Ordnance Survey Explorer maps are a treasure trove for walkers, charting every inch of Britain's beautiful landscape. Here we reveal the top 10 countdown of the nation’s bestsellers and the incredible places they will take you…
10. OS Explorer OL30: Yorkshire Dales Northern & Central Areas
It takes just seconds with this map to see why people buy it – and walk it – in droves. Wide rivers of blue course across the paper, marking out the magnificent valleys of Swaledale, Wensleydale and Upper Wharfedale. Drystone walls lattice the lower slopes into fields, which are also dotted with the oblongs of stone barns, and as the contours stack high the green-sprig symbol of wild heath takes over. Best of all, large swathes are tinted yellow to indicate your right to roam free and the whole sheet is criss-crossed with the dashed green lines of footpaths.
Two of the nation’s favourite long-distance trails cross here – the Pennine Way and the Coast to Coast (which despite its popularity isn’t marked on the map). But a single walk at Semer Water showcases the beauty of this map's landscape. From the shore of Yorkshire’s largest natural lake, a place carved by glacier and coiled in myth, you’ll strike up onto Stake Pass and the high land that separates Wharfedale and Wensleydale, for glittering winter views across the hills and dales of Explorer OL30.
9. OS Explorer OL12: Brecon Beacons National Park West
Most walkers love hilly country, and you’ll find the maps in this list have a whole lot of contour lines, but few flaunt them in such bewitching shapes as OL12– shapes that are even more incredible in person and underfoot.
On the west side of the sheet, it’s the ruler-straight parallels of the Fan Hir ridge and the curving cliffs of the Black Mountain above Llyn y Fan Fawr and Fach that draw you in; on the east sheet it’s the skyline of Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big, scalloped by immense glacial cwms.
These glorious mountains deserve their place in the limelight, but they cover just a tiny fraction of this map’s 1,255 square kilometres. Look between the two superstar massifs and you’ll find the shy uplands of Fan Dringarth and Fan Llia, which barely see enough walkers to wear a path for a cartographer to map. Focus near the turn of the sheet, and you’ll also spot Fan Nedd and Fan Gyhirych, two high peaks untouched by rights of way but with open access to walkers, and laden with drama and panorama.
And you don’t have to climb high to relish this undulating world. Down by Pontneddfechan, the rivers Mellte, Hepste, Pyrddin and Nedd-Fechan tumble together, splashing the word waterfall across the map more than a dozen times – including Sgwd yr Eira, the Fall of Snow, where you can walk behind the roaring cascade. The Taff Trail has a gentler, watery theme too, charting a route through reservoir-flooded valleys below the beacons.
You’ll spy towns on the fringes of the map, including Brecon – but this is a fine thing. There’s a whole lot of exploring to do on OL12 and you’ll be needing a good place to stay…
8. OS Explorer OL6: The English Lakes South-western area
There’s one big reason why Explorer OL6 is one of Britain’s best-selling maps: Scafell Pike. England’s highest ground dominates the top half of the map’s North Sheet. Around it sit some of the most magnetic names in hillwalking: Great Gable, Crinkle Crags, the Langdale Pikes, Bow Fell, the Old Man of Coniston. They all line up in an immense jumble of black-brown ink which keenly delineates their sharp crags, precipitous ghylls and raw, volcanic rock.
But is that all there is on this map? High, steep, glory-hogging megapeaks? Not on your nelly. As you come south from the great blue sheen of Wast Water, you can see the contour lines and craggy inks soften. The hills get smaller and quieter as you pass through Eskdale and Dunnerdale, crossing less-trodden joys like Ulpha Fell, Birker Fell and Devoke Water. Andas you fold over to the South Sheet, the upland subsides entirely, giving way to the great orange swathe of the Duddon Sands. These are dotted with blue bird symbols, denoting dozens of nature reserves which feed the likes of knot, redshank, shelduck, oystercatcher and curlew.
There’s one last hurrah of big stuff – the coastal mountain of Black Combe – but then the terrain recedes to the sea in the west, and to the field-country of Ulverston and Barrow to the south. This area is dubbed by tourist signs as the ‘Lake District Peninsulas’. It’s a slightly fanciful billing, possibly, but it still makes for an intriguing landscape.
Yes, it’s the North Sheet you’ll buy OL6 for – but it’s the South Sheet that springs all the surprises.
7. OS Explorer OL15: Purbeck and South Dorset
The southern fringe of Explorer OL15 is flooded with sea-blue, but it’s where the aqua turns to white and gold that makes this map so popular, and Dorset’s fretworked shoreline of cove, cliff and beach.
The nigh-on perfect circle of Lulworth Cove, the rock arch of Durdle Door, the blowy cape of St Aldhelm’s Head are the star attractions – quite literally starred on the map – of the eastern side. Turn over and the fossil-pocked Jurassic Coast continues all the way west to Bridport, past the Isle of Purbeck hanging on by a thread, and the long diagonal slash of Chesil Beach, parted from the mainland by Fleet Lagoon.
This shingle bar may have inspired authors like Ian McEwan (and bookish types will enjoy Thomas Hardy country around Dorchester and Enid Blyton sights around Corfe Castle on this map too), but walking its 18 miles of shifting pebbles is a tiring affair. Instead head to the hills just inland at Abbotsbury, and climb the diminutive peak topped by the English Heritage symbol of St Catherine’s Chapel. Built in the 14th century, it looks across lush fields to the sea-rattled stones of Chesil, with fine views north to where the rolling contourslift up to the Dorset Downs.
6. OS Explorer OL2: Yorkshire Dales Southern & Western Areas
The Country Walking copy of this map is in a sorry state – papier-machéd into a lump after an unexpectedly soggy day on the Yorkshire Three Peaks. That reveals three things: the Three Peaks of Whernside, Pen y Ghent and Ingleborough are all on this map; it sometimes rains in Yorkshire; and this is a place so good you’d walk it in a cloudburst.
In fact, some of the map’s highlights, like the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail, are improved by a river-filling downpour.And while many relish the classic challenge of packing all Three Peaks into one 12-hour walk, the climb to Ingleborough alone makes a grand outing for a frosty day. Your route starts with a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway, snaking across the map and through Ribblesdale to the valley-spanning arches of the Ribblehead Viaduct. Then you climb up quiet, often indistinct, paths to the 360-degree viewpoint marked at the summit – you know the panoramas will be exceptional if they’re noted on the map – before descending east to Horton.
The grey sketchingsof limestone pavements and dense contours of those Three Peaks may dominate the map’s western side, but persuade yourself to turn over and you’ll discover a host of scenic superstars on the south sheet too, notably the craggy amphitheatre of Malham Cove, the ravine of Gordale Scar, and the gleaming upland pool of Malham Tarn.
And there’s one more thing our pulped map can tell you: always carry a map case…
5. OS Explorer OL1: The Peak District Dark Peak Area
There are few hills in Britain where you’ll feel more profoundly grateful for a map than the three that skyline this sheet. The bleak, peat-corrugated summits of Kinder Scout, Bleaklow and Black Hill are infamously difficult to navigate, although it’s a deliciously wild adventure for those who do.
And when the gritstone beneath that peat cuts up to the surface, it’s spectacular – scattering the map with black boulder circles and the landscape with glittering dark outcrops. See fantastical windhewn blocks on the cusp of the Kinder massif or head to Stanage Edge, where the gritstone sketches a line along the horizon for miles. A walk along the top of the rock-block cliff and back along its foot lets you admire it from all angles, study the abandoned millstones carved from this edge 100 years ago, and look across the Dark Peak of OL1 to the Great Ridge.
This scarp forms the southern wall of Edale, twisting in a serpent of contour lines from Lose Hill in the east to Mam Tor in the west. The tor is also known as the Shivering Mountain because its shale and gritstone layers are prone to landslips. Look on an old map and you’ll see a road along its eastern flank – now crumbled and closed to cars, but still open to those on foot.
4. OS Explorer OL7: The English Lakes South Eastern Area
At first glance, this was a bit of a ‘huh?’ moment. What’s on OL7 that makes it such a big seller? It includes hardly any of the classic fells. Helvellyn and Fairfield are just off it; there are no famous ridges or tricky traverses.
But then we looked at the sheer amount of blue on the map, and what those blues were. Grasmere. Rydal Water. Elter Water. Loughrigg Tarn. To say nothing of the entire length of Windermere, the longest lake in England. These are some of the loveliest stretches of water in the nation, bordered by villages rich in poetic heritage. So that explains it: this is a map for romantics and dreamers; those who know the magic of walking beside water.
Another selling point is that it includes Ambleside, which for many is the first port of entry into the Lake District. So this map features many classic walks for Lakeland novices, including rugged little Helm Crag, enticingly wild Loughrigg and the sublime little stroll to High Sweden Bridge. Oh, and look carefully and you’ll see the tiny hump of Orrest Head, above Windermere village. This was where Alfred Wainwright first set eyes on the fells he would come to love. There’s no better introduction to Lakeland than that. And for those seeking higher, wilder days, the map includes the quietly magnificent Kentmere fells.
Finally, in the deep south, lies the enormous orange swathe of Morecambe Bay, with that footpath stretching out across the sands (the one that can only be crossed in the company of the Queen’s Guide to the Sands). So, far from being a ‘huh?’ moment, this map is, in fact, the stuff of legend.
3. OS Explorer OL24: The Peak District White Peak Area
The Peak District has a kind of Dorian Gray vibe. If the Dark Peak is the beastly painting in the attic, the White Peak is the twinkly, dashing and achingly beautiful hero who sent it off to live up there.
The White Peak is gorgeous; on OL24 it sings with deftly folding contours, sinewy limestone
dales and tumbling rivers. None of your dark-lined crags and featureless moors here. Look at the sweeping gorges of Dove Dale and Lathkill Dale, the sharply defined ridgeline of the Roaches and the little islands to the south-west, where the reefs of a prehistoric ocean now surface as stunning cones such as Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill (below). Less a map, more a smorgasbord.
It’s also fun to trace the progress of the district’s rivers through OL24. Look at the Dove and Manifold, which both rise on Axe Edge then tumble through the southern dales on parallel, but very different courses. Likewise the Wye and the Derwent, racing through the likes of Monsal Dale, Bakewell and Chatsworth, each route a great adventure in itself.
What’s even more remarkable is that even though the White Peak is almost entirely fringed by urban sprawl, none of it appears on the map. OL24 is devoted to the pleasure-seeker, and as such it gleefully denies the existence of Macclesfield, Sheffield and Chesterfield. The only built-up area is Buxton, sitting in the heart of the map, but excluded from the national park as if by a forcefield – and it’s an elegant town anyway.
But the abiding colour of OL24 is not blue or green or grey, it’s yellow. Masses of this map are Access Land: a passport to unfettered freedom for any walker witha thirst for adventure…
2. OS Explorer OL26: North York Moors Western Area
Betting sorts may be a mite surprised to see OL26 in the number two spot, for the North York Moors are often overshadowed by their northerly neighbours, the Lakes and the Dales.
Yet a look at OL26 soon reveals that the people who buy it are connoisseurs. The green diamonds of the Cleveland Way National Trail – one of the best and most varied long-distance paths in Britain – tread past Rievaulx Abbey, along Sutton Bank, through the heathered Cleveland Hills, across the view-laden northern scarp of the moor (here joining Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Path), up the striking lines of Roseberry Topping, and out to the coast at Saltburn-by-the-Sea.
At the centre of the map, across the turn of the sheet, the land climbs high and wild above Farndale, Rosedale, Danby Dale, Bransdale, Bilsdale and Westerdale. Strike south from Westerdale village and you’ll soon be roaming free on lonely moorland, admiring deep dale views. And don’t miss The Lion Inn, marked by a lonely blue tankard on Blakey Ridge. It’s an iconic walkers’ pub and a welcome sight on the Lyke Wake Walk, a challenge that sees people walk 40-miles across the moors in 24 hours in a bid to become a witch or a dirger. And for that, of course, you’ll be wanting one very good map.
1. OS Explorer 18: Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa
Explorer OL17has to be the surest investment in Britain: eight pounds will buy you hours of
happy planning at the kitchen table and weeks of gleeful walking in the mountains of Snowdonia.
This best-selling map charts some of the nation’s highest and gnarliest land, the contour lines packed so excitingly close across the Carneddau, Glyders, Tryfan and Snowdon that they shade the map dark orange. It’s the last and loftiest – the 1,085m Snowdon kingpin – that first brings folk here, but it’s the lake and crag, valley and cloud-tickling mountaintops seen from its summit that keeps them coming back.
There is something here for every walker, from the wide sands of Conwy to the tranquil farmland east of the national park, from little hills like Crimpiau to the airy challenge of the Nantlle Ridge. On a map that reflects a landscape so jam-packed with intricate detail, there is always more to discover – little-known peaks like Pen yr Helgi Du and Pen Llithrig y Wrach that offer proper mountain adventure to the few in the know.
And as exquisite as this sheet is (and it truly is a thing of beauty) it can never fully capture the splintered angles of the Castell y Gwynt, the deep green waters of Glaslyn beneath Snowdon, or the serrated summit crest of Tryfan. To see those, you’ll have to grab this map and walk it yourself...
Words: Jenny Walters
This article originally appeared in Country Walking Magazine