The beautiful natural features of the UK may not be the first things that spring to mind when planning a visit to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Most people planning their first visit think about the country's cities — London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool — its industrial history or its stately homes, castles and cathedrals.
But the UK is a surprisingly green island with a deeply indented coastline of almost 20,000 miles (including the offshore islands). Within its boundaries, the UK is a sort of world in miniature — with canyons, mountains, river valleys, deep, beautiful lakes and amazing beaches. These are among the best of its natural wonders.
Scafell Pike and The Screes
In July 2017, England's Lake District became a UNESCO World Heritage site. The somewhat controversial designation was in recognition of its traditional sheep farming, but that's not why we've chosen it for this list.
Instead, we're attracted to it's wild, lonely beauty and for the range and variety of its lakes and lakeland fells (a word the Vikings brought to Britain for mountains). From the genteel loveliness of Lake Windermere (the largest natural lake in England and a resort since the railroad arrived in 1847) to the stark drama of Scafell Pike, England's highest peak, and the Screes, seen here from Wastwater.
Wastwater, at 260 feet deep, is the deepest of the Lake District lakes. The Screes, running along the southeast shore, are made up of millions of broken stones left after the last Ice Age that rise from the bottom of the lake to a height of 2,000 feet.
How to See It
Once voted Britain's favorite view, the lake and Scafell Pike are owned by the National Trust. The Trust operates a campsite between Wastwater and Wasdale Head at one end of the lake, with wild camping, glamping and camping pods as well as facilities for camper vans.There is also limited parking around the lake. The Lake is off the A590 in Cumbria over rural and mountain roads.
If you are hooked on the latest BBC version of Poldark, then you have already visited Kynance Cove, at least in spirit. The cove, with its enormous rock towers, sea caves and low tide islands, is Nampara, Poldark's white sand beach.
As it appears in the TV drama, the beach looks extensive and permanent. But in fact, most of it is only visible and accessible at low tide. It's part of The Lizard, the most southerly spit of land on mainland Britain. It is worth planning your trip around the tides to see and swim in the stunning turquoise waters, wrapped in Cornish headlands that make up this beach — often listed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
The name, "Kynance" is derived from an old Cornish word, kewnans. It means ravine which should give you an idea of why this is considered an adventure beach. A stream, with steep sides cuts through the open heathland or downs opening out onto the beach and revealing more coves and caves that flood at high tide.
The area around the cove, including the cliffs at The Lizard, are noted for wildlife watching, wildflowers and even wild asparagus. If you're lucky and watching from the cliff tops, you could spot enormous basking sharks in the clear turquoise waters. The second biggest fish in the ocean, they frequent the area in late spring and early summer.
How to See It
Getting to Kynance Cove is something of an adventure, though there is a viewpoint about 220 yards along a level track from the clifftop parking. To get to the beach itself, it's either a 2 and a half mile walk along the coastal path from Lizard Point or a steep hike down the cliffs with some steps at the bottom. Another route, described as rough but more or less level, is about a 20 minute walk from the car park. There are toilets in the car park and a beach cafe and accessible toilet in the cove. The beach has no lifeguard and there is a danger of being cut off by high tides at the northwest end. Still want to go? Set your GPS device for post code TR12 7PJ or hop on the number 37 bus from Helston to Lizard Village green, about a mile away.
Views From Mt. Snowdon
Mount Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales and the highest British mountain south of Scotland. The Snowdon massif rises from the center of Snowdonia National Park and the views across North Wales from its slopes and summit are spectacular.
On a clear day, you can see Ireland, Scotland, and England as well as a Welsh landscape dotted with castles and lakes (called Llyn in Welsh). There are a eight official paths to the top. The Llanberis path, known as the "tourist path" because it is considered the easiest, is also the longest — at 9 miles.
But, in fact, there is a much easier way to enjoy the views. The Snowdon Mountain Railway takes visitors up from late March to early November and its route reveals ever changing and dramatic vistas.
If, on the other hand, you'd rather look up at the mountain than down from it, there are good views of Snowdon from the Janus Path, a 500 yard, accessible board walk around Llyn Cwellyn, a lake to the west of the summit near the Mt. Snowdon base camp. It's reached from the Snowdon Ranger Station parking.
How to See It
The Snowdon Ranger Station, the start of the difficult Ranger Path and also access to the Janus Path boardwalk, is off the A4085, post code LL54 7YT for your GPS device. The Snowdon Mountain Railway (definitely the easy option of sightseers of all ages, including children) operates from Llanberis Station on the A4086, Victoria Terrace, Llanberis, Caernarfon LL55 4TT.
Swallow Falls in Snowdonia National Park
Swallow Falls, beside the A5 about two miles west of the Snowdonia National Park center in Betwys-y-Coed, is the tallest continuous waterfall in Wales. To get a sense of what that means, you have to walk along beside it.
The falls, on the River (or Afon in Welsh) Llugwy, are not one, tall cascade but a winding and ever widening series of cascades that thunder down, layer upon layer, into the river valley.
The easiest way to see Swallow Falls is from the sturdy staircase that runs alongside it. From the entrance, across from the Swallow Falls Hotel on the A5, it's a short, downhill walk to the riverside steps. Using them, visitors can climb to the top of the falls or descend to the bottom, enjoying changing views as they go. There is also a more challenging approach, on foot along the north bank of the river. And for real daredevils, there are companies that (unbelievably) run whitewater kayaking adventures down these falls.
How to See It
Park in one of the paved lay-bys on the A5 or across from the entrance to the path at the Swallow Falls Hotel. There is a small fee for using the hotel car park. Entrance to the falls path and staircase cost £1.50. There's a small kiosk but it is open irregularly.When it is closed, visitors with the right change can pay at a sort of combination gate/turnstile. There is also an alternative and more adventurous path of about three miles through the woodlands and up the north bank of the river from the village of Betwys-y-coed. It is considered accessible but is very steep (a grade of 1 in 10) in places with tree roots and rocks to negotiate. Ask at the National Park information center beside the visitor parking in Betwys-y-coed for information about this walk.
The Seven Sisters Cliffs
It's easy to imagine that when Britain broke away from mainland Europe, the two snapped apart like a piece of broken china. If you travel across the English Channel, due south from the Seven Sisters cliffs (between Eastbourne and Seaford in East Sussex) to Fécamp or Étretat on France's Alabaster Coast, you'll see an almost matching run of gleaming, white chalk cliffs.
You have to sail out to sea for a good view of the French cliffs. But iconic views of The Seven Sisters, undulating beneath seven rolling hills of grass-covered chalk downs, can be enjoyed from several vantage points along England's deeply indented south east coast.
How to See It
The Seven Sisters Country Park is included in the South Downs National Park. It's about a two hour drive from London. There is also good local bus transportation from the train stations in Brighton, Eastbourne and Seaford. This classic view, featured on postcards and calendars the world over, is from above a small group of Coast Guard cottages. There is also an easier vantage point from the National Trust site at Birling Gap.
Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags
Arthur's Seat, in Holyrood Park, is a volcanic hill and popular family climb in Edinburgh. From the top of Arthur's Seat there are views across the city. But Arthur's Seat itself, together with Salisbury Crags beneath it, form a beautiful and dramatic mountainscape right in the middle of Edinburgh. It's also very accessible.
How to See It
Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crag are best seen from the base of Calton Hill on Regent Road/A1. It's a gentle half mile climb from the eastern end of Princes Street near the Scott Monument.
If you have a vivid imagination, Durdle Door, a natural stone arch near Lulworth Cove on the Dorset Coast, looks like a serpent, or a dinosaur rising from the sea. The idea seems less far fetched when you consider that this is part of England's Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site where tectonic forces have pushed some of the oldest rocks on earth to the surface.
Some of England's first dinosaur fossils were found here and fossil finds from as long ago as the Triassic Era (250 to 200 million years ago) can still be seen in the rock face or picked up on the beach. At Lulworth, most finds are from the Jurassic Era, 200 to 140 million years ago. Lucky fossil hunters have found ammonites, belemnites and ichthyosaur vertebrae.
You don't have to be into very ancient bones to enjoy the way the sun and sea create a changing play of colors on Durdle Door. It's beside a small shingle beach. But a short walk over the headlands (or from the car park above) will take you to the gentle waters of horseshoe-shaped Lulworth Bay and the soft, white pebble beach at Lulworth Cove — all the makings for a fine day out.
How to See It
Durdle Door is just west of West Lulworth on the B3070. Access by path and steps is through the Durdle Door Holiday Park, or by the Southwest Coast path and steps over the hill from the Lulworth Cove car park (about a mile and a half walk). If you choose to come by train, you can catch the Monday through Saturday bus service (104) from Wool Station on the London Waterloo to Weymouth line to the holiday park entrance. (Check National Rail Enquiries for schedules). There are alsoboat trips to Durdle Door from Weymouth Harbour and Lulworth Cove.
The Needles are three, sharp, impressive and gleaming white chalk sea stacks that rise out of the sea and march toward a colourful, striped lighthouse off the west end of the Isle of Wight. They are gradually eroding into the sea. In fact, there used to be four and the one that disappeared was the needle-shaped stack that gave the group its name.
How to See It
For such a fragile, off-shore formation, it's actually quite easy to get to see the Needles. Here's how:
- From the Needles Old Battery and New Battery, a National Trust site that was a Victorian defense installation and secret rocket launch site, you can look down on the Needles from the western extremity of the Isle of Wight. There is no vehicle access but it is a three quarters of a mile walk — over a well paved path, from the parking at Alum Bay (free for National Trust members).
- From March to October, the Needles Breezer bus runs regular services to Alum Bay from Yarmouth, then it's that 20 minute walk to the Batteries.
- Take the Needles Chairlift from the Needles Landmark Attraction (Marconi sent the first wireless messages from here) down to Alum Bay Beach. There are views on the way down and also from the beach.
- Needles Pleasure Cruises operate short boat trips from the jetty at Alum Bay Beach for a close-up look at the Needles and the Needles Lighthouse.
The Severn Bore
As the Severn Estuary travels from the Bristol Channel to Gloucester, the River Severn, trapped between South Wales, Somerset and Gloucestershire becomes rapidly more narrow and more shallow. At least 12 times a year, (during the spring and autumn equinox) this geographical formation, coupled with exceptionally high lunar tides, produces a wave of water at least four feet high - but sometimes as much as 10 feet. Called the Severn Bore, It races up river, against the current, at speeds of between five and eight miles per hour and surfers travel from all over the world to catch it.
How to See It
The Severn Bore is visible from a variety of viewpoints in Wales and Gloucestershire. The simply named Severn Bore website, put together by local expert and enthusiast Russell Higgins, provides comprehensive information on when the bore will occur and where it is best seen. There is a lot of useful information, such as which areas have lots of ambient light for best night viewing without a full moon and where parking areas might be flooded at high tide.
The South Gower Coast
The Gower is a South Wales peninsula west of Swansea that has exceptionally beautiful beaches and cliff formations. Rhossili Beach, pictured here, is a three-mile scallop of sand backed by sandy, beach grass covered bluffs high enough for paragliders to launch from. At low tide, shipwrecks emerge from the sand and Worm's Head, a tidal island that extends off the Western end of the beach becomes walkable - for the adventurous - at low tide. It takes its name from the Viking word for dragon - wurm - because from the shore, that's what its 200-foot-high cliffs resemble.
How to See It
The South Gower Coast is owned by the National Trust which maintains some parking, a shop and visitor center near Rhossili Beach. National Trust parking, (£5 for all day or free for members) includes toilets and a shop. A visitors center on the first floor has information and exhibitions by local artists. There are several cafes and a pub (with arguably one of the best coastal views in Wales) in the Worm's Head Hotel, beside the National Trust parking area.
The best view of Rhossili Bay and Worm's Head is from the top of Rhossili Down, the highest point on the Gower, reached from Swansea on the B4247.
In 2011, in a survey run by a Scottish conservation trust and a walking organization, visitors voted Glencoe Scotland's most romantic glen. The glen's approximate length of 12 miles is lined with eight Munros — those are mountains of more than 3,000 feet. One of Scotland's most ancient landscapes, it is actually the remnant of a volcanic caldera formed 450 million years ago. It's also the location of a tragic 17th century clan massacre.
How to See It
Glencoe can be viewed, climbed or hiked from several different viewpoints. This one, of the Three Sisters, is seen from the Three Sisters Point of View car park on the A82 in Ballaculish, about four miles west of the Glencoe Visitor Center. There are also several low level, circular walks and a wildlife viewing platform at the visitor center itself.
Scott's View and the Eildon Hills
The Eildon Hills, three ancient volcanic plugs, preside over the relatively flat River Tweed Valley. Across the valley, between Melrose and Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders, the B6356 rises steeply offering an uninterrupted view of these unusual hills and the patchwork of fields that surrounds them.
The view was a favorite of Sir Walter Scott, creator of Ivanhoe, who lived in Melrose and often stopped on at the viewpoint to enjoy it. Legend has it that on the way to Scott's burial at Dryburgh Abbey, his horse (who was pulling the wagon carrying his coffin) stopped, out of habit, in the usual place - possibly to give Scott one last glimpse of his beloved Eildon Hills.
How to See It
Scott's View is indicated by a sign and a stone-walled parking area beside the road B6356. It's at the highest point of the road, about six miles north of Dryburgh Abbey.
Loch Lomond at Tarbet Bay
It's hard to find a view of Loch Lomond that isn't totally lovely. At more than 27 square miles, it is Britain's largest lake (by surface area) with a great variety of bankside views, overlooked by mountains covered in woodlands and heather. The most memorable way to enjoy a view of Loch Lomond is when its banks and the lower slopes of Ben Lomond are clothed in their autumn colors.
How to See It
From the public parking at Tarbet Pier, at the intersection of the A82 and the A83, walk north along the loch-side path. For at least a mile along this path, the views of the loch's Tarbet Bay, with tourist boats plying the waters beneath the Ben Lomond massif, are very camera-worthy.
Stanage Edge, in the Peak District National Park on the eastern edge of Derbyshire, is the longest gritstone edge in the UK. In plain English, for non-rock climbers, it is a 3.5-mile long, continuous run of fine-grained stone cliffs and bluffs overlooking the Hope Valley. The exposed rock faces — popular with climbers — are between 50 and 65 feet high. The whole is a lot more impressive than that might suggest because the edge runs at the top of a hill, between 1,300 and 1,500 feet above the valley floor.
How to See It
You'll probably need a SatNav or GPS device because, although it is not difficult to get to, Stanage Edge is off several paved but unnumbered or signposed park roads. It's about six miles southeast of the Yorkshire Bridge Inn in Bamford. Go south from the inn on the A6013 and then turn left onto New Road (it's the first left) . After about two miles, keep left at the T-junction with Long Causeway. At the Long Causeway carpark, turn right onto the unmarked road. After about a half a mile, you will see the beginning of Stanage Edge, uphill, on your left.
There are several parking areas but for the most choice, stay on this unnamed road, bearing left at the next T-junction, until you reach Hook's Car Park (about a mile and a half from the Long Causeway carpark at the junction with The Dale). From this point your can either:
- enjoy a long view of the edge, above you
- take the stone-paved path up across the moor to the path along the bottom of Stanage Edge
- or cross through the low rocks to walk along the top of the edge and pose moodily like someone in a whisky ad.
Malham Cove and the Limestone Pavements
If you've seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, then you've already seen Malham Cove and the Limestone Pavements. The cove is a huge, limestone crag, shaped like an amphitheater, 230 feet high and 985 feet wide. It's just a few hundred yards outside the village of Malham on the Pennine Way. Steps take you to the top where you can carefully walk on the limestone pavement. This is a rare and legally protected habitat formed when rainwater dissolves limestone, exposing its structure of regular, square blocks. There are several limestone pavements in the Pennine Hills that run through the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales National Parks. This is one of the best. The views from the bottom and the top are terrific.
How to See It
Malham Cove is three quarters of a mile south of the village of Malham, on Cove Road, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. After about a half mile, look for a public footpath marker and a small National Trust sign on the right. The rest of the way is over a gently climbing but wide, flat path of the Pennine Way.
The Giant's Causeway
The Giant's Causeway, near Bushmills on the North coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, isn't man made. It's not even upgraded or maintained by rock gardeners who come out when everyone is gone to tidy things up. The causeway, looking like a roadway into North Atlantic, is made of about 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal basalt columns, some more than 12 meters high. They are the remnants of an ancient volcanic lava glow, frozen in time. The tops of the columns form stepping stones, mostly hexagonal (six-sided) but also with four, five, seven and eight sides, leading from the foot of a cliff into the sea.
If you plan to visit, do keep in mind that reasonable mobility and fitness is required to walk on the causeway. There is, however, a new and accessible National Trust visitors' center. In 2013 it was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize in architecture. The visitor center is one kilometer from the Causeway, It's not visible from the site so its wild aspect, like a harsh backdrop for some moody Game of Thrones scenes, is maintained. Interestingly, a lot of the area around the Giant's Causeway - caves, beaches, forests - was used in the television saga but the causeway itself has never made the cut.