Hiking in Britain

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I hiked the Pennine Way during the last two weeks of May 2010. Mostly clear skies and mild temperatures when I walked, with a few days of rain. Supposedly, it had been cold in the first half of May, which may be why I encountered no midges. Midges are notorious for being a scourge of hikers in northern England and Scotland, but they cannot tolerate cold. I enjoyed the walk, but it was nevertheless something of a disappointment, given what I had read and heard about how Britain is a hiker's paradise. The list of things I didn't like about Britain is a long one: even in May, sun doesn't set until past 9 in the evening and then rises before 4 in the morning, at which point birds start making a racket (lots of raucous crows along the Pennine Way, nothing like the sweet-sounding songbirds which wake me in Spain), so that it is difficult to get sleep while camping; trees all cut down to make pastures; conifer plantations in the north of England and in Scotland are lifeless and industrial looking, rather than being true forests; fences everywhere; lack of any sense of privacy when wild camping, due to lack of trees; bed and breakfasts and hotels typically fill up every night, so that reservations and hence advance planning required; campgrounds noisy and crowded; no public water fountains or taps, so that water must be purchased at stores. The only thing I really liked about Britain, with respect to hiking, was the availability of high-quality maps and guidebooks. I probably won't be returning to Britain.

[Update 2015: A reader commented that I am being unfair about Britain as a hiking destination, and it is true that I am only considering it from my perspective. My interest in Britain is as a way to extend my annual trip to Europe, after spending the spring in one of the Schengen countries (Spain, France, Greece). This forces me to hike in Britain in late May, June and July. The problems I experienced with crowding and excessive hours of sunlight could both be solved by hiking at a different time of year, such as late September and October. November should guarantee lack of crowding in the uplands of northern England and Scotland, especially if it is raining, and excessive hours of sunlight will definitely not be a problem then. Also, I am only interested in hiking where I can alternate between wild camping and sleeping indoors at hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. For those who don't care about wild camping and who also don't mind a rigid schedule, another way to avoid the problems I experienced would be to make advance reservations for B&Bs every night. Long days and lack of trees to provide privacy don't matter when sleeping indoors, plus you can fill up water bottles at the B&B before leaving in the morning, and thus have no need for public water fountains/taps. My original plan was to hike the Pennine Way, then the Southern Uplands route in Scotland, followed by the Offa's Dyke Trail in Wales. Based on the Walking in Britain book, these are best of the long-distance routes in Britain for those who like a mix of wild camping and B&Bs. There are other long-distance routes in Britain which hug the coasts or go through heavily populated areas where wild camping would not be an option, whereas for the long-distance routes in the Scottish Highlands, the problem (at least for me) becomes too much wild camping rather than too little. For a full list of long-distance hiking routes in Britain, visit the National Trails, Scottish National Heritage and Scotland Great Trails websites. As for the industrial conifer plantations of northern England and Scotland, supposedly those are in the process of being replaced with real forests.]

Guide book was Lonely Planet's Walking in Britain by David Else and others (2007), which includes accomodation and getting to/from trailhead information for a large number of Britain's long-distance trails, including the Pennine way. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in hiking in Britain.

Maps were the Harvey strip maps, which are specifically designed for long-distance hikers. These maps are detailed enough (1:40,000) that I had no trouble hiking the Pennine Way using just these maps and the Walking in Britain guidebook for accomodation information, without needing any additional guidebook. Ordnance Survey maps are also good, but because they are not strip maps, more and larger maps will be required when hiking long-distance trails than with the Harvey maps. The OS maps also lack the useful hiker-oriented information on the Harvey maps, such as symbols indicating various services (hotels, pubs, stores). There are also some other companies which make good maps for Britain. Maps for all of Britain (and much of the rest of the world) are available at Stanfords in London. Local bookstores and tourist offices in the various hiking districts typically sell maps for the surrounding area. For example, the tourist offices along the Pennine Way usually carried both the OS and Harvey maps for the Pennine way, though sometimes they were out of stock.

I highly recommend bringing a GPS receiver for Britain, due to the huge number of barbed wire fences, which can only be passed at the gates or stiles. There are times (such as crossing large pastures in the mist) when it is easy to lose the trail. But you can't just use map and compass and cut cross-country to get back on track. Rather, you must find out exactly where you are using GPS, then backtrack to where you got lost, then resume moving forwards. If you try to go cross-country, you will likely end up bumping into a barbed wire fence. You can't cross the barbed wire because (a) you might damage the fence in the process; (b) you will almost certainly damage yourself or your gear in the process; (c) there may be further fences to cross that are not evident, so the more fences you cross, the more of a mess you find yourself in. All quality British maps (including the OS and Harvey maps) contain GPS grids (British National Grid format, Ordnance Survey datum).

[Update 2013: The only GPS I owned at the time I hiked in Britain (2010) did not support map file nor did I have it loaded with a GPX tracks for the Pennine way. Instead, I used it give me position information so as to find myself on the paper maps I was carrying. As of 2013, almost everyone has a GPS-enabled smartphone and many people have a standalone mapping GPS as well. Using one of these loaded with GPX tracks, or even better loaded with GPX tracks and digital maps (1:100,000 or larger scale), would be a better solution, and allow you to dispense with paper maps. More on GPS here.]

Stanfords map store in London has the best selection of maps and walking guides for Britain. Near Covent Garden underground. 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP, +44 020 7836 1321, www.stanfords.co.uk. Hiking guides and maps are widely available in smaller bookstores and tourist offices, but I would still recommend buying everything in advance at Stanfords.

Buy bus and train tickets a day in advance and travel at non-peak times (middle of the day) for substantial discounts. National rail trains for the midlands (start of Pennine way) typically leave from St Pancras, which is near Bloomsbury. National express buses typically leave from outside Victoria Station.

Prepaid GSM SIM cards widely available and inexpensive. I used Orange mobile, which had a special deal for international calls. An unlocked quad-band GSM phone is required, or just buy a cheap European band GSM phone in Britain.

British immigration is becoming very strict, even for Americans, far stricter than French, Spanish, Greek, German, Swiss or Turkish immigration (which are the other European countries I have flown into or crossed into via ferry). I was almost denied entry because they couldn't believe my story of being able to afford to spend three months hiking in Spain followed by another month hiking in Britain. Apparently, they expected me to have available a printout of bank account statements showing adequate funds for a month of hotel bills, plus a printed return airline ticket (my ticket was electronic only, which is normal these days), plus more printouts showing reservations for hotels, and so on. Finally, after two hours of being interrogated, one of the immigration officers walked me to an ATM, where I was able to show a large balance in one of my bank accounts, at which point he agreed to stamp my passport. From what I hear, United States immigration is the same way. Harassing legitimate tourists like this can't be good for the tourism industry. Unlike in continental Europe, where I pass through immigration both entering and exiting the country, I did not pass through British immigration on my way back to the United States and received no exit stamp in my passport. Perhaps immigration obtained my exit information from the airline. If not, I hope they don't throw a fit if I transit through Heathrow on future trips to Europe, on the grounds that I overstayed my visa.

Hotel reservations are highly recommended in Britain between Easter and end of September, especially in London. In July and August, most likely nothing will be available unless reserving in advance, based on my experiences in May. Possibly campgrounds then will be able to squeeze in another solo hiker on foot, but don't count on it. I did not have a reservation when I arrived in London in May, late in the afternoon, and had to call over fifteen hotels before finding one with a vacancy in my price range.

Bloomsbury is a good area to stay in London. Plentiful supply of hotels and internet cafes, close to Stanfords bookstore, close to Kings Cross/St Pancras rail station. Getting to Bloomsbury is easiest and quickest from Heathrow airport, since Piccadilly underground runs from Heathrow to Russell Square. Gatwick, Luton and Stansted airports all involve more time and expense, but are essentially equivalent in time and expense to one another: take a train or bus from airport to inner London, then walk or take underground to Russell Square. The following are some hotels in the Bloomsbury district (all prices from 2010):