So Easter weekend was a frozen wash-out: good. That means we're owed a good 'un in May. Now's the time to start planning to escape the crowds and holiday hype with the help of our insider’s guide to eight of the UK’s top hidden gems.
In brief: A hybrid of the Lakes and Dales, with huge whaleback hills and plenty of steep ascent, plus ridge opportunities and great valley views.
Maps: OS Explorer OL19
Someone at the Ordnance Survey wants to keep the Howgills for themselves. Why else would they put them at the corner of three different Landranger maps (98, 97 and 91). Luckily you can simply pick up a copy of Explorer OL19 which dedicates an entire 1:25,000 scale map to this area of whalebacked hills…
Most of us who race along the M6 are more used to swinging west towards Kendal or Penrith. Maybe it’s the fact that road signs to Sedbergh don’t mean that much to walkers? Either way, the motorway draws a dividing line between the Lakes and Howgills. One of them is home to England’s highest peaks… the other gets overlooked. And that’s a real shame.
Strolling up to Cautley Spout in the late afternoon sun, we couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this craggy section of the Howgills and the Lakes. Cautley Spout is a beautiful waterfall that crashes into Cautley Home Beck. Behind it is the impressive ridge and the rocky arc of Cautley Crags, leading the eye up to Great Dummacks. At 663m high, this looks for all the world like a potted Coniston Old Man. But look down to your left and you’re suddenly transported to the Dales, with its deep-cut, rounded valleys and rivers snaking away into the distance in a tangle of silvery thread.
Start the day in Sedbergh and climb up from Lockbank Farm – steep and unrelenting, but with enough of a view to warrant stopping every 15 minutes. Your main objective is the top of The Calf: at 676m, this just nudges ahead of the competition to take the highest point on the fells. It’s a slow and people-free roller coaster over broad, massive mounds. As you reach Arrant Haw you can see the Lake District hazing off into the distance.
In brief: Rocky, solitary and ready to be discovered, the Cambrian Mountains are a potted Snowdonia.
Maps: OS Landranger 135 or Explorers 213 & 214
Great mountain areas need to offer a challenge – a clarion call to tempt trail walkers to climb its peaks. But there’s a noticeable absence of challenges in the Cambrian Mountains. You can devote a number of weeks to the Cambrian Way, but there are no great tick lists, no 24-hour yomps… not even a novelty three-legged hike for charity. But help is at hand. We’ve devised a challenge to inspire the country… and you can squeeze it into an afternoon if you’re feeling chipper.
This range of mountains is sandwiched in between the glitz of the Brecon Beacons and the celebrity sheen of Snowdonia. It came close to A-list status itself when the Cambrian Mountains National Park was proposed back in 1972… but self-interested parties managed to put a stop to that (very thoughtful of them) leaving this wild, deserted plateau pretty much up for grabs.
One of the most interesting areas has to be Plynlimon/Pumlumon, which practically leaps off the map and offers its own self-contained tick list. Plynlimon actually means ‘five summits’ and is also the birthplace of three great rivers: the Wye, the Severn and the lesser-known Rheidol. Here you get reservoirs and mountain tarns, long treks in and rocky scrambles… Or tackle it slightly differently, wild camping by Llyn Llygad Rheidol reservoir. The walk-in that evening was sunny, solitary and lazy, and the scramble out onto the tops showed us a wild expanse of land all the way up to Snowdonia, just waiting to be explored.
In brief: Hugely diverse area where you can walk chunks of the Southern Upland Way.
Maps: OS Landrangers 67, 70, 74, 77, 78, 79, 82
For most people the Southern Uplands represent nothing more than the greenery either side of the M74 as you hack your way towards Skye or Fort William. And because of that the vast tract of hills between the Scottish border and Glen Coe has some of the most overlooked walking in the country. But if you live anywhere south of the border, this has to be worth investigating. It’s closer, it’s relatively people-free and it’s got a simplistic beauty that sets it apart from other areas of the UK.
It’s a Munro-free zone, so if you’re only interested in numbers, then you’re going to miss out on some of the classic walking available here – the Galloway Hills, Merrick, the Kells Range, the Solway Hills and the Pentland Ridge. It is an area of extreme diversity and stunning beauty. If you’re after a challenge, then why not try Scotland’s longest walk, the 212 mile Southern Upland Way, from Cockburnspath to Portpatrick, which takes you right through this region? Check out www.southernuplandway.com for details of this and day walks in the area.
In brief: One of the best-known long distance paths in the UK which, apart from Cross Fell, is a very quiet path with some real highlights dotted in among the moorland.
Maps: OS Explorer (1:25,000) OL19 & OL31; Landranger (1:50,000) 91 & 86
OK… we’re not suggesting that you haven’t heard of the Pennine Way. We’re just saying that these days no one seems to walk it. It was the first and most famous of the long distance paths but its many miles of bleak moorland haven’t made it the most popular. In fact Wainwright himself publicly badmouthed the Pennine Way – he was never that keen on it after got trapped waist-deep in a bog on Black Hill and had to be rescued by a passing park warden. Cross Fell is still a popular destination but the rest of the path doesn’t get as many walkers as more popular routes like the Coast-to-Coast. But if you want a really exciting weekend out why not spend a couple of days in the company of England’s highest waterfall at Cauldron Snout and the potted-Grand Canyon feel of High Cup Nick.
In brief: Great walking but no huge peaks
Maps: OS Landranger 145
Back in the sixth century, St Brynach slept out on top of Carn Ingli (pictured) in the Preselis and dreamt of angels. In fact Carn Ingli translates as ‘Mountain of Angels’ and over the 1,500 years, it’s not just St Brynach who’s had a mystical experience on this hill. There are a whole bunch of beardy weirdos, soap dodgers and hippies who’ve experienced trippy dreams and other-worldly communing.
Carn Ingli is an old volcano that overlooks the Nevern River, which might have been the route used to float Stonehenge’s blue stones from where they were quarried in this part of Wales. The craggy outcrop of the summit is home to an Iron Age hill-fort where there are rumours of an archaeological discovery of hemp seeds Which might explain Brynach’s angels, man…
In brief: Great wilderness feel – especially for the south of England, with opportunities for scrambling, clambering and bouldering. Every tor has its own character
Maps: OS Explorer OL28
Dartmoor is horrifically overlooked. You’ll go a long way before finding more than a handful of people who confess to sharing an enthusiasm for the great blob of land that dominates the middle of Devon, but we’re happy to endorse this specific brand of wildneress. It may lack absolute altitude, be acquaint yourself with the craggy granite outcrops that litter the moor and then tell us it lacks rugged outdoor atmosphere. Now admittedly, there are no great summits to climb... but try this for an super southerly expedition: start at Two Bridges (SX607751), headed north and then loop round to find a great wild camp spot on the top of Laughter Tor (SX653758). There’s no need to suffer too much, so in the morning bag a quintessentially English breakfast in the Two Bridges Hotel (this is a great place to stay if you want to swap a night under the stars for some top notch luxury – tel. (01822) 890581). After that, head to the eerie Swelltor Quarries (SX560733) and on to Leather Tor (SX563700) which has a great ridge scramble.
In brief: Perfect target for a day’s escape from London
Maps: OS Explorer 181
Okay so it’s not exactly virgin territory, but compared to the thronging city from which it is easily accessibly, the Ridgeway might as well be on Mars. Princes Risborough nestles almost furtively in a fold in, the popular long-distance path, which runs up from the North Wessex Downs to the Chilterns. Hop off the train from Marylebone and you find yourself in an amphitheatre of inviting hillsides, none more so than Whiteleaf Hill, emblazoned with its distinctive chalk cross. Climb out of the town, past the cross, and within half-an-hour you might as well be a thousand miles from the nearest overcrowded coffee house or bustling burger bar.
You’re on the fattest edge of a magnificent horseshoe which now opens up in front of you, running north to Pulpit Hill and Beacon Hill through the irresistibly-named Happy Valley, and north-east past Chequers (the Prime Minister’s country seat) to Coombe Hill. Here, a first-rate view opens out over Aylesbury Vale.
The whole horseshoe can be completed as a circuit, stopping off at The Russell, a fabulous pub standing between the two prongs of the U-shape, in the hamlet of Butlers Cross.
Finally, drop off the Ridgeway and head back to the station, head buzzing with green hills, political intrigue and fine summer ale.
In brief: The closest England comes to having a Bermuda Triangle…
Maps: Explorer OL41
Clitheroe is the gateway to the Forest of Bowland, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which often gets overlooked. Why is it overlooked? Simple: it’s stuck in a hinterland between the Yorkshire Dales and, further north, the Lakes. It literally gets passed by as people flock to the more famous venues.
But that’s good news. It means this wild, expansive landscape is a well-kept secret, offering under-used trails which take you into the heart of some great moorland scenery.
A short bus ride from Clitheroe – itself a fine and pretty basecamp – will get you to West Bradford and the slopes of Waddington Fell, gateway to the hills dividing the Ribble and Hodder Valleys.
As you rise from pastures to felltop, delightful heather moorland takes over. There are outstanding views of Pendle Hill and, when you reach the top, a sweeping prospect into the heart of the Bowland Fells.
It’s one of those days where you’ll exchange with anyone you meet that knowing smirk that says, “ah, so you know about this place too.