Britain’s National Trails wind through some of the most beautiful scenery and historical places of interest. Gillian Thornton takes a walk
Britain is blessed with an outstanding choice of National Trails and long-distance footpaths, but none can rival the Thames Path for diversity.
I’m standing on the south bank beneath London’s Emirates Air Line cable car, the white dome of The O2 arena behind me and the Thames Barrier just visible in the distance. Journey’s end.
Cotswolds to London
Today, I’ve walked through more than 1,000 years of history spanning the Tower of London to The Shard.
I’ve passed architectural icons from Tower Bridge to The Gherkin and seen shipping as diverse as HMS Belfast and the Cutty Sark.
But I’ve also discovered the ruins of a 14th-century royal palace, dropped into some great historic pubs and learnt about Edwardian philanthropists in the Bermondsey slums.
What a contrast to the early meanders of the Thames, 180-odd miles away in rural Gloucestershire, where the river winds past sleepy villages, through locks and under bridges before turning near Oxford towards Windsor, the City of London and Greenwich.
And beside it, from the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier, runs the Thames Path National Trail, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
It’s a far cry from the National Trail I tackled last year through some of England’s wildest and most remote scenery.
The Hadrian’s Wall Path runs for 84 miles beside England’s most famous piece of military engineering, built between AD 122 and 128 to defend the northern boundary of the Roman Empire.
Between Newcastle upon Tyne and the Solway Firth, the wall is still dotted with the remains of mile castles and turrets, temples and forts – a living history trail guaranteed to captivate walkers, nature lovers and amateur historians alike.
Follow the acorn
Every one of Britain’s long-distance trails is different. The South West Coast Path undulates over cliffs and rocky coves, while the gentler Ridgeway follows an inland itinerary used by travellers, farmers and soldiers since prehistoric times.
The Cotswold Way is an invitation to discover England’s picture-book stone villages, while Offa’s Dyke Path threads back and forth across the Welsh border past historic castles and along canal paths.
All National Trails are well signposted with an acorn symbol, so getting lost isn’t an option and, of course, you don’t have to walk an entire trail in one go.
If you want to organise your own trip, you’ll find inspiration and advice at nationaltrail.co.uk (England and Wales) or at snh.gov.uk for Scotland’s Great Trails.
If you would much rather let someone else plan the route, provide guidebooks, sort the accommodation and transport your luggage, there’s another way to dip into our National Trails.
Load Off Your Back (01707 331 133) will handle all the boring bits for you on 16 of our long-distance footpaths, including four new routes for 2016.
All you have to do is carry a daypack and follow the guidebook provided.
Each trail has been broken down into carefully researched options. I spent a week walking beside Hadrian’s Wall, but if you want time to explore Roman forts, Load Off Your Back offers eight- or nine-day versions.
The itineraries are flexible, too, if you want a rest day en route.
Accommodation is usually in pubs, small hotels and B&Bs within a few hundred yards of the trail.
In the rare case that your lodging is further away, just call the designated taxi firm with your ETA at the pick-up point.
If you don’t have the time – or legs – to tackle an entire trail, just home in on one section.
The full Thames Path takes 13 days, but you could take a short break walking the upper reaches or maybe pick up the closing stretches through the capital.
Living within easy reach of London, I thought I knew parts of the trail.
But hugging the waterway for mile after mile with a comprehensive guidebook made me see this exciting city through the eyes of a local.
Of course, all of England’s long-distance trails are linear, which presents the question of how to get home.
Load Off Your Back provides details of public transport options whether you need to get back to your start point or are going directly home.
And there is another option – you can always walk back and experience the scenery in reverse!
Great for spirited adventurers
The Pennine Way is regarded as one of Britain’s toughest routes, passing through the Peak District National Park and the Industrial Revolution sites of the Calder Valley.
Great for loved-up romantics
Famed for its views of wild birds and seals and passing fishing villages, sandy beaches and rocky headlands, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is picture-book pretty.
Or take in the magical scenery of the Scottish lochs on the Great Glen Way.
Great for tranquil travellers
Try the South Downs Way from Winchester to the Channel coast, or enjoy the gentle countryside of the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path.
There are various companies offering self-guided walking holidays on the National Trails and other walking trails across the UK.
Make up your own itinerary or choose one of the options available:
✤ Contours Walking Holidays: 01629 821 900
✤ HF Holidays: 0345 470 8558
✤ Sherpa Expeditions: 0800 008 7741
✤ Footpath Holidays: 01985 840 049