Walking in the UK

Photo: Deer in Windsor Great Park.

Intended for visitors to the United Kingdom, this post was originally written in 2012 as a Traveller Article for Tripadvisor.com.  Whilst the posting is still available there, Tripadvisor has evolved away from providing that service and it’d be a real challenge to find it now. I’ve republished the piece here with new illustrations.
Read the original Tripadavisor posting.

 

With nearly 200,000km of well-maintained footpaths, one of the best ways to see the UK is on foot. Here are a few tips to help you plan walks on your visit to the UK, collected into the following sections:

  • Access – what are your legal rights
  • Local paths for short walks
  • Long-distance paths
  • Coastal paths
  • Canal  walks
  • Hills and mountains
  • National Parks
  • Weather and hazards
  • Maps

Access – what are your legal rights
Access rights to private land have evolved over many centuries and are now highly-codified.  The legal system in England & Wales differs from Scotland, and the access rules are significantly different.

In England & Wales, there is no universal “right to roam”. Walkers should generally follow “rights of way”, which are clearly marked on the ground and on maps.

There are six levels of right of way:

  • Open access – designated areas of open moorland and common land where freedom to roam does exist
  • Footpath – open to walkers only
  • Bridleway – which also allow horses and bicycles
  • Restricted byway – open to all unmotorised vehicles
  • Byways – open to all vehicles
  • The public highway

“Permissive” paths and bridleways are open at the generosity of the landowner, but are not “rights” and can be withdrawn.

In Scotland, everyone has the right of access unless specifically excluded.  Exclusions concern private gardens, crops, school playing fields, industrial or military areas or paid-for visitor attractions.

Local paths for short walks

The UK has been densely populated for centuries by people who, until recently, generally walked everywhere.  The pathways through woodlands and across fields speak of generations of people going about their daily lives – walking to work, to trade, to worship, to drink.  The uplands of northern England have a particularly dense network of pathways, stemming from the pre-industrial spinning of wool in cottages dotted across the hillsides.

The British defend their ancient rights energetically, and it is a brave landowner that tries to deviate or close a path. Every local authority in England & Wales maintains a “Definitive Map”, which records the routes in detail.  See Maps section.  It is these paths which are now such an asset to the walker.

Every area has its locally-produced guidebooks with recommended walking routes.  Many routes are designed to include a public house for lunch, and may use local buses and trains to eliminate the car altogether.

Long-distance paths

Long-distance paths have come relatively-recently to UK and have often been assembled by joining many local paths together. The Pennine Way was the first, finally completed in 1965, and is 268 miles/431km.  It walks the backbone of hills in northern England. The longest and probably the toughest is the South-West Coastal Path; it continues to lengthen, and is now over 1000km long.

A map is available at this site:-  Long-distance footpaths map There are other paths in existence not shown.

Photo: Canal towpath changing sides over an early iron bridge.

Canal walks

The early-19th Century canals provide an alternative, unofficial long-distance network for walkers, using the towpaths originally intended for the horses hauling the barges.  It is possible to walk between all the major English cities this way.  Canal map NB: the map includes navigable rivers that do not always have towpaths.

Hills and mountains

The uplands of UK are not high by global standards but offer plenty of challenges for the walker and climber.  Generally, a mountain is 3,000 feet (914m) or more high.  Scotland has most (283), and they are commonly known as “Munros”.  It is a growing obsession amongst walkers to “bag” all the Munros, but a few of the tops are only accessible to the rock climber.  Wales has 15, England four and Northern Ireland none. Relaxing the arbitrary 914m limit brings many hundreds more hills into consideration that are of great merit to the walker.

Hills and mountains that are easily accessible can be busy. But complete solitude is possible in some of the more out-of-the-way tops in Scotland.

Photo: Mount Snowdon (1,085m), Wales,  at dawn.

map and database of UK hills and mountains is available.

 

National Parks

The UK has 15 National Parks.  Unlike the U.S. parks that inspired them, they have a  human population and are not wildernesses. Walkers have the same rights in the parks as elsewhere, and there are no entrance fees to pay.  But the parks do attract the crowds and the paths can get eroded.  National Parks information

Weather and hazards

Lowland walks have few hazards but walkers should prepare for wet weather.  Farm dogs, cattle and horses may all be encountered, but they are usually familiar enough with strangers not to be spooked.

Upland walking needs much more care. Wet and cold weather can be dangerous, and it is vital to walk prepared. Snow can be encountered any time November-May, and walkers should have ice-axes and crampons.  High winds and very poor visibility can turn an “easy” walk into one that is quite severe. Do not assume there will be any mobile phone signal in the remoter areas if you get into difficulty.  On the plus side, the UK has probably the best mountain and coastal rescue service in the world, unifying the military and local expert volunteers.  The service exists because the hazards are real.

Learn more about Mountain Rescue and to donate.

Map of rights-of-way (green) in hill country at Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Series

Maps

The most suitable scale for walking is probably 1:25000.  It shows public rights of way in detail (in England & Wales), field boundaries etc. The Ordnance Survey covers the whole of Great Britain (i.e. not Northern Ireland) with 403 sheets, but also provides the less-detailed 1:50000 series in 203 sheets.  Maps are widely available in shops but, with each sheet costing £8-9, can be expensive for a longer walk.  You can save 30% by buying the maps online, though not from the OS itself.

Maps for GPS devices are extremely expensive.  Complete coverage at 1:50000 scale costs around £150, which compares favourably with the paper maps.  But complete coverage at 1:25000 is still not available, and the small areas that are available cost several times the paper equivalent.

2017 update: OS maps are now available online, delivered through bing. Buy a paper map and you can also download the info to a personal device as well. Thanks to competition from the voluntary work of the open-source mapping community the OS is now playing nice. I still buy OS maps for use in the field so the new business model stacks up just fine.


Comment: This piece should have been an important article for Tripadvisor at the time. Online articles tend to be stream-of-consciousness but this was my attempt to inject some quality analysis from a native of the country. I think it reads well and is quick to convey lots of facts. In pursuit of monetising the site, it’s a disappointment that Tripadvisor de-prioritised Traveller Articles. I personally lost interest in contributing all sorts of reviews and Tripadvisor lost credibility with its audience as a source of trustworthy first-hand opinions.