THE GREAT WALKS OF BRITAIN
Welcome to Waypoint 51 – an honest and practical guide to Britain’s best long-distance trails
TWENTY TOP TIPS FOR WALKING IN BRITAIN
Planning a walking holiday in Britain? Looking to tackle one of the UK’s National Trails or other great walks?
Here are 20 top tips for walking in Britain – collected during our two decades of writing guide books to the country’s best long-distance paths.
No matter what the weatherman says, make sure you have a rain-jacket – and preferably waterproof trousers too. There’s a reason Britain is so lush and green – because it rains an awful lot – and most of this island’s long-distance trails can be found in the lusher and greener parts of it, such as Wales, or the North.
A long-distance trail is not the place to test your kit out. To find out whether that waterproof jacket really is waterproof, or you grandad’s old World War II compass really does still work.
So make sure you know what you’re going to bring, that you are happy that it works, and that you know how to use it too. Because there’s nothing worse than buying a tent, for example, then spending hours failing to erect it on the trail because you never practised it at home. Or finding that the manufacturers forgot to include the tent pegs.
If there’s one item of equipment (or, rather, two items), that you need to know you can rely on, then it’s your boots. Because nothing causes more wailing and gnashing of teeth on a trail than blisters. So make sure your boots are comfortable, durable and waterproof before you start your adventure, and make sure you have thoroughly broken them in too.
Finally, once you’ve bought and tested everything, put it all in your rucksack to a) make sure it all fits, and b) that you’re comfortable carrying everything. And don’t just march up and down the living-room – hike with it outside for an hour or two (and preferably all day) to make sure you are capable of carrying it on the trail.
And while we’re on the subject of packing…
This is probably the oldest and most repeated piece of advice. Why? Because a) it’s the one that most trekkers, even the most experienced, have failed to follow at one time or another; and b) because it’s true.
We have written a guide on what to pack for the trail on this website, to help you decide what piece of equipment is essential – and what isn’t.
But if you simply can’t do without a hair-dryer or fondu set, then do at least contemplate employing the services of a baggage transfer company. These companies – and most long-distance trails can boast of at least one of them – offer a sort of taxi service for your luggage, conveying your baggage to your destination at the end of each day.
The service is not usually cheap, but it could make the difference between a successful trek and one that ends prematurely in tears, recriminations and a lifetime of knee complaints.
The prevailing weather in Britain tends to come from the west. So if you want the wind to help you along the trail, rather than having to fight it every step of the way, start at the western end of the trail and finish at the eastern end. You’ll be glad you did.
You can cook your own food, sleep in a tent and take only public transport – and yet still the daily budget, somehow, will be above £20. And if you want to actually enjoy yourself along the way, ie by visiting the occasional pub or indulging in the odd cream tea here and there, then expect that to rise to around £30. Throw in the occasional night in a B&B, a restaurant meal or two and a visit to a local attraction and suddenly the budget is beyond £50 per day. Running repairs to you equipment, souvenirs or baggage transfer companies will push it higher still.
All of which means, if you’re on a two-week walk (on the Coast to Coast, for example), means you’ll be spending £700-plus – and possibly around £1000.
For an example of how much it might all cost, check out our Budgeting for the trail page, where you can see how much we spend on the average trail, using the same figures that we use to compile our tax return each year. Separately, we have also written a post looking at which trails are the best for those on a budget.
You probably already know that the earlier you buy your train ticket, the cheaper it will be. But did you also know you could save money by ‘splitting your ticket? Because of Britain’s complex rail system, it can often be cheaper to buy two separate tickets that cover your whole journey rather than pay just one single fare. For example, if you’re travelling from A to C, rather than just buying a single ticket for the journey it might be cheaper to buy two separate tickets, one from A to B, which is one of the stops en route, and then from B to C. Note that paying two separate fares in this way doesn’t make any difference to the actual journey. Just because you have two tickets for the journey doesn’t mean you have to change trains. But the savings can be large. The rail companies say that there are plans afoot to alter the price structure of rail fares to ensure that there is no financial advantage to fare splitting – but at the moment, it’s still worthwhile investigating the possibility.
For further information the website www.moneysavingexpert.com has a good article on fare splitting, and there are websites that help you find the cheapest price for your journey – sites such as www.mytrainpal.com and www.traintickets.com. Note that none of these are ideal – the sites don’t always find the best fare, or are slow, or charge commission – but they will at least point you in the right direction to help you split the fare yourself.
When I sit at home and think back to a hike that I’ve completed, it’s seldom the actual path that springs to mind first.
Mention the Hadrian’s Wall Path to me, for example – a walk that I have completed several times while researching for various editions of the guide – and my initial memories are of:
- The several evenings I’ve spent at the Kings Arms in Bowness-on-Solway, where so many walkers meet – both those at the start of the walk, and those at the finish – to swap stories, gather information or celebrate their achievement.
- Watching England lose to Croatia in the World Cup of 2018 at the Twice Brewed pub in the hamlet of Once Brewed.
- Sitting by the old Roman temple at Brocolitia, sipping coffee from a mobile coffee bar stationed at the nearby car park.
- That little piece of glass in the museum at Vindolanda Fort upon which a gladiatorial contest has been delicately painted upon it by some talented artist around 1600-1800 years ago.
- A red squirrel hopping along the Roman Wall at Birdoswald.
- Spending twenty minutes looking for a Roman inscription on a chunk of Hadrian’s Wall at Hare Hill – an inscription that I found and described for the first two editions of the book, but have failed to find since, even though I’ve taken careful notes of where it can be found.
- Trudging along the marshes surrounding Boustead Hill the hammering rain, my research notes torn and unreadable, my entire being saturated, wondering why I’m still doing this job after 25 years.
- Being chased by a cow on the way to Halton Chesters Roman Fort. You never forget these encounters.
Now it may just be me and my gluttonous tendencies, but it’s noticeable that so few of these memories are about the actual path itself. And those memories of the walking that I have mentioned above tend to be negative.
So you could conclude from the above that I love everything about a long-distance walk – except the actual walking.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. But it is true that the trail is really just the string that binds these memories together. The trail is what enables me to have these experiences and create these memories – even if the path itself is not always that memorable.
Which brings me to the main thrust of this argument: because if you don’t stop at the pubs, the cafes, the museums and local shops along the way, you’re missing out. Stop at places along the way and you’ probably meet more of your fellow trekkers. You get to meet more locals, too, taste local specialities cooked by local chefs, see local sights and attractions, and learn a lot more about the places you visit.
Which is, after all, perhaps the main reason for doing any long-distance hike.
Most people will already have a good idea of which trail they want to take, but for those who don’t, take your time in selecting the right one for you.
We think there’s an ideal trail for almost everyone – but by the same token, while we think that almost any walk is better than no walk at all, we also think that some trails are less suitable for certain people than others.
On this website we go into some detail on each trail, and also have a whole section where we compare the trails and look to see what each has to offer, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, many people will decide which trail to tackle based on how much of a challenge they want. Which leads us nicely onto the next point…
In other words, a 100-mile trek is not necessarily easier than a 200-mile one. The amount of uphills and downhills you encounter, the quality and frequency of the signage along the way, the number of other trekkers on the trail, the number of places where you can buy food, or shelter from the rain, how well the trail is served by public transport etc etc – all of these variables help to determine just how tricky a trail is.
We’ve written a whole post on which British long-distance trail is the most difficult, and which is the easiest – it’s as good a place as any to start.
As tempting as it may be, we strongly recommend that you do try to complete all of any trail. We do recognise that most trails have at least one stretch that is rather less enticing than the rest of the path and the desire to skip the rest in order to hurry to the ‘instagram-able best’ can be quite overwhelming.
But tackling just the so-called highlights does mean you’re missing out on a lot of beautiful walking.
Looking again at the Hadrian’s Wall Path, you may want to tackle just the central section, which is certainly the most photogenic and historically interesting, and contains the most complete sections of the Wall too. But to overlook the bits of trail that bookend this central part is to miss out on an absorbing amble through the very heart of Newcastle and, at the other end of the trail, the historic city of Carlisle and the tranquil, atmospheric birder’s paradise at Bowness-on-Solway.
More than that, you’re also missing the context of this central section. The Roman Wall ran from one side of the country to the other, and by only doing the central section, you fail to appreciate just what an extraordinary feat of engineering it must have been, and just what a wide range of terrains it had to travel through on its journey across the country.
So just as you wouldn’t want to see just the smile of Mona Lisa without the face that surrounds it, or watch only Season 4 of Game of Thrones, so we advise you that, if at all possible, it’s best to try to complete the entirety of any long-distance trail – and not just the best bits.
On a related matter, we really do find it more satisfying to complete any long-distance trail in one go rather than attempt the walk over a series of day or weekend trips.
I know that many walkers will agree with me when I say that you actually become quite a different person when you’re walking a long-distance footpath. It’s as if there are two of you: the day-to-day you, with all the stresses and routines of life at home. And the you that tackles a long-distance footpath. In my case, I think the latter is a much nicer person – less stressed, more open and interested in the big wide world, and happier too. The metamorphosis happens over the first few days on the trail as you settle into life on the path, with its different rhythms and routines.
But if you tackle the walk over a series of weekends instead, you don’t give yourself time to settle into the new life, or give yourself time to change. To tackle the walk in one go feels more of an adventure, an expedition, an odyssey even, if you tackle it without a break. And the longer that walk, the more of an adventure it becomes.
I realise that all sounds rather pretentious, which is something I generally try to avoid. But it’s only because I am sure that I am right, and I am equally sure that there are those who, having tried both methods, will agree with me, that I feel assured enough to write it now.
And in particular, you need a Trailblazer guide.
When it comes to walking the best British trails, you need proper guide book. One that guides you along the walk – rather than one that simply reproduces sections of an OS map and lets you get on with it.
You also want a guide that can tell you what you can see on the way, rather than just hope you stumble upon things by chance.
You also want your guide to tell you about the public transport that’s available; where to eat and sleep; what wildlife you may see on the way; the history of the area you walk through; and maybe even suggest a few itineraries based on your relative fitness and speed.
There is only one guide book series I know that encompasses all of the above.
And of course I’m biased as I write for Trailblazer and have done for more than a quarter of a century. But don’t take my word for it. Just check out the reviews of the various Trailblazer guides on Amazon.
If you’ve never done a long-distance trail before, the temptation is to set an itinerary that, when put to the test on the trail, turns out to be beyond your capabilities.
For example, you may calculate that, because most people walk at around 3mph, and because you normally work an 8-hour day, so you can probably cover 24 miles per day. By these calculations, there’s no reason by you can’t complete the entire Dales Way over the course of a long weekend!
But you need to bear in mind that you will probably be carrying your own luggage, and walking on terrain that is far more challenging than your local high street. You also won’t be walking constantly for eight hours, but will be stopping a lot (in the Trailblazer guides we say that you have to add on around 30% to our estimated walking times to account for breaks, sightseeing etc).
In fact, if your on your first long-distance walk then even 50% of the above estimate – ie 12 miles – maybe ambitious. So when planning your first hike, don’t be overly ambitious; depending on your fitness levels, 8-12 miles is probably OK for the first few days at least. Then, if you wish, you can gradually increase the mile count per day as you become more used to walking day after day.
Because it does get easier. During my time researching and writing about the Coast to Coast path, I know of several people who gave up after the first couple of days.
Now I can’t deny those first three-four days, as you make your way from west to east through the Lake District, is hard; the gradients are steep and signposts are few.
But once you get through that section, the whole trail becomes much easier. Proper Coast to Coast signposts appear as you’re no longer in the Lake District National Park where they’re pretty much forbidden), and the trail becomes slightly flatter too – though still with enough climbs to make it a challenging and exciting trail.
More importantly – and this applies to any and all trails, and not just the Coast to Coast – as you progress along the trail you soon become fitter, and it’s amazing how quickly one adjusts to life on the trail. You start to recognise and appreciate the pleasant momentum that builds up to a walking holiday, and allow yourself to be guided by the gentle day-to-day rhythm of a long hike.
I always think of those aches and pains of the first couple of days as nothing more than your body complaining as it sheds the old, everyday you, in favour of a more adventurous, fitter, relaxed, and happier you, as I talked about above. And while it’s not a painless process, it is definitely worth it.
So don’t give up, no matter how unpleasant you find the first few days. Because before you know it, the aches and pains you felt on the first day or two will seem like very distant memories – and you’ll be revelling in the challenges that await you instead.
After all these years of doing this job I still feel a bit of a twerp trudging along a busy beach in summer dressed in my trekking gear, with my backpack swinging behind me, while all about are the horizontal bodies of sunbathers in nothing but swimming costumes.
So if you can get time off from your day job in May, June, July or September, you’ll find the best of both worlds – hopefully sunny weather combined with fewer people.
For a more detailed discussion on this matter, visit our page on the best time to hike in Britain.
Over the last two decades I’ve lost count of the number of people who, unprovoked, are rather critical of their fellow hikers. It’s as if they have perfected the art of perambulation – and everyone else must therefore be doing it wrong.
These hikers tend to fall into two camps: Those who a) make fun of people who are going much slower than they are, completing only 8 miles per day while they cover 20; or conversely, b) those who are tackling only 8 miles per day, and mock those who cover 20 miles per day because, so they say, these athletes aren’t giving themselves enough time to truly appreciate the trail and all it has to offer.
The speed that one walks is only one of the areas in which people like to have a go. I have regularly receive brickbats from my fellow hikers because I like collecting the completion certificates and badges every time I finish a trail (even if I’ve done that trail several times before and write the book about it) or because I spend far too much time in cafes rather than actually on the footpath.
(I also get mocked because I look a bit of an idiot on the trail, with my backpack on my back, camera strapped to the front of me, less-than-flattering zip-off trousers and a T-shirt that does nothing to conceal my middle-aged paunch. Though to be fair, I probably deserve everything I get in this instance.)
Suffice to say, there is no right or way way to tackle a trail, and if you want to cover 20-30 miles per day because you main motivation is to challenge yourself physically and push your body to its very limits, well, your walking holiday is no less valid than your average ambler who pauses to sniff every flower and savour every view.
The trails are long enough to accommodate both viewpoints, and every sort of trekker, so rather than ridicule each other’s approaches, let’s maybe celebrate the similarities, and the fact that we’ve all chosen to tackle one of Britain’s lovely long-distance paths – and that, surely, is what matters.
Imagine yourself walking across mile after mile of soft, flat sand, kicking off your flip-flops to feel the inviting, sun-kissed sand gently kissing your toes?
Well, walking around Britain’s coastline isn’t like that.
Instead, it’s some of the hardest hiking to be had on this island, a never-ending stretch of steeply undulating clif-tops with angry livestock on one side and a sheer drop down to crashing waves on the other. There’s seldom any shelter from the elements, and few escapes if you decide to pack it all in.
And on those rare moments when you actually do get to walk on a beach, well, have you ever tried walking on soft sand with a heavy backpack on?
Walking around Britain’s coast, whether on the South-West Coast Path, Pembrokeshire Coast Path, the Cleveland Way or elsewhere, is often wonderful, with thrills galore and scenery to make the heart sing. It’s why Wales established a walking path around its entire coastline, and why England is aiming to follow suit.
Just don’t expect any walking around our shoreline to be easy – because it isn’t.
18) If you’re planning a walking holiday in Britain with someone else, try to make sure they walk at roughly the same pace as you…
…or else find someone who is extremely patient. Being either much faster or much more ponderous than your walking chum is no fun for either party and can quickly lead to a breakdown in your relationship that you previously thought was as secure and steadfast as the path itself. Best to find someone as speedy or slow as yourself and avoid any unnecessary pressure on your friendship.
As tiresome as it is to have to remove your boots and socks to treat any developing blisters, and put them back on when you’ve finished, that temporary inconvenience is a lot less bothersome than the pain of a fully formed blister. Don’t let it get to that stage, or you may have to abandon your walk altogether.
A cooked breakfast is one of the joys of walking in the UK. All that grease and fat sizzling on the plate is such a treat first thing in the morning. But after a few days you may start to feel a little bored and, possibly, a little ill too. So maybe warn the B&B in advance that you will want something lighter, such as a continental breakfast, or ask if it’s possible that they make you a packed lunch instead.
You could even tell them that you won’t be requiring a breakfast at all, and if the B&B owner is a good person they should offer you a discount of about a fiver off the full room rate.
Your arteries will thank you.
Britain’s favourite long-distance walks – and what we really think of them…
“All the guides from this stable
are first class”
Trailblazer Guides are produced by people who know exactly what information is needed – not just to get from A to B but to be entertaining as well as informative.
‘Trailblazer really have got it right with their route maps. They rival Wainwright’s mapping for accuracy and detail and if anything are actually easier on the eye to read.’
“Trailblazer has a strong reputation for the idiosyncratic but very useful maps that illustrate these handy guides, which are small and light enough to slip into a backpack or coat pocket.”
“Packed with information and excellent hand-drawn maps,
these are essential companions.”