> SlowTrav > United Kingdom & Ireland > Travel Notes > Countryside Walking

Hiking in England

Pauline Kenny

Hiking, walking, rambling - you can do it all in England (and the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland). These islands are a walker's paradise.

We have spent over seven months, on three different vacations, in the United Kingdom and have always made walking in the countryside the focus of our vacation. My idea of the perfect vacation in England is: rent a cottage in a village, every day do a walk on the public footpaths (some days a long walk, some days just for an hour or two), visit historic castles, beautiful gardens, and Roman ruins (yes, the Romans were there nearly 2000 years ago), go out for lunches at the countryside pubs or tea rooms, have an occasional afternoon tea in the local village tea rooms. What a lovely way to spend a vacation!

Public Access to Private Land

Public access to private land is the reason that the United Kingdom is walker-friendly. The countryside is full of signed and mapped footpaths and people use these trails all the time. The trails are usually well maintained. Some areas are better than others (the Cotswolds and the Lakes District, for example), but all areas have footpaths. Some of these paths are also used for horse riders. It is not just the young who use these trails. When we are out walking we see older people walking their dogs, young people doing long distance hikes, middle-aged couples like us out for the day, families out for a walk together.

Most European countries have public footpaths and public access to private land, but in my travels I have found that the United Kingdom and Switzerland are the best because the people in these countries are walkers. They demand the right to walk, they go out and use the footpaths.

The CRoW Act

In 2004, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW Act) was passed. This Act opens up even more privately owned land to public access and includes some areas with "Open Access" where you do not have to keep to the footpaths, but can roam where you like. This is being introduced region by region starting in September 2004.

In the Cotswolds, this new law will open up hundreds of acres. The whole Cotswolds will be open access. The first section, from Bath north to Malmsebury will be opened up in December 2004. The rest from Malmesbury north to Chipping Campden will be opened up in Summer 2005.

When to Go

We find that the walking in England is best in the Spring and Fall. It can get hot and humid in the summer; not the best weather for walking. We like to walk when it is cooler. You can hike on overcast days, just bring your rain coat. If it rains, it doesn't always last long. If you dress warmly, the walking is also good in the winter.

In the Spring you walk in woods filled with wildflowers. The wildflowers were at their peak when we were there in May 2000, but we were told that because of a very wet and cold winter, the flowers were blooming about a month late.

September is usually the driest month of the year, and perfect for hiking with the cooler days. We spent September 2004 in the Cotswolds and the month was rainier than usual, but we only had a few days where it was too rainy to hike.

When you are in England follow the weather reports on the BBC. We have found them to be pretty reliable.

Note: The weather can change in an instant. Don't assume because it is nice weather, that it will be like that all day. Always be prepared for cold or wet weather and if the weather turns really nasty, be prepared to cut your hike short or turn back.

What to Bring

This is what we bring for hiking:

  • Hiking Boots. You can hike in walking shoes or runners, but you are better off wearing good hiking boots. They have better traction in the mud and on the hills, they protect your ankles, and they are more waterproof.
  • Hiking Socks. Good thick hiking socks that you wear just for hiking. We bring 5 pairs.
  • Day Pack. A day pack for each person because you need to carry rain jackets, a polartec sweater, water bottles, and food on even a short walk.
  • Rain Jackets. We have good Gortex jackets that we have used for years for hiking. They are longer jackets, with hoods, and give good protection in a downpoar.
  • Gaiters. We used gaiters instead of rain pants because of the mud. The worst of the mud is around your ankles and below the knees. The gaiters worked well to protect our pants from the mud.
  • Polartec Sweaters or a layer of something warm. Always pack this in your daypack, even if you don't think you will need it, in case the weather changes.
  • Tilley Hat. Optional. Sometimes it is too windy to wear one, but I like to have one for a sunny day. I think a woolen hat is also a good thing to bring for hiking on colder days. Many hikes go to the tops of hills and it is very windy.
  • Water Bottles. We bring two small water bottles to take with us on hikes. They are more durable than packing bottled water from the store.
  • Compass and whistle. Each walker should have these in their packs in case they get lost. The compass can help you read the map. We got special whistles from a hiking store that have a very loud whistle. You can use these if your party separates or if you are lost and need help.h
  • Hiking Guidebooks. Buy these locally.
  • Ordnance Maps. All of England is mapped on these Ordnance maps at 1:25,000 scale. All hiking trails and right of ways are marked. Buy these locally.

How to Choose Where to Walk

Every region of England has good hiking guidebooks. Use these to plan your walks. The best practice is to pick a walk from a guidebook, then locate the route on the Ordnance Survey map. Then bring both on your walk. It is easy to get lost and you will need both the detailed instructions in the guidebook and the map.

Do not head out to follow the trails with no maps - you will most likely get lost and not have a good walk. Trails are marked, but it is not like in Switzerland where there are frequent signs telling you where a trail goes and how far it is to get there. Usually all you see are the arrows marking the path; you have no idea where it goes unless you have the Ordnance Survey.

It is possible to head out just using the Ordnance Survey and follow the trails marked.

Finding Food Along the Way

Always bring water with you and maybe a snack. The hiking guidebooks will tell you if there are pubs and tea rooms along the way, but do not assume they will be open. Remember that pubs usually serve lunch from noon to 2pm; after that frequently there is no food available. Tea rooms usually serve food all day long, but close early between 4:00 and 5:00pm.

Walking on Roads

Many hikes have part of the walk along a road. Remember to walk on the right side, facing the approaching traffic. Don't forget that the traffic in the UK and Ireland is driving on the left. This is very important on the narrow country roads or on windy days.

In 2004 I read a news article in about a couple from the US walking along a roadside near Stow on the Wold, in the dark and the rain, and one of them was struck by a car and killed. The driver did not even see them. Take care when walking on roads, even roads with not much traffic. Our group was out walking recently on a country lane with no traffic and we were kicking a chestnut between us, when one of us ran to the middle of the road and a car that had been driving along had to squeal to a stop. We had not heard the car approaching because of the noise of the wind. No one was hurt, but they could have been. We had not been cautious enough while walking on the road.

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