Hidden Britain: how to explore our last wildernesses
Words by Richard Harpham, Pictures by Ashley Kenlock (extract of an article from Outdoor Adventure Guide)
As a professional outdoor instructor, avid traveler and human powered adventurer I have embraced many incredible trips, expeditions and adventures all around the world. I have been blessed to be able to spend considerable time in the wilds of Alaska, The Yukon, British Columbia through to exploring parts of Peru, Brazil and plenty of remote locations in Europe. As a paddler, (canoes, kayaks and SUP’s) I can escape to remote rivers and coastal locations within the UK that retain a wilderness feel. My childhood and plenty of recent trips away involve seeking out remote and hidden parts of Britain to recharge my batteries and feel alive. I want to share with you some ideas, locations and stories to inspire you to find your own slice of paradise here in Great Britain, off the beaten track. It’s called Great Britain for a reason!
An important consideration for your wilderness adventure is to determine what is wilderness? How will we know when we have arrived? The trusted dictionary informs me it is a location, a natural environment that has not been modified or controlled by humans. For me personally I believe it should provide feelings such as peaceful, inspiring, remote, vast, breath taking, spiritual, elemental, unspoilt, and untouched. It is worth noting that technically some of our ancient monuments, trails and sites of interest whilst having anthropogenic roots still feel wild. Bits of Hadrians Wall overlooking the Scottish foothills at Walltown Crags provide the sense of being Roman soldier shivering staring out across wild lands.
Finding ways to explore our countryside and wild areas without feeling part of a mass exodus or conveyor belt of tourists requires some potential planning and lateral thinking. We live on a beautiful, ancient and diverse island with stunning natural features, ancient trails and historic sites but of course we share it with 65 million other people.
Some simple tips for increasing your wilderness experience include:
Using the seasons
The seasons have been part of our connection to the land (and sea) for thousands of years, from welcoming the light at Stonehenge and other stone circles to planting and harvesting our food. The seasons offer us the chance to view landscapes, trails and your secret destinations through different prisms. The colours, wildlife and plants through the seasons often seem to make it feel like a new and different location even if you have been there before.
Perhaps more importantly visiting outside of peak seasons, holiday times and tourist traps can mean you enjoy walks, paddles and visits alone and in blissful silence. This winter for example we wild camped at different locations throughout the highlands, paddled lochs and the River Spey and hardly saw a soul. Last month my wife and I hiked into Blacksail, Englands most remote youth hostel (our 3rd visit) in the Ennerdale Valley in the Lake District and enjoyed hikes where we only saw 2-3 other people during the whole day.
Love the Darkness
Walking, canoeing or cycling at night, once you have adjusted to it can provide a brilliant change of perspective and of course again generally avoids the masses. You may think that under the cover of darkness there is a nothing to see, we usually find it a different view. Huge vistas are replaced by new challenges, paddling or scambling under moon or torchlight as well as the nocturnal wildlife putting in an appearance. Night navigation can be tricky and the risks do increase so be safe and make robust plans to avoid accidents and emergencies on your watch. Ash, (my wife) and I walked part of the Pennine Way for 24 hours a couple of years ago (which coincided with 2 ft of snowfall and part of the trail being closed). Despite being brutally cold we experienced a breathtaking clear starry night followed by incredible colours as dawn broke and plenty of adventure. Similarly Rob, my paddling partner, and I paddled 97 miles of the River Severn over a 24 hour period whilst training for the Yukon River Quest and paddled rapids in the dark, enjoyed Ironbridge lit at night and plenty of wildlife along the banks. We hardly saw another person.
Extend your Days
Starting at dawn and using dusk as part of our time in the great outdoors provides lots of different benefits. Firstly there is that inbuilt satisfaction from hitting the trail, being focused and efficient. It just feels good. Secondly if you get ahead of the faffers and dawdlers then you get to enjoy the scenery with your party an not everyone else. Early mornings and dusk are also the best time to see many of our native species. Whilst walking the West Highland Way (national trail from Milngavie to Fort William) many years ago I was a ‘grumpy Chuck’ having been plagued by midges in my bivvy bag so started walking at 6am and was rewarded with rounding a corner to spot an otter playing in the stream.
As a sea kayaker I have escaped to inaccessible locations on most of my trips and expeditions. You can access deserted beaches and coves in a very short space of time. Similarly canoeing and kayaking rivers and estuaries often provides peace and tranquility with many providing a day of adventure without seeing another person, particularly in the off season. Sea kayaking and canoeing is truly a silent way of traveling and you can access wild locations and wildlife like a ‘paddling ninja’ . There are plenty of times I have witnessed rare wildlife, ‘skinny dippers’ and even a Bollywood film being shot.
Using the Sustrans Network
Many of our more remote Sustran routes connecting disused railway lines, forest tracks and trails can deliver a wilderness experience. Couple that with a spot of wild camping and you are in your own little piece of wilderness. Obviously if its stealth camping then be gone early, leave zero trace and avoid attracting attention to your location and activity.
Sharing Remote Locations
By now you may be wondering if i am going to share some hidden locations with you or keep them to myself. It is a tricky one whether to provide a detailed route map, full instructions or whether to allow you the same sense of discovery and exploration. I think the latter with some pointers would be the best way to avoid finding a motorway directly to an iconic location bustling coach parks and streams of people swarming.
It goes without saying that I trust you will respect these hidden gems and ensure they are preserved for future generations by leaving no trace, collecting rubbish you find (there is no magic fairy) and championing these hidden gems to protect again developments.
The UK has 16 national trails offering excellent hiking opportunities across beautiful landscapes. They offer varied terrain, historic value and challenge, ranging from the ‘Spine of Britain’ on the Pennine Way, to the incredible of Hadrian’s Wall to the meandering Thames Path and beyond.
Our National Trails
This trail skirts around the edge of the North Yorks Moors
Running North to South From Chipping Campden to Bath including the Cotswold Escarpment
Celebrate Welsh culture and history woth moors, farmland and forests following in the footsteps of Owain Glyndwyr
A UNESCO world heritage site spanning from the Solway Firth to Walls End in Newcastle with lots of historic sights.
North Downs Way
The ancient pilgrimage from Farnham to Canterbury to the White Cliffs of Dover
Offa’s Dyke Path
England and Wales following King Offa’s Ditch built in the 8th Century
Peddlars Way and Norfolk Coast Path
The trail includes Roman roads, sandy beaches and low cliffs.
Following the ancient packhorse and drovers route following the Spine of Britain from Kirby Steven to Middleton.
From Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yelden on the Scottish Borders following the Spine of Britain.
Stretching from Ivinghoe Beacon down to Kennet the Ridgeway is one of the oldest routes in Britain.
South Downs Way
From Winchester down to the white cliffs of Eastborne
South West Coast Path
630 miles of rugged coastline from the top of Exmoor National Park to Poole in Dorset
Following one of Britains longest rivers from the Cotswold to the capital city and to the sea.
Yorkshire Wolds Way
The Yorkshire Wolds Way runs from Hessle to Filey and connects with the Cleveland Way.
Coast to Coast
From St Bees on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea this is a truly iconic walk
West Highland Way
From Milngavie to Fort William one of Britains best trails skirting Loch Lomond, traversing Ranoch Moor and showcasing the highlands.
We also have 15 national parks spanning the country which are publicized as Britain’s breathing space. You could spend a lifetime exploring them through the seasons and never really come to know the true depth of their beauty. For my wife and I visiting and embracing their wild side is what we do to relax and unwind. Our national parks are : The Brecon Becons, The Norfolk Broads, The Cairngorms, Dartmoor, Exmoor, The Lake Disrict, Loch Llomond and the Trossachs, The New Forest, Northumberland, The North Yorks Moors, The Peak District, Pembrokeshire Coast, Snowdonia, South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.
Our highest mountain peaks, stunning geological features, hidden valleys and precious locations are nestled within our national parks. I can remember walks, bike rides, camping and paddling trips, that have connected me with almost all of them. My memories connect me to fun with friends and family, wildlife galore, so many views and a sense of wonder at the natural world. Don’t take my word for it, add them to your bucket list.
The “Top Secret” Wilderness Dossier
Like a good restaurateur I decided to share a few of my favourite haunts and memorable locations around the country.
The Jurassic Coast
There are so many incredible beauty spots on the Jurassic Coast (A world heritage listing) that I have visited many times for sea kayaking trips with our Canoe Trail customers and for my own recreation. Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove, Old Harry, Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island, Joe’s Café (Studland Bay, which serves delicious Paella) and the Needles (just past the Jurassic Coast) are all stunning and mostly accessible from coast paths or sea kayaking (my favourite).
Northumberland is sufficiently remote to avoid the tourist exodus but easily accessed from the A1. The River Tweed is one of the best canoeing rivers, anywhere in the world arriving in Berwick upon Tweed, the ancient walled town. The moors around there are a gateway for the Cheviots with St Cuthberts Cave providing some bouldering opportunities. With my expedition team mate Olly Jay (of Active4Seasons) I have sea kayaked much of this incredible and wild coastline and also canoed around Holy Island. Open canoeing around Lindesfarne on the Springs offered great wildlife with dolphins and seals for company. The highlight of the trip was getting woken up wild camping in the kilns below Lindesfarne and being accused of being a tramp! The Farne Islands offers some more great sea kayaking with lots of puffins, guillemots and seals on hand.
Ennerdale and Blacksail
Blacksail is Englands most remote Youth Hostel situated in the bottom of Ennerdale Valley, flanked by impressive Wainrights on each side. Haystacks, Pillar, Great Gable alone are reasons to tackle the 7-8 mile hike in to this off grid sanctuary. We have stayed there 3 times and each occasion meet like minded people, many of whom have had it on their bucket list for years, on our last trip one lady, had waited 25 years waiting to stay.
Gencoe Munro’s, ridges and the Lost Valley
Since as long as I can remember we visited Scotland as a family ‘bagging’ Munro’s, hostelling, camping and hiking. Glencoe became our go to place and we scaled the surrounding Munro’s mesmerized by the views and history. The Aonach Eager Ridge is one of my favourite scrambles with its exposed ledges and precipices. The backdrop of Rannoch Moor delivers a real moonscape with barren lochs, moor and scrubland. The Lost Valley rumoured to be the hiding place of the MacDonald Clan is a fantastic hike and wild camping spot, perfectly hidden.
Scottish Lochs offer a world class wilderness destination, they are varied, incredibly beautiful and deeply spiritual places. From sea lochs teeming with seals and bird life, eagles, ospreys and much more to inland waters. Whether you chose to walk or cycle around them, above them walking on the peaks above or paddle and portage they provide a great backdrop for your adventures. The Great Glenn Canoe Trail provides a brilliant journey from Fort William across Scotland to the North East to Inverness. Loch Shiel with is Harry Potter film appearances, Loch Morar on the West Coast and Loch Maree in Easter Ross with the Loch within a Loch within a Loch, burial ground and its’ money tree are all living history. (where you get a connection with the past). Queen Victoria visited Loch Maree in 1877 helping to add to its current appeal. .
I returned from canoeing the Yukon River having spent 2 weeks paddling watching wolves and bears in the wild (The Yukon Territories are 1.9 times the size of Britain with a population of just 36,000) . It was a real culture shock being back to hustle and bustle so I promptly departed to Castle Bay on the Calmac Ferry to head down to Barra Head for a mini sea kayak expedition. The Southern Islands are uninhabited with gorgeous golden sands and rocky cliffs to the West. Be warned the weather can change quickly here and we were storm bound on Mingeles for 2 days and were grateful to the climbers who retrieved our tents twice in Force 8-9 gales as they succumbed to the elemental forces.
If you are not a kayaker you can head North using the ferries and cycle or hike around the Outer Hebrides.
Pembrokeshire, one of our national parks, is a hidden gem that seems to have avoided the holiday makers of Devon and Cornwall. It boasts national surfing beaches, ancient woodlands, rocky coves, incredible coastal paths but all without the masses. Ash and I spent our honeymoon there and even came home with a shire horse(this is an optional extra)!. There are standing stones and sink holes and one in particular called the Witch’s Cauldron offers a micro adventure with tunnels, a waterfall and an incredible wild swimming location.
Hitting the Trail
Just writing this article remembering so many remote and special locations has given me ‘itchy feet’ to plan some more trips and expeditions. For me connecting with our natural world and wilderness is the perfect antidote to modern life. It is worth remembering that people fought hard for our ‘right to roam’ so we should use it, use our national parks and trails and help protect them for future generations. The rate of development and building around Britain is scary so more champions for our wilderness areas is critical.
If you read this and feel inspired but unsure if you have the outdoor skills or knowledge then find a guiding company or outdoor instructor to provide local knowledge and expertise. Stay safe, leave no trace and start exploring Great Britain #staycation
Richard Harpham is a human powered adventurer and inspirational speaker who has completed over 9,000 miles of expeditions by kayak, canoe, bike and on foot including exploring the Yukon, Sahara and Canada’s Inside Passage. At home he runs www.canoetrail.co.uk , a watersports business and www.inspiredlife.org with his wife Ashley in Bedfordshire sharing their passion for paddling and the great outdoors. He is the editor of Bushcraft and Survival Magazine. His adventures are supported by: Paramo Clothing, Valley Sea Kayaks, SPOT Trackers, Silver Birch Canoes, Bamboo Clothing, MSR, Canadian Affair, Osprey Rucksacks, Reed Chillcheater and Exposure Lights.
Follow Rich on his adventures @myrichadventure www.richadventure.com