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We all know what a national park is. Although definitions vary, they are usually rural areas of natural (or naturalised) beauty designated as ‘special’ in some way by their national governments. Normally, the environment within a national park, including its flora and fauna, are protected and there are particular rules about what you can, and cannot, do in order to conserve the park for everyone and the future. Some national parks contain particular cultural heritage, which also needs to be protected. The first national park in the world was Yellowstone, in the USA, which was established in 1872. There are 113,000 national parks worldwide covering approximately 6% of Earth’s surface.
Britain has 15 national parks, 10 in England, 3 in Wales and 2 in Scotland. Appropriately described by National Parks UK as “Britain’s breathing spaces”, each one has its own managing authority and each one is special and deserves its own featured article. Meanwhile, here is a brief bit about each of Britain’s National Parks.
National Parks in England
This is a place to mess about in boats, spot wildlife and is only a couple of hours by train from London. It is low-lying – the highest point is Strumpshaw Hill in Norfolk at just 125 feet (38 metres). The ‘broads’ are lakes, formed from flooded medieval peat pits dating back to at least the 12th century. Now they provide a 125 mile network of navigable waterways and rivers with a back-drop of fens, woodland and picturesque villages.
The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads is an internationally important area of protected wetland and contains more than 25% of Britain’s rarest wildlife. Birds, like bitterns, grebes, marsh harriers, teals, wigeons and warblers can be spotted. Clearly, there are plenty of fish and, if you’re lucky, you might see an otter too. The Broads is also home to hundreds of invertebrates and is the only place where Britain’s largest butterfly, the swallowtail, can be found.
The Broads was established as a national park by Act of Parliament in 1988.
Principal settlements in the Broads include: Stalham, Wroxham, Brundall, Acle, Loddon, Beccles and Oulton Broad.
Dartmoor National Park in Devon was established in 1951 and covers an area of 368 square miles (953 sq kilometres). It is an upland area of granite heather-covered moorland, completely land-locked, famous for its tors – classic examples of exposed intrusive vulcanicity.
There is an air of mystery about Dartmoor; it can be a strange, lonely, place. As well as being good walking and wild camping country, Dartmoor has an enormous number of archaeological remains, including the deserted medieval village on Hound Tor, the Iron Age settlement at Grimspound and the world’s longest stone row. It is also famous for its clapper bridges, ponies and its prison. Oh – and the Hound of the Baskervilles. The highest point is High Willhays at 2,037 feet (621 metres).
Principal settlements in Dartmoor National Park include: Ashburton, Bovey Tracey, Buckfastleigh, Chagford and Moretonhampstead.
Exmoor National Park is in the north of Somerset and Devon and covers an area of 268 square miles (694 sq kilometres). The Park was established in 1954 and the highest point is Dunkery Beacon at 1702 feet (519 metres). It is a varied area of moorland, farmland, deep valleys, ancient woodland and high sea cliffs, tumbling into the Bristol Channel. Kites and kestrels wheel overhead, otters can be found in the gushing streams and red deer roam wild. Man has left traces from prehistoric times and in the middle ages it was a royal hunting forest. Today, picturesque villages nestle comfortably in its folds.
It is also famous for the fictional Lorna Doone and the Beast of Exmoor – an elusive creature which, if it exists, may be some form of large wild cat, like a cougar, released or escaped from captivity.
Principal settlements in Exmoor include Lynton and Lynmouth, Dunster, Porlock and Dulverton.
The Lake District
The English Lake District, English Lakes, or sometimes simply ‘the Lakes’ are in Cumbria in North-West England. It is an ancient mountain area, eroded by glaciation which left behind the lakes when the ice retreated. The Lake District National Park includes all of the land in England higher than 3000 feet (910 metres). The highest point is Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England at 3208 feet (978 metres).
The National Park was established in 1951 and covers an area of 885 square miles (2292 sq kilometres). It is the largest and most visited national park in England and the second largest in Britain, after the Cairngorms. It also contains the deepest and longest bodies of water in England, Wastwater (258 feet or 79 metres deep) and Windermere (11 miles/18 kilometres long).
The Lake District can be beautiful, even pretty, but also bleak. This is serious walking and climbing country and real care has to be taken in places. The popular walks can be quite busy during the peak tourist season but, despite that and having some relatively large towns, you can easily find solitude up on the high fells. The Lake District is also renowned for being the wettest part of England – but, then, if it were not, it would be called something else, wouldn’t it?
Principal settlements in the Lake District are Ambleside, Bowness, Coniston, Grasmere and Keswick. The town of Kendal provides a good base just outside the national park area. The National Park Authority has its offices there – unsurprisingly, because prices within the Park boundaries can be horrendous.
The New Forest
This was William the Conqueror’s Nova Foresta, a royal hunting forest created by clearing a score of existing settlements – and to hell with the peasants. Open heathland sits alongside gentle wooded areas where ponies, cattle and pigs roam freely due to ancient common grazing rights. There is nothing harsh about the New Forest; it is, simply, lovely. Attractive towns, chocolate-box villages and a maritime heritage add to the mix. The National Motor Museum is at Beaulieu and there’s a particularly lovely garden at Exbury.
The New Forest is adjacent to some of the most populous parts of the south coast of England, such as Southampton and Bournmouth. Principal settlements within the New Forest are Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst.
Less than an hour from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland National Park was established in 1956 and covers an area of over 400 square miles. Hadrian’s Wall runs through the southern part of the park. Further north is Kielder Forest, reputedly the largest man-made forest in England, and Kielder Water, Europe’s largest artificial lake. Straddling the border between England and Scotland are the Cheviots, a range of hills that rise to 2674 feet (815 metres) at the Cheviot, the highest hill, and parts of which are bleak and remote.
Northumberland National Park is famous for its lack of light pollution – it contains the largest area of protected night sky in Europe.
Principal settlements in Northumberland National Park are Hexham, Haltwhistle, Bellingham, Rothbury and Wooler.
The North York Moors
The North Yorkshire Moors’ website says, “Moor. Coast. Forest. Dale” – which pretty much sums it up. North Yorkshire Moors National Park was established in 1952 and covers an area of 554 square miles (1434 square kilometres). It is said to be England’s largest expanse of heather moorland, but it also offers ancient woodlands, a dramatic 26-mile coastline, Iron Age and medieval remains and old, stone-built, hamlets. Wildlife includes roe deer, badgers and owls whilst, offshore, seals, dolphins and whales can be spotted. The highest point is Urra Moor at 1489 feet (454 metres).
The North York Moors railway, a heritage line, runs 18 miles (29 km) between Pickering and Whitby, taking in Goathland, setting of the fictional village of Aidensfield in the Heartbeat television series.
Principal settlements within the Park include Helmsley and Thornton-le-Dale.
The Peak District National Park was Britain’s first, in 1951. It sits surrounded by major conurbations, broadly between Manchester and Sheffield, mainly in Derbyshire, but also partly in Staffordshire, Cheshire and South and West Yorkshire. The Park covers an area of 555 square miles (1437 square kilometres) and the highest point is Kinder Scout in the north of the region at 2087 feet (636 metres).
The development of national parks has often seen conflict between landowners and the public. Kinder was the scene of a mass trespass undertaken by ramblers in 1932, to raise awareness of the fact that the public was denied access to open country. Some believe this act of civil disobedience, which amazingly resulted in some arrests, was instrumental in producing national parks legislation in 1949.
The Peak District is a park of two halves. In the north, the ‘Dark Peak’ is characterised by millstone grit pokes through areas of moorland, whereas the central and southern areas, known as ‘White Peak’ are largely limestone country. Neolithic man was here and the Romans used to export lead mined from the limestone areas, and admire the unique semi-precious Blue John stone found near Castleton.
Like most of Britain’s national parks, the Peak district is favoured by walkers, climbers, campers, cyclists – and so on. Beneath the ground, cavers enjoy exploring the natural caverns and old mine workings.
Villages in the Peak District are renowned for the tradition of well dressing in spring and summer.
The principal settlements within the National Park are Bakewell and Tideswell, though Buxton, just outside the park authority, is an important town, famed for its spring water since Roman times.
The South Downs National Park was designated as recently as 2010 and covers an area of 627 square miles (1624 square kilometres) parallel with the busy South Coast of England, from St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester in Hampshire in the west to Beachy Head, near Eastbourne in East Sussex. Just outside the Park boundaries are the bustling towns and cities of Winchester, Portsmouth, Bognor Regis, Eastbourne and Brighton. London is about an hour to the north.
It is mainly an area of rolling chalk downland, which includes the white cliffs of Sussex (not to be confused with the ones at Dover) and woodland areas. This is no wild, remote, national park. It is mainly farmland and includes country estates, gardens, vineyards, pleasant middle-England market towns and pretty villages. That doesn’t mean there isn’t good walking to be done though.
The highest point is Blackdown, where the poet Tennyson once had a home, close to the border with Surrey, at 918 feet (280 metres).
Principal settlements in the Park include Arundel, Steyning, Lewes, Midhurst and Petersfield.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park was established in 1954. Say ‘The Dales’ and people think of waterfalls, caves, textbook limestone features, drystone walls, Wensleydale cheese and the three peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent. The highest peak is Whernside at 2415 feet (736 metres). All of these peaks can be tackled by anyone who is reasonably fit, but they are serious walks and should not be approached casually, or in bad weather. The limestone rock that predominates also makes the Dales a haven for cavers.
The Dales is a place of big skies and few trees. From August 2016, it will cover 841 square miles (2,179 square kilometres) from parts of Cumbria (nudging the Lake District) and Lancashire in the west, through North Yorkshire to close to Richmond in the east. This is close to Herriot country.
The principal settlements are Grassington, Settle, Hawes and Sedbergh.
National Parks in Wales
The Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales was established in 1957. It is a mountainous area covering 519 square miles (1344 square kilometres). In fact, the Brecon Beacons includes four distinct mountain ranges, the Black Mountain range in the west, the Brecon Beacons themselves, often referred to as the Central Beacons, where the highest mountain, Pen-y-Fan, is located (2907 feet/886 metres), the Fforest Fawr upland area and, just to confuse everyone, the Black Mountains in the east – which include a peak called Black Mountain.
Brecon Beacons National Park is famed for its waterfalls (like Henrhyd Waterfall and Ystradfellte), caves and forests; you can lose yourself in its wilder parts. It is proud to be an International Dark Sky Reserve and, like many of Britain’s National Parks, the Brecon Beacons are used for military training, including by elite special forces. The area is also packed with ancient sites, castles and industrial heritage. There is even a narrow-gauge heritage railway, the Brecon Mountain Railway, which runs about 5 miles between Pant and Torpantau.
Principal settlements in the Brecon Beacons National Park are Brecon, Crickhowell, Gilwern and Hay-on-Wye – famous for its bookshops and literary festival.
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park covers an area of 240 square miles (621 kilometres) along a 260 mile (418 kilometres) coastline in South-West Wales. It was established in 1952 and the highest point is Foel Cwmcerwyn at 1758 feet (536 metres).
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is unique in that it is predominantly, but not exclusively, coastal. But, in addition to high rugged cliffs and broad, sandy, beaches, it does include woodland and inland hills. Along the 186 mile (299 kilometres) long Pembrokeshire Coast Path you will spot seals, dolphins and basking sharks, as well as seabirds. There are prehistoric tombs, Iron Age hill forts, numerous castles and Britain’s smallest city, St Davids. The park includes a marine nature reserve, 6 national nature reserves and 75 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
Principal settlements include St Davids and Tenby.
Snowdonia is known as Eryri in Welsh, a name that can be translated as “the place of the eagles”. There are actually nine mountain ranges, caves, lakes, rivers and forests. Like other National Parks in Britain, this is serious walking and climbing country and needs to be treated with respect.
The area is stacked with historic sites as well as world-famous places like the gardens at Bodnant and Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ fantasy village, Portmeirion. Snowdonia National Park also boasts no fewer than seven narrow-gauge railways: the Ffestiniog, Welsh Highland, Llyn Padarn, Talyllyn, Bala Lake, Fairbourne and, finally, the Snowdon Mountain Railway which will take you almost to the summit of Britain’s second highest mountain, Snowdon, at 3560 feet (1085 metres).
The principal settlements in Snowdonia National Park are Aberdyfi, Dolgellau, Trawsfynydd and Beddgelert.
National Parks in Scotland
The Cairngorm National Park in North East Scotland was established in 2003 and is Britain’s largest. Twice as big as the Lake District, it covers a diverse area of 1748 square miles (4,528 sq kilometres), which includes spectacular landscapes, wild mountains, moorland, forests, rivers and farmland. There are 43 mountains over 3000 feet (914 metres); the highest point is Ben Macdui at 4294 feet (1309 metres). So, this is challenging walking and climbing territory – and remote. The forests are part of the ancient Caledonian Forest that covered much of northern Scotland thousands of years ago. The Park is also home to some of Britain’s rarest animals, including the golden eagle, red squirrel and Scottish wildcat.
All of Scotland’s traditional wild creatures can be seen at the amazing Highland Wildlife Park and there’s a herd of reindeer that can be visited on the slopes of Cairngorm. The Cairngorm National Park experiences some of Britain’s coldest weather. It is one of the few places in Britain where people can ski on real snow – Aviemore being a favourite destination for this. You can also bungee-jump and play golf (but not at the same time).
There are castles and country estates, like Blair Castle and Balmoral, one of the Royal Family’s favourite homes (parts of the Balmoral Estate are open to the public at specified times, but not during the summer). The National Park has at least 6 whisky distilleries within its boundaries – and while you’re about it, why not attend one of the several Highland Games held at places like Braemar or Tomintoul.
Principal settlements in the Cairngorm National Park include: Aviemore, Ballater, Braemar, Grantown-on-Spey, Kingussie, Newtonmore, and Tomintoul.
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is in mid-West Scotland, a little to the north of Glasgow and within very easy reach of it. It was established in 2002 and covers an area of 720 square miles (1865 square kilometres) which includes 22 large lochs, 40 mountains over 2500 feet (762 metres) high – 21 are in excess of 3000 feet (914 metres) – 2 forest parks and its highest point is Ben More at 3851 feet (1174 metres).
The Park is divided into four, distinct, areas: Loch Lomond, with all its romance, is the largest expanse of fresh water in Great Britain; the Argyll Forest, an area of peaks, glens, rivers, coast and lochs; the Trossachs, often referred to as ‘the Highlands in miniature’, just a short step from Scotland’s populous central belt; and Breadalbane, an area of the southern/central Highlands. So, again, this is an area for walkers and climbers. Or wildlife lovers wanting to spot osprey, red squirrels, deer or otters. Or for sailing and canoeing.
Visit the romantic ruins of Inchmahome Priory, which gave refuge to the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, hunt out Rob Roy’s cave (there are two of them), check out the Faerie Hollow or lose yourself in a botanic garden. And, yes, there are castles and country estates…
Principal settlements in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park are Balloch, Callander and Tarbet.
The locations of Britain’s National Parks are shown below