I was asked once in an interview where I would be at my happiest and decided that apart from spending time with my family, who obviously get top billing, it would be at the top of a hill in the rain, covered in mud and looking down on the landscape stretching away to the horizon.
Of course, the absolute peak of perfection would be if my family was there as well, but history suggests that they would be in the car, muttering darkly about how I had promised this would be a short walk, that it would be sunny, and how I should have turned round when they did.
I have always been much happier outside than in, which isn’t an assessment of my mental state but rather about where I want to spend time, out in the open air with the hills, trees and rivers, rather than inside with photocopiers, televisions, and desks. And given that you are reading this particular magazine, I guess that is a sentiment you probably share, especially if you are currently inside because you are in a dentist’s waiting room.
If you love the outdoors, Britain is a great place to be. For such small islands, we have far more than our fair share of majestic landscapes: the glacial beauty of the Lakes and the Dales, the volcanic Cuillin, Snowdonia, the West Country, and the haunting fenland of the east. But we have smaller gems, too, unsung heroes without the same tourist clout or credentials that we often simply hurtle past on the motorway, and many are just as beautiful and uplifting as their more famous cousins. And because not so many people are aware of them, there aren’t so many people there, which is one of the things I like. So I’m going to share six of my favourites with you, as long as you keep them under your hat…
The Howgill Fells
If you are at Tebay Services on the M6 – pronounced how a Yorkshire man might say eBay – and about to turn off towards the Lake District, you are literally turning your back on the Howgill Fells (pictured above), an overlooked part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
This is a mistake, especially if you want to climb the area’s two ‘Marilyns’ – hills slightly shorter than a Munro – or see Cautley Spout, which may sound like a character from Dickens but is in fact the highest above ground waterfall in England. Above ground because the highest overall is Gaping Gill, where the water pours down a pothole. I was once lowered down the torrent in a cage, and wished I had brought some shampoo.
Geologically, the Howgills mirror the Lakes to the west and it is from the top that you can also get some of the best views of the Howgills’ next door neighbour. The M6 cuts through the gap between the two in the rather appropriately named Lune Gorge.
The Blackdown Hills
As you roll along the A303, wondering if you will ever make it to Cornwall, and why a road this busy doesn’t seem to have any service stations, you will pass the slightly tautologous Blackdown Hills. If you are driving in August, you will usually pass them slowly and may be tempted to interrupt your stop-start trip with an actual definite stop. Do – it is worth it.
The Blackdowns run roughly from Wellington, Somerset, in the north to Honiton, Devon, in the south, so if you find yourself in Exeter, you’ll have missed them. Wellington, incidentally, is the home of the Cleopatra’s Needle-style monument visible from the M5. It celebrates the victory at Waterloo but was only finished in 1854, proving that there were major delays even then, which I find comforting when in a traffic jam.
From the north, these greens and hills appear as a long, steep wooded escarpment, but once climbed the slope gives way to a plateau dissected by valleys, giving shelter to quaint, thatched villages in which dairy farming still seems to be the dominant occupation. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is unique even in that, as the only one in Britain without a town in it.
The Vale of Belvoir
Hurtle up the M1 or A1 and you will shoot past the Vale of Belvoir. Tucked into a triangle between Leicester, Nottingham and Grantham, this is the ancient agricultural heart of England, home to the Melton Mowbray pork pie and stilton cheese. In other words, it’s a bit like the Bermuda Triangle, except that here it is all thoughts of dieting that disappear. I discovered it by chance while working in Nottingham.
I was attracted by the name – Belvoir literally means ‘great view’, and I wanted to see if it had one, although of course to prove its Britishness the vale has a pronunciation completely at odds with the spelling.As the Grosvenors and Cholmondleys would doubtless tell you, it is pronounced ‘beaver’, which is a problem for the uninitiated and those, like me, who were unaware and trying to find it by asking for directions. It does have a great view though, of rolling, fertile farmland dominated by Belvoir Castle, home of the Duke of Rutland.
If you are heading from London to the Channel ports and take a detour south to the border of Kent and East Sussex, you will find Romney Marsh, an area I first visited aged 10 on a school trip. Even now I wonder if the teachers were hoping to leave some of us there, because it would be hard to describe it as the Garden of England. Indeed, for hundreds of years, those living there found it hard to grow anything, and spent much of their time trying to avoid malaria. The disease is long gone, but what remains is a beautiful, sparsely populated peat wetland, crisscrossed by winding lanes, and home to an amazing variety of plant- and birdlife.
The coastline here has been moving for centuries, with the area’s most famous port, Winchelsea, now several miles from the sea. The headland at the marsh’s southern tip is the largest area of shingle in the world and home to one-third of all the plant varieties found in Britain. Its name, Dungeness, may be familiar because it is also the site of a nuclear power station, but you can’t see it if you look the other way, and it helps some marine species that thrive around the warm water outflows. If you like your countryside bleak but beautiful and prefer the Kent of Great Expectations to that of apple orchards, Romney Marsh is a must.
The Icknield Way
Luton, let’s face it, is quite a long way from gaining World Heritage status, so Bedfordshire may not seem the most promising of counties in which to search for the jewels of British landscape. I would agree were it not for the presence of the Icknield Way. A long-distance footpath, it has ancient origins. For thousands of years, this track along the chalk ridge to the north of London was the trade route of Boudica’s Iceni tribe. It crosses the landscape she would have known before challenging Roman rule and cementing her place in British history by doing what we like best – losing heroically.
The full route passes through the Chilterns, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk, but it isn’t just the topography of the journey that makes it interesting. Along the path there are enough burial mounds to send Tony Robinson to an ancient grave and plenty
of interesting diversions. Who knew, for example, that Baldock, a small Cambridgeshire town, was set up by the Knights Templar after the last crusade and initially called New Baghdad? Not the US Department of Defense, I hope.
I discovered Monmouthshire largely by accident. In 2007, I did a tour with fellow comedian Steve Punt during which, because I was training to do a stage of the Tour de France, I cycled from venue to venue. Therefore, one wet February morning I set off to cycle from Abergavenny to Yeovil, and in my way was Monmouthshire. I didn’t cycle as slowly or stop as much as I should to give the county full value, but I was in Lycra and didn’t want anyone to see me, except as a blur. What I did see though made me return, and I have done several times.
Monmouthshire is essentially Britain’s Alsace, an area of disputed ownership over hundreds of years. Now firmly within Wales, its flip-flop history means that it is a land of castles – at Usk, Abergavenny, Raglan and Chepstow. To the north, it has the forbidding Black Mountains and further south graceful river valleys. The Wye is, of course, world famous but the Usk isn’t far behind, along with the much shorter Monnow – sadly there is no Stereow – and the Trothy. The place is beautiful, but as a cyclist, be warned – the hills are steep.