Whisper it quietly but we might have been sold a pup. Britain’s national parks are a key part of the nation’s fabric. However, not everything is as it appears. There was an advert in the 1990s which spawned the catchphrase, “does exactly what it says on the tin.” And on that basis our national parks don’t quite measure up.
There is an internationally recognised standard drawn up by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) for what constitutes a national park:
- They’re typically owned and managed by governments;
- Don’t typically include substantial permanent communities;
- Don’t involve significant human land use.
Britain’s parks, however, include large towns, substantial land use with much of it privately owned. Wikipedia defines the British version of a national park as, “relatively undeveloped, scenic, and attracts tourists.” It sounds a little lame in comparison.
But when you’re out having a ball on the top of a peak, taking a clifftop walk with the sun on your back, or tracking the course of a slow moving stream, it’s probably not going to be troubling you too much.
The fact is the UK has some superb national parks with a huge diversity of landscape, flora and fauna. And they’re all free gratis for you to explore.
There are 15 national parks, although technically The Broads in East Anglia only holds “equivalent status”. The other eight in England are The Peak District, Lake District, Dartmoor, North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Exmoor, Northumberland, The New Forest and the South Downs.
Wales has three – Snowdonia, the Pembrokeshire Coast and the Brecon Beacons. In Scotland there are Cairngorms and finally Loch Lomond and The Trossachs.
We all know the awful problem of overcrowding post Covid lockdown. With an estimated 110 million visits a made year it’s probably not a surprise. However, don’t let that put you off. The good news is that as we’re all allowed to travel abroad again the scenes from 2020 and 2021 are unlikely to be repeated.
And the reality is Britain’s national parks cover a huge area, 6,281 sq miles in total. In Wales 20% of the country is classed as national park. It’s all there just waiting for you to go and explore.
The parks offer a fabulous range of options and landscapes. Just take the oldest national park, the Peak District, with its gorges, ridges, craggy rocks, moorland and the heath that inspired Charlotte Bronte. Bliss in sunshine and a brooding bleak beauty in the grey days.
To the north west, England’s biggest park, the Lake District, is one of the most beautiful places in Britain. Long before the idea of national parks existed Wordsworth described it as a “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.”
Since his day it’s got busier for sure but with the largest lake and highest peak in England plus a myriad of other magnificent and inspiring sights, you’re spoilt for choice.
On the subject of choice the readers of Which? were recently polled on their favourite UK park. The winner was Northumberland. Surprising as it’s also the least visited of all of the fab 15. There again, that’s part of its appeal. The poll rated the parks on different criteria including scenery; how well the walks were maintained; facilities; and nearby accommodation.
It was the only one in England to rate 5 stars for peace and quiet. You know where to head to now if silence is your thing. The only other UK park to get full marks was the Cairngorms.
The 15 sites offer up an incredibly diverse range of landscape and experience. The Broads is the smallest national park and arguably its most distinctive. It is Britain’s largest wetland and features hundreds of miles of waterways, fens and marshes, rich in biodiversity and wildlife.
Originally considered a natural phenomenon, research showed they were actually the result of ancient peat diggings which were abandoned and then flooded with water.
The naturalist Ted Ellis, described The Broads as a “breathing space for the cure of souls.” Unfortunately the park ranked last overall in the Which? survey. It scored badly for traffic jams and car parking. And more than any other park the scenery splits opinion. Plenty of people see it very differently to Ellis. Some survey respondents labelled it ‘flat, muddy and boring.” We all have different tastes.
Britain’s newest park is the South Downs which only came into effect in 2010. The park contains 600 scheduled monuments, more than 5,000 listed buildings, a couple of battlefields and 165 areas of conservation. It was the only park to register just one of out five stars in any category. But to be fair that was for wildlife and it’s not the reason to head off to the Downs.
If wildlife is what you’re after you could try Pembrokeshire Coast. The park includes Skomer Island, one of the best wildlife destinations Britain has to offer. If you’re lucky enough to get there you’ll be able to feast your eyes on Puffins, Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons and Guillemots. Or in the water you’ll find seals and dolphins.
It’s just a 15 minute boat ride from the mainland and tickets can now be booked online. There’s a daily cap of 250 visitors. But if you’re not lucky enough to make it out there, you can still walk the park’s 186 miles of coastal paths or visit its 58 beaches.
The UK’s parks definitely deliver on diversity. At the top of the country, you have the Cairngorms. Wild, remote and home to five of the six highest peaks, where snow is visible even in the summertime. At the bottom end of the country, there’s the New Forest. Only about an eighth of its size but one of the most visited of all the parks.
William the Conqueror claimed it as a royal hunting ground and renamed it Nova Foresta. He never quite made it to the Cairngorms. His one and only visit to Scotland ended at Abernethy a little to the south. If he were making the journey between the two parks today he’d no doubt be thrilled to know that there are campsites available in both. And in fact at each of the other 13 parks in the UK.
It might be too late for William but you should put the parks on your ‘definitely to do’ list.
Arthur Penlington is the former Senior Editor of the BBC TV News Channel. He spent 18 years with the corporation. He covered three wars from the frontlines and stories from five continents.
He’s passionate about travel and the outdoors. After moving to Australia he sold his house and travelled the world for almost eight years. He’s written a top 3 travel humour book – Around The World In Wonder Socks – based on a year backpacking the world with no plan. Destinations were decided by the toss of a coin.
He’s camped in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa and spent time with a former headhunter tribe, deep in the Borneo Jungle.