West

Definition

South of the Trent, west of the A6, excludes Chilterns and Thames Valley E of Oxford, then Wiltshire and Dorset and west thereof.

Why walk here

Coastline. Well, you might say, of course there is coastline, England is an island.

But only one English coastline has a national trail along its length. The South-West Coast Path, at well over 600 miles, is the longest of our national trails, hugging almost every mile of the region as I describe it, from Minehead round to Sandbanks. And a superb coastline it is too, something for everyone, from genuinely rough and remote walking around Hartland Quay or Zennor, say, to quiet sandy bays, impressive industrial and pre-historic archaeology, and thriving seaside resorts.

But what happens if you want something more challenging, navigationally, than making sure the sea is always on the same side of your body? (And before anyone says anything, yes I do know there are navigational challenges on the coast path too.) You could try Dartmoor. The highest and most extensive moorland in southern Britain, it’s been used for military training for decades, precisely because the disorientating effect of the granite tors puncturing a wild plateau subject to frequent mist and fog poses tests no matter how fit and experienced you might be. It has two smaller twins: Exmoor, like Dartmoor a National Park, and Bodmin Moor, less well-known and therefore free of some of the crowds. I sought it out on my cross-England walk.

These are all in Cornwall and Devon, the first two counties coming up from the Atlantic, though Exmoor slips into Somerset. Here, and in east Devon, there are hill ranges: Polden and Blackdown, Mendip and Quantock prime amongst them. Some of these enticing hills are separated by the ‘levels’ in which King Alfred regrouped the English forces in the Dark Ages, marshland then not drained, now providing hypnotic straight-line walking in a western counterpart to the fens of East Anglia. Further south, Dorset has, I believe, a higher proportion of its land rated for scenic beauty than any other county of England.

Moving north, beyond the Avon on which sits the World Heritage town of Bath, lie the Cotswolds, the major hill-group of the west and the source of London’s river the Thames, and hence the long-distance trail which follows it to the sea. South of the Thames, along the rolling chalk hills of Wiltshire, runs the Ridgeway on its Iron Age way east. Another national trail follows the Cotswold escarpment north-east, roughly paralleling the Severn above whose floodplain it rises, until it peters out just short of Stratford-on-Avon.

Offa’s Dyke Path, on its way to the north Wales coast, starts on the other side of the Severn, near its confluence with that other excellent river the Wye. The Malvern Hills of Worcestershire, also west of the Severn plain, provide an excellent mini-ridge walk that I often visited while studying in Worcester (and revisited in 2013 after a reunion), and beyond them sit two of the most unspoilt counties of England, Herefordshire and Shropshire, who at their Welsh borders have golden miles of unfrequented hill and dale.

And if the remaining stretch of my ‘west’ is mostly taken up by the industrial heartland of the West Midlands and Black Country, then so be it. Good walking hides here too, as I show on my cross-England walk.

Trails available

Part of the South West Coast Path is included here – there are notes of the stretch from Westward Ho! to Boscastle, and the start of my cross-England walk, used the path for its first stretch, Land’s End to Tintagel. The cross-England walk also included crossings of Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, the Cotswold Way and the canals though Birmingham.

In archive and to follow sometime I have a day walk in Dorset, from Bridport to Beaminster.

Note that the English bits of Offa’s Dyke Path and the Black Mountains come in the Wales folder.