Seven of Britain’s natural wonders

Neil Coates reveals seven stunning locations, away from the usual tourist hotspots

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1 Beinn Eighe, Highland
The geological jigsaw that makes up this remote corner of the UK was cut from a template of enchantment. And it was created before most other areas of the realm; Wester Ross’s commanding coastal mountains of Torridonian sandstone were first deposited by immense river systems a mind-boggling one billion years ago. The gleaming quartzite hats worn by some of the peaks, such as Beinn Eighe herself, are the result of much later (a mere 500 million years ago) catastrophic ructions of heat and pressure. The bewitching landscape bequeathed by such geological tumults is Disneyesque. These immense, sheer-sided giants rise 1,060m (3,500ft) in shimmering purple perfection above Upper Loch Torridon, a sea loch.
Remnants of the Caledonian pine forest feather shorelines sprayed by tumultuous waterfalls, which tumble down from the astonishing tract of wilderness that lies at the mountains’ feet.
Dappled by countless lakes and lesser hills, this ‘Knochan-and-Lochan’ countryside was the first in Britain to be designated a National Nature Reserve, back in 1951. Golden eagles, black-throated divers and crossbills keep twitchers happy, while red deer and otters flourish here, too. Serious walkers head for the awesome natural amphitheatre of Coire Mhic Fhearchair, tucked below the triple-pinnacled peak of Còinneach Mhòr.


2 Upper Swale Valley, North Yorkshire
Swaledale is a meandering, green tendril of wildflower-rich haymeadows, penetrating deep into the looming moors at the north-western fringe of the Yorkshire Dales. Great Shunner Fell and Ravenseat Moor receive generous amounts of rain, helping create and sustain the peaty bogs that pepper the tops. The waters gather into a regime of becks and rivers that conspire with the underlying geology of sandstones and limestones to create a remarkable suite of cataracts, falls and shoots, making the Upper Swale Valley around Keld arguably England’s waterfall central.
A splendid approach to this watery wonderland is on the fell road threading eastwards from Kirkby Stephen. Just above Keld, the multi-stepped Wain Wath Falls string alongside the lane, the most easily visible and visited, tumbling prettily beneath silvery limestone cliffs. More foaming fantasies lie hidden in the magnificent wooded gorge of the Swale below the village. Twisting footpaths penetrate the arboreal splendour close to Currack, Kisdon and Cutrake Forces, hidden voices rumbling over gigantic limestone ledges below hanging woods rich with bluebells. Dedicated waterfall hunters can explore further to find stunning Swinner Gill, an astonishing canyon carved into East Stonesdale Moor, with a string of crystal-like waterfalls dropping to swell the nearby Swale.


3 Sherwood’s Oaks, Nottinghamshire
Whether that medieval rogue Robin Hood ever met with his merry men in Sherwood Forest is a moot point. If he did then central to the plot is the Major Oak, a vast 800-year-old tree with its superannuated boughs resting on props and crutches, where the outlaws met in secret in the hollow trunk.
Explore beyond this famous connection to the men in Lincoln Green, however, and you’ll discover tantalising remnants of the medieval royal hunting forest of Sherwood, dispersed across the colourful heaths of north Nottinghamshire.
Just a short stroll away are around 1,000 of the most remarkable, wizened, moss-clad old gentlemen of the forest. These twisted, Tolkienesque denizens are claimed to be the greatest agglomeration of ancient trees in Europe. It’s a bit of another world here, with some of the giants tucked deeply away amid growths of mere 200-year old youngsters, while others stand as gaunt sentinels in bluebell-spangled clearings; lonely sexcentennial homes to countless birds, insects and fungi. Birklands Inclosure is truly a step back into the days of yore, with vast, skeletal trees looming above longhorn cattle, reintroduced to graze and help recreate wood pasture, thought to be more typical of the old greenwood.


4 Tal-Y-Llyn Lake, Gwynedd
Shapely Cader Idris, in the south of Snowdonia, is garlanded by lakes. Some fill the black depths of cwms hollowed
out by glaciers 13,000 years ago – Llyn Cau a particularly memorable one, gnawing at the 892m (2,927ft) mountain. Others mark the passage of the ice sheets across the flanks of this awesome volcanic ridge; Llynau Cregennen to the north are pretty silvery lakes in a high hanging valley below stately Tyrau Mawr. The matriarch of the system is Tal-y-Llyn (Llyn Mwyngil), a mile-long finger of water nestled below the southern flanks of the range.
Technically a ribbon lake held back by a vast post-glacial landslip, it nestles in the middle of a precipitously-sided glaciated valley carved by ice following the Afon Dysynni. Look east up the valley for some of the best lowland views in the national park: fringing sessile oakwoods provide a soft foil to the stark crags and cliffs focussing to the pass of Bwlch Llyn Bach, part of the great Bala Cleft fault complex. The waters from this shallow lake flow 12 picture-perfect miles to the sea near Tywyn – legend has it that it once watered the fertile (and fabled) land of Maes Gwyddno, now apparently sunk beneath the waters of Cardigan Bay.


5 Chesil Beach, Dorset
Chesil is an unworldly place; a slightly unsettling meeting of shingle, sea and sky on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. Geomorphologically, it’s a tombolo, although some argue it’s an 18-mile barrier beach. Semantics aside, the first thing you’ll notice is not visual but aural. There’s a background hissing; the sound of billions of pebbles being caressed by the waters of the English Channel. And with the gently lapping waters of the Fleet bordering the inland edge of the beach, this ever-moving filigree of stones really is an eye-opener.
The pebbles – largest at the southern end, smallest at the western – are worn down by percussion, the act of one hitting another due to wave movement. Largely Cretaceous flints and chert, they were probably sourced via longshore drift after the last ice age, when gravels washed from cliffs to the west were transported by wave action and wash, reworked as low, linear shingle steps. With fresh supplies prevented by groynes and harbour walls, this temporary landscape will disappear in a geological blink-of-an-eye. So now really is the time to appreciate the unique agglomeration of rare plants; the 300-plus bird species; the booming of winter storms and the crackling of summer heat on this true landscape phenomenon.


6 Cuilcagh Mountain and Marble Arch Caves, County Fermanagh
Ulster is awash with beautiful countryside. In this land of loughs, glens and awesome coastal features, one unheralded corner is designated a World Geopark by UNESCO. Cuilcagh Mountain wells up where County Fermanagh meets Ireland’s County Cavan; an extraordinary dome of peat blanket-bogs and the gritstone, cliff-fringed table mountain of Sleive Cuilcagh.
The Geopark award, made to areas where geological heritage encourages education, protection and sustainable development, recognises the significance of these fragile wetlands; breeding ground for golden plovers and an unusually high concentration of rare plants and invertebrates. Much lies hidden, however. Dissolved out of the limestones that underlie Cuilcagh are an astonishing series of caverns deep beneath the 665m (2,182ft) peak. The Marble Arch Caves are accessed along wooded paths dropping into a gorge, where one of the rivers which flood much of the cave system sinks from sight. Only the higher levels are open to visitors, but you can enjoy a sublime series of stalactite and stalagmite galleries, calcite-flows and vast chambers. First explored in 1895, the knot of caverns and passageways resurfaces at Shannon Pot in Cavan, from which gushes the Shannon.

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7 Hartland Point, Devon
The Romano-Greek writer Ptolemy named it “Promontory of Hercules”, a sharp headland protruding into the sea opposite Lundy Island. To many, it is still remote enough from the popular resorts and bays of nearby north Cornwall or the Exmoor coast to retain an air of mystery and seclusion.
Today’s Hartland Point is part of the South West Heritage Coast, designated to celebrate the outstanding geological and morphological features crammed into a few miles of vast cliffs and remarkable coves in north Devon. None more so than the series of stunning coastal waterfalls that cascade on to the rocky beach platforms, most spectacularly at Spekes Mill Mouth. Morphological weaknesses direct these; equally astonishing are the abrupt geometric folds of the rock strata created 300 million years ago, starkly visible in the cliffs and as rucked-up, rocky stripes striking across cliff-foot bays such as Blegberry Beach. At cliff-top level, St Catherine’s Tor juts to the sky, a wonderful viewpoint to the savage cliffs hereabouts. From tiny Hartland Quays’ extraordinarily concertina-contorted rocks, the coastal footpath undulates drunkenly to the double-eyed Blackchurch Rock, most memorable of the countless slender sea-stacks littering this wild, elemental coast, backed by softly wooded coombes glowing with wildflowers.