You won’t find a national park in the world quite like those in Britain. Yes, like others, they were designed to protect the natural environment yet, in Britain, not only are its 15 National Parks a mix of diverse and ancient landscapes, they have housed communities with rich cultural roots for thousands of years, which have left a unique and indelible mark on each parks’ character, telling stories of the people that have lived here for centuries.
Every spring, for two weeks over Easter, these parks are celebrated with an unmissable range of events, from seaside safaris, forest walks and treasure trails during Discover National Parks Fortnight. The added attraction? All are within an hour or two of major gateways. Here are just a few you will want to make friends with.
1. The film star - Peak District
UK’s first-ever national park, the Peak District – which lies less than an hour from the cities of Manchester and Leeds – oozes star quality. It easily nails the dramatic landscapes element of a National Park, thanks to its impressive limestone dales and vivid heather-clad moorland hills. Yet those grand landscapes are matched by even grander stately homes, magnificent estates to explore where you can’t help but channel your inner Mr Darcy or Elizabeth Bennett.
At the heart of each impressive estate is a family that has lived there for generations, as well as the people who have worked the surrounding land, complete with a myriad of tales. And, with many of the Peak District’s estates, you’re actually walking on to a film set. Take Chatsworth, arguably one of the most stunning stately homes in the country, which starred as Pemberley in Pride & Prejudice. Lyme Hall appeared in the film too, while Haddon Hall was the background setting to Jane Eyre, Elizabeth and Moll Flanders and North Lees Hall appeared in Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice and The Other Boleyn Girl.
2. The adventure playground - Lake District
The Lake District’s 16 deep glacial lakes, majestic mountains and a landscape that’s inspired generations of romantic poets is a treasure to explore – and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot. Pull on your comfiest shoes and embark on one of its 260 walks or boost your major bragging rights by hiking up Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. Go with a guided walk leader, who’ll ensure you get to see those incredible vistas and show you secret beauty spots that are hard to find.
Hire a mountain bike and tackle the daring Whinlatter Forest or Grizedale Forest routes or take a gentler approach on a road bike and journey along pretty country lanes with lake views wherever you turn. Leave the shoreline behind and head out onto the lakes themselves; sailing, windsurfing, kayaking or on board one of the vintage steamers. In fact, you can do everything on one trip, thanks to the high concentration of bus services that will take you across the national park. All of this is just two hours from Manchester.
3. The sporting legend - South Downs
Cricket fans, this is the park for you. The South Downs National Park – the border of which is only 90 minutes from London – is home to one of the world’s oldest cricket grounds and there’s nowhere better to pay homage to your favourite sport. Head to the cute village of Hambledon, that sits within the National Park, and its cricket club, which was founded more than 250 years ago and was responsible for developing the laws of modern-day cricket. Beyond this cricket legend you’ll discover just why the South Downs was designated a National Park in 2011; sensational views of chalk cliff coastline (don’t miss the wonderfully photogenic Seven Sisters white cliffs), walks alongside deep river valleys and ancient woodlands to explore. Stop to snap envy-inducing photos as you hike, cycle or horse ride along its 160km South Downs Way national trail, which crosses the length of the park.
4. The stargazer’s dream - Northumberland
A short 45-minute journey from the buzzing city of Newcastle are more than 400 square miles of wild landscapes and wide dark skies – welcome to Northumberland, the least populated of England’s National Parks. It’s so tranquil that, on a clear night, the naked eye can see millions of stars, the Milky Way and even the Andromeda Galaxy; the National Park falls within the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, the largest area of protected night sky in Europe. Look out for the swirls of colour from the Northern Lights or spectacular meteor showers. The dark skies are just part of the park’s wild beauty; the people who live here will tell you it has the cleanest rivers and the cleanest air, plus it’s home to jaw-droppingly beautiful waterfalls, two national walking trails and the Roman marvel that is Hadrian’s Wall UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The English National Park Experience Collection
Varied, unique and totally authentic, the English National Park Experience Collection offers more than 30 bookable experiences across nine parks. Ranging from foraging and wine tasting to kayaking and photography, get inspired by things to do and discover how to make the most of your visit to the country's beautiful National Parks.
5. The wildlife king - Cairngorms
Come meet the locals of Cairngorms National Park…and by locals we mean the extraordinary rare and endangered wildlife that call this park home. The largest of Britain’s National Parks – its border is just 90 minutes from Edinburgh – the Cairngorms is home to high plateaux with the rarest habitats and is the most southerly site in Europe for snow buntings. In fact, one in four of the UK’s endangered species have their home in this park, such as the golden eagle. Keep your own eagle eyes open for deer, red squirrels and pine martens; head out on a ranger-guided tour for some of the best wildlife experiences or meet the Scottish wildcat and capercaillies at the Highland Safari Park near Aviemore. Come Christmas time, you may even spot a reindeer or two.
6. The explorer’s haven - Brecon Beacons
Did you know that within 90 minutes of the bustling capital of Wales, Cardiff, is a treasure trove of caves, gorges and waterfalls, hilltops, cliffs and broad valleys, as well as farmed landscapes, lakes and rivers, all ready to explore in the Brecon Beacons National Park. It’s also an International Dark Sky Reserve and is home to a Global Geopark – the park’s unique geology means natural challenges, such as old quarries, sheltered crags and rocky ridges, are perfect for climbers and abseilers to tackle. They also act as perfect launch sites for hang gliding and paragliding for that must-see bird’s eye view of the gorgeous landscapes beneath. Don’t have a head for heights? Venture underground instead to discover the magnificent cave systems that lie beneath the park.