They represent a nation at its rawest, non-architecturally-enhanced best. Here’s the low-down on five of our favourites…
1. Cairngorms, Scotland
From the red depths of the Grand Canyon to the creaking glaciers of New Zealand’s Fjordland, you might expect Britain’s modest wilderness to be an uneven match for world heavyweights.
But explore the length of this small island (about 600 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats) and you’ll find rugged peaks, rushing waterfalls and sweeping forests enough to spark flutters in your chest. The Cairngorms National Park – Britain’s largest – is perhaps most impressive. Snow-coated mountains ring a serene spread of still, clear lochs and thick Caledonian pine forest. Five of Scotland’s six highest peaks are found here and the 4528sqkm of land couldn’t be better suited to outdoors action. In winter, it’s skiing and husky-sledding. Meanwhile other seasons bring mountain-biking and climbing, kayaking and rafting, river tubing and zip-lining … the opportunities for adventure are endless. Thanks to its world-class surrounds, the Cairngorms is home to a committed community of folk who spend their days running amok in the fresh air, and their evenings rewarding these efforts with a few ales and a wee dram in characteristically cosy pubs. The Cairngorms is a lifestyle as much as it is an amazing photo opportunity – and most who get a taste of Cairngorms life have a tough time trying to leave.
While this national park’s beauty simply cannot be overstated, it has a rich history, too. Remnants of Celt and Pict settlements from as far back as the 10th century are scattered across its moors and grasslands – and what would a Scot landscape be without a few crumbling castles?
Bottom line? No matter how short your stay in the UK, don’t leave Britain without seeing the Cairngorms – otherwise you’ve not really seen Britain at all.
2. Lake District, England
Pretty enough to inspire not just poetry, but an entire collection of ‘Lake Poets’ (including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge), the UK’s second-largest national park boasts England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and 12 of the largest lakes – each with a character of its own – in England meaning you can walk, cycle and splash about here to your heart’s content!
The cultural heritage of the Lake District is as unique as its geography. Visitors today can indulge in local treats like Cumberland sausage and enjoy centuries old traditions such as hound trailing and rushbearing.
So scenic you actually catch yourself shaking your head in wonderment, don’t miss Catbells fell, the preposterously handsome hills that reflect resplendently in the shallows of Derwent Water.
3. Norfolk Broads, England
Quaint England at its picture-postcard best, the Norfolk Broads – which lie in the countries of Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England – are a collection of placid lakes and rivers, the banks dotted with fairytale windmills and reed beds, all flanked by flat fields of green. At 303 sq km it is Britain’s largest nationally protected wetland and a member of the international family of national parks. Six rivers link the shallow lakes of the Broads and make up a total of 200km of navigable and lock-free waterways. They are the Ant, Thurne, Bure, Yare, Chet and Waveney. The quintessential setting for a barge holiday, many of the broads are artificial creations, produced when medieval peat beds flooded.The result is a picturesque network of navigable waterways – and a place on our list.
5. Peak District, England
Founded in 1951, the simple splendour of Derbyshire’s natural wonder is its allure. This is a beauty without bells and whistles. Despite it’s name, you’ll find no highest mountains or longest lakes here. Instead, acres of green hills and valleys spread out in the very definition of English idyll. It’s the archetypal ‘green and pleasant land’.
Add to this picture caves, cliffs, rivers, and purple-heather-coated moors, and you’ve got an adventure playground suited to all. The Peak District isn’t just for looking. Get involved: cycling, caving, camping, off roading, fishing, felling, trekking and horse riding and air sports are just a few of the activities that adrenalin junkies can indulge in. One negative? England’s first national park is also Europe’s busiest so don’t just rock up: book your hostel or accommodation well in advance.
4. Snowdonia, Wales
Situated on the west coast of Britain, the mountain scenery in Snowdonia, northwest Wales, steals the breath. From the looming might of the Snowdon Massif (at more than 3000ft high), to the isolated serenity of Llyn Llydaw lake (an ice-blue calm amid jagged drama), you’ll be stunned into admiring silence.
While many come to conquer the big one – Snowdon is the highest point in the British Isles outside Scotland – there are lakes, woodlands and valleys to explore if you’ve no head for heights. Meanwhile culture vultures will appreciate the wealth of picturesque villages – take a bow Betws y Coed and Beddgelert – steeped as they are local history (more than half its population speak Welsh).