Terrific adventures await in our green and pleasant land, says Dana Huntley.
There are countless adventures for all activity levels in the great British outdoors from mountain biking to hang gliding. Most of us, though, take our delight less vigorously. It is easy enough to plan a travel itinerary around waterways, scenic landscapes, parkland and the sea breeze. There are always country pubs and tea rooms along the way. Here are some of my favorite ways to enjoy them.
Visit the gardens
This is a nation of green thumbs. From sweeping landscape parks to kitchen plots of herbs and cutting flowers, Britain is justly known worldwide for its gardens. There are literally hundreds of diverse gardens open to the public across Britain affectionately and proudly cared for by landed estates, civic organizations, the National Trust, and horticultural societies. Wherever you are, the Tourist Information Centre (TIC), in person or online, will have several suggestions in the neighborhood. Any number of English gardens are worth a destination to the neighborhood just to see.
Right outside the M25 beltway on the A3, Wisley Gardens are the world-class research and showcase gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society. Plan a full day to explore their display gardens of every description, from magnificent herbaceous borders to trial fields of vegetables, water gardens and arboretum. Wisley is also home to a number of official national plant collections, including heather, gooseberries and crocuses.
Toward the south coast, Kent’s Sissinghurst Castle Garden is one of southern England’s most popular gardens. Writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson acquired Sissinghurst in ruins in the 1930s. Nicholson designed the gardens and Sackville-West planted them to profusion. I remember years ago Harold Nicholson describing their plan in Vita’s study in the brick tower of the ruined castle. The result is a series of stunning garden “rooms” enclosed by hedges and brick walls, each with its own color or motif.
Not far west of Salisbury, Wiltshire’s Stourhead Gardens are recognized as the epitome of 18th-century landscape gardens, often referred to as “the flagship of the National Trust.” High praise indeed. “Every prospect pleases” in a perambulation through the man-made “natural” landscape. Stourhead pleases at any time of the year, and I have loved it in every season.
On the cliffs overlooking Poole Harbour to the south, Compton Acres is one of the finest private gardens in the country, recognized among the best English ornamental gardens. It includes an Italian garden, heather, rock and water gardens, wooded valley and an exquisite Japanese garden.
In the north Cotswolds near Chipping Camden, Hidcote Manor Gardens is considered one of Britain’s very best. The Arts and Crafts garden was created by American horticulturalist Lawrence Johnston in 1905. Surrounding a 17th-century manor house, exotic hedged rooms showcase herbaceous borders, decorative shrubs, topiary and a variety of rare plantings.
Take a hike
Commuters, stalkers, ramblers, trekkers, hikers, wanderers and wayfarers: the British are walkers. Public trails and footpaths abound across the length and breadth of the island. Once again, at TICs everywhere, they will have maps showing local walking trails. At its simplest, take a footpath out of town and enjoy a stroll for a couple of hours in the countryside.
With a little more planning, spend a day or several on one of the 15 long-distance National Trails. Each of these features an awe-inspiring cross-section of Britain’s diverse scenic landscape and natural history.
Offa’s Dyke Path follows for 177 miles the earthwork dyke that Offa, King of Mercia, had constructed in the 8th century marking the border between England and Wales. This hike through the Marches stretches from Chepstow north to the Irish Sea at Prestatyn. Pick up a beautiful stretch of countryside anywhere along the way.
Follow a more rugged ancient border on the Hadrian’s Wall Path. The 84-mile coast-to-coast trail follows the Roman wall from Bowness-on-Solway in the Lake District across the Northumberland hills to Newcastle. To hike on an exquisite stretch for an hour or a day, head for the pretty market town of Haltwhistle where the 2nd-century fortification remains largely intact for miles.
Veteran distance hikers hold that the most beautiful coastline in Britain lies along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. The 186-mile trail wends its way up and down between the cliffs and the shoreline along the jagged length of the National Park. Pick up just a stretch of it at historic St. Davids or Fishguard.
The oldest National Trail remains the ultimate challenge. The Pennine Way begins near Chapel-en-le-Frith in the Derbyshire Peak District and leads north for 268 miles through the Yorkshire Dales and along the spine of the Pennines and the Cheviot Hills to end at the Scottish Border near Kelso. To trek the length is reckoned to take 19 days but pick a shorter hike anywhere along the way.
For a trail that is gentler and more accessible, take a walk on the Thames Path, which follows the river from central London west to its headwater in the Cotswolds near Cirencester. Skip the city and pick up the route in Windsor. Browse the trails and make your hiking plans at www.nationaltrail.co.uk.
Have a boat ride
Messing about in boats has always been a popular pastime in Britain. As an island nation laced with navigable rivers, that is not really surprising. Every kind of boat ride imaginable is available for a short ride or a day or three.
The River Thames makes a convenient start. From busy, but beautiful Windsor cruises along the Thames are available riverside in the shadow of Windsor Castle. Or hire a cruiser and spend several days plying the river and its locks for yourself.
In Oxford or Cambridge, a river ride can be as simple as renting a punt and having a go on the River Isis or Cam. Commercial river cruises, though, are a great way to see the university cities or to get a riverside view of York, Bath or Manchester. Among my own favorite river cruises is a several-hour narrated glide through the beautiful River Wye Valley of south Wales. You can catch the boat near Symonds Yat.
Looking for something more active? Take a narrowboat holiday of a few days or weeks on the vast network of navigable canals that stretches through hundreds of miles of countryside and townscape. In the South, the Kennett and Avon Canal is a popular route from Reading through Bath to Bristol. The Avon Ring through Shakespeare Country or along the spine of England’s industrial heritage on the Grand Union Canal are great choices as well. Along the same idea, I wrote on BHT (January/February 2020) of adventures cruising the Norfolk Broads – still an experience I highly recommend.
Coastal excursions, too, abound around the island. Catch the MS Oldenburg for a sailing from Ilfracombe or Bideford to the naturalist’s paradise of Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. It is an easier ferry ride from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, or from Liverpool’s ferry across the Mersey to the Wirral Peninsula.
Go to the beach
The English love the seaside and take every opportunity to head there. No, you probably will not swim in our cold Atlantic water or lie in the sun for the afternoon. But a walk on the beach and the bracing salt air are invigorating, and the seaside attractions, the pier, natural history and the people-watching are fun.
For generations, Londoners have flocked south to Brighton, an hour by train from Victoria Station, where all the seaside amenities abound – and more. Visit its famous alleys of antique dealers or the eccentric Royal Pavilion if the shingle beach gets too hard.
For East London’s Cockneys, the traditional seaside escape is Essex’s Southend-on-Sea, where the Thames meets the Channel. You can walk the 1.33 miles of the longest pleasure pier in the world – or take the train that runs its length.
In the north, Blackpool is most famous, with six miles of beautiful beachfront and all the kiss-me-quick kitsch imaginable. For generations, working-class families in the industrial north looked forward eagerly to their annual week’s holiday in Blackpool.
Perhaps my favorite seaside holiday town is Skegness just above the Wash on the Lincolnshire coast. The broad expansive beaches are pristine, streets and boardwalks are clean, civic gardens are lovely and there is a pride and tidiness to the town that is refreshing. Skegness has all the beachfront amenities: theater, arcades, pubs, restaurants and beach shops. Just south of town, visit the National Nature Reserve stretching along the shore to Gibraltar Point.
Anywhere in England or Wales, waves lapping on the shore are never far away. Eastbourne, Scarborough, Margate, Bournmouth, Llandudno and a host of beaches large and small from Weymouth along the south coast of Cornwall all make for delightful days.
Have a picnic
“A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou.” Wherever your wandering takes you, take a picnic along. Any supermarket, bakery or corner deli can proffer the traditional ingredients for a memorable al fresco dining experience – a proper English picnic. At its most classic, to that baguette and bottle of prosecco, add cheese and a punnet of strawberries. Cold chicken, Scotch eggs or a bit of ham might be nice. Whether your inclination runs to packaged sandwiches and crisps or something more elaborate, it is easy to carry lunch along in the great outdoors.