A Definitive Guide to the National Parks of England & Wales

edensor village in the peak district national park (Image: David Skinner; Edensor church in the Peak District National Park)

To those living in its sprawling towns and cities, England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ can seem like little more than a nostalgic throwback to the past; a world now submerged beneath tarmac, concrete and high-rise estates. Yet venture away from the maddening crowd, and there remain verdant pockets of unspoiled wilderness in this tiny island nation: The national parks of England and Wales.

Totalling 13 in all, the parks are a relatively new phenomenon. The first clutch of four were created months apart in 1951, while the most-recent only came into existence in 2009. You wouldn’t believe it to look at them. Timeless, wild and venerable, they are now preserved for future generations from development. Here’s our guide to the great green spaces of England and Wales.

Peak District National Park (Est. April 17, 1951)

peak district national park (Image: Andrew Stawarz; Higger Tor in the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire)

It’s hard to believe now, but until the creation of Peak District National Park in 1951, Britons had no right to roam in the open countryside. Farmers, landowners and gamekeepers would zealously guard their patch of wild land from walkers, sometimes using physical violence. That this changed at all is thanks to citizens of the Peak District. In 1932, a vast group of aggravated walkers staged a mass trespass on the bleakly beautiful plateau Kinder Scout. The public pressure that followed their arrest led directly to the creation of the Britain’s first national park.

Today, around a third of the Peak District is open access, meaning walkers can roam at will. The rest is criss-crossed by a network of footpaths that lead hikers through some of the most-beautiful scenery in Britain. From wild ridges to sheer cliffs on down to tumbling streams, the modern Peak District National Park is like stepping into a vision of Britain’s ancient past.

Lake District (Est. May 9, 1951)

ullswater in the lake district national park (Image: wazimu0; sunset over Ullswater in the Lake District)

At over 2,000 sq km (roughly the size of Luxembourg) Britain’s largest national park is also one of its most-storied. It was here, among these sweeping fells and deep, mysterious lakes that William Wordsworth wrote Daffodils, perhaps one of the most-famous poems in the English language. But locals might take more pride from his description of the area’s peaks: “in the beauty and variety of their surfaces and colours, they are surpassed by none.”

For the less-poetic among us, the Lake District represents all the stark, awe-inspiring variety the Northern landscape is capable of. At once picturesque and brooding; gentle and rugged; wild and homely, the country’s second national park is an exercise in contrasts… and all the better for it.

Snowdonia (Est. October 18, 1951)

snowdon-mountain-railway-great-train-journeys (Image: Bert Kaufmann; Snowdonia National Park’s Snowdon Mountain Railway)

If Britain’s first two national parks were bucolic, pastoral England embodied, then its third was Wales at its most rugged and forbidding. Gone are the daffodils, the verdant meadows, the tumbling streams. In their place is a landscape out of ancient myth; a place where you might expect to see giants striding, or mighty kings fighting and dying for their people.

To enter Snowdonia National Park today is to enter a world of jagged mountains, ice and howling winds. Ridges are battered by storms and lashed with rain, while in the valleys below a peculiarly Welsh style of country life continues much as it has for centuries. In more ways than one, this vast land – only slightly smaller than the Lake District – is like the beating heart of Wales. Around half those who live in Snowdonia speak Welsh as their first language, while the region’s history is as long as it is spectacular. (You can also take a trip on the beautiful Snowdon Mountain Railway.)

Dartmoor (Est. October 30, 1951)

the mysterious dartmoor national park (Image: Ken Dixon; the beautiful, windswept expanse of Dartmoor)

The last of the first cluster of National Parks to be established, Dartmoor in Devon is significantly smaller than its predecessors. What it lacks in size, though, it more than makes up for in atmosphere.

One of England’s last true wildernesses, Dartmoor is almost unbearably bleak. A land of windswept moors, endless fields of granite, rolling mist and deep, deadly peat bogs, it’s a place almost uniquely hospitable to legends and ghost stories. Tales of giant cats prowling the valleys and ancient forests, and of shadowy figures seen at night still feature prominently in the region’s folk tales, a testament to the park’s essential spookiness. Seen on a grey, winter’s day, it’s not hard to see why Arthur Conan Doyle chose to set Hound of the Baskervilles here.

Yet Dartmoor is also undeniably beautiful. Ragged and foreboding it may at times seem, but there is also something in its timelessness that could soften even the hardest of hearts. Seeing it for the first time, it’s impossible not to find yourself thinking deep thoughts and ruminating over the awesome might of nature, even in a country as placid as Britain.

Pembrokeshire Coast (Est. February 29, 1952)

exploring the pembrokeshire coast national park (Image: David Evans; the Green Bridge of Wales, Pembrokeshire Coast)

As an island nation, Britain has long had a connection with the sea that goes beyond mere trade and commerce. The faded Victorian and Edwardian resort towns of the coast; the forgotten fishing villages; the cliffs, smugglers’ coves, and rusting old piers; fish n’ chips and overpriced deckchairs… all make up part of Britain’s national identity. So it made sense that the fifth national park should be coastal in nature. Enter Pembrokeshire.

Sitting at the very edge of Wales, facing out into the freezing North Atlantic, Pembrokeshire Coast remains the UK’s only truly coastal national park. Yet in this small space (only The Broads and the New Forest are smaller), it manages to fit in everything wonderful about the British seaside. There are swathes of sandy beaches, rivers running inland into wooded hills, tiny stone-walled harbours, and great waves crashing against cliffs. Less-typically, there are even puffins, with 6,000 nesting each year on Skomer Island.

North York Moors (Est. 28 November, 1952)

the world famous north york moors railway (Image: Thomas Tolkien; the world-famous North York Moors Railway)

A vast moorland plateau in the northeast of England, the creation of North York Moors marked the end of the first great spate of national park designations. It’s also one of the most-unusual. Stretching from the coast all the way inland, the North York Moors seem at times less like a single national park than a collection of three very different ones, each marked by their own unique landscape.

On the coast, where the land meets the howling emptiness of the North Sea, the park is a world of cliffs and crashing waves, rocky shores and villages forged from centuries of relentless rain and ice. Move further inland and there are great swathes of woodland, about five percent of which qualify as ‘ancient’, meaning they’ve been standing at least 400 years. In their depths are landscapes which may not have changed since the last Ice Age, a living reminder of Britain’s past. Finally, there is the moorland for which the national park is named. A rolling, wild sweep, it soars away inland, extending as far as the eye can see.

Yorkshire Dales (Est. 16 November 1954)

cycle the yorkshire dales national park (Image: Su-May; exploring the picturesque Yorkshire Dales National Park)

Nearly two years after the North York Moors came into existence, the creation of Yorkshire Dales National Park quietly started a second, slower wave of designations that would last until the end of the decade. It marked the first time a landscape was designated not solely on the basis of its natural beauty, but on how humans had affected and shaped that landscape, too.

While the landscapes of all Britain’s National Parks have been affected by farming and mining and human incursion across the decades, only in the Dales is it so wonderfully noticeable. The traces of the Industrial Revolution lie thick across this northern heartland, with great stone viaducts and grand old railways cutting a swathe through the heart of the moors themselves. Pretty stone villages crowd around these tributaries of commerce, while above them loom giant limestone plateaus. This is a proud and ancient world, forged into a new shape by the coming of man – a collision of nature and progress unmatched elsewhere among Britain’s parks.

Exmoor (Est. 19 October 1954)

wild ponies in exmoor national park (Image: Steve Slater; wild ponies on Exmoor)

Confusingly considered the eighth National Park, despite opening earlier than the seventh, Exmoor is also one of the smallest; only just edging out Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Situated on the north coast of Devon and Somerset, it may not have the brooding intensity of Dartmoor to the south, and many visitors may be restricted in where they can roam. Yet Exmoor has something few other national parks have: a plethora of wildlife unique in all of Britain.

Chief among these is the Exmoor Pony. A genetically-distinct breed of horse mentioned in the Domesday Book, the ponies are so rare that a large group of them were shipped to the Czech Republic in 2015 in an effort to promote the country’s biodiversity. Largely wild, the creatures live alongside a pre-historic population of red deer, otters, bats and some of the UK’s rarest butterflies. For such a small region, the park’s wildlife diversity is staggering.

That’s not to say Exmoor National Park isn’t also beautiful. With its rolling hills, gentle coastline, and hidden villages, its sights are among the most beautiful in the UK.

Northumberland (Est. April 6, 1956)

cheviot hills in the northumberland national park (Image: plambertuk; the wild Cheviot Hills in Northumberland National Park)

Situated at England’s northernmost point, along the border with Scotland, Northumberland National Park is almost a mystery. Relatively few people in the UK know of its existence, and it has long been the least-visited of all the parks in England and Wales. That’s both perplexing and a tragedy, not least because Northumberland contains one of the greatest ruins in the whole of Britain: Hadrian’s Wall.

Built in the early 2nd century, the iconic wall marked a fixed boundary for the Roman Empire. Beyond this point lay the wild and savage tribes of modern-day Scotland, a people among whom even the Romans feared to tread. Although now little more than an expansive ruin, what remains of Hadrian’s Wall is still significant enough to be a UNESCO World Heritage site; not to mention the perfect gateway for appreciating the stark beauty of the Northumberland National Park. Stood in its remains at sunrise, looking out across the wild and empty landscape, you might just find goose-flesh rising up your arms.

It’s also from the Cheviot Hills in the Northumberland National Park that the American actor Cornelius Crane “Chevy” Chase gets his nickname. The location of the Battle of Otterburn between England and Scotland in 1388, it’s said that only 110 people survived the bloodbath, which was described in The Ballad of Chevy Chase. The medieval ballad tells of a hunting ground (or a chase) in the Cheviots, giving rise to the term Chevy Chase.

Brecon Beacons (Est. April 17, 1957)

the wild brecon beacons national park in wales (Image: Les Haines; hiking the wild Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales)

For a long time, the Brecon Beacons was the youngest national park in the whole of Britain. After its designation, the second great wave of park creation ended. It would be another three decades before another national park joined it.

What a spectacular choice to end on, though. Stretching out for over 1,300sq km, the Beacons represent central Wales at its best. A pastoral, farming landscape overlooked by great, empty ridges, the park is neither too wild, nor too tame. For those overwhelmed by Snowdonia’s bleakness or craving more than Pembrokeshire’s gentle curves, it stands as a kind of Goldilocks landscape: just right.

In winter, especially, the Beacon Beacons take on a kind of haunting charm little seen elsewhere. The grey skies and snow combine with the emptiness of the national park to make it seem like you’re walking through a world that has not yet had time to form; a blank slate of endless possibilities.

The Broads (Est. April 1, 1989)

abandoned windmill in the norfolk broads national park (Image: Ian Martin; the wistful sight of an abandoned windmill on the Norfolk Broads)

Over 30 years after the creation of Brecon Beacons National Park, in the dying days of the 1980s, the government quietly added an 11th park to Britain’s register. Only it didn’t. Not quite. The Broads were given a level of protection equivalent to National Park status, but never officially designated. However, that hasn’t stopped everyone and their dog from since lumping them in with the official parks.

A network of lakes, canals and rivers that cover a large stretch of fenland between Norfolk and Suffolk, The Broads are one of Britain’s most-unique landscapes. Windmills stand on headlands as boats meander between reeds and cyclists make their way along winding embankments. If you were dropped here magically, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived in the Netherlands, so peculiar is this flat land. Yet it is also distinctly British, a place for canal boat enthusiasts and other hobbyists.

Also notable is that The Broads is by far the smallest of Britain’s national parks. Less than half the size of Pembrokeshire, it makes up less than 0.1% of England’s total area. Yet it contains enough attractive scenery for a place more than ten times its size.

New Forest (Est. March 1, 2005)

foal in the new forest national park in hampshire (Image: Linda Stanley; a foal in the New Forest National Park, Hampshire)

One of Britain’s oldest Royal Forests, the New Forest was declared a pristine hunting ground by William the Conqueror as far back as 1079 AD. People were cleared out, hamlets inside it demolished and the woodland left to go wild. Although humans began to slowly creep back in over the centuries, the New Forest today still retains the feel of a place where nature has control; a primal world disguised as a friendly tourist destination.

Despite its relatively small size (if you discount The Broads, the New Forest is by far the smallest ‘official’ park) the woodland packs a great deal into its area. Stretching from gorgeous beaches on the southern coast up into the historic county of Hampshire, it includes rushing rivers, wide-open meadows, large lakes, quaint villages and – of course – acres of virgin forest. Thanks to its proximity to London, the park is also one of the most-visited in the whole of the UK. Over 14 million visits are logged annually.

South Downs (Est. November 12, 2009)

the seven sisters near eastbourne in sussex (Image: Steve Slater; the Seven Sisters in Sussex, at the foot of the South Downs)

To date the last national park in England and Wales to be designated, the South Downs came into being as recently as 2009. Its new status was probably necessary. Surrounded by urban sprawl and an ever-expanding network of motorways (not least due to its proximity to London), the Downs was due to formal protection to stop the remainder of southeast England being built on. Thankfully, its ascension to national park status was made with serious effort. Upon its creation, it became the largest park created since the Yorkshire Dales in 1954.

The landscape is quintessential southern England; a world of rolling fields, gentle hills, and snug little villages. This is what springs to mind when most people hear the words “English countryside,” the fabled green and pleasant land so nostalgically venerated by the Victorians from their smog-choked cities. It may not be quite as grand or awe-inspiring as some on our list, but the very gentleness of South Downs National Park speaks to a special vision of England which ought to be recognised and preserved for future generations.

Related: 10 Beautiful & Imposing Railway Stations of the World

 
 
 

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