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9 of Northern England’s most awe-inspiring national parks and AONBs

Peveril Castle, Peak District

Northern England squeezes in seven areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) and five national parks including England’s largest and the UK’s first. Between them, these jaw-droppingly beautiful spaces hold England’s tallest peak, its deepest lake and the largest expanse of heather upland in the country.

These tracts of land have been enjoyed by everyone from dinosaurs to in-the-know TV crews. Pretty impressive for such a small area! So strap on your walking boots and start discovering them yourself…

1. Roam the UK’s first national park

View from Monsal Head in the Peak District

Crowned the UK’s first national park in 1951, the Peak District is the granddaddy of them all. Towering rocky outcrops, rolling dales, ancient woodland, windswept moors and heather-clad vistas provide an ever-changing natural spectacle all year. Walkers can retrace the footsteps of the pioneering ramblers who, in 1932, defied landowners by walking from Hayfield to Kinder Scout. This historic event was called ‘The Mass Trespass’ and is thought to have inspired the right to roam enjoyed on these isles today.

Find out more about the Peak District

2. Soak up England’s finest view

View from Sutton Bank

Celebrated author and vet James Herriot famously called the view from Sutton Bank, in the North York Moors National Park, “England’s finest”. Ramble the 1-mile (1.6km) cliff-top walk from Sutton Bank National Park Centre and the dramatic views begin to unfold: the lush vale of York, with the Pennine range of mountains and hills brooding in the distance. Look up at the gliders of the Yorkshire Gliding Club soaring overhead and then down below, where, carved into the hillside, is the White Horse of Kilburn, the largest turf-cut hill figure in England.

Find out more about Sutton Bank

3. Have an electric bike adventure

Cycling in the Durham Dales

Cycling is one of the best ways to enjoy the English countryside, and the Durham Dales and North Pennines AONB have fantastic routes to explore on two wheels. Hire an electric bike, which makes going uphill easy, and explore natural wonders like High Force and Low Force waterfalls. Seek out rambling rivers and woodlands, and stop off at welcoming country pubs to refuel – both yourself and your bike, as many pubs and cafes in the area are rest-up points.

Find out more about cycling in Durham

4. Take a walk on the wild side

Cawfields at night

Northumberland National Park is perfect if you’re looking to get off the beaten track and surround yourself with amazing landscapes. It has a rich array of wildlife, from wild goats to red squirrels, and forms part of an International Dark Sky Park – the largest in Europe, in fact, where you can be spellbound by up to 2,000 stars at any one time. The coastline is also a protected nature reserve with endless beaches, rocky cliffs inhabited by seabirds, and immense sand dunes.

Find out more about Northumberland National Park

5. Take a selfie (or a few!) in the Yorkshire Dales

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Straddling the Pennine hills in the North of England, the Yorkshire Dales National Park offers dramatic limestone scenery, heather moorland and delightful towns and villages that simply cry out for a photo moment. Each valley or ‘dale’ has its own distinct, and highly photogenic, character. Malham Cove, a gently curving cliff of white limestone, has attracted visitors for centuries, while the waterfalls at Aysgarth (a triple-drop) and Hardraw (England’s largest single drop waterfall) are also spectacular. Visit Swaledale for wild and unspoiled scenery and, at Tan Hill, pose with a pint in England’s highest pub.

Find out more about the Yorkshire Dales

6. Pick a favourite lake from a tour of ten

Buttermere Valley

Did you know that the Lake District is often called ‘the most beautiful corner of England’? Mountain Goat Tour’s Ten Lake Spectacular shows you why, taking you to the national park’s most famous lakes, sites of historical interest, and on a cruise. Visit Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s house in Grasmere and eat gingerbread made to a secret recipe. In Keswick, enjoy lunch and explore the traditional Lakeland market town, while the lake cruise gives uninterrupted views of the Lakeland fells. While here, why not stay at the newly refurbished Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere, whose restaurant’s menu changes daily according to the produce foraged within their 46-acre grounds and Victorian walled kitchen garden.

Find out more about Mountain Goat Tour’s Ten Lake Spectacular

7. Clamber through sand dunes to Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle is one of England’s most iconic landmarks, towering above grass-covered sand dunes on a wild stretch of the Northumberland Coast AONB. Just as dramatic is the view from inside the castle walls, looking out to the Farne Islands, home to puffins and grey seals. As one of the country’s largest inhabited castles, Bamburgh has been occupied since prehistoric times, witnessing bloody battles, royal rebellion and secret negotiations. The imposing keep was built to stave off raids in the 12th century, while the King’s Hall is a Victorian masterpiece made for elaborate banquets and balls.

Find out more about Bamburgh Castle

8. Follow the last journey of the ‘Pendle Witches’

Pendle Witches car trail

In 1612, ten people were accused of witchcraft and executed in the county of Lancashire in northwest England. You won’t find any pointy black hats or broomsticks here though. The Trail of the Pendle Witches follows a fascinating tale of superstition, fear and religious persecution through the Forest of Bowland AONB. The Lancashire Witches Driving Trail guides you from Pendle Heritage Centre to Lancaster Castle, where the witches were imprisoned and tried before being hung on the untamed moors just outside the city walls. Look out also for Pendle Sculpture Trail and the Walking with Witches trail around Pendle Hill.

Find out more about ‘Pendle Witches’

9. Fall in love with the great outdoors

Mountain Biking in Niddledale

Essentially, Nidderdale AONB is one giant playground for lovers of the great outdoors. Walkers, cyclists and mountain bikers will find easy access to a network of trails spanning rolling green hills, wild heather moorland, sweeping reservoirs and dry stone walls. The unique geology makes it perfect for climbing, abseiling and caving too. And there’s no shortage of places to fuel up as Nidderdale’s picturesque market towns and charming villages are stocked with great country pubs offering beer from local breweries, superb locally sourced food, Michelin-starred dining and a warm Yorkshire welcome.

Find out more about Nidderdale AONB

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