10 walks through history: ancient UK pathways in stunning countryside

<span>Caw Gap on Hadrian's Wall.</span><span>Photograph: Daverhead/Getty Images</span>
Caw Gap on Hadrian's Wall.Photograph: Daverhead/Getty Images

The Hadrian’s Wall Pilgrims’ Way

Start Housesteads Fort
Finish Brocolita Roman Temple
Distance 4¼ miles (use regular AD122 bus to shorten, if needed)
Those who walk the whole 84 miles of Hadrian’s Wall in a week may refer to it as a type of pilgrimage. But in the last few years the ever innovative British Pilgrimage Trust has worked with English Heritage to devise historical pilgrim trails – incorporating ancient sites across Britain – including the 23-mile section between Housesteads and Corbridge. For a pilgrimage with Roman flavour, begin at the Roman fort of Housesteads – a place where it is said “hooded gods” were worshipped, and walk east taking in the milecastles, turrets and the temple remains dedicated to Mithras, the Roman god of light (use the Hadrian’s Wall bus to return to the start).

St Patrick’s Camino, Newcastle, County Down

Start/finish Harbour House, Newcastle
Distance 3-7¾ miles
Established by the St Patrick’s Centre in Downpatrick as a guided offering (still available as a day trip for £45 a person) this Irish camino takes in the town where CS Lewis holidayed as a child and no doubt heard the legends of the adjacent mountain of Slieve Donard – said to hold a hermit’s cell for Saint Donart, as well as, in Irish mythology, a tomb of mythical figures and a doorway to the otherworld.

Wandering in a loop from town (a case of following your nose, or a map, from the centre) the goal is the Narnia-esque Tollymore Forest Park, where a choice of footpaths can create a circular stroll through giant redwoods and rocky outcrops, and over stepping stones and 16 bridges across the Shimna River – an area of special scientific interest owing to its rare mosses, population of Atlantic salmon and geology. Evidence of prehistoric man has also been discovered here.

John Bunyan Trail, Bedfordshire

Start/finish Sundon Hills Country Park
Distance 2½ miles

Published in 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more than 200 languages, has never been out of print and influenced writers such as CS Lewis, Charlotte Brontë and Enid Blyton. This trail is named after its author, who was incarcerated for preaching. In 1995 the Bedfordshire Ramblers group created a memorial walking route that transposes places from his book on to the real locations on which the writer based his tome. This section begins where one of Bunyan’s persecutors lived and meanders the chalky landscape to the summit of Sharpenhoe Clappers (cut out Streatley for this shorter route) – a spur of tree-covered ground that rises dramatically from the flat arable land surrounding it.

Cuckmere Pilgrim Path, E Sussex

Start/finish Berwick station
Distance 1-11¼ miles
In 2014, Will Parsons and Guy Hayward noticed an ancient path on the 14th-century Gough map (one of the oldest maps of Britain) that linked churches and holy places together. They used it to try to resurrect what they called the Old Way, linking Southampton to Canterbury – an act that kickstarted a renewed interest in walking ancient trails. Inspired by their work, in 2018 an East Sussex local, the Rev Peter Blee, decided to create this circular route (broken down into six further shortened options) that touches on many points of it, and includes seven rural churches. But what makes it stand out is the chance to wander amid the clay and chalk of the South Downs, Low Weald and the archaeologically rich Cuckmere Valley, taking in a wizened 1,600-year-old yew tree, bird hides to spot migrant and nesting birds, and the Long Man of Wilmington, a 72-metre figure carved into the chalk hillside in the 16th or 17th century.

Peak District Old Stones Way

Start Rowsley
Finish Youlgreave
Distance 8 miles (shorten to 1¾ miles starting at Birchover and walking there and back, either to Hermit’s Cave and Robin Hood’s Stride or the Nine Ladies)

The entire length of this neolithic walk is a little over 37 miles, but this prime slice takes in some real highlights, ending at a handy YHA youth hostel in Youlgreave that is housed in a former village Co-op a few miles outside Bakewell. There are no Christian saints here; instead, it is littered with prehistoric chieftains’ cairns, or standing stones. These include the circle of stones called the Nine Ladies (said in local lore to be women who danced on a Sunday and were turned to millstone); a giant tor known as Hermit’s Cave where there is a 13th-century carved cross; and a beautiful rock formation called Robin Hood’s Stride – perfect for scrambling and feeling the cool limestone beneath your fingers, and which movie buffs may recognise from the 1987 film The Princess Bride – all gazing out towards distant Minninglow, a chambered tomb dating back thousands of years to pre-Christianity and barrow bowls topped with a crown of beech trees.

Avebury Day Pilgrimage

Start/finish Avebury National Trust car park
Distance 11 miles

Most people who have visited Stonehenge have nipped over to Avebury for its unfenced prehistoric stone circle. But few have taken a full day to linger and really get a feel of the depth of history in this landscape. Utilising one of the oldest footpaths in the area, the Ridgeway, first, take in the ancient oval Sanctuary – once demarked by timber posts thought to be a gathering place and entryway to Avebury’s stones. From there, pay respects at West Kennet Long Barrow, the site for 50 burials going back nearly 6,000 years. Pass the source of the River Kennet – where overhanging trees are often covered with “clouties”, or strips of ribbon, and the 4,500-year-old Silbury Hill, before visiting the Longstones, which are aligned with the winter solstice. End by the trees that are said to have inspired Tolkien to create his tree-like creatures, the Ents, in Lord of the Rings. Going with kids? Wandering around Avebury is a pilgrimage in and of itself.

North Wales Pilgrims Way

Start Tŷ Coch Inn, Morfa Nefyn
Finish Y Gegin Fawr, Aberdaron
Distance 15½ miles (start at Porthor to shorten)

Officially launched in 2015, the North Wales Pilgrims Way follows the route taken by medieval pilgrims back in the sixth century. Their goal was Bardsey Island, AKA the isle of 20,000 saints (those buried there were virtually guaranteed their ascension to sainthood), though remains have been found that predate Christianity by 700 years. Weather often prevents the journey there from the Llŷn peninsula, but this section, from a hostelry reached only on foot to the Big Kitchen – once used by pilgrims and still serving coffee today – makes for a perfect outing. It’s a heady mix of rugged sandy beaches, tiny hamlets, crumbling cliffs and the whistling sands at Porthor (which squeak when you walk over them due to the molecular makeup of the grains), before crossing farmland and rivers, and finally gaining the view of the island.

Brecon Cathedral Pilgrimage, Powys

Start/finish Brecon Cathedral
Distance 4½ miles (two route options)

As this begins and ends at a cathedral cafe (appropriately named Pilgrims Tearooms), you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a walk only for people of faith. Yet the two routes created in the last year as part of the Visit Wales Year of Trails take in much more than religious hotspots. The lower-level Llanddew loop mainly follows water from an ancient well and along the River Honddu to a market town. The higher-level Pen y Crug takes in the River Usk and the iron age hillfort at the top of the hill from which it gets its name – from there, spirit-soaring views of the Bannau Brycheiniog (formerly known as the Brecon Beacons) and the Black Mountains reward a pilgrim’s efforts.

St Ninian’s Cave Pilgrimage, Dumfries and Galloway

Start St Ninian’s Chapel, Isle of Whithorn
Finish St Ninian’s Cave
Distance 5½ miles (one way); cave only from Kisdale, 2 miles

Isle of Whithorn village is home to the ruins of the chapel of the fourth-century Saint Ninian, said to have converted many Celts and southern Picts to Christianity. In the 12th century, pilgrims would arrive by water and rest, before continuing on to Whithorn and its priory, in honour of the eponymous saint. Green signs marked “Core path 356” (a coastal network set up by the local council) lead you along sea cliffs to the cave where the saint would seek solitude. Names on the map are foreboding – Rock of Providence, Devil’s Footsteps – and this coastline is also where the infamous final burning-effigy scene of the 1973 classic The Wicker Man was shot. Look out for birds, especially cormorants, perched above the turquoise water and spy multiple caves once used by smugglers until you reach Port Castle Bay and St Ninian’s Cave, where 18 medieval stone crosses were discovered.

Iona of the East, Fife

Start North Queensferry station
Finish Aberdour station
Distance 8 miles (2½ miles if using train at Inverkeithing)

Waymarked as the longer Fife Coastal Path, this stroll passes through a part of Scotland that back in the height of ecclesiastical journeys would have been teeming with pilgrims. So much so that in the 11th century Queen Margaret, later canonised as a saint, established a ferry there to help bring people across the water (hence the name Queensferry) so they could reach the famous St Andrews further up the coast. The walk takes in the many bays and coves, as well as tree-lined tracks and the fishing village of Aberdour with its 13th‑century castle (thought to be one of Scotland’s oldest standing specimens), and offers views over to Inchcolm, AKA Iona of the East, where the ruins of a 12th-century abbey can be spied. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is the proliferation of beaches en route for a restorative open-water swim surrounded by fulmars and seals.

Phoebe Smith’s new book Wayfarer: Love, Loss and Life on Britain’s Ancient Paths (HarperNorth) is out now. To buy a copy for £14.95 go to guardianbookshop.com