There's more to walking than moors and mountains, says Alex Roddie. From historic sites to ancient woodland, our gentler countryside has loads to recommend it too. Best of all, you're never far from a cosy pub. So let's hear it for the lowlands.
We all love Britain's high and wild places, but there's plenty of good walking to be enjoyed in the lowlands as well. Here's why you should look forward to walks that don't go anywhere near the hills.
There is good walking to be found everywhere, if you forget about height above sea level and stop looking for those masses of contour lines on the map. We've all found ourselves a bit disappointed upon reaching some anonymous 650m lump in thick mist. The pleasures of lowland walking can sometimes be subtle compared to the promise of a stellar mountain day, but I've learned that there's no direct correlation between enjoyment and altitude.
"I may not have been able to visit the mountains as often as I might have wished, but actually I had a wide variety of prime walking landscape all around me. I just had to adjust my perspective a little"
Here are some great reasons to stick in the lowlands:
They're close to where you live
While some of us are lucky enough to be based a short distance away from our favourite hills, the reality is that most people don't live near the mountains, and trips have to be planned in advance. Some parts of the country are many hours' drive from the nearest upland area. I grew up in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, and went to university in Norfolk, so for most of my life even weekend trips have been a serious challenge.
Learning to love the nearby countryside often starts with a determination to make the best of it. You have a day off and want to do some walking, but driving to the Peak District or the Dales would leave only a couple of hours free, so you start looking at local maps and linking together footpaths that stray away from roads, cutting through meadows and woodland. Maybe you see a ruin marked on the map, or a stand of ancient forest you never even knew existed. Perhaps this won't be so bad after all.
Although at first I thought living in the flatlands would be a major obstacle to my hillwalking aspirations, I soon realised I was actually very lucky. I may not have been able to visit the mountains as often as I might have wished, but actually I had a wide variety of prime walking landscape all around me. I just had to adjust my perspective a little.
Unless you live in a city centre, chances are that you're a short drive or bus journey away from some quality lowland walking. It may even be on your doorstep. So next time you find yourself dreading that multi-hour mountain commute up the traffic jam hell of the A1, try looking closer to home for your dose of the outdoors.
Sometimes the weather in the mountains is just too horrible
Mountains are high. This is great for those elusive summit views, and fantastic for building fitness, but it also means you're exposed to the worst of the British weather. Most of the UK's upland areas are concentrated near the west coast, which makes them especially prone to Atlantic low-pressure systems. Getting good weather in the mountains can feel like a huge gamble at times – especially if your opportunities are limited.
While you'll get just as wet going for a rainy walk in your local forest, it'll be less of a battle and the risk of something going badly wrong will be significantly reduced. There's probably a pub or cafe within a few miles, too, offering a meal and a chance to dry out.
Sometimes a lowland walk can feel like second-best when you'd rather be up a hill, but I'd argue that's all down to attitude. Would you rather be fighting to stay upright in horizontal rain on an exposed ridge, wishing you were literally anywhere else, or enjoying a walk where every step didn't feel like a struggle for survival? In the very worst weather, I know which I'd choose.
They're stuffed with history both natural and human
There isn't much genuine wild land in the UK, and almost all of it is concentrated in our upland areas. If you go for a walk in the low-lying countryside looking for wilderness you will be disappointed, but there is still plenty of genuine interest to enjoy.
Humans have lived in the British Isles for thousands of years and the countryside is crammed with evidence of our ancestors. Most walks of any length will take in an ancient church, burial mound (often marked tumulus on the map) or standing stone. More recent traces include plague villages, evidence of medieval field cultivation, abandoned industrial works, or even castles. The towns and villages you pass through can be crammed with interest too. One of the joys of walking in the lowlands is that you get the chance to build up an appreciation for this wealth of history just beneath the surface. Traces of human history can still be found in the mountains, of course, but they're often far more subtle and your attention is likely to be focused on the grand views and wilder landscape.
A walk in your local countryside may also surprise you with a wealth of natural history. Agricultural land can feel like a barren monoculture at times, but around the edges and in the corners a surprising wildness often flourishes. Stands of woodland you may have driven past on your way to work for years harbour ancient trees, rare plants, and wildlife you had no clue lived in the area. Lowland walking is all about opening your senses to the surprising biodiversity that often still exists in the countryside – despite our ever-increasing human population.
They're suitable for people of all ages and abilities
While hillwalking demands a certain baseline of experience, equipment and fitness, the entry requirements are a lot lower for general walking in the countryside. If you pick the right walk, anyone with a reasonable degree of mobility can participate. Just pack a map, water bottle and waterproof coat, wear footwear suitable for the terrain, and you're pretty much good to go. It's rare that lowland walking requires any level of navigation beyond basic map reading; I've certainly never had to use a compass, and most of the time a quick glance at the map will tell you everything you need to know. A map is, however, still essential equipment, so it's a good way of easing yourself in to more advanced navigation before you really test your skills in the mountains.
The benefit of this easy accessibility is that it's the perfect introduction for walking newbies. Perhaps you would like to introduce a partner or child to the joys of walking, but don't want to pick anything too strenuous the first time to scare them off. An autumnal ramble in the forest is the perfect stepping stone to more ambitious things.
Areas to visit
Possibilities are endless, but just staying within southern England for now, I've invited a few experienced walkers to talk a little about the areas they're passionate about.
1. The South Downs with Keith Foskett
I'm biased living near the South Downs National Park but, for me, this corner of England is almost perfect. Chalk trails meander at random over classic rolling hills with far-reaching views, speckled with shaded woodland as white cliffs plunge to coastal waters. The Downs offer tantalising myths, curious tales and a rich history.
There are scores of trails to discover but if you have a week to spare then consider hiking the South Downs Way. Traversing the entire length of these chalk hills you’ll experience the best they have to offer.
My favourite section is from Cuckmere Haven to Eastbourne as it tumbles across the quintessential chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. If the Sisters don’t take your breath away then the River Cuckmere meandering to the English Chanel definitely will. For many this section is regarded as the best and, if you hike from west to east as most do, you’ll save the best until last.
Although you’ll usually pass somewhere to eat or drink most days, remember the Downs are dry. Water drains into the chalk easily so keep plenty with you. The walking is best described as moderate, and although there are plenty of hills, none are too demanding.
Keith Foskett is a long-distance thru-hiker, indie author and blogger. An outdoor addict, he can usually be found drinking coffee and extolling the virtues of woollen underwear. keithfoskett.com
2. The New Forest with Nigel Parrish
The New Forest offers ancient and ornamental woodland, grassy plains, heathland, mires and wetland – inhabited by cattle and iconic free-roaming ponies – spread over nearly 600 square kilometres of undulating countryside. It's one of the largest remaining areas of unenclosed and unsown pasture, most of which is open-access land and yours for the exploring! Despite its proximity to major conurbations, the New Forest can be a surprisingly gentle and peaceful place to visit at any time of the year.
Nestled in the far south central coast of England, the New Forest is crisscrossed by a myriad of tracks, paths and ‘rides’ allowing easy access for day trippers and those looking for a leisurely day's walking, cycling or just a potter about with a pub lunch. Alternatively those willing to head off the main tracks are rewarded by the rare mix of habitats, hidden streams, wildlife sightings, magnificent woodland and exposed northern commons. Whether you're a seasoned walker or weekend backpacker, naturalist or bird watcher, historian or lover of interesting towns and villages the New Forest has it all.
Those looking for a great walk taking in both woodland and open heathland (with a pub at the end) should head to Fritham. From here you can head west across Fritham Plain and through Sloden Inclosure, north to pass through the western tip of Alderhill, returning across the Hampton Ridge and Ashley Cross Head into the Island Thorns Inclosure, then back to the start via Crock.
Nigel Parrish has over twenty years of experience teaching outdoor skills to a wide variety of individuals, groups and young people. newforestnavigation.co.uk
3. The Lincolnshire Wolds with Mark De'Ath
Walking and wild camping in the hills and mountains of Britain is a passion of mine which takes me away from the stresses and strains of modern life. When not walking in upland Britain I spend my spare time walking in the Lincolnshire Wolds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which is my home. I can step outside my front door and within a couple of minutes be walking in the quiet and picturesque rolling hills of the Wolds, with its wide open skies and pretty villages. This small range of hills is never crowded and I can walk many miles barely seeing a soul for much of the year. My favourite area is a stretch of the Viking Way from Donington on Bain heading north to Nettleton. The Viking Way is, in total, 235km in length and stretches between the banks of the Humber and the shores of Rutland Water.
Mark De'Ath is an enthusiastic hillwalker, wild camper, and outdoor blogger. markswalkingblog.wordpress.com
4. The Suffolk Sandlings with Alex Roddie
Many walkers will have heard of the Breckland in Norfolk, but its lesser-known neighbour in Suffolk is also well worth a visit. The Sandlings Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty can be found in the rural coastal landscape between Southwold and Ipswich. Vast heathlands covered this area centuries ago, but changes in land use destroyed most of this fragile habitat, and by the 1990s most of the Sandlings had been converted to agricultural land or timber plantations. A successful rewilding campaign has aimed to restore much of this heathland, and today it's possible to walk many miles through a beautiful landscape of heather and birch scrub, inhabited by many rare species of plants and animals.
I spent my teenage years exploring the Sandlings. My family moved to a small village near Orford on the coast, sandwiched between the estuary mudflats of the Ore and the scattered heathland fragments concealed within Tunstall Forest. The forests are worthwhile walking destinations in their own right, and still host tiny patches of much older woodland amongst the regimented conifer plantations. A visit to Staverton Thicks at the northern end of Rendlesham Forest is well worth it on a misty autumn day, when the centuries-old oaks loom out of the murk and you can taste ancient magic in the air.
But my favourite walk will always be the long path tracing that coastline between heather and mudflat, land and sea. You can make it as long or as short as you like. Many times I've walked the ten miles or so between Orford and Snape Maltings, but you can start further south, finish further north. Twenty, thirty, even forty miles are all possible by sticking to the footpaths along the river embankments, following the River Deben down from Woodbridge, past Bawdsey and Shingle Street, up the west bank of the Butley River then down the east, along the Ore past Iken and Snape, then through Aldeburgh and north along the coast. The paths stretch for many miles; only north of Southwold does the good walking come to an end.
I walked hundreds of miles in that small forgotten corner of the UK as a teenager, and yet I only saw a handful of other walkers there. It may not be as wild as the Cairngorms or as scenic as the Lake District, but it's well worth taking the time to explore.
About Alex Roddie
Alex Roddie is a freelance editor, writer and photographer with a passion for Britain's wild places. He is a regular contributor to UKHillwalking, TGO magazine, and others.
For more on what Alex is up to see his website
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