Long Distance Special: 15 of Britain's Best Big Trails

Britain is webbed with a network of thousands of miles of long distance trails, fantastic and varied waymarked routes taking in coastline, river banks, valleys and mountains. With so many to choose from, where should you begin? Fiona Russell asks keen walkers about some of their favourites.


The big name classics

There are a number of so-called "classic" trails, which are generally long-established and recognised as very popular among walkers. Of course, this means the trails can be busy with people, especially in the warmer months, but this has some benefits, too, such as plenty of like-minded people to meet and talk to as you walk, plentiful accommodation options, luggage transfer providers and a lot of information about what to see and do.

Descending to Praa Sands on the epic South West Coast Path  © Roy Curtis
Descending to Praa Sands on the epic South West Coast Path
© Roy Curtis

Three classic routes have been picked as "the best" by our panel of walkers.

West Highland Way

The West Highland Way is a grand-daddy of long-distance trails and the first waymarked route to be established in Scotland. It is also one of a stable of Great Scottish Trails. People come from across the world to walk 96 miles from Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, to Fort William in the Highlands.

Buachaille Etive Mor, one of the great highlights of the West Highland Way  © Dan Bailey
Buachaille Etive Mor, one of the great highlights of the West Highland Way
© Dan Bailey

As walkers head northwards, the size and magnificence of the landscape grows until the views take in the UK's tallest mountain, Ben Nevis, close to the end of the route.

It is estimated that some 120,000 people use the path every year and at least 36,000 complete it annually - but don't be put off by this because there is plenty of space for all, and many people to chat to as you walk.

Heading north towards Rannoch Moor on the WHW  © Visitscotland
Heading north towards Rannoch Moor on the WHW
© Visitscotland

Why I like this trail:

Jana Pfenning, from Germany, walked the WHW with two friends last summer. She says: "We had heard about the famous Scottish route and we wanted to come and see for ourselves. We are friends from university.

"We like the West Highland Way a lot because it goes through some great scenery and you can see so many big mountains and mountain tops but you do not have to climb over them. It feels very wild but still close to villages and places to eat and stay."

Pennine Way

The Pennine Way is one of a collection of National Trails in England, and the first in the UK to be established in 1965. The path runs along the length of the Pennine hills, the "backbone of England". The route follows a rugged, mountainous route for 268 miles, starting from Edale in the northern Peak District National Park.

Sunset view of Pen-y-Ghent in the Yorkshire Dales from Whitber Hill.  © Felltop
Sunset view of Pen-y-Ghent in the Yorkshire Dales from Whitber Hill.
© Felltop, Jan 2017

Travelling northwards, walkers pass through the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the North Pennines AONB and the Northumberland National Park to cross the Scottish border where the trail concludes at Kirk Yetholm, just inside Scotland. The route takes in several major summits, from Kinder and Bleaklow in the south, Pen-Y-Ghent and Great Shunner fell in the Dales, to Cross Fell in the North Pennines - the highest point in England outside the Lake District, before finishing with a long remote leg over The Cheviots. Often high, sometimes surprisingly wild, and generally quite exposed to the weather, it's one of the more serious of Britain's big walks. Highlights include Malham Cove, High Force, High Cup and the best stretch of Hadrian's Wall.

Why I like this trail:

Jane Holmes, from Duns, Berwickshire, has fond memories of walking the Pennine Way. She says: "It was years ago now but I remember it vividly. I enjoyed the landscape and the views, but I also loved the camaraderie of walking this route. I started in the south and walked north and I stayed in youth hostels so I kept meeting the same people. It was great fun and has created long lasting memories for me."

  • For more Pennine Way info see here

South West Coast Path

Another iconic walking route, the South West Coast Path claims the title of the longest of the designated National Trails in the UK, stretching 630 miles around the picturesque south west coast of England.

The glorious SWCP near Great Hangman, Combe Martin   © Andrew Paul
The glorious SWCP near Great Hangman, Combe Martin
© Andrew Paul

Starting in Minehead, Somerset, walkers head along the coasts of both Devon and Cornwall, to the tip of Land's End before cutting back east along the south coast to reach the finish point on the shores of Poole Harbour in Dorset some weeks later.

To walk the entire route would take around a month – and involves a total ascent of about 11,4931ft (35,031m), almost four times the height of Mount Everest. Many people break the trail into week-long walks, returning again and again to complete another section.

As well as the fabulous and often wild sea views, the route offers a wide variety of wildlife, geology and heritage, plus of course giving access to some of Britain's most secluded beaches.

Why I like this trail:

Tony Simpson, from Bradford, reports that although the route is coastal, the scenery is ever changing. He says:

"Because of the different coast lines of Devon and Cornwall, the scenery is very different from north to south and east to west. There is always something different to see and enjoy as you walk.

"The weather can also be very variable, from wild to fabulous. On some days, you could be in some far off exotic land. And, I think, there is no better place to be to sample the best seafood."

  • For more info see here

The unofficial classic

Coast to Coast England

Devised by the legendary walker Alfred Wainwright and set out in his 1973 guidebook, the Coast to Coast Walk is a 190-mile route across Northern England. Taking a varied cross section through of some of the best upland countryside in England, it passes through three contrasting national parks - the Lake District National Park, the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the North York Moors National Park.

Looking into Ennerdale from Brandreth  © Tom McNally
Looking into Ennerdale from Brandreth
© Tom McNally

The route starts in St Bees, Cumbria, and finishes in Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire, and takes around two weeks to walk. Though it's unofficial, and does not enjoy National Trail status, the Coast to Coast is one of the most popular of Britain's long-distance routes. Indeed, some years ago it was even hailed as the second-best walk in the world (whatever that means) by a survey of experts. You won't find waymarking en route, but Harveys do publish two dedicated strip maps at 1:40,000 scale.

Why I like this trail:

Jane D, from London, has chosen the C2C route as her favourite, although she reports that it was hard to make a final pick. She says:

"I reckon I have walked about a dozen long-distance paths in England and Scotland and they've all had something special. I walked the C2C with three wonderful pals a week at a time – the two stretches a year apart – and we had flawless weather aside from the first few hours around the Cumbrian Coast in boot-soaking rain.

"The Yorkshire stretches were unexpectedly lovely after the drama of Lakeland, and this convinced all of us to spend more time there. We also followed the tradition of carrying a pebble from one side of England to the other."


Islands and coast

Britain's islands and coasts are crisscrossed with great walking trails. Aside from the mega South West Coas Path, there are plenty of other routes to get stuck into. Walkers can enjoy a variety of fabulous sea views, beaches, cliffs, interesting off-shore geology and charming seaside villages and towns as they follow a waymarked route along the edge of the land.

When it's completed in a year or so, the England Coast Path (which does what it says on the tin) will be the longest managed and waymarked coastal walk in the world. Meanwhile, if you're after something big by the sea then the 870-mile Wales Coast Path already takes some beating in terms of both length and quality.

Part of the astonishing panoramic view from the summit of Yr Eifl on the Lleyn. Photostitch.  © David Dear
Part of the astonishing panoramic view from the summit of Yr Eifl on the Lleyn. Photostitch.
© David Dear, May 2012

But perhaps you don't have a full month or two to spare? More manageable options include:

North Wales Coast

A comparatively truncated stretch of the Wales Coast Path that extends around the entire Welsh cost, the North Wales Coast section runs only from from Chester to Bangor. The 80-mile route can easily be completed over seven days and takes in many highlights including the Dee Estuary, Flint Castle, RSPB Point of Ayr, Point of Ayr lighthouse, Talacre beach, Llandudno pier, Great Orme, Conwy town and castle, Penrhyn Castle and Bangor Cathedral and pier.

Why I like this trail:

Stik Davis, of Conwy, has walked the route in many sections after discovering a guide to the route by Carl Rogers. He says: "It is a great trail for me as I live on the route. I have loved finding all the many hidden gems that I didn't even realise are in the area despite living here."

  • For more info see here

Fife Coastal Path

This 116-mile path hugs the east Scottish coast from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Tay. The start and finish are Kincardine-on-Forth and Newburgh and the highlights include numerous beaches, both flat and sandy and wild and rocky, nationally important estuaries and wildlife reserves, farmland and woodland.

The Fife Coastal Path takes in the lovely East Neuk   © Visitscotland
The Fife Coastal Path takes in the lovely East Neuk
© Visitscotland

There are plenty of stopping off or access points at villages and towns, including former coal mining towns, pretty fishing villages in the East Neuk of Fife and the "home of golf", St Andrews. Walkers also have a great view of the three iconic bridges that span the River Forth.

Why I like this trail:

Elaine MacGlone, of Kirkcaldy, Fife, is a fan of her local long-distance walking path. She says:

"The Fife Coastal Path is fabulous. You can choose sections that match your abilities and because it runs between towns and villages there are plenty of opportunities for breaks to see and do different attractions and activities."

Unique highlight

No other stretch of coasline in the UK can boast a via ferrata, but that's exactly what you'll find in Fife. Following the base of a rocky headland near the village of Elie, the Chain Walk is an optional detour from the Coastal Path, and one that's well worth making if you're a fan of chain-assisted scrambling. But do watch the tide...

West Island Way

Opened at the turn of this century, the 30-mile route starts and finishes in Port Bannatyne on the Island of Bute in Scotland.

Exploring beautiful Bute, the West Island Way is well waymarked...  © www.fionaoutdoors.co.uk
Exploring beautiful Bute, the West Island Way is well waymarked...
© www.fionaoutdoors.co.uk

Access to and from Bute is by CalMac ferry from Wemyss Bay on the mainland, a boat trip that adds some novelty to the beginning of the walk. The trail divides naturally into four stages, with the town of Port Bannatyne lying at its mid-point, and it's usually walked over two days or four half-days.

Why I like the trail:

Romy Beard, of Glasgow, describes the scenery as "simply amazing". She says:

"The way has a lot of variety with some sections close to the sea, including crossing a beach, and then forestry and higher moorland. And the views are amazing, especially across the island itself an also over the sea to the mountain peaks of Arran."

Arran Coastal Way

Starting and finishing in Brodick, the main port town on the Isle of Arran, the 65-mile route links 12 coastal villages and passes through ancient woodland and along sandy beaches and rocky shores.

Standing stones on Machrie Moor, Arran  © Mark Salter
Standing stones on Machrie Moor, Arran
© Mark Salter, Sep 2005

The island is known as "Scotland in miniature" with a mix of lowland and highland terrain so it can be a challenging route in places. The efforts are well worth the rewards, including a beautiful, rugged and ever-changing coastline with sandy and rocky beaches, dramatic cliffs and secret caves and coves. Wildlife including oystercatchers, herons, sea otters and seals can be spotted.

Access to the island is by Calmac ferry from Ardrossan on the mainland.

Why I like the trail:

Fiona Campbell, of Glasgow, is a frequent visitor to Arran. She says: "It's the continually changing scenery on the coastal path as you circuit the island that I most appreciate. It is not a big island yet there are so many landscape contrasts from wild and rugged to smooth and gentle.

"On a fine day the views are breath-taking and you will easily spot wildlife, especially seals, deer and squirrels."


Great river routes

There is something very satisfying about walking from A to B with purpose, tracing a logical line along a distinct geographical feature. And this is especially the case when following a river from its source (or thereabouts) to the sea.

The Thames Path

This is another of England's National Trails, following the River Thames from its source in the Cotswold hills near the quaint village of Kemble, Gloucestershire, to the sea at the Thames Barrier in Greenwich, south east London.

It can be very pretty along the Thames  © Jake Sugden
It can be very pretty along the Thames
© Jake Sugden

The full route is 184 miles long, and journeys through a surprisingly varied landscape of peaceful water meadows, unspoilt countryside, rural villages, historic towns and finally through the pulsing heart of London.

It would take around 14 days to walk the entire route although there are plenty of great access points thanks to a good network of public transport, so it's the sort of trail you can dip in and out of.

Why I like the trail:

Jake Sugden, from Newbury, Berkshire, has enjoyed walking the Thames Path. He says: "It is wonderful to see the River Thames growing from a nascent stream, to a small river and then a waterway navigable by boats, small and large. As the river grows, so life expands and changes along the path."

Jane D, of London, was delighted by the Thames Path because it showed her a hidden side to her city, such as finding a massive Buddha statue in Battersea Park.

She says: "I started the path with my brother, did some stretches with friends and finished it on my own a decade later in Oxford. It perfectly combines countryside and city."

  • For more info see here

River Ayr Way

A scenic walk that is less well-trodden than other waymarked routes, the River Ayr Way stretches 40 miles from the source of the River Ayr at Glenbuck Loch, in the hills of East Ayrshire, to the ocean at the traditional seaside town of Ayr. It's Scotland's first official source-to-sea trail.

The River Ayr makes a perfect long weekend trip in a location that few would have considered  © Visitscotland
The River Ayr makes a perfect long weekend trip in a location that few would have considered
© Visitscotland

The "loch" is in fact a dam built in 1802 by James Finlay for his cotton works, formerly located in the village of Catrine. From this source, the river grows to become a powerful waterway that has carved a route through rocky gorges and was once the power for driving the mills of a vibrant industrial era.

The final section of the way follows the river through open farmland and estates before finishing at the harbour in Ayr.

Why I like the trail:

Mark Smith, of New Cumnock, Ayrshire, is a fan of the River Ayr Way. He says: "One of the great pleasures of the River Ayr Way is following a river to the shore, but it's the way the route changes as well. You're walking alongside the river, then under an aqueduct, then through mining village, then a gorge. It's also a route that changes with the seasons and I think I most like it in autumn when the leaves are ablaze with colour."


Walking in the steps of history

The Ridgeway Trail

The Ridgeway National Trail is situated in a surprisingly remote part of southern central England. It follows a section, The Ridgeway, that is claimed to be Britain's oldest road, a route that has been used since prehistoric times by travellers, traders, herdsmen and soldiers.

If (pre) history is your bag, Wayland's Smithy on The Ridgeway takes some beating  © Historic England Photo Library
If (pre) history is your bag, Wayland's Smithy on The Ridgeway takes some beating
© Historic England Photo Library

In its entirety, the national trail is 87 miles long and travels from the World Heritage Site of Avebury to Streatley, located on the River Thames in Berkshire. It then continues on footpaths and parts of the old Icknield Way through the Chiltern Hills to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.

It's a walking route that offers a vast range of historical attractions, including Stone Age long barrows, Bronze Age round barrows, Iron Age forts and the figures of white horses cut into the chalk. There are also many wildlife wonders thanks to several nature reserves en route and the chalk grassland habitats of the North Wessex Downs.

Why I like the trail:

Col Wood, of Manchester, rates The Ridgeway as his favourite long-distance trail. He says: "As you walk you feel so close to history as you pass burial mounds, iron age hill forts, roman forts, a white horse cut in the chalk and more. Depending on where you start and finish there is the biggest stone circle in Europe in Avebury to visit, too.

"I also like that the trail follows almost the whole length of the chalk ridge line so you are constantly on high ground looking across the adjacent lower villages and towns."

  • For more info see here

Stevenson Way

This is an adventurous walk with no signposting but it offers a great trip down the memory lane of childhood storybooks. The 230-mile route, from Erraid, off the island of Mull, to Edinburgh is based on the book Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Ben Alder Cottage and Loch Ericht. Hereabouts is the legendary Cluny's Cage, a hideout that features in the tale  © Alan Rankin
Ben Alder Cottage and Loch Ericht. Hereabouts is the legendary Cluny's Cage, a hideout that features in the tale
© Alan Rankin

Walkers follow the fictional journey of the lad, David Balfour, who was kidnapped by his uncle and put on a boat bound for the Carolinas. On the way there he is shipwrecked on the island of Mull and he becomes involved in many adventures as he travels back to Edinburgh.

Why I like the trail:

Alan Rankin followed the route in 2016, 130 years after the publication of Kidnapped. He says: "It's a fantastic journey and I like that it is based on a story I remember reading as a child. It travels through so many great places, including the west coast, Morvern peninsula, Glen Coe, Rannoch, the Trossachs and the city."


Best hidden gems

There are trails that are well-trodden and others that are surprisingly not. Here are three that have been highlighted by walkers as peaceful gems.

Glyndŵr's Way

The 135-mile walking trail winds its way around the middle of Wales, between Knighton, on the edge of the Shropshire Hills (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and Welshpool in the north.

Typical lush Mid-Wales countryside on Glyndŵr's Way  © Ultimate Trail Adventures
Typical lush Mid-Wales countryside on Glyndŵr's Way
© Ultimate Trail Adventures

Along the trail, the path arrives at Machynlleth, close to the coast, before heading far inland. Other highlights are Lake Vyrnwy, on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, and Powis Castle in Welshpool itself. It takes most people about nine days to walk the full route.

Why I like the trail:

Dave Clissitt, of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, says: "The route offers mile after mile of beautiful, unspoiled Welsh countryside with rolling hills, historic towns and few people."

  • For more info see here

Southern Upland Way

The Southern Upland Way stretches across Scotland and therefore you might expect it to be a very popular walk. It's certainly on most people's radar; however, it remains curiously untrodden even by many keen walkers.

The 200mile+ Southern Upland Way starts (or finishes) on the underrated Galloway coast  © Visitscotland
The 200mile+ Southern Upland Way starts (or finishes) on the underrated Galloway coast
© Visitscotland

When it opened in 1984, it was billed as Britain's first official coast-to-coast long distance footpath, running a hefty 214 miles from Portpatrick on the south-west coast of Scotland to Cockburnspath on the eastern shore. Along the way the trail winds through the Southern Uplands, which were sculpted and rounded by the effects of glaciations to leave gently rolling hills with occasional rocky outcrops. Empty spaces, rolling grassy uplands and extensive forestry typify the terrain.

To walk the whole way would take most people around two weeks, but there are many stretches that are ideal for a shorter outing.

Why I like the trail:

Lisa Martin, of Glasgow, has nominated the SUW as a "hidden walking gem". She says: "As a walker and trail runner based in the central belt of Scotland the natural instinct is to go north but that mans people miss out on the beauty of the SUW. It passes through rolling farmland, dramatic hills and glens and at each end is spectacular coastline. I can't believe it took me so long to discover its secrets."

The Annandale Way

This is a 56-mile walking trail that starts in the hills above Moffat and follows the River Annan to the Solway Estuary at Annan.

Highlights include seeing the Devil's Beef Tub high in the Moffat hills. Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott wrote: "It looks like four hills were laying their head together to shut out daylight from the dark hollow space between them. A damned deep, black, blackguard-looking abyss of a hole it is."

There is also a Roman watch tower, a "pele" tower, a derelict mansion called Milkbank House (a hit on Instagram), winding rivers and birds to spot such as peregrine, merlin and golden plover.

Milkbank House, a spooky highlight of the Annandale Way  © Sara Valentin-Byers
Milkbank House, a spooky highlight of the Annandale Way
© Sara Valentin-Byers

Why I like the trail:

Sara Valentin-Byers, of Lockerbie, has walked almost the entire Annandale Way with her husband and three children. She says: "We have dipped in and out of this walk, doing different section at different times. It might not have the status or grandeur of trails such as the West Highland Way but it's still in a stunning part of the country and the views are wonderful. Plus, it is family friendly with lots to see along the way."

See annandaleway.org

Not tired yet?

These trails didn't make our final selection, but they're every bit as good:

Cape Wrath Trail - the ultimate long distance wilderness walk: unofficial, unmarked, and unforgettable.

Offa's Dyke - 177 miles along and around the hilly English/Welsh border.

Hadrian's Wall Path - 84 miles coast to coast along the Roman wall.

South Downs Way - 100 miles of classic southern English chalk land.

Dartmoor Way - a 100-mile circuit around the perimeter of the moor, with an optional high moorland link through the middle.

Loch Lomond, a major landmark on the West Highland Way  © Visitscotland
Loch Lomond, a major landmark on the West Highland Way
© Visitscotland


This post has been read 2,974 times

Return to Latest Articles or view other Walking Destinations


No comments yet