While the Lake District and the ‘wuthering’ North Yorkshire Moors are British National Parks known across the world, visitors should take the time to explore the surprising attractions of two of the lesser-known parks, Peak District of Derbyshire and Northumberland National Park.
Peak District National Park
Located within the modern urban triangle of Manchester, Sheffield and Derby, the Peak District would seem an unlikely refuge for things wild and natural. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The 1400 sq km ‘Peak’ is a blend of rugged gritstone country to the north and bucolic limestone dales in the south. It was also the first national park to be created, officially granting people the ‘freedom to roam’. Today you too can roam over 500 sq km of open access land, or take to 55km of family-friendly trails suitable for walking, cycling and horse-riding.
A great example is the 21km Tissington Trail, which winds through grazing pastures bisected by hedgerows and dry stone walls. It also passes through a village that seems little changed after centuries. Like several villages in the district, Tissington belongs to a titled family (the FitzHerberts have owned it since 1465), and is watered by a natural spring bubbling up from the limestone. In May, the villagers ‘dress the wells’ with biblical scenes comprising flower petals – a tradition dating back to when these pure water sources were said to have spared Tissington and surrounding villages from the tragedy of the Black Death.
One of Britain’s most famous historic seats or noble residences (and arguably its most beautiful) is located in the Peak. Be sure to spend a full day touring Chatsworth House, farm and grounds. The English Baroque stately home was featured by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice (it doubles as Mr Darcy’s home, Pemberley), indeed Austen is said to have written the book in the nearby town of Bakewell.
Stunning views of the Peak District are afforded by softly rounded outcrops like Thorpe Cloud and Monsal Head (easily reached if you don’t mind exercising your calf muscles, and rewarded by a refreshing ale in a country pub after your descent). For a steeper challenge, join a climbing guide and venture north for remote and rugged gritstone edifices like Stanage Edge, one of the most testing rock faces in Europe.
The region is just as dramatic below the ground. You can join adventure groups out of Hope or Bakewell to descend into a gushing, slightly eerie subterranean world of limestone caves. Or take a more sedate trip into the Treak Cliff caverns in Castleton, where generations have been mining the striking flourospar mineral known as ‘Blue John’.
Northumberland National Park
Northwest of Newcastle, Northumberland National Park is one of the lesser known of Britain’s national parks, and similarly rewards those who take the trouble to explore it.
The 1050 sq km region has a magic to it. A place of woodlands, waterfalls and looming uplands, it’s also home to druid stones, Roman ruins and whispered legends.
Summer is the time to take to the trails or join a guided walk of hill forts, remote farms and local inns. Smell the wildflowers, listen for the call of the curlew and look for salmon leaping waterfalls in their bid to get upstream.
Though off the tourist path, the park is home to two famous and very distinctive attractions.
Hadrian’s Wall is the iconic 117km barrier built by the Romans to keep out the barbarians from the north. You can follow a section of the 1900-year old structure on the 6.5km Steel Rigg and Crag Lough Walk, taking in a milecastle (fortified gate), several dramatic crag lookouts and a lake. It’s perfect for families. The walk starts at The Sill, a new National Discovery Landscape Centre that can help you better appreciate your surroundings; it also has a café and a workshop where traditional crafts are taught.
The other unique attraction is the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park. In 2013, the park declared that 1,483 square kilometres of sky would be protected from light pollution, forming the largest such ‘Dark Sky’ in Europe. It’s your chance to see the stars, moons and planets as the Romans would have seen them. The sky is especially vivid in winter months – the time to go on a guided tour of the heavens and a chance to see the elusive Aurora.
Lead image: Andrew Picket, Visit Britain