Fine, there may be nothing quite like the Appalachian Trail or the Via Francigena in the UK – but there are still plenty of long-distance, multi-week hiking trails to test your sense of adventure, many with equally awe-inspiring scenery. From history-minded trudging along the English/Welsh borders to bothy-hopping in the Scottish Highlands and seaside rambles around Cornwall and Devon (as well as a couple of more urban forays), we've compiled some of the country's finest footpaths along which to stretch your legs.
If it's more Scottish mountains you're after, head north of the border and take on our list of 6 Munros to bag near Edinburgh.
Fancy something a little further afield? These are the best hikes in Tenerife.
The Thames Path
Distance: 184 miles
Difficulty rating out of five: **
What: A chic, jaunty, not-too-difficult hike along the entire length of the River Thames. Beginning in the Cotswolds, the route is mostly flat and can be completed in a couple of weeks. There are some glorious stops along the way, including west Oxfordshire’s Kelmscott Manor (the urban escape for Victorian poet William Morris) as well as beautiful back-to-nature Chimney Meadows, chichi Richmond and, of course, buzzing London itself.
Don’t miss: This is the trail for fancy digs – right on the river, the just-opened Mitre is where to hole up, chow down and even lay your head at Hampton Court.
South West Coast Path
Distance: 630 miles
What: The UK’s longest footpath begins in Minehead, Somerset, and loops around the stunning Atlantic coastline of Devon and Cornwall. Doing the whole path will require a sabbatical (50 days or more), but it can be done in small, satisfying chunks. The Westward Ho! to Padstow link has some of the most beautifully tumbledown scenery (especially around Port Quin and Port Isaac), closely followed by Exmouth to Poole along the wild Jurassic Coast. Just watch out for abandoned tin mines on the Cornish stretch.
Don't miss: Cornwall’s knockout restaurants. You're spoiled for choice, from the Porthminster Café in St Ives and Nathan Outlaw's New Road in Port Isaac to the just-opened Argoe in Newlyn and the yellow moorside beacon of the Gurnard's Head in Treen. Whatever your preference, book ahead.
South Downs Way
Distance: 100 miles
What: A trail that connects the historic hub of Winchester in Hampshire to the coastal town of Eastbourne in East Sussex, this is one of the most beautiful long-distance trails in the south of England. Following ancient roads across the chalky ridges and grassy escarpment, it's fairly easy going. The whole thing is doable in a week or so, but some of the most resplendent stretches can be hacked out in a day: for the spectacular Seaford to Eastbourne segment, take a breathless stroll along the undulating clifftop ridges of Seven Sisters before crashing at Eastbourne's highly chic, provenance-minded restaurant and boutique hotel the Port.
Don’t miss: The trail’s quiet country pubs are the other big draw: lunch (or stay) at the 16th-century Ram Inn at Firle for the full, away-from-it-all Sussex country experience.
Offa’s Dyke Path
Distance: 177 miles
What: A spectacular but challenging trail that follows its namesake dyke, a still-just-about-visible trench (or 'earthwork') dug in the 8th century to separate what is now England and Wales. It takes a couple of weeks to complete but for wild, untrammelled beauty, it’s pretty hard to beat: crossing national lines 20 times, it passes through the Wye Valley, the Brecon Beacons and the Shropshire Hills before ending up at the seaside town of Prestatyn.
West Highland Way
Distance: 96 miles
What: Don’t be fooled by the relatively short distance – Scotland’s best-known hike is pretty tough going. It sets off in Glasgow, coursing up to Fort William in the Highlands through some seriously beautiful – though at times unforgiving – mountain terrain. Still, if you’re up to it, the dazzling views and week-long urban disconnect are well worth the hard yards.
Don’t miss: Munros don't come more imposing than the Buchaille, a great rocky pyramid that towers above Glen Etive. Also, make sure to stop in for a night at the tiny, 19th-century Inveroran Hotel at Bridge of Orchy, Argyll – a steal at £52 a night including breakfast. Wild camping on its grounds is also available.
The Cumbria Way
Distance: 70 miles
What: A blissful, if at times testing, trail across England’s absurdly telegenic Lake District, which connects the Cumbrian towns of Ulverston and Carlisle. It's usually divided up into five sections, with each part walkable in a day; the mid-sections between Langdale and Keswick, over steep Stake Pass, offer the most dramatic scenery, particularly in autumn/winter, when mountains like Bowfell and Skiddaw are often capped in snow.
Don’t miss: The soaring, life-affirming views of Scotland from High Pike, the trail's highest peak. YHA Borrowdale near Keswick, the route’s mid-point, is a fun spot to stop over for budget ramblers.
Distance: 63 miles
What: The shortest rural trail on the list is a circular route bang in the middle of Scotland, noted for stunning scenery and quaint rural villages. Unofficially, it begins and ends in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, north of Edinburgh, and can be completed in five days (though a slightly abridged circuit is usually done over a long weekend).
Don’t miss: The full trail boasts a pub every 12 miles or so – probably don't stop at all of them, though. But do consider a dram at the Kirkmichael Hotel, set on the River Ardle and known for its extensive whisky selection.
The Ulster Way
Distance: 625 miles
What: A complete loop of Northern Ireland divided into several so-called 'Quality Sections' (joined together via less spectacular 'Link Sections'). The most popular stretch is probably in the north: the fairly flat, low-lying Causeway Coast Path comprises 33 miles that start in Portstewart and follow a remote, rugged coastline to Ballycastle. Though Gortin to Moneyneany, through the dramatic Sperrin Mountains and Glenelly Valley, ranks a close second.
Don’t miss: Sunset at Giant’s Causeway on the Causeway Coast Way, known for its basalt columns, is truly spectacular.
The Pennine Way
Distance: 268 miles
What: The oldest – and probably best-known – National Trail in the UK begins in Edale in Derbyshire’s Peak District and traces north to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. It's also the toughest: you’ll need some serious hiking savvy if you’re doing the whole trail (as well as almost three weeks of annual leave). But heck, is it worth it; the remote, unspoiled beauty of England’s uplands does not disappoint.
Don’t miss: There are four 'bothies' along the route (small, unattended, cottage-like lodgings that are free to use for a single night). Greg’s Hut on Cross Fell, Cumbria, might be the most secluded. Find the others at mountainbothies.org.uk. Sleep aside, the fellside chasm of High Cup Nick might just be the most awe-inspiring valley in the north of England.
Green Chain Walk
Distance: 50 miles
What: Unknown even to most Londoners, this largely under-the-radar waymarked walking route is made up of 11 mini-trails that connect Thamesmead to Nunhead Cemetery in the capital and takes in everything from castles to meadows to unsung design treasures. Sure, do it all in one go – though no one really does – or just pick a section like, say, Oxleas Wood to Mottingham via the eccentric-chic Eltham Palace, with its wackadoodle art deco interiors and moody medieval bridge.
Don’t miss Another fine architectural oddity is the gothic 18th-century folly of Severndroog Castle, on the Thames Barrier to Oxleas Meadows section.