Panoramas worth protecting: the best of Britain’s great outdoors
In a week celebrating our 15 National Parks, Richard Madden highlights their virtues and why they should be cherished
My eyes used to glaze over at the very mention of the word geology. But it is the furnace in which the priceless asset of our National Parks was forged. Look at a geological map of Britain and you will see one of the most complicated geologies of a land mass our size anywhere in the world. And it is the primary reason we are blessed with such a huge variety of inspirational landscapes.
There are 15 National Parks in mainland Britain – 10 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland – and in a land as crowded as ours, they are more precious than ever. As well as an invaluable recreational resource, they are biodiversity hotspots, a final refuge for endangered species such as the golden eagle in the Cairngorms or the swallowtail butterfly in the Norfolk Broads.
Over the years I’ve walked, cycled, caved, climbed, swum, coasteered, sailed, kayaked, dived, ridden or flown a paraglider in every one of our National Parks bar one (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, I promise to visit soon). Singling some out for special mention feels like a betrayal, like naming a favourite child, and is based more on my own particularly fond memories than any objective pecking order of merit. Described in detail are the six I know best. a school friend, a rucksack, some nylon sleeping bags and a one-man tent, we strode out confidently one summer evening long ago. Like first love, things did not go smoothly. We wandered into bogs that tried to suck us under and nearly died of fright mistaking Dartmoor’s ponies for wandering ghouls in the dead of night.
But, in between, we swam in the translucent whisky-coloured waters of the River Dart, followed the footsteps of innumerable forgotten ancestors along stone rows and into stone circles – Dartmoor has an amazing 1,208 ancient monuments – and discovered the spiritual home of Tolkien’s Ents in Wistman’s Wood, one of three high-altitude dwarf pedunculate oak woodlands and one of the most powerfully atmospheric ancient forests in the country.
The park is the largest open space in southern England and the Two Moors Way that runs 102 miles north-south across Devon is a great introduction to both Dartmoor and Exmoor.