Why Britain's national parks are every bit as precious as their US cousins

Brian Jackman
Dartmoor has always been a place apart - Moorefam

Raised above the rest of Devon, Dartmoor has always been a place apart; one minute an aching emptiness of brooding tors and windswept skylines, the next a deep valley at your feet, a falling away of mossy oaks and the sound of a river running far below.

Its hillsides are littered with relics of long ago, drawing you into an ancient landscape of clitters, cleaves and featherbeds – Dartmoor-speak for scree slopes, glens and quaking bogs. 

Granite is the key to getting to know it. Rain or shine, the sullen glitter of its feldspar crystals is everywhere, in every rough-hewn gatepost, in the tall grey tower of Widecombe’s St Pancras church – the Cathedral of the Moor – and in the four mighty slabs of the medieval clapper bridge at Postbridge.

On the Ordnance Survey map, Wistman’s Wood is a green teardrop, no more than nine acres all told, but it’s one of the botanical wonders of Britain, a troll wood of stunted oaks whose low canopy conceals a tumbling chaos of mossy boulders. 

Hidden just off the A30 on the northern edges of Dartmoor is another must-do walk into Belstone Cleave – part of the Tarka Trail, which follows the upper reaches of the Taw on its way down from the high moor through Skaigh Wood. Readers of Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamson’s lyrical countryside saga, will recognise this as the scene of Tarka’s encounter with the stoats of Belstone Cleave. 

Wistman’s Wood is one of the botanical wonders of Britain Credit: getty

Another writer who fell under the spell of Dartmoor was Ted Hughes, the poet laureate, who lived in Devon for nearly 40 years until his death in 1998. He wrote of the elusive otter crossing the moor “like a king in hiding,” and hardy souls can make a pilgrimage to his memorial stone lying close to the source of the Taw in the wild heart of the land he loved.

Dartmoor is just one of the 15 national parks established in the UK over the past 70 years, and while they may lack the sheer size and scale of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, they are every bit as precious. 

Together they represent landscape on a more human scale, protecting the best of Britain’s coast and countryside.

Six more National Parks for you to explore

Lullaby in Broadland

Spread across 117 sq miles of East Anglia, the Broads National Park is a low-lying patchwork of seven rivers and 63 broads – the flooded ghosts of medieval peat diggings. Confined mostly to Norfolk, they are England’s Everglades, comprising the third-biggest inland navigation system in the country and renowned for their big skies, windmills and whispering reeds. By far the nicest way to get to know Broadland is to spend a week aboard a motor cruiser. Beginner or old hand, there are plenty of itineraries you can easily cover from established centres such as Stalham, Wroxham, Reedham and Brundall, and a score of hire companies to choose from (visitthebroads.co.uk/things-to-do/boating). 

'Hampshire’s New Forest National Park is the last great wild space in England’s heavily populated underbelly' Credit: istock

If you go down to the woods today

Hampshire’s New Forest National Park is the last great wild space in England’s heavily populated underbelly: an unchanged landscape of heathery slopes and ancient woodlands handed down from the time when William the Conqueror made this his royal hunting ground. Its lowland heaths are the largest remaining in Western Europe, a habitat scarcer than rainforest and deservedly cherished as such. Roaming its leafy woodland glades are some 600 fallow deer – the bucks with handsome broad-bladed antlers. In autumn, the forest resounds with their primeval grunting as they compete with each other for the right to mate during the rut; and to listen to them in the falling dusk is to hear a sound as old as England itself.

The legend of Lorna Doone

Exmoor may be one of our smallest parks, but there’s no end to its wonders. Visitors come to clamber over Tarr Steps, the medieval stone clapper bridge spanning the Barle, to watch Exmoor ponies roaming free over Dunkery Beacon, and drink in the views between Porlock and Lynmouth, where giant hog-backed hills plunge headlong for 1,000ft into the Bristol Channel. And then there’s Lorna Doone Country. Set in the time of the Monmouth Rebellion, R D Blackmore’s classic novel was inspired by tales of a 17th-century band of brigands. Published in 1869, the book has been a godsend to the tourist trade ever since, luring thousands of visitors to its fictionalised landscapes, including the little church at Oare, where Carver Doone shot Lorna on her wedding day.

By yon bonny banks

Loch Lomond is the largest body of freshwater in Britain, stretching for 24 miles from Balloch to Ardlui. Together with the Trossachs, its polished steel waters are an irresistible magnet for every visitor to Scotland’s first national park. At its northern end it is deeper than the Black Sea, and among the islands you can explore on a cruise is Inchcailloch – the Isle of the Cowled Woman – where the chiefs of Clan MacGregor lie buried (cruiselochlomond.co.uk).

Roman Britain’s wild frontier

The Northumberland National Park still has the look of frontier country. Here in “the land of the far horizon”, the past is never far away. You can feel it at Bamburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast, and the monastic ruins of Holy Island, where Christianity took root in the Dark Ages. But nowhere does it come closer than along Hadrian’s Wall, whose Roman forts and milecastles have lain across the throat of Britain for nearly 2,000 years. To see the best of it, take a trip out to Steel Rigg, high above Crag Lough, where the hills fall sheer in a frozen wave of Whin Sill rock with the wall snaking away towards Sycamore Gap, where the opening scenes of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves were filmed. Look north from here and what you see is a rolling landscape that would still be recognisable to the men who manned the milecastles.

All around the blooming heather

The North York Moors National Park is the perfect backdrop for some of England’s loveliest country villages. What’s your fancy: heather moorland or dramatic coastline? Follow the 109 miles (175km) of the Cleveland Way and you can enjoy both. This year, the much-loved long-distance trail is celebrating its 50th anniversary as it unfolds across the park from the market town of Helmsley to Saltburn-by-the-Sea. From here, it hugs North Yorkshire’s stunning Heritage Coast all the way down to Scarborough and Filey, past towering cliffs and picture-postcard fishing harbours such as Staithes, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay (nationaltrail.co.uk/cleveland-way). 

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