Guide To The National Trails Of England And Wales - Outdoors Magic

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Guide To The National Trails Of England And Wales

Exploring one of these fully marked National Trails makes for a great long-distance hiking challenge or just a great day out. Here’s our essential guide

Often described as the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the UK’s enviable path network, our National Trails offer some of the best walking in Britain. Each individual route is unique and spectacular, passing through a series of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes in England and Wales. If you’re keen on going walking north of the border, then check out Scotland’s Great Trails, which includes paths such as the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way, the Southern Upland Way and the Speyside Way.

Varying in length and difficulty, there is a National Trail to suit everyone.

The most dedicated walkers set out to hike a complete trail in one go, carrying all their kit as part of a multi-day backpacking adventure. Others do the same but use a porter service to ferry their kit from place to place, staying at campsites, B&Bs or other accommodation. And many people tackle individual sections of a trail over the course of a single day or weekend, gradually completing the walk stage by stage over a few weeks, months or even years. Some masochists even fastpack or run the National Trails, covering impressive distances in a matter of hours. One thing is for sure though – whichever National Trail you decide to take on, and however you choose to do it, it will be an unforgettable experience.

Pennine Way

Distance: 268 miles
Days: c. 16 days

The venerable Pennine Way is a high-level route that snakes its way up the spine of England over the course of 268 miles, beginning at Edale in the Peak District and finishing at Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. En route, it passes through a rugged landscape of upland moors and peaks, including parts of the Dark Peak, the Yorkshire Dales, the North Pennines and the Cheviot Hills. In general, it takes the average walker about 16 days to complete the entire route.

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Perhaps the most famous long-distance walk in Britain, it was the first to be officially designated a National Trail, way back in 1965. As such, it’s often regarded as the granddaddy of them all. That doesn’t mean it should be underestimated, however. The Pennine Way is a tough walk that makes its way across some demanding terrain, including the summit of Cross Fell. At 893m (2,930ft) this is the highest point on the entire route. It is frequently shrouded in dense hill fog and battered by fierce winds, including the shrieking ‘helm wind’ – a strong north-easterly that is notorious for being the only named wind in Britain.

Don’t let that put you off though. The Pennine Way is a truly spectacular walk that has been described as something that every walker should attempt at least once in their lifetime. Indeed, its charms have proved so alluring to some that they have walked it numerous times, in all seasons.

“The Pennine Way is my favourite National Trail. I was born just six miles off the route, and it was born seven years after me, so we were bound to become acquainted. I walked the route three times in order to create and update my Pennine Way guidebook. I love how it consistently heads for the heights and open moorlands wherever possible. I’ve experienced the route on lovely summer days, as well as on dreary rainy days, and when the bogs have been frozen solid in harsh winters. I like the variety of upland scenery, the contrast with the verdant dales, the welcoming little towns and villages, and its history and heritage.” Paddy Dillon, outdoor writer and photographer (

Cleveland Way

Distance: 110 miles
Days: c. 9 days

The 110-mile Cleveland Way takes in a broad swathe of North Yorkshire, forming a rough horseshoe between the market town of Helmsley and the former fishing village of Filey, now a popular seaside spot. Much of the route skirts the North York Moors National Park, while a long stretch also follows the North Sea coast. As such, walkers on the trail experience an alternating of dramatic clifftops and miles of open heather moorland. It offers plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife en route, along with panoramic views, historic castles, prehistoric sites and hidden smugglers’ haunts.

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With good connections to other long-distance paths, including the Yorkshire Wolds Way, and even a link trail that enables the Cleveland Way to be completed as a circular route, it is a trail that is often combined with others. Even tackling the Cleveland Way on its own is a real challenge, however, as the North York Moors can be a wild and lonely place. Similarly, the high cliffs of the North Sea coast are often exposed to gales and lashing rain. This makes the Cleveland Way a good proving ground for any aspiring long-distance walker.

South West Coast Path

Distance: 630 miles
Days: c. 8 weeks

Following the jagged coastline of South West England from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset via Land’s End in Cornwall, the South West Coast Path is a long-distance walk of epic proportions. At 630 miles in total, it is the longest of the National Trails. Such serious mileage as well as the fascinating wealth of heritage, wildlife, geology and scenery along the way means that there is an awful lot to take in. As such, it’s a popular trail to walk in stretches, and can be easily split into manageable sections.

The route passes through a series of stunning landscapes including National Nature Reserves and Heritage Coasts, as well as five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, two World Heritage Sites, a UNESCO designated Biosphere reserve, a Geopark and a National Park. It also visits a host of charming coastal towns and villages. Don’t get the idea that it’s all paddles in the surf and ice creams on the beach though – walking the South West Coast Path is a serious undertaking, with plenty of up and down. In fact, those who complete the entire route will have climbed over 115,000 feet. That’s nearly four times the height of Mount Everest.

“A strip of wilderness, with ordinary life over to one side, and that endless horizon to the sea over to the other side. It’s like a world of its own”. Raynor Winn, author of The Salt Path.

Pembrokeshire Coast Path

Distance: 186 miles
Days: c. 14 days

Famous for its sweeping beaches and windswept cliffs, as well as meandering estuaries and sheltered coves, the Pembrokeshire Coast boasts some of the UK’s most spectacular and unspoilt coastline. It is the nation’s only truly coastal national park, and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is the perfect way to explore all that this beautiful region has to offer. Stretching for 186 breath-taking miles, it reveals stunning landscapes but also involves plenty of ascent and descent. As such, the coast path represents a serious challenge for long-distance walkers. However, it is more commonly walked in shorter sections, with various manageable stretches linking a series of welcoming fishing ports and coastal villages. That approach gives visitors the opportunity to return to this charming corner of southwest Wales time and time again – undoubtedly a good thing, for Pembrokeshire has a certain magical allure that bewitches many lovers of the outdoors.

“I walked the entire Wales Coast Path a few years ago and, as I had expected, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path was a real highlight of it. I love the nature of the path itself, often narrow singletrack, bobbing up and down from clifftops to coves. Then of course, there are the beaches it encounters and the sheer variety of them, ranging from tucked away places like Cwm yr Egylwys and Caerfai to the sweeping expanses of Poppit Sands and Newgale. Oh and the pubs… so many good pubs.” Will Renwick, editor of Outdoors Magic.

Hadrian’s Wall Path

Distance: 84 miles
Days: c. 6 days

Roughly tracing the course of one of Britain’s most famous ancient monuments, the Hadrian’s Wall Path is an undulating 84-mile coast-to-coast walk across northern England. Usually tackled from east to west, it takes walkers from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria. The most spectacular section of the route follows the Whin Sill, a rocky escarpment that is one of the most dramatic natural features of the North Pennines and Northumberland.

Hadrian’s Wall itself was a defensive fortification built by the Romans from AD 122 to AD 128 to mark the northern border of their empire. Though not all the wall still stands today, many sections remain intact, incorporating various forts and milecastles. The best-preserved example is at Housesteads, now owned by the National Trust. The fort acts as a stark reminder of the power and might of the Roman Empire. For any walker with an interest in archaeology or the history of the British Isles, the Hadrian’s Wall Path is the ideal way to quite literally tread in the footsteps of our forebears.

“I was asked to write a Hadrian’s Wall Path walking guide for Cicerone back in 1990, a dozen years before the National Trail was inaugurated. The magic of plotting a virgin route, tracing the frontier’s enigmatic archaeological remains from coast to coast was so special. That thrill has never left me.” Mark Richards, author of Walking Hadrian’s Wall Path (

Offa’s Dyke Path

Distance: 177 miles
Days: c. 13 days

Offa was an eighth-century King of Mercia, a powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom that encompassed a great chunk of central England. His famous dyke was purportedly constructed to delineate the western border of his kingdom, though recent archaeological evidence has shown that initial work might have started centuries earlier than Offa’s reign. Regardless, this great earthwork is popularly known as Offa’s Dyke, and has given its name to the 177-mile long-distance National Trail that snakes from Sebury, near Chepstow on the Severn Estuary, to Prestatyn in north Wales.

The route itself follows what is left of Offa’s Dyke for more than 60 miles of its course, and elsewhere roughly tracks the modern border between England and Wales. It takes about 13 days to walk the entire trail. The path heads along the east side of the Wye Valley and skirts the edge of the Brecon Beacons. It then takes in the Shropshire Hills as well as the Vale of Llangollen and the Clwydian Range. As such, it crosses both scenic lowland and dramatic hill country, offering rich and varied walking through landscapes steeped in history.

“The Offa’s Dyke Path is a great trek. In fact, it’s so great, I’ve walked it twice and would walk it again! I think it’s the variety of landscapes that I like most about it; you’ve got the picturesque Wye Valley, wild Black Mountains and Clwydian Hills and then the rolling green hills of Mid Wales in-between. I guess it’s quite nice to be able to say you’ve walked the length of Wales as well.” Will Renwick, editor of Outdoors Magic.

Glyndŵr’s Way

Distance: 135 miles
Days: c. 10 days

This meandering route through a broad swathe of mid-Wales celebrates the life and legacy of Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales. In the early fifteenth century he led a bloody and determined campaign against Henry IV to wrest control of Wales from the English. Fittingly, the trail explores Welsh culture and history as well as some of its finest landscapes, passing through open moors, upland heath, rolling farmland, ancient oak woodland and numerous historic towns and villages.

With a total length of 135 miles, most thru-hikers complete it in 9 or 10 days. Like many other National Trails, it can also be easily tackled in sections walked over a weekend or so. Part of the route crosses remote and challenging terrain, including some boggy high country. It’s also one of the less well-known National Trails, so tackling Glyndŵr’s Way is a good option for independent and experienced walkers in search of something a bit different and who are keen to venture into more isolated areas.

Yorkshire Wolds Way

Distance: 79 miles
Days: c. 5 days

Usually walked from south to north, the Yorkshire Wolds Way is a 79-mile journey from the Humber estuary to the North Sea coast. Along the way, it passes through the classic chalk downland landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds, with its characteristic broad, grassy ridges and dry valleys. The shortest of the National Trails, reasonably fit walkers can easily complete the route in five days or so. You can certainly pack a lot into that time though, as the trail explores pockets of woodland, rising escarpments and lush pastures, interspersed with quaint Yorkshire villages and vibrant market towns – ideal places to stop for a pint or two of local beer. Perhaps the quietest of all the national trails, the Wolds Way is ideal for walkers looking to get away from it all and enjoy a broad swathe of the Yorkshire countryside in peace and tranquillity.

“The route offers a feeling of escapism that is hard to beat, travelling through the rolling chalk hills of the Wolds, where you see more wildlife than people. You’ll pass through deserted medieval villages, vibrant market towns, alongside bubbling streams and through forests alive with birdsong. It’s a walk that will clear your head and restore your vitality.” @adventureabbie5, filmmaker and adventurer (

Pennine Bridleway

Distance: 205 miles
Days: c. 18 days

Shorter in length than the Pennine Way, the Pennine Bridleway was launched in stages, beginning in 2002, to create a long-distance route primarily for horse riders and mountain bikers. However, it is also open to walkers, giving hikers the chance to explore 205 miles of ancient packhorse routes, drovers’ roads and newly created bridleways from Middleton Top in Derbyshire to The Street in Cumbria. It also incorporates two loops, the Mary Towneley Loop and the Settle Loop. Along the way it takes in many picturesque landscapes, while generally following a lower-level route compared to the Pennine Way, preferring valleys, hillsides and moorland to the higher tops. This makes it a good option for walkers who might struggle with more arduous sustained climbs and descents. It’s also one to add to the list for completists aiming to walk all the National Trails of England and Wales.

Peddar’s Way and Norfolk Coast Path

Distance: 93 miles
Days: c. 7 days

Offering an intriguing mix of open countryside and coastal walking, this 93-mile National Trail joins the ancient Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path, though the walk is regarded as a single entity. The first section broadly follows an old Roman road over heathland and fields as it arrows straight towards the coast at Holme-next-the-Sea. Here walkers pick up the coast path and head east, over low cliffs, sand dunes, saltmarsh and mud flats.

“The Norfolk Coast Path is a wonderful walk, but don’t expect it to be easy just because it’s along the coast! Though there aren’t lots of hills, hiking along the soft sandy beaches is pretty tough with a heavy pack. For nature lovers, the trail is a birdwatcher’s paradise. I saw bitterns and nesting lapwings. You might be lucky enough to see seals too.” @beckythetraveller, travel writer and Instagrammer (

Cotswold Way

Distance: 102 miles
Days: c. 7 days

A frequently walked route, the Cotswold Way is 102 miles long in total, and a reasonably fit walker can do the whole thing in about a week. That partially accounts for its popularity, as does its accessibility, since its southern terminus is the historic city of Bath. But the Cotswold Way also offers a chance to explore some of England’s prettiest countryside, with panoramic views across the counties of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Somerset. On a clear day it is even possible to see as far as the distant Malvern Hills, the Mendips and the Welsh border country. The airy feel and superb vistas experienced on the western limestone escarpment of the Cotswold Hills are sensations usually reserved for Britain’s mountainous areas, so it is a delight to find such exhilaration in South West England. When combined with the area’s inviting market towns and villages, fascinating historical sites and delightful countryside, it all makes for a very enticing long-distance walk.

Thames Path

Distance: 184 miles
Days: c. 14 days

If the idea of following a river all the way from its source to the sea appeals, then the Thames Path is the National Trail for you. The route traces the meandering course of this great river for 184 miles from the Cotswold Hills to historic Greenwich. Along the way it passes through rural landscapes as well as numerous small towns and villages, before striking boldly through the heart of London. For walkers who take on the entire trail, the contrast between quiet, peaceful countryside and seething metropolis is striking, as the river gradually broadens from modest beginnings to an impressive width of 520 metres, where it is bridged by the Thames Barrier, which marks the finish point of the route.

“It is unique in being the only National Trail to follow a river. The trail is split into numerous stages of varying lengths, each taking in distinctive stretches of the Thames as it meanders its way through countryside, village, town and city. It’s mainly easy going along well-maintained paths, albeit with the odd boggy section after wet weather. Getting to it is easy too – indeed, its sheer accessibility is one of the most appealing features of the Thames Path.” Andrew White, writer, filmmaker and broadcaster (

The Ridgeway

Distance: 87 miles
Days: c. 6 days

One of England’s most ancient paths, parts of the Ridgeway have been in use for centuries – possibly since the Neolithic era. When it comes to well-trodden routes, it is doubtful whether any path has been tramped by more feet, given its long and well-documented history of use. But despite its ancient origins, the Ridgeway is today a relatively quiet and tranquil long-distance trail that has much to offer for those seeking solitude and reflection. Split into two halves, it takes in the North Wessex Downs and the Chilterns, two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Their prehistoric sites, secluded valleys and sheltered woods are ideal places for contemplation. With a total length of 87 miles, it can be walked in about six days, making it the ideal trail to blow away the cobwebs and reinvigorate mind, body and soul.

South Downs Way

Distance: 100 miles
Days: c. 6 days

The South Downs Way actually predates the creation of the South Downs National Park by nearly 40 years, though it stretches the entire length of the park, a distance of some 100 miles. A multi-use shared path designed for horse riders and cyclists as well as walkers, it follows broad grassy tracks across rolling chalk downland. The route traditionally starts from the city of Winchester in Hampshire and finishes at Eastbourne in East Sussex, though it can be walked in the opposite direction. It links several well-known tourist attractions, including Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon, Beachy Head and the Long Man of Wilmington. Most walkers can complete it in around 6 days. The terrain is generally undemanding, though there are steep ascents when crossing river valleys at Alfriston, Southease, Bramber and Amberley.

“The South Downs Way is a perfect escape route from England’s busy south east. The trails are clear, well-signed and brilliantly runnable and many of its climbs are handsomely rewarded with fantastic views. It’s easily accessible from train stations and there are plenty of great places to stop for food and rest along the way. At 100 miles it’s a tempting challenge for a distance runner, whether tackled over a week, a weekend, or even in one go.” Jen and Sim Benson, runners and authors of Wild Running: Britain’s 200 Greatest Trail Runs (

North Downs Way

Distance: 153 miles
Days: c. 12 days

Exploring a pastoral landscape of chalk grassland, mixed woodland, traditional orchards and fertile fields, the North Downs Way is a relaxed 153-mile trail that takes about 12 days to walk in one go. The route winds across the historic counties of Kent and Surrey. It broadly follows an old pilgrim route to Canterbury, taking in a large stretch of the Surrey Hills and Kent Downs. These chalk limestone and ‘greensand’ sandstone escarpments offer lofty views over the surrounding landscape, being occasionally (and abruptly) cut by river valleys, necessitating some surprisingly steep climbs. The high ground here has been ritualistically and strategically important for centuries, so is dotted by all manner of historical sites, from Stone Age burial mounds to Second World War pill boxes.

After crossing Surrey and west Kent, the final section of the walk is shaped like a giant lasso that indirectly links the cathedral city of Canterbury to the port of Dover. It gives a choice of routes; either a direct line over the Kent Downs to Folkestone and along the famous white cliffs to reach Dover, or a more circuitous alternative that heads northeast to the hills west of the Stour, taking in various traditional Kent villages with their distinctive oast houses before reaching Canterbury. From there the trail swings south-east to finish at Dover, with views of the English Channel and the French coastline.

England Coast Path

Distance: 2,795 miles
Days: months!

Though currently still a work in progress, the England Coast Path is the newest of our National Trails. Once completed, it will form the longest continuous coastal path in the world. The total distance of the route will be an impressive 2,795 miles – longer than either the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA, two of the world’s most famous ‘thru-hikes’.


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