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Our top five picks to be England’s next national park – vote for your favourite

Cornwall is already a firm favourite with holidaymakers from all corners of the UK
Cornwall is already a firm favourite with holidaymakers from all corners of the UK - Getty/The Image Bank Unreleased

Have you heard? A new English national park is on the horizon. Although this isn’t the first time we’ve been promised a new cousin to the Lakes and the Peaks.

In May 2018, the then secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural affairs, Michael Gove, wrote in this paper of a national duty to “not just protect and preserve but enhance and extend the protection we give to our landscapes of special aesthetic and environmental value”.

A year later, the Tory manifesto declared: “We will create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as well as making our most loved landscapes greener, happier, healthier and open to all.”

Now, following on from last week’s announcement that AONBs were to be rebranded as National Landscapes, Natural England has announced that it will consider possible sites for a new national park. The pledge states: “It’s anticipated that the 11th National Park will focus on accelerating the protection of nature, alongside providing public access for people who currently do not have good access to nature and green space.”

Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, said: “As we look ahead to Cop28 it is timely to set out practical actions that reflect the deep connections between nature and climate change.” Wales and Scotland are also looking to create a new national park each.

The most recent national park to be created in England was the South Downs in 2010 – close to some of the wealthiest populations in the country, who also benefit from good access to the countryside and English Channel coast.

In his government-funded Landscapes Review, author Julian Glover recommended three new national parks be created, in the Chilterns, Cotswolds and Dorset. If there is to be only a single national park, the prize is likely to be hotly contested.

Meanwhile, supporters of new parks point out that government funding for national parks has fallen in real terms, leading to service and staff cuts. Will an 11th national park lead to a thinning out of funding for the other 10? And how will the losing candidates react when they are told they haven’t been granted national park status – with all the rural protections and des-res kudos, not to mention inflated house prices, that come with it? Time will tell. Here are the five front-runners.

Cotswolds

The Cotswolds
The Cotswolds

“This is absolutely, resolutely pastoral England. The region’s 800 or so square miles are defined by rolling hills, tucks and folds of valleys, miles of honey-hued drystone walls and a sheep-shaped past that brought great wealth. The tapestry of fields that still coats this landscape is punctuated by ancient woodland and by timeless villages built of the area’s mellow limestone and exuding heart-tugging charm.” – Harriet O’Brien, destination expert.

Sometimes caricatured as “biscuit tin” or “chocolate box”, the Cotswolds are part of the Jurassic uplands that cut across England from south west to north east. From the lower Severn and the Avon, the Cotswold escarpment rises steeply, and while much of it is around the 600-700ft mark, the summit at Cleeve Cloud near Cheltenham is at 1,083ft.

The limestone bedrock is more familiar to visitors as the building material for handsome country residences, but Cotswolds hill country boasts some fine walking trails, including the Rollright Stones route, quirky figure-of-eight Winchcombe Way, and 100-mile biggie, the Cotswold Way, from Bath to the town of Chipping Campden. The possibility of a national park divides local opinion. Detractors are concerned about a possible 20 per cent increase to already soaring house prices. But a national park would help the Cotswolds shed its snooty, Chipping Norton-set associations – and, as well as giving Londoners a new green space, provide the people of the West Midlands with an alternative to the busy Peak District.

Where to stay: Cowley Manor is an immensely pleasing blend of funky art hotel, country house retreat and family-friendly haven (doubles from £223).

Cornish coast

Cornish coast
Cornish coast

“Cornwall has the longest coastline of any UK county, and every inch of it is glorious: 422 miles of soaring granite cliffs and sandy beaches, quaint fishing villages and bustling harbour towns. It has inspired countless poets and artists down the centuries, but rarely can they capture the essence of myth and mystery woven into this ruggedly beautiful landscape.” – Tom Mulvihill, destination expert.

Already a firm favourite with holidaymakers from all corners of the UK, it could be argued that the Cornish sea coast has an identity crisis. Rick Stein’s Padstow empire, the anti-outdoors Eden Project, eyesore installations at Land’s End, second-home ownership and Airbnb-fuelled community disintegration work against Cornwall’s natural attractions of granite moortops and dramatic cliffs. Poldark-mania attracted plenty of road traffic, but that’s not what England’s most visited dead-end needs.

A national park could rescue Cornwall’s essential ruggedness and out-there qualities. The nifty new website of the Cornwall National Landscape divides the protected landscape into 12 alluring areas that account for a third of the county, and remind us that Cornwall is, mainly, coast and cove. Pronatura, a sustainable development NGO, argues that national park status would be a boost for the local economy without imposing “undue restrictions” on business. But tighter development controls could make affordable housing even harder to obtain.

Where to stay: The Idle Rocks, St Mawes, is set right on the miniscule harbour, with sailing boats moored and little passenger ferries cruising in and out (doubles from £230).

Chilterns

chiltern hills
chiltern hills

“Stunning views, Autumn beech woods to rival New England in the fall, red kite, Adonis blue butterflies, water voles, monkey orchids, otters (yes otters!) and 2,000 miles of footpaths just an hour from central London? That’s what I said!” – Richard Madden, destination expert.

The almost 10 million people who call London home are blessed when it comes to city parks and green spaces. But for a proper outdoor walk or challenging climb they have to travel. It’s sometimes claimed the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog) national park in South Wales is the closest area to the English capital for serious hill walking and traffic-noise-free camping.

Could the Chilterns be turned into a proper wilderness? The chalk downlands contain a high number of wooded areas, and half of the woodland is ancient, including the Chilterns Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation. There are also significant box, juniper and yew woods. Nine precious chalk streams provide a globally scarce habitat for some of the UK’s most endangered species, including otter, water vole, reed bunting and brown trout. The species-rich chalk grassland is home to scarce flora such as Chiltern gentian, wild candytuft and pasqueflower, as well as the silver-spotted skipper butterfly and glow-worm. The UK’s national parks tend to have rich human history too. The Chilterns are home to Bronze Age barrows and one of the largest concentrations of hill forts in the UK. After the HS2 tunnel debacle, perhaps it’s time for the Chilterns to be welcomed into the national park family.

Where to stay: Danesfield House, Marlow, is a country home with as much character as it has history (doubles from £126).

Dorset/East Devon

Lulworth Cove
Lulworth Cove

“Giant ammonite fossils in the soft coastal cliffs are what pull the punters in. But to a geomorphological treasure house you can add flower rich meadows, teetering sea stacks, softly flowing chalky streams, and a cultural landscape stretching from prehistoric times to Thomas Hardy.” – Mark Stratton, destination expert.

South and west Devonians and the sunseekers of the English Riviera have Dartmoor national park on their doorsteps. While east Devon is blessed with a kinder climate – it is drier and sunnier once you pass to the far side of Exeter – there’s a local feeling that the Jurassic Coast and Thomas Hardy Country are not quite the full shebang when it comes to spaces for leisure and recreation.

Campaigners for a Dorset and East Devon national park point out the “stunning countryside, a World Heritage coast, outstanding biodiversity and cultural heritage” as well as “rail accessibility from London and the Midlands”.  They also criticise agricultural practices that reduce the diversity of the landscapes and wildlife and the low quality of local rivers and Poole Harbour. “A National Park could help make Dorset and East Devon the natural place to visit and do business. It offers a unique opportunity to help reverse the decline in our environment, make this the home for ambitious and innovative businesses and help our farmers and land managers to diversify and thrive in new market and farm funding conditions.”

At the very least, a national park would give some in-between places a far clearer sense of self.

Where to stay: The Pig on the Beach, Studland, is all about warm interiors imbued with a sense of nostalgia, informal yet pin-sharp service, and a locavore-friendly restaurant worth pigging out in (doubles from £315).

Pennines

South Pennines
South Pennines

“Not as soft as the Yorkshire Dales to the north, this is the wilder, windswept Pennine moorland of Bronte dramas and mysteries with tough sheep, soaring birds, horizon-stretching views and stone-clad villages clinging to steep-sided valleys. Criss-crossed with packhorse trails and dotted with bold rocky outcrops, it has an invigorating northern defiance.” – Helen Pickles, destination expert.

In September 2021, Pennine Prospects – a partnership involving six local authorities, utilities firms, the National Farmers Union, National Trust and Natural England and a number of voluntary organisations – self-declared the South Pennines as a national park.

Their aim was to “champion the landscape, its people and businesses in order to bolster recognition and unlock resources for the only upland in England that is not a designated National Park or Area of Outstanding Beauty”.

The group raised £15 million for landscape projects, including Heritage Lottery funding awarded in 2010 and again in 2018. The area was considered for a potential park as far back as the 1940s, but while other national parks were given the stamp of official approval, the South Pennines region was rejected – despite the proximity of major conurbations including Manchester and Leeds. If it were chosen now, it would provide a green corridor linking the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales and help turn former mill towns like Todmorden and Blackburn into bona fide tourist destinations. The Calder Valley, aka the BBC’s Happy Valley, is also inside the proposed area mapped by campaigners.

Where to stay: Holdsworth House Hotel, Halifax, is a charming Jacobean manor just outside Halifax which has hosted a roll call of celebrities, from the Beatles to Jayne Mansfield (doubles from £150).