Eggardon Hill, Dorset
This is Thomas Hardy’s Dorset – a folded, green landscape of wooded coombes flooded with bluebells, contrasting with the high, chalk ramparts of Eggardon Hill. It’s an evocative place, where the sound of the wind thrumming over grass mixes with endless lark song. You might see buzzards and ravens wheeling and tumbling above the escarpment.
In Nettlecombe, a hamlet of golden stone cottages, the remnants of an old orchard cling to the streamside, a reminder of when farm labourers were partly paid in cider. The path dips down to the mill and weaves up through a coppice starred with wild garlic. As it emerges in the open pasture, the bulk of Eggardon lies ahead. The path runs alongside the hedge to the left, an ancient mix of bank, ditch and hedge, mostly blackthorn. At the right time, the sharp twigs will be creamed with blossom.
A bridleway leads up Eggardon’s north-west flank to the summit, where the route cuts to banks and ditches on the south. From here, there are panoramic views over Bridport and the Marshwood Vale to the coast. Take the path to North Eggardon Farm and the lane below leads back to Nettlecombe. A hidden footpath to the right twists past the old Powerstock railway station and through a tunnel of hazels beside a mossy stream.
The 16th-century Marquis of Lorne pub has cosy, panelled bar rooms, a restaurant, a pretty garden and play area. Dogs are welcome in the bar. Main courses include pheasant sausages with mash and onion jus or wood-grilled vegetable and pesto lasagne, (£11.25 each). Beer is from Palmers brewery down the road in Bridport.
Sara Hudston, Guardian country diarist
Chaldon Herring to Durdle Door, Dorset
In the 1920s and 30s, the quiet Purbeck village of Chaldon Herring (also known as East Chaldon) buzzed with writers, artists and visionaries. Chief among them were the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and the poet Valentine Ackland, who met and fell in love there and are buried together in the village churchyard. The area still has an otherworldly feel. On what Townsend Warner called a “pearl grey day”, when mist cloaks the downland and the wind oozes through the gorse, it can be positively spooky.Try walking up the crooked valley that leads past the remote farmhouse at Chydyok and to the cliffs. It is a landscape haunted by the past: dotted with prehistoric barrows, earthworks and evidence of “Celtic” field systems.
The scenery changes dramatically as the path breasts the clifftops, with the Dorset coastline curving away. Portland floats on the horizon like some fairy isle, seemingly disconnected from the mainland. On the cliff edge lies the South West Coast Path over the exhilarating switchbacks of Bat’s Head and Swyre Head. You may hear the dry, clicking call of a stonechat and perhaps see a peregrine stooping on its prey.
At the limestone arch of Durdle Door the sea pools a milky aquamarine around the crumpled cliffs. The beaches are inviting and easy to reach, but do get busy. To avoid the crowds, track back through the butterfly-rich, flower-filled grassland of Newlands Warren. Back in Chaldon Herring, the Sailor’s Return is a friendly free house that was once a pair of farmworkers’ cottages. Specials include venison casserole (£11) and local seafood dishes (from £15). SH
Blackboys, Sussex Weald
The Weald is a land of lush meadows, ancient oak and chestnut woods, hedges and streams. I moved here four years ago, to an old cottage down a dead-end lane, and nowhere has ever felt more like home. The village name, Blackboys, is an odd one: “black” may refer to charcoal production, once a major industry here, and “boys” to bois, French for wood.
From the pub, head across the playing field and down Tickerage Lane, past Tickerage Mill where Vivien Leigh once lived and entertained Laurence Olivier. Turn left along the Wealdway, following the Tickerage stream for a mile or so. Keep an eye out for kingfishers on the gnarled old oaks overhanging the river, generally in pairs, and for small copper butterflies in the wet meadows.
Bear south into Framfield, through the graveyard of 13th-century St Thomas à Becket church, and head south-east into a bluebell wood pocked with ancient badger sets. Follow the web of footpaths east to eventually emerge back at the 14th-century Blackboys Inn. I recommend the baked Camembert starter (£6.95), and the beer-battered cod and chips (£12.50) is hard to beat. Harveys Best, made in nearby Lewes, is a Sussex classic.
Dave Goulson, author of A Sting in the Tale (Vintage Classics)
Seven Sisters and Cuckmere Haven, South Downs
The eastern South Downs have some of the most spectacular scenery in southern Britain: chalk sea cliffs, windswept downland, and sheltered valleys. Park at Seven Sisters country park, and head south along the Cuckmere river. The chalk slope to the left teams with flowers and insect life in spring, the mauve powder-puff heads of scabious weighed down by crimson and black burnet moths. For a bee fanatic such as myself this is a great spot to look for the rare brown-banded carder bumblebee, a furry ginger bee that loves the clovers and vetches that grow near the river.
At the river mouth there is good swimming from a shingle beach, and fossils to be found at the foot of white cliffs to the east. From here, climb steeply eastwards along the clifftop, following the undulations of the Seven Sisters. Don’t stand right on the cliff edge – sections occasionally plummet into the sea below. At Birling Gap head north, crossing the A259 into Friston forest, which has numerous trails heading westwards back to the starting point. The forest is a great place in which to lose the kids, enjoy the emerald light in late spring, or hunt for edible fungi in the autumn. The Cuckmere Inn is about half a mile west of the car park, serving Yorkshire ham and free range eggs (£10.95), or sea bass with lobster and samphire sauce (£16.95). DG
Cressbrook Dale, Peak District
Length: 6 miles
Time: 3 hours
Start/finish: Little Longstone, (OS Explorer OL24)
Refuel: The Packhorse Inn
Picnic spot: The dale west of Wardlow
The Peak District slices in two: the Dark Peak and the White. The former is capped in gritstone, the baked, compressed remnants of a sandy estuary. Sheep now graze there but it was once the shore to a limestone seabed. I was a Dark Peak man in my youth, a young rock climber wandering the moors. The tactile rasp of gritstone is to me like a favourite pair of shoes; limestone is cold, and pinches. These days I have more time for the lavish sweep of flowers in the limestone dales and their long human history.
This short walk offers a condensed account of the White Peak’s riches, not least its pubs. The Three Stags’ Heads at Wardlow Mires is the sort of pub where you’d find Heathcliff with his lurcher asleep beside him. At Litton there is the Red Lion, perfect for summer evenings. We start at The Packhorse in Little Longstone, a hostelry created from two lead-miners’ cottages in the 18th century, with an imaginative menu (from wood pigeon and mushroom pie to tapas).
Packhorse routes crisscross the high country of the Peak, once a major obstacle to trade, trains of Galloway ponies carrying salt from the “wiches” of Cheshire. Climb from the pub up on to Longstone Moor and you’ll find the abandoned pits of lead miners from centuries ago. At its crest, after a steep climb, the view opens out to the north and the sombre, wilder moors.
Cressbrook is a nature reserve and holds drifts of early purple orchids as the spring builds, as well as the pure blue of speedwell and bright yellow cowslips. There’s thick ash woodland at the bottom of the dale. Carry on down to the Wye, once harnessed at Cressbrook Mill by the Arkwrights. You get a good view of the mill pond reaching the Monsal Trail back to Longstone.
Ed Douglas, Guardian country diarist. His book Kinder: The People’s Mountain is published in October
Kinder Scout, Peak District
Length: 9 miles
Time: 5 hours
Start/finish: Hayfield (OS Explorer OL1)
Refuel: Pack Horse Inn
Picnic spot: Rocks at Sandy Heys
If the White Peak is sheltered, with narrow wooded dales and secret corners, the Dark Peak is about scale and the long perspective. Limestone dissolves, but gritstone erodes, creating sculpted tors that cap the moors, inflections on long sweeping lines of moorland. Heather and moss predominate, and if you’re lucky you’ll see curlew and lapwing or England’s only mountain hares. This is moody, soulful country.
It was also a political hotbed. The invention of the breech-loading shotgun and the 19th-century mania for driven grouse shooting kept the public off the moors for 80 years or so. This walk takes you round the scene of the most famous episode in the fight to regain access to the moors: Kinder Scout, site of the mass trespass of 1932, led by a diminutive and wholly admirable communist called Benny Rothman.
It starts at another Pack Horse Inn, this one in Hayfield, where the trespassers gathered that April 85 years ago, closely watched by police. This Pack Horse is much older; records go back to the Elizabethan era, when ponies crossed the high pass of Edale Cross. But they didn’t have pints of Abbeydale real ale, or the excellent pork loin suet wellington rolled in black pudding to keep them warm. The walk starts up Kinder Road to Bowden Bridge, where the Kinder river meets the Sett, and then alongside the reservoir to William Clough and a steep grassy climb to Ashop Head. The slope above the path was where Rothman and his 400 or so trespassers met gamekeepers intent on turning them back. Five of the ramblers, including Rothman, went to jail.
At the top you meet a junction with the mighty Pennine Way and turn right, to crest Kinder’s plateau, the dark heart of the Peak and its highest summit. And remember, at over 2,000ft in bad weather this is very much a mountain. The path now follows the plateau’s airy edge to the Kinder Downfall, where the thin trickle of the river has cut a dramatic notch flanked with high cliffs, a wild spot to contemplate Manchester on the horizon. Strong winds send the water flying into the air like an aquatic comb-over. Dropping down via Kinder Low to Edale Cross, our route follows Coldwell Clough, then right, back to Hayfield. ED
Bashall Eaves, Lancashire
Length: 7 miles
Time: 3 hours
Start/finish: Bashall Eaves village hall car park
(OS Explorer 41)
Refuel: The Red Pump Inn
Picnic spot: Moor Piece nature reserve
Wide-open skies are one of the glories of Bowland, and for me, these bracing landscapes of north-west Lancashire are set off best by a broken sky, muddied and textured by bluster-blown clouds. The first third of this walk, a westward yomp across damp, tree-lined pasture, keeps in sight the cone-shaped Parlick Pike and the flanks of Wolf Fell to the north west. Hares, golden in sunlight, lope across the cropped fields. You can’t walk a dozen paces without hearing the calls of breeding curlew and lapwing.
A brush with the handsome Hodder river is followed by more farmland before the walk briefly becomes a march, die-straight along a Roman road. In early spring, watch for late redwing, mustered in foraging parties. Then you drop into woodland, and an uproar of birdsong. A good ear will pick out nuthatch, treecreeper and a handful of warblers. A path north-east runs through a farmyard to Rabbit Lane and Moor Piece nature reserve. Redstart and pied flycatcher nest among the birches and alders here.
A turn southward leads back to the hamlet of Bashall Eaves, and the oak-beamed, stone-flagged Red Pump Inn. The bar offers local beers and the menu (mains such as Irish stew from £12.95) is the perfect remedy for cold feet and wind-boxed ears.
Richard Smyth, Guardian country diarist
Saltaire-Ilkley, West Yorkshire
This is an as-the-crow-flies hike over the brackeny moor that separates the valleys of Airedale (southerly, unappreciated) and Wharfedale (northerly, well-to-do). Handsome Saltaire was built as a model mill-village by Sir Titus Salt in the 1850s. The main road from the car park descends to a footbridge across the Aire; from here, steep-sloping Midgely wood dominates the northern horizon. The lane up through the woods is an early calf-stretcher and opens on to a curving swath of boulder-strewn heath.
Hills and chimneys crowd the skyline beyond the broadleaf canopy to the west as you walk the edge of Bracken Hall Crag. A path along Glovershaw Beck leads through working farms zinging with spring songbirds up to the Otley Road. Walk left for a little way, and then take a path to the right, clambering up to a due-north footpath. The rocks of Harthill Cock are a good place to pour tea from your flask and watch for red kites and buzzards.
Push northwards and upwards across the moors. Green hairstreak caterpillars feed on low-growing bilberry bushes (the butterflies emerge from mid-April), and in late spring, fluffy white heads of cottongrass sedge nod in the boggy hollows.
The old spa town of Ilkley is a welcoming sight from the gritstone brink of the high moor. Find your way down the last steep stretch of heath and through the town to the Ilkley Moor Vaults. A team of slow food enthusiasts runs this cosy place; specials (from £10.95) include a trio of game with wild mushrooms and artichokes (£18.95) alongside a sturdy line-up of high-end pub standards.
A train ride to Shipley and a short walk along the Leeds-Liverpool canal will bring you back to Saltaire. RS
Millington, East Yorkshire
Length: 6 miles
Time: 3 hours
Start/finish: The Gait Inn, Millington (OS Explorer 294)
Refuel: The Gait Inn
Picnic spot: Millington woods
Before David Hockney started painting them in the late 1990s, the Yorkshire Wolds were little known outside the East Riding. That partly explains their character: thinly populated and little visited, the chalk valleys still feel pleasingly secluded, so long as you avoid bank holidays. Walkers in these mini-dales – whose sides are too steep to have ever been ploughed – are immersed in a landscape little changed since the 18th century.
The Gait Inn, a low, whitewashed 16th-century building in the heart of Millington, is the quintessential Wolds pub. Its old settles and scrubbed tables are beloved of walkers and locals alike, and its food is great value (mains from £8, delicious Yorkshire pudding and gravy starter £5).
A circuit of the hills around the village makes a perfect pre- or post pub walk. Turn right on leaving the Gait, then first left down a single-track lane between high verges rich with oxeye daisies and campion and overhung with ash. Ahead of you is one of the great grassy whalebacks of the Wolds.
Follow the road as it bends to the right, then take the path that leads off left beside the Warrendale conifer plantation. At the end of the plantation turn left, and then follow the path roughly north-east as it doglegs left then right, and walk along the foot of the steep slope of ragged grass and gorse. Ahead is another steep slope: climb the path on the left that tacks up it. Go straight ahead, and follow the track as it descends to join the road (Wood Gate), and turn left into the high, narrow valley.
Passing the entrance to Millington woods, where in the warm months the breezes carry scents of charcoal burning and ramsons, this road will take you back into the village and that plate of Yorkshire pudding.
Richard Benson, author of The Valley (Bloomsbury) and The Farm (Penguin)
Filey to Scarborough, North Yorkshire
The craggy, salt-whipped North Yorkshire coast is a long, gothic drama of cliffs, coves, landslips and spectacular shattered rock formations extending out into a sea the colour of raw steel and bruises. Strangely, it can be particularly striking where its natural ruggedness is offset by the artifice of a holiday resort, the electric and neon lights winking brazen and pathetic like fake jewels in a pirate’s broken teeth.The footpath following the curving bay between Filey Brigg and Scarborough offers one such view, as it negotiates lonely, spray-flicked clifftops, with the bustle of Scarborough often visible ahead. The Golden Ball is a wonderful pub with harbour views and pints of Sam Smith’s bitter.
Start at the seaward end of Filey Brigg, a peninsula about a mile north of the genteel resort of Filey. Standing at the peninsula’s far end gives a lovely sense of the bay’s curvature. In the distance is the smaller but higher promontory at Scarborough, with the ruins of its 12th-century castle.
As the Brigg joins the mainland, turn north along the clifftop towards Gristhorpe cliffs, with their sandy beach and black reefs. After passing the high, gorse-crested promontory of Lebberston Cliff, the path drops down to the National Trust-owned Cayton Bay, and its woodland-edged beach. This was once home to a holiday camp owned by the white collar Nalgo union, and visited by Philip Larkin’s family.
Heading north, the path soon reaches Scarborough’s South Bay where, tide permitting, walkers can switch to the beach for the rest of the way to the Golden Ball. Fill up on fish and chips from Bamford’s on the seafront before retiring to the Golden Ball’s main bar with its blazing fire. RB
Length: 3½ miles
Time: 1¼ hours
Start/finish: Blanchland village (OS Explorer 307)
Refuel: Lord Crewe Arms
Picnic spot: Blanchland – grassy riverside bank after a mile
The wild moorland setting of Blanchland makes the Cotswold-like perfection of this village all the more surprising. Its many listed buildings are of honey-coloured stone taken from the remains of its 12th-century abbey. The Lord Crewe Arms, once the abbot’s lodge and kitchens, is a comfortable, stone-flagged, thick-walled pub.
Start by Blanchland’s arched bridge, where the footpath traces the river eastwards towards Derwent reservoir. Dippers bob on rocks in the fast flowing water, flaunting their white chests. In open grassy areas, knapweed, St John’s wort and yarrow grow to the water’s edge, where otters and kingfishers are sometimes seen. Goldcrests peep high up in Scots pines above steps leading to a stile and footpath to Cowbyer Farm. Keep left through semi-natural birch woods to a railway-sleeper bridge over the Hotburn. From here, it’s a steep climb up the dene towards the skyline, with a wide view across the fells. Turning left on to the road, the path dips right into pinewoods with a chance of seeing red squirrels.
The Lord Crewe has a great inglenook fireplace where Jacobite leader Tom Forster hid in a priest hole in 1715. Here too, WH Auden ordered champagne in the bar before playing Brahms on the piano. Mains are from £12.45 or there’s bar bait such as squasage (sausage-stuffed squash) on toast.
Susie White, Guardian country diarist
South Tyne Trail, Northumberland
The South Tyne Trail links the river’s source, high among peaty mosses, with the town of Haltwhistle, mostly along a disused railway line through the beautiful north Pennine landscape. There are car parks at several points but I like to begin at Featherstone Rowfoot, just west of the Wallace Arms. Ivy tumbles from the parapets of old railway bridges and decaying buffers have been colonised by ferns and mosses. I’ve walked here at all times of year; last winter I saw an ermined stoat silently slip across the snowy path, white on white.
In spring the embankments are full of forget-me-nots, bugle, water avens and primroses. In the dusk I’ve seen woodcock patrolling their territory by Lambley viaduct, a massive yet elegant structure high above the river. It’s a dizzying drop to the shingle beds and rapids far below. There’s a steep deviation around the old station, then a climb to rejoin the track. It continues through a mix of open ground and woodland then leaves the railway for a short road stretch to the Kirkstyle Inn and lunch (mains from £9.95), which has a garden where quoits are played on summer evenings.
For a circular route back to Lambley viaduct, join the Pennine Way just west of the Kirkstyle Inn and traverse the fell along the Maiden Way Roman road. It can be boggy underfoot but views open out to the uplifting cries of oystercatcher and curlew. SW
“Walk west of St Ives,” a friend once told me, “and you’ll find ‘God’s own country.’” I believe he was right. Just half an hour’s walk beyond the seaside town is a spectacular, untamed stretch of coast. Here, granite cliffs, vibrant with lichen and wildflowers, plunge 90 metres to a restless sea that stretches to Newfoundland and Labrador.
This is an exhilarating and rewarding walk, though not for the faint-hearted: the path is exposed, narrow and steep, and often veers close to the cliff edge. Occasionally a scramble over large boulders is required.
From Porthmeor beach in St Ives, strike east on the coast path, with terns, kestrels and storm petrels wheeling overhead. Grey seals bask in sheltered coves or on the Carracks rocks. In spring: squill and dog violets bloom in the heathland alongside drifts of orchids, tormentil, sea campion, pink thrift, violets and wild thyme.
Past Tregurthen cliffs the path plunges and soars over headlands and into narrow valleys. Pendour Cove is where the Mermaid of Zennor is said to have lured local boy Matthew Trewhella to a watery grave. From here, Gurnard’s Head comes into view, home the eponymous pub, where a two-course lunch of red gurnard and confit duck leg is £18. If the return trek seems unappealing, the 16A bus stops outside on its way to St Ives.
The return loops inland on the Zennor Churchway, marked by a “field path” sign at St Senara’s church in Zennor. This gentler section crosses prehistoric terraced field systems separated by ancient stone stiles. There’s a quietness to the landscape here, away from the surge of the sea: to one side the steep weathered tors of the moorland, on the other the glittering haze of the ocean. Captivated by these same views, DH Lawrence said this was “a most beautiful place … lovelier even than the Mediterranean”.
Kari Herbert, co-author of Explorers’ Sketchbooks (Thames & Hudson), voted one of the Guardian’s top 10 travel books 2016
Buckland Abbey, Devon
Come May the Great North Wood at Buckland Abbey is alive with wildflowers and birdsong. Walk these tranquil trails and you’re following in the footsteps of Cistercian monks and famous seafarers who made this secluded location their home.
From the abbey, follow the clearly marked blue signs past the gardens and orchards and up into grazed meadows. Soon the idyllic Tavy valley is at your feet. Ahead is the Great North Wood, with carpets of bluebells, celandines, wood anemones and pink campion. Arching over the sloping trail are oak, ash and sweet chestnut trees, thickly bearded with moss. Tread softly and you may spot deer, buzzards or woodpeckers or, further along, perhaps an otter in the glassy waters of the Tavy. After dipping down to the water’s edge, the path meanders back up through trees and into meadowland again before returning to the abbey.
The house is well worth exploring, too. Founded in 1278, Buckland Abbey was the last of the Cistercian monasteries to be built in medieval England and Wales. For more than 250 years, monks farmed this profitable estate and lived in quiet solitude. With the dissolution of the monasteries, Buckland was sold to Sir Roger Grenville, who made it into a grand family home. It was later sold again to Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Part museum, part house, the abbey and grounds are now run by the National Trust. It is home to treasures such as Drake’s drum: a snare drum emblazoned with his coat of arms, which accompanied the seafarer on his most significant voyages. Legend has it that the drum can be heard beating when Britain is in danger.
Complete the day with a real ale by a lively brook just half a mile away at the Who’d Have Thought It Inn in the hamlet of Milton Combe. This revamped 16th-century village pub has dishes such as pheasant with pistachio pesto on offer alongside traditional favourites (mains from £8.25). KH
Pollok country park, Glasgow
A couple of miles south of Glasgow, Pollok country park is more than 360 acres of woods and parkland (grazed by charismatic highland cows), cut through by the White Cart water. There’s a well-marked network of paths, with a clockwise loop starting at the car park of the Burrell Collection (closed for refurbishment until 2020) offering an enjoyable hour or two in urban nature. Pollok House (reopening April), an 18th-century mansion, has paintings by El Greco, Goya and William Blake, plus a stable courtyard, walled garden and glasshouses.
As spring stretches out, bluebells flood the woodland floor with colour, along with patches of the non-native (but attractive) pink purslane, also known as the Siberian spring beauty. One of the more unusual species found in the park is the toothwort, a parasitic plant that unfurls from underground stems into a row of tooth-like flowers from March onwards. On a riverside walk you may find upwellings of a plant you’ll likely smell before you spot: wild garlic. Its green leaves make a tasty addition to a salad.
On rocks, you’re likely to see the flit of a dipper, a bird that acts as a barometer for the recovering health of post-industrial rivers. With a remarkable ability to walk along the river bed, the dipper is described by poet Kathleen Jamie as a bird “that knows the depth of the river/ yet sings of it on land”. Listen out for its sweet, rippling song, and that of the “Scottish nightingale”, the blackcap.
The Glad Cafe in nearby Shawlands is a vibrant community cafe serving breakfasts of peat-smoked haddock and poached eggs (£6.50) and French toast with bacon and maple syrup (£5.55) as well as a daily changing menu with a Middle Eastern slant (mains £5-£8.50) and local beers. Evenings see music, talks and film screenings in the adjacent venue.
Rob St John, writer and artist
Water of Leith, Edinburgh
Length: 12¼ miles
Time: 7 hours
Start/finish: Balerno/Leith (OS Explorer 350)
Refuel: The King’s Wark
Picnic spot: Colinton dell
Rising in the Pentland Hills and flowing through Edinburgh to the sea, the Water of Leith offers the chance to spot rising trout, kingfishers and otters alongside modern art, industrial ruins and Georgian architecture. Take a bus to the suburb of Balerno at the foot of the Pentlands (the 44 goes from the city centre) to find the start of the walkway, near the high school. It’s hard to lose the path from here: it’s (mostly) well-maintained and signposted.
From Balerno, a former railway line leads downstream through the thickening suburbs and under the city bypass, which rumbles with traffic. The river then plunges through Colinton dell’s steep-sided ancient woodland, thronged with ash, oak, lime and willow (and spring bluebells), and skirts the ruins of two paper mills. The sunny glow of winter aconites flowering here in the spring helps herald in the lengthening days.
Below Colinton, the river meets the city tenements, passing the Water of Leith visitor centre and Murrayfield stadium, before signs point uphill to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and Dean Gallery and their contemporary and modern collections. The walkway then winds downstream into the New Town, through picturesque Dean Village, upmarket Stockbridge (with its domed folly, St Bernard’s Well) and past the Royal Botanic Garden. The appeal of such stop-offs and diversions might derail plans of completing the walk in a “oner”, but, the route is well-served by public transport, so it’s easy to pick up where you left off.
It’s only in its last mile before the sea that the Water of Leith broadens from a stream into a small, historic harbour with buildings that can seem more Baltic than British when lit by the low spring sun. The King’s Wark, a pub in one of Leith’s oldest buildings (built in 1438), has a seafood-heavy menu (mains £12-£26) and decent ales, wines and whiskies. Grab a seat outside to watch the sun set over the water and toast the end of your walk. RSJ
Five Horseshoes, Oxfordshire
The Thames makes a great sweep down from the crossing at Wallingford and below Whitchurch and Mapledurham to reach Henley. The Chilterns sprawl out from the centre of this crescent in a mess of wooded valleys. The area is relatively close to London – easily reached on the M40 – but offers some surprisingly remote walks.
The Five Horseshoes stands on the edge of a large area of common ground fringed by woods. A 16th-century coaching pub, it has a reputation for excellent, well-priced food – haunch of vension, braised rib of beef – and along with the usual range of alcohol, some exceptional homemade ginger beer for those thinking of the walk back.
Begin in Watlington, perhaps Oxfordshire’s most attractive market town, and follow Hill Road east from the crossroads towards the “White Mark” carved out of chalk on Watlington Hill. Swing past Christmas Common, and then plunge down deep beech woods and along the ancient Hollandridge Lane that comes out at Pishill (locals prefer you pronounce it “Pish – ill”). A steep walk past the little church with its John Piper stained-glass window – the artist lived nearby – leads up to the wide expanse of Maidensgrove Common and the pub.
Return by dropping down the hill to a wooded valley that leads towards Cookley Green and Swyncombe, to meet with the Icknield Way, the prehistoric route that skirts the northern edge of the Chilterns. Whenever I take this broad rolling track, I think of the early 20th century poet Edward Thomas; he described as a “a shining serpent in the wet” when he traced it from Norfolk to Dorset.It’s a good end to the walk and takes you back to Watlington – where, for those who had ginger beer at lunch, a range of reputable hostelries like the Fat Fox await.
Hugh Thomson, author of Wainwright prizewinner The Green Road into the Trees (Preface Publishing). A sequel, One Man and a Mule, is published by Preface in June
Grim’s Dyke, Oxfordshire
Grim’s Dyke is a high embankment with a defensive ditch that once ran west and east from the Thames. It was built by the Celts of the iron age in about 300BC for reasons that remain unclear – although the fact that it controls the passage of the Icknield Way may give a clue.
This walk takes you along one of the dyke’s best-preserved stretches, just as it enters the Chilterns. And in April and May walkers will be treated to the sight of magnificent bluebells carpeting the beech woods. A heavy-seeded plant, bluebells travel slowly across the ground: it takes centuries for them to cover such distances.
Starting at Nuffield, take the path along the dyke heading south just west of the church. This is a very ancient track threaded through with white wood anemones and scattered with badger setts. If you look through the trees at the wheat fields to either side, with the young wheat still tight in bud, the stalks shimmer blue under the green of their tops. When viewed from certain angles, they look like water; an effect exaggerated when the wind blows across the fronds and sends a ripple of green-yellow across the underlying blue.
Turn left down the Icknield Way and take a further wander through Wicks wood to reach the King William IV pub in the hamlet of Hailey. On a sunny day, this is a great place to sit outside at a south-facing trestle table and sample beer from the local Brakspear brewery and the cod fried in ale batter.
Suitably refreshed, carry on up the lane towards Homer, a house once lived in by Bruce Chatwin. For even more bluebells there’s a detour into the much photographed Mongewell woods, which lie off to the left as you return to Nuffield. HT
Bury Ditches, Shropshire
Length: 3½ miles
Time: 2 hours
Start/finish: Bury Ditches car park (OS Explorer 201)
Refuel: Crown Inn
Picnic spot: Meadow within ramparts
This is but one hill in the seemingly endless folds of the Welsh Marches, and yet standing on the top of it feels like being on the tip of a spindle around which this green and wooded world turns.
A storm in 1976 skittled a forestry plantation on top of Summerhill and revealed the Iron Age hill fort known as Bury Ditches, one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the Marches. Named after its concentric elliptical ramparts separated by deep ditches, the earthworks speak of enclosure – a keeping, in and out, of secret things. To walk the ramparts is processional, meditative.
The open meadow enclosed within the rings is a great picnic spot. It is punctuated with broom, heather and holly. The songs of chiffchaff, blackcap and crickets play out with distant skylarks. From its highest point, a little toposcope recites the names of surrounding hills in Shropshire and Powys: Long Mynd, Corndon, Radnor Forest … There are two Caer Caradocs, but which one is the fortress of the great Caratacus, who battled the Romans? Hills and their stories mirror each other; nothing is fixed in this timeless place.
Take the path up the hill from the car park into Bury Ditches; at the far end follow the red waymarkers through the woods on tracks and paths to return to the car park. The Crown Inn down in Clunton (mains from £9.50) offers that country pub sense of continuity, good beer and locally famous fish and chips. Clunton Coppice nature reserve is worth visiting for its oak woods and birdsong and the town of Clun, with its Norman castle, is a gem.
Paul Evans, Guardian country diarist
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire
Length: 5½ miles
Time: 3 hours
Start/finish: Much Wenlock (OS Explorer 137)
Refuel: George & Dragon
Picnic spot: Limekilns, Presthope
Seen from the west: a dark brow of trees, a breaking wave, the woods of Wenlock Edge. This is the longest unbroken length of woodland in England; it stretches in a 20-mile ridge from the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the Severn Gorge to the gateway to the Welsh Marches in the town of Craven Arms.
The Edge woods guard their views jealously: the Wrekin in the north, the Clee Hills to the east, Clun Forest in the south and the Stretton Hills and beyond them the Berwyn mountains of mid Wales to the west, are fleeting but dramatic revelations. Wenlock Edge acts as a spinal column through which impulses, from nerves ending in stones, ditches, trees, hedges and the wild lives of this land pass; a synaptic corridor flashing with the green sparks of being which give this land its spirit.
Begin in the town of Much Wenlock with time to perhaps visit the medieval priory of Saxon origins. Head across the park and up Windmill Hill. Then, crossing the main road, take the field track to wood’s edge and turn left between fields and ash and lime woods until, crossing the Shrewsbury road, enter the woods and follow the track to Blakewell Coppice and then up the Edge to the National Trust car park at Presthope. Go down to investigate the restored limekilns – a good picnic spot. From there, turn back north across the top of limestone quarries with bee orchids, tiger beetles, cowslips, violets and 450 million-year old coral reef fossils. At the old lane, return to Much Wenlock. At the end of High Street, the George & Dragon has good, reasonably priced food and beer (mains from £7) and admits dogs with “well-behaved owners”. PE
Capel Curig, Snowdonia
Length: 5 miles
Time: 3 hours
Start/finish: Pont Cyfyng (OS Explorer OL17)
Grade: Hard (some scrambling)
Refuel: Bryn Tyrch Inn
Picnic spot: Llyn y Foel
Sunset and dawn are the great times to be on a mountaintop, and if there’s one Welsh mountain I would choose for such times it’s Moel Siabod. There may be other viewpoints in Snowdonia that are as fine, but Siabod has one of the best routes to a summit among all the Welsh hills. The south-eastern ridge, called Daear Ddu (which means Black Earth – the name has its origin in Welsh legend), cradles the peaty waters of Llyn y Foel, and reaches to the very top.
The ridge is a magnificent line of ascent. You reach Llyn y Foel from the village of Pont Cyfyng, through old quarries whose deep green water always gives me a little frisson of terror, then across the shoulder of the moor to quartz-speckled rocks along its shore. The scramble up its armadillo-plated spine is over far too soon, and leaves you a few level paces from the OS pillar. An outlier from the main hill-massifs of Snowdonia, Moel Siabod gives some of the best insights into their structure and topography.
Because I like to sit on my hills at nightfall and dawn, I have often spent the night up here. It was from here that I saw the black light. I was sitting with my back to the summit cairn, facing east on an evening of absolute clarity and stillness. The sun was going down behind a shoulder of Snowdon; the cwm at my feet was inky with shadow. The whole outlook was one of transcendent beauty – green hills and woods, a glowing softness of light. An emerald patch of lichen on a rock by my feet was catching the light, capturing my attention.
When I looked up from it, the pool of shadow around Llyn y Foel had spilled over with shocking suddenness and was streaming out to the horizon. A second glance and it seemed to be pulsing back from that point towards the south-east, flooding the mountain with its sharp-edged black light. I had witnessed the rising of the anti-sun. I grabbed my rucksack and fled shuddering down the hillside to the west.
After a time I was calm again, and jogged on down the easy gable of the hill that leads into the forest, through which marked paths lead to a bridge over the Afon Llugwy.
A few metres to the left along the A5 lies the Bryn Tyrch Inn, much the best of Capel Curig’s hostelries, with good beers and excellent, substantial food – slow-roasted Cheshire belly pork with crusted chorizo potatoes, or pan-seared Anglesey sea bass, for example; vegetarian options include chickpea dahl risotto cakes with potato and cauliflower curry, a speciality (mains from £11.95, packed lunches and picnic hampers also available for guests).
Jim Perrin, author of The Hills of Wales (Gomer)
The Land’s End of north Wales is as craggily atmospheric as its Cornish counterpart, and rapidly becoming as popular. Take the cliff path south-west from the bay village of Aberdaron towards Porth Meudwy, where fishing boats moor. Beyond and beneath are inaccessible coves: Porth Cloch, Porth y Pistyll and Hen Borth. Through bracken and gorse, with the sea far below, make your way across ancient field banks before traversing the rough slabs of Pen y Cil’s stepped and lofty profile.
The path leads to a natural belvedere, with the great ridge of the headland rearing above; out across the water like some vast presence of the deep is Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey, the tide-race island. After a long mile of plunging cliffs and interlocking footpaths, another vision awaits, more intimate but just as resonant and powerful: Ffynnon Fair (St Mary’s Well). To locate it, look for the slanting path on the west side of a south-facing hollow, which leads to steps carved into rock.
From the steps’ base – take care, there have been drownings here – traverse the rocks into a dark alcove. Here is the well, in the cliff just above high-water mark, fronded with bright weed, its water clear and drinkable.
Make your way back to Aberdaron by field paths atop dykes along which lambs play, then sit on the terrace of the Gwesty T? Newydd Hotel (mains, such as local crab dressed in its shell or a bowl of mussels from around £11) with the bounding headlands green and golden and a blanched rim of rock at the base of umber cliffs. JP