Great Britain is known for its London landmarks, its British boozers, ‘football’ teams, and urban rock and pop stars – which means its notable expanses of countryside and of national parkland tend to get overlooked. Yet embedded in Britain’s green acres, misty lakes, heathery moorlands, forests and mountains is the very history and character of those strange islands (and the strange islanders that dwell there!).
Here’s a glimpse at how to make the most of each of those national parks when you only have a day to fit it all in.
Lake District (England)
England’s North West is one of the most culturally rich and meteorologically dramatic areas in the UK. The Lake District National Park, in Cumbria, is a patchwork quilt of quaint but lively villages overlooking moody lakes and looking up to handsome mountain ranges. A long walk or sail on such a lake could be capped off with a tour of the Lakes Distillery, the source of some of the finest whiskeys in the land.
Named for Snowdon, the biggest mountain in Wales, Snowdonia National Park and the area around it has long been the pride of princes, kings, and warlords! Most of them never got the chance to go zip-lining, though – that particular thrill is available at the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, among a host of other cavernous adventures for the whole family.
Peak District (England)
Despite being landlocked, the Peak District National Park (mostly in the north of Derbyshire) is home to its own mermaid, at Mermaid’s Pool near Kinder Scout. Unfortunately, she only shows her face once a year at midnight at Easter, but the pool and its surroundings are worth a visit any time of year – particularly for the Kinder Downfall waterfall, which appears to flow upwards in blustery weather.
Over 360 square miles of Devon moorland make up the National Park of Dartmoor, so it’s not surprising there’s plenty of history hidden under the surface. 6000 years of human history have been traced here, and a trip to High Willhays, its breathtaking high point, will give you a stunning panorama of these historic lands.
Yorkshire Dales (England)
Dotted with mill towns, castles, and luscious landscapes, Yorkshire Dales National Park has the unique selling proposition of being official home of Wensleydale Cheese at the Wensleydale Creamery. Monks first made this special cheese on that spot nearly a thousand years ago, and today you can visit to learn more about how it’s all done and taste the real thing in situ.
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs (Scotland)
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park is the site of a great number of particularly tall mountains (by UK standards), including those in the Arrochar Alps – where you can take a hike or climb of varying levels of difficulty, and absolutely worth it for the richness of variety in terrain and in the skyline.
Pembrokeshire Coast (Wales)
The spectacular stretch of coast that is Pembrokeshire Coast National Park contains many dramatic sights to see as you breathe the healthy sea air. The Green Bridge, an 80ft natural arch, is a must-see on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, while if you’re more into man-made structures Pembroke Castle has been on its current site since 1093, with the stone structure you see today mostly built towards the end of the 1100s.
Moors, forests, coast, and rivers make up Somerset and Devon’s Exmoor National Park, and real thrills can be sought at Croyde and Hele Bay where coasteering is the call of the day – variously climbing up, scrambling over, and jumping off rocks into the water, from where to better explore the scenery and sea life of the south-west coast.
The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall on what is not Northumberland National Park in the second century AD, and it was the basis of the Romans’ frontier against the proud and unconquered Scottish people in the north. Today, a number of historic and natural trails are available, and the verdant countryside is punctuated with heritage spots where you can learn more about the region and see ancient artifacts that have been found.
North York Moors (England)
North York Moors National Park stretches between Scarborough and Middlesbrough on the north-east coast, and features huge expanses of heather moorland – but get a glimpse of sunny weather and it might be the beaches that lure you in. Robin Hood’s Bay has a human touch stretching back three millennia, and the historical features you can take in cover everything from dinosaur times through Roman and Norse occupation up to 18th century smugglers.
Brecon Beacons (Wales)
By day or by night, this mountain range in the south of Wales at Brecon Beacons National Park is a wonder to behold. A designated International Dark Sky Reserve, on a clear night you’ll see stars a plenty o’er the mountain tops, while by day you might ramble, paraglide, or try some local ales at an independent brewery.
The Broads National Park (England)
Norfolk’s The Broads National Park is heaven for river-faring types: the ‘Venice of the East’ has more waterway mileage than Venice itself! Whether you take a boat for the day or a more industrious bicycle along the riverbanks, you’ll find plenty of room to fish, plenty of pretty towns to stop in at, and a welcoming pint of ale when you’re ready.
New Forest National Park (England)
There are few better places in the United Kingdom for horse-riding than New Forest National Park, which is just an hour and a half’s train ride from London. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, there are also spectacular gardens, museums, leisure parks, and wildlife parks to check out in the glades and under the branches.
South Downs National Park (England)
Another ‘bucket list’ British destination is the White Cliffs of Dover, where the English channel pushes off towards their neighbors in France. The White Cliffs can be found in the South Downs National Park. Packed with wartime history, this part of the South Downs also has great walks with great views, and the chance to check in with a wealth of local wildlife.
Cairngorms National Park (Scotland)
Cycling through the Pine Forest in Cairngorm National Park’s rocky highlands is sure to put a breath of fresh air in you. Along the way you might spot wildcats, capercaillies, or mountain hares, before a well-deserved break on the one-of-a-kind beach of Lake Morlich.
Whatever your preferred mode of travel, exercise, or leisure, most of Britain’s National Parks offer a broad range of options, and each has a combination of stunning terrains and vistas that seems to outdo the last. Even if you only have one day to visit, you’re sure to return home feeling happy and fulfilled.