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Six alternatives to the Lake District to explore in the UK

Cumbria’s national park isn’t the only theatre of epic scenery in the UK. Here are six more destinations for your next outdoor adventure.

In the Elan Valley, the drama of Mother Nature and the ambition of Victorian architects collide to spectacular effect in this swathe of the Cambrian Mountains.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 6 Nov 2021, 06:00 GMT, Updated 10 Nov 2021, 08:33 GMT

Is this Britain’s most inspiring landscape? You only need to look at the list of writers and poets who’ve immortalised the Lake District’s fells and fields to see it makes a strong case: Wordsworth, Potter, Coleridge, Tennyson, Ruskin, Shelley, Keats, to name a few. UNESCO clearly thinks highly of it, awarding the national park World Heritage Site status in 2017. It describes it as ‘a priceless and irreplaceable asset not only to the UK but to humanity as a whole’. Although this region is famously prone to rain (as evidenced by its green, green landscapes), the wet weather doesn’t deter visitors — 15 million people a year come to this vast swathe of Cumbria, to walk its fells, sail its lakes and follow in the footsteps of some of the English language’s most-celebrated wordsmiths.

The Lake District has long been synonymous with outdoor escapes, and now, post-lockdown, crowds are once again filling its car parks, eager to soak up some of the loftiest and most poetic scenery England has to offer. But across the UK there are similarly soul-stirring landscapes ripe for exploration, many of which receive a fraction of the visitors — from wild Highland peaks roamed by stags to sleepy, reed-rippled waterways best explored by boat. Discover one of these areas instead and, who knows, you might feel inspired to put pen — or paintbrush — to paper.

Almost twice the size of the Lakes, the Cairngorms sprawls across over 425sq miles of central Scotland.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Cairngorms, Scotland

Head around 200 miles north from the Lake District, and you’ll eventually meet another of the UK’s national parks — the largest, in fact. Almost twice the size of the Lakes, the Cairngorms sprawls across over 425sq miles of central Scotland. This is the Highlands at its most emblematic: dense pine forests, wild stags and babbling brooks, with ample opportunity for hiking. An easy highlight is the one-hour circular route to the Falls of Bruar, hidden amid larch trees and crossed by a stone bridge that wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Similarly epic landscapes await on a hike along the Jock’s Road — running for almost 14 miles through moorland, craggy passes and along winding rivers, it’s a rewarding challenge for those looking to embrace the wild outdoors. Or why not take it all in by boat? Spirit of the Spey offers canoe and kayak trips along the scenic, salmon-rich River Spey, with stops at whisky distilleries to toast your efforts and learn more about Speyside malts. Come in winter, and you can even take to the slopes at the Glenshee Ski Centre, home to the some of the best-quality snowsports in Scotland.

Where to stay: The Fife Arms, in Braemar, is the perfect Highland bolthole, furnished with bold prints and quirky pieces of Victoriana, and there’s even a bijou spa waiting for you after a day’s hiking. Make time for a wee dram of one of the 180 whiskies in The Flying Stag bar. From £358, B&B. 

2. Howgill Fells, Cumbria

You don’t even have to leave Cumbria to find similarly heart-stealing landscapes. Squeezed up against the Yorkshire Dales, the Howgill Fells is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), crumpled with hills just as lush and lofty as those of the Lake District. Chief among them is The Calf, the area’s highest point at 2,218ft, where steel-calved hikers can enjoy sublime views right across into the neighbouring Dales. If you’re after a less challenging climb, then consider the simpler — but no less scenic — walk from Brownber Hall to the imposing Smardale Gill Viaduct, near Kirkby Stephen. Starting at the Victorian manor-turned-stylish hotel, the gentle, two-mile ramble winds through the fells to the 19-arch bridge, which was built in 1861. It cuts a stark, red-bricked figure through the supremely green scenery and stands as a grand symbol of the golden age of railway engineering. It’s now part of a nature reserve, where butterflies and wildflowers thrive in the viaduct’s wooded surroundings. Elsewhere, don’t miss Cautley Spout, England’s highest waterfall above ground, cascading dramatically down a 574ft cliff face.

Where to stay: The Black Bull is everything a good pub with rooms should be. The former coaching inn in the market town of Sedbergh has won over critics with its bold, brilliant Asian- and European-inspired plates, and has a clutch of minimalist, stylish rooms to unwind in. From £125, B&B. 

Read more: A traveller's guide to the Howgill Fells

The Ribble Valley offers quintessential English countryside.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Ribble Valley, Lancashire

Head north of Manchester’s urban sprawl and Lancashire’s beautiful interior can feel like something of a rural revelation. The Ribble Valley offers quintessential English countryside: undulating green hills cleaved by rivers, stone-walled inns, market towns and ancient sites brimming with history. The ideal base is Clitheroe, a handsome market town with excellent pubs and a fine Norman castle. Hire an e-bike and follow the River Ribble as it twists and turns to the west of the town. Stop for a paddle in the stony shallows beneath Brungerley Bridge, before heading downstream to the village of Ribchester, where you’ll find the well-preserved ruins of a Roman fort and bathhouse. Venture into the Forest of Bowland AONB — less a forest, more a brooding landscape of fells, moorland and heathland, threaded by the babbling River Hodder. This is prime walking territory, and hardened hikers should tackle Ward’s Stone, the highest point in the Forest at 1,841ft, which offers stunning views after a challenging climb. There’s also Ingleton Falls, a series of powerful waterfalls that roar down wooded gorges. Set off on the circular, 4.3-mile Ingleton Waterfalls Trail to admire them up close, keeping eyes peeled for hen harriers cruising the skies.

Where to stay: In the pretty village of Waddington, near Clitheroe, the Waddington Arms is a six-room retreat decked out in contemporary, cottage style. Downstairs, enjoy pub fare and a pint of Bowland ale in the cosy restaurant — perfect for refueling and resting up after a bracing hike. From £95, B&B. 

4. Elan Valley, Wales

The drama of Mother Nature and the ambition of Victorian architects collide to spectacular effect in this swathe of the Cambrian Mountains. The headline attraction here is the series of scenic reservoirs, which were created to supply clean water to heavily industrialised Birmingham in the late 19th century. To do so, the River Elan was dammed, and the most spectacular of the six barriers is the Craig Goch Dam, a sweeping curve of brick with a domed tower, built in the ‘Birmingham baroque’ style of the time. The majesty of the structure aside, the landscape here is as much of a draw itself. Its 70sq miles of woodland, moorland, bogland and waterways are home to a wealth of birdlife, including thrushes, shearwaters, kestrels and hen harriers, not to mention the owls that take off beneath internationally-recognised dark skies. There are marked walking and cycling routes throughout the estate, and for some of the most beautiful views, visit in the autumn, when the hazel- and heather-covered hills turn into a riot of gold and brown.

Where to stay: Bed down on the estate itself at Penbont House. There are five en suite rooms, with a calming, homely feel, and homemade cakes are served in the tea room, which has views of the surrounding woodland. From £100, B&B. https://penbonthouse.co.uk/  

Read more: How to explore the Elan Valley

Windmills are an icon of the Broads, and you can have the full Norfolk experience by booking one of your own.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. The Broads, Norfolk

From England’s highest region to one of its lowest-lying. Like the Lake District, water is also at the heart of the Norfolk Broads’ bucolic appeal, only in the form of winding, reed-lined channels and rivers. By boat is the way to go here; set sail from Wroxham on a tour, be it a half-day sail or a week-long boating escape, the latter giving you plenty of time to explore the 125 miles of peaceful waterways. Despite their arcadian beauty, the Broads are actually man-made; the channels date back to medieval times, when peat was dug for fuel. A visit to the wildlife-rich Wheatfen Nature Reserve explores this history, revealing how nature and man have thrived in harmony here for so long. For something more full-on, make a splash with the range of watersports — from kayaking to SUP — available at outlets across the national park. Wend your way west along the River Bure and you’ll pass the stark silhouette of ruined St Benet’s Abbey on your way to Bure Marshes National Nature Reserve, where a scenic boardwalk winds through the lush wetlands. Alternatively, head east to the coast — the seemingly never-ending sands of Horsey Gap are perfect for some (responsible) seal-spotting.

Where to stay: Windmills are an icon of the Broads, and you can have the full Norfolk experience by booking one of your own. The cosy, lovingly restored Bond Island Windmill near Repps with Bastwick sleeps up to five, and, as the name suggests, has a curious 007 theme to the decor.

6. Strangford Lough, County Down

The largest inlet in the British Isles, and one of only three Marine Nature Reserves in the UK, this sea loch in County Down, covering almost 60sq miles, is one of the country’s most spectacular bodies of water. Its shoreline, strewn with grassy islets, was said to have been crossed by St Patrick in the fifth century. These days, though, you’re more likely to spot seals, seabirds and even basking sharks; the incredible biodiversity of the loch meant it was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Head to the Strangford Lough Activity Centre, near Whiterock, and set off on a boat tour to spot the diverse fauna, or opt to kayak, canoe or paddleboard your way across the water. Keen canoeists should follow the Strangford Lough Canoe Trail, a self-guided route that takes in some of the loch’s most arcadian, peaceful islands, as well as challenging whirlpools, which should only be tackled by advanced canoeists. Back on dry land, Castle Ward stands grandly above the pretty village of Strangford. Part gothic revival, part palladian, and with beautiful, wooded grounds, the manor house could be straight from a Jane Austen novel. If you fancy pairing a trip with a city break, then bustling, brilliant Belfast is a 30-minute drive away.

Where to stay: Just a pebble’s throw from the water’s edge is The Cuan, a luxury boutique bolthole in Strangford that dates to the 1800s. It was beautifully renovated in 2020 and now comes with a stylish bistro, as well as a clutch of stylish rooms. From £120, B&B.

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