m not an athlete but I’ve sometimes done a route in half the time they’ve specified.

My best tip in England would be to talk to locals along the way. They’ll often know – and love describing – some little magical detour that those who mapped your route might not have discovered.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

Can I book accommodation and baggage transfer myself or would you recommend using a walking holiday company?

Answer

You certainly can organise it all yourself, and lots of people do. Personally, I prefer making my own arrangements unless I’m too busy.

Baggage transfers are often simply the B&B owner running your bags to the next overnight stop in their car. Or booking a taxi to do it. It’s something you can do very easily yourself – and may lead to a conversation or discovery that may improve that day’s walk too.

I’d recommend using a walking holiday company if you can’t be bothered with the logistical headaches, or aren’t confident in your abilities and need advice. It can be pretty good to have someone at the end of the phone should anything go wrong.

Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

Where am I allowed to walk in England?

Answer

Land access in England is a smorgasbord of labels: we have public footpaths, permissive footpaths, bridleways, restrictive byways, open access land, all grouped together under the banner of “public rights of way”. All you really need to know is that walkers are allowed on all of the above, they’re all clearly marked on Ordnance Survey maps and, for most long distance footpaths, they’ll be clearly waymarked as well. For more information see this handy guide to public rights of way in Britain.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall
Question

Are all the long distance paths clearly waymarked, or are map reading skills required?

Answer

It’s a country without true wilderness. The national parks are well policed and monitored, and trails across farmland are often very long standing. Some trails follow paths that are thousands of years old.

This means English trails are usually easy to follow. There are plenty of major, well-maintained and signed routes. There will always be some missing posts, confusing directions and momentary aberrations but I generally find the biggest problem comes when there are too many good paths criss-crossing an area.

For example I worried about following the mish-mash of paths along the Malvern Hills before I realised it doesn’t really matter, they all roughly end up doing the same thing.

A bit of map reading competence is a useful safeguard of course, and in a varied landscape like England’s it can increase the pleasure to see there’s an ancient church in the next village or hidden valley just beyond the ridge.

What about a compass? I suppose that’s going to help in a white-out on Scafell Pike but I can’t recall ever using one on an English walk.

Another personal aside here: generally I try to banish fear of ‘getting lost’ on what are mostly harmless English routes. Maybe you don’t want to be clueless on a mountain after dark but for most English walks a bit of being “lost” can be the best bit of the day.

I took a daft detour from a normal route recently in the Cotswolds. I spontaneously turned off the path because it looked so pretty to the west and the view was amazing. I thought I would loop back to the main path but of course I was wrong and found myself in a run-down piggery, ankle deep in mud and had to clamber through barbed wire down onto a busy roadside verge to escape. Disaster or highlight? Well, here I am talking about it and it’s the only bit of that walk that I’ve ended up writing about.


Simon Heptinstall
Answered by Simon Heptinstall

About the author

Walking holidays in England

Simon Heptinstall

Simon is a TV writer turned travel journalist and photographer who specialises in walking and hiking holidays in the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond. He writes on walking holidays in England for the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, among others.

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