Poets always seem to know best. And when it comes to our natural instinct to explore, to travel, and to go places we have never been before, T S Eliot knew better than anyone that, ultimately, home soil is the most important travel destination of them all.
“The last of Earth left to discover/Is that which was the beginning.” These lines from the Four Quartets are not just a consolation prize for the restricted horizons of a Covid-19 world, but a crucial insight for all those who love travel. To put it in more prosaic terms: what is the point of travelling the world if you’ve never properly explored your own backyard?
In large part due to a fortuitous geological legacy, we are blessed with a wider variety of landforms in a relatively small area than almost any other country in the world. This accounts for the legendary beauty of our countryside and coasts, hills and downland, forests and rivers, meadows and moors.
As well as our 10 National Parks, England is extremely lucky to be home to 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Smaller in area and generally not as well-known, between them they are home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the country, including large areas of the coasts of Cornwall, Dorset and Norfolk in addition to the Chiltern Hills and the Cotswolds, Yorkshire and Northumberland. Here is our guide to the highlights.
Arnside and Silverdale
Sandwiched between the borders of Lancashire and Cumbria, overlooking the salt marshes of the Kent Estuary and the sands of Morecambe Bay, is this often neglected northern AONB (arnsidesilverdaleaonb.org.uk). Within its boundaries are the former fishing port of Arnside – once a popular Victorian hideaway – as well as limestone cliffs and pockets of deciduous woodland. It is also home to Leighton Moss RSPB Nature Reserve, which not only attracts reed-dwelling birds such as bittern, but is also replete with red deer, otters and butterflies.
Hazel Grove House is a Georgian residence with a large garden that enjoys regular visits from roe and fallow deer. Sleeps 12; from £1,008 for three nights (oneoffplaces.co.uk).
On the border between Somerset and Devon, the Blackdown Hills (blackdownhillsaonb.org.uk) are the Cinderella of the West Country, overlooked by those bound for Exmoor and Dartmoor. Below their steep ridges and high plateaus lie postcard-pretty hedgerows, copses and winding lanes. To enjoy this panorama, climb Staple Hill or Castle Neroche for views of the singular Glastonbury Tor. At the River Otter you may catch sight of recently reintroduced beavers.
Halsbeer Farm has four cottages to choose from, each with its own private space. Sleeps three to seven; from £530 for six nights (halsbeerfarm.co.uk).
Size isn’t everything: at just 28sq miles, Cannock Chase (cannock-chase.co.uk) may be the smallest AONB in England but it is busy with natural and historical interest. Located near Rugeley and Cannock in Staffordshire, the chase is centred around a 1,000-year-old hunting forest and comprises heaths, ancient broadleaved woodland and historic parklands. The eight-mile Cannock Chase Circular walk takes in the fun of the stepping stones at Sherbrook Valley.
Pitch a tent at Cannock Chase Camping and Caravanning Club Site. From £8.10pn for members (02476 475426; campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk).
One the few remaining undeveloped coastal areas in southern England, Chichester Harbour (conservancy.co.uk) in West Sussex comprises a series of tidal inlets. It’s extremely easy on the eye, with picturesque creek-side villages encircling a shoreline of wind-sculptured oaks. The salt marsh and mudflats are a haven for 55,000 birds. On dry land, the AONB has 64 miles of rights of way to explore.
Sandwiched between South Downs National Park and Chichester Harbour, Old Dairy Farm Glamping has yurts available from £220 for two nights (020 8434 7444; pitchup.com).
A verdant rampart stretching between Luton and the Thames, the Chilterns (chilternsaonb.org) are the televisual epitome of Middle England. Here, venerable beech trees cap hilltops and timbered cottages huddle in valleys watered by chalk streams. One recognisable honeypot is Turville, body-double for Dibley and multiple Midsomers. The 87-mile Ridgeway National Trail is the headline act for hikers, while flower-seekers scour chalkpits for profuse orchids.
The Cart Shed is a quirky little one-bedroom cottage in Turville. Sleeps two; from £123 per night (01865 600425; oneoffplaces.co.uk).
A curiously disparate dozen patches of England’s westernmost county comprise this AONB (cornwall-aonb.gov.uk) – mostly coastal but with bleakly beautiful Bodmin Moor providing an inland counterpoint. The Cornish Coast Path showcases the county’s finest assets: switchback cliffs near Morwenstow; gilt strands at Kynance Cove, Godrevy and Porthcurno; pristine villages such as Polperro; soaring stacks at Bedruthan Steps; Poldark-era mines at Botallack and Wheal Coates; basking sharks off Gurnard’s Head; seals hauled out off the Lizard; and surf breaks at Sennen.
Old Pear Tree Barn sits in Cubert village on the north coast of Cornwall. Sleeps four; from £2,450 for seven nights (0330 113 7005; luxurycoastal.co.uk).
Bibury, Castle Combe and Bourton-on-the-Water lure tourists in droves. But the real Cotswolds (cotswoldsaonb.org.uk) are hills, not hamlets, dominated by the scarp sweeping down the western edge of Gloucestershire. The Cotswold Way leads to numerous eyries affording vistas across the Severn to Wales. Historic pearls strung along its length include Neolithic long barrows of Belas Knap, Uley (aka Hetty Pegler’s Tump) and Broadway Tower.
The Oak House is a log cabin just north of Bath. Sleeps two; from £128pn (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk).
Stand on the scarp of Winklebury Hill in Wiltshire above the village of Berwick St John and you are surveying an ancient landscape from a position of equal antiquity. The arable farmland before you dates to the Bronze Age and was reinforced in Anglo-Saxon times. This chalk topography is the defining feature of Cranborne Chase AONB (ccwwdaonb.org.uk). Away from the high brows, you can explore ancient woodlands such as Grovely Wood.
Hatts Barn sits on a working farm on the Dorset and Wiltshire border in the AONB. Sleeps five; from £595.50 for two nights (01326 555555; classic.co.uk).
Dedham Vale AONB (dedhamvalestourvalley.org) tracks the River Stour Valley as it wriggles its way from northwest to southeast through the archetypal English landscape of the Suffolk-Essex border. Made famous by landscape painter John Constable, the valley features all he depicted; rolling farmland, rivers and meadows. The meandering lanes and picturesque byways of the Stour Valley are ideal for cyclists or you can explore on foot.
Dogs are welcome at all seven of Idyllic Suffolk’s holiday cottages. Sleep four to 14; from £599 for three nights (01206 337470; idyllicsuffolk.com).
Time-travellers rejoice: in Dorset (dorsetaonb.org.uk), you can head back from Hardy’s Wessex, through the Middle Ages at photogenically tumbledown Corfe Castle, to the Iron Age at Maiden Castle and further still – 185 million years further, to the fossil-strewn beaches of the Jurassic Coast and Kimmeridge Bay. Dorset’s shoreline hosts some of the most demanding stretches of the South West Coast Path, notably Golden Cap and the Purbeck Peninsula.
At Red Kite Lodge, an unusual pyramid-topped cabin, you can spot cows from your bathtub. Sleeps six; from £270 for two nights (0117 2047830; canopyandstars.co.uk).
Running from the town of Exmouth and ending just before Lyme Regis, the beaches and cliffs of East Devon AONB (eastdevonaonb.org.uk) represent the less crowded way to peer into the past along the Jurassic Coast. Although home to the quirkily-named village of Beer and a smattering of coastal communities, there is more to this area than coastal kicks. Inland, the East Devon Way takes visitors through heath, farmland and river valleys hemmed by ancient woodland.
Hawley Farm, near Axminster, has three self-catering cottages that sleep four to seven, from £1,000pw (01404 831250; hawleyfarm.co.uk).
Forest of Bowland
The lack of a mobile phone signal may write off this northern AONB (forestofbowland.com) for some, but those looking for somewhere more remote than the honeypot destinations have slowly been exploring its unbeaten tracks. Grit stone fells, high moorland and steep wooded valleys combine for a wild walking experience. It is home to the geographic centre of Britain (Whitendale Hanging Stones near Dunsop Bridge), a cracking horseshoe hike around Clougha Pike and some of the country’s most fascinating witchcraft history.
The camping pods of Bowland Wild Board Park sit in the middle of a wildlife centre. Sleeps five; from £50pn (020 8434 7444; pitchup.com).
A medieval landscape of wooded hills and sandstone outcrops, the High Weald (highweald.org) spreads its charms across parts of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Shoehorned around busy towns of the South East such as Hastings and Royal Tunbridge Wells, the rural hinterland features small manor houses, castles and beautiful parks and gardens. Explore Bewl Water or Harrison’s Rocks, a large sandstone climbing crag.
Owlsbury Park offers adults-only camping for the summer from £21pn (pitchup.com).
The Howardian Hills (howardianhills.org.uk) lie between the North York Moors National Park, the Yorkshire Wolds and the Vale of York. This is a landscape pitted with scenic villages, classic parkland landscapes and Iron Age earthworks. When circumstances permit, a walk alongside the River Derwent offers views of the Augustinian Kirkham Priory.
Gingerlily sits in the small hamlet of Hovingham and is surrounded by hills. Sleeps two; from £639 for seven nights (01237 459888; holidaycottages.co.uk).
Isle of Wight
Covering nearly half of the entire island, the AONB (wightaonb.org.uk) on England’s most populous isle comprises five distinct sections of land that represent the diversity of terrain found here. The Needles are perhaps the most famous, but equally eye-catching are the clay cliffs, mudflats and salt marshes found to the north around Hamstead. Then there is the Tennyson Heritage Coast, and the ancient woodlands and rock formations of the eastern side.
Tom’s Eco Lodge, a five-mile drive from The Needles, offers a range of glamping options. From £346 for two for three nights (01983 758729; tomsecolodge.com).
Isles of Scilly
Sitting beyond Land’s End off the Cornish coast, this archipelago is the smallest AONB (scillyaonb.org.uk). But what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in military history – starting back in 1548 with Tresco Castle, all the way through to the pillboxes left over from the Second World War; and there is nature – including the mischievous Atlantic seals, visiting puffins, Manx shearwater and the Scilly shrew.
The Sea Garden Apartments on the family-owned island of Tresco sit just yards from the shoreline. Sleeps two; from £305pn (01720 422849; tresco.co.uk).
Iconic chalk cliffs, serene chalk streams and one of the UK’s most wooded landscapes typify the Kent Downs (kentdowns.org.uk). The landscape looks – and feels – ancient and abounds with Neolithic megalithic monuments, Bronze Age barrows, Iron Age hill-forts, Roman villas and medieval villages. St Margaret’s Bay is the closest part of England to France and at low tide you can walk the shingle beach in search of fossils.
Wren Cottage in Ottinge is just seven miles from Hythe beach. Sleeps six; from £1,301pw (01580 232255; bramleyandteal.co.uk).
Running parallel to the North Sea coast like a large green slipper, the Lincolnshire Wolds (lincswolds.org.uk) sit between Caistor and Grimsby in the north and the A518 (to Skegness) in the south. Made up of chalk and limestone, the area of miniature hills and subtle ridges is best explored via the Viking Way, where the countryside stretches out to Lincoln. The villages are also special, with deserted medieval settlements such as North Elkington and Biscathorpe, whispering of life in the 1300s.
The Grange is a family-owned B&B. Sleeps two; from £82pn (01673 858670; sawdays.co.uk).
The Malvern Hills (malvernhillsaonb.org.uk) rear abruptly from the flatlands and floodplains of the Vale of Evesham like the profile of a slumbering dragon. From their ridge line, you can gaze south across the Severn estuary to Devon, and north, deep into Shropshire and North Wales. Descend from the peaks and you encounter a bucolic landscape characterised by traditional orchards and farmland fringed with hedgerows. With luck you may even spot a polecat. The area has inspired authors such as C S Lewis and J R R Tolkein, and a literary trail enables you to follow in their footsteps.
Walden cabin sits among the trees and features a private outdoor bathtub. Sleeps two; from £380 for two nights (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk).
The central Mendips (mendiphillsaonb.org.uk) are wonderfully lonely. Roam the heights and you will stumble on Neolithic long barrows, the remains of henges at Priddy, and Iron Age hill forts such as Dolebury Warren. Cheddar Gorge is the best-known attraction, drawing rock-climbers, cyclists and cavers, while Ebbor Gorge is more peaceful. In the north-eastern fringes of the AONB, the twin reservoirs of Blagdon Lake and Chew Valley Lake offer some of the finest still-water fly-fishing.
Mendip’s Escape is a chic converted church in Ubley. Sleeps four; from £150pn (kiphideaways.com).
Of all the dales and Pennine valleys, Nidderdale (nidderdaleaonb.org.uk) feels the most remote: rugged, vast and escaped mainly via precipitous passes. In places the hills are so steep that the drystones peter out, as if the farmers who built them became too exhausted to complete them. The AONB tracks the River Nidd and is full of natural interest. Prime among these is Brimham Rocks, a breathtaking ensemble of nature’s handiwork.
Blossom has plenty of walks on the doorstep. Sleeps two; from £657 for seven nights (01642 030850; gorgeouscottages.com).
The Norfolk Coast (norfolkcoastaonb.org.uk) is a great many things to a great many people. To some it is the place for classic British seaside breaks – in Hunstanton, Sheringham and Cromer – where candyfloss and rented pinstripe deckchairs are the order of the day. To others it is a nature hotspot with a multitude of birds, from swifts to pink-footed geese, all coming to the network of long-established reserves including Titchwell Marsh, Cley and Holkham; not to mention the breeding seals at Blakeney Point. Then there are walkers who recall it from their tackling of the Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path. Train buffs come for the heritage railways and, more recently, there are the stargazers who come to admire its dark skies.
The Roost in Titchwell is just one mile from the North-West Norfolk coast. Sleeps four; from £866 for seven nights (01237 459821; caninecottages.co.uk).
Board-riders flock to the west-facing beaches of Croyde Bay, Saunton Sands and Woolacombe; quieter strands are to be found at Lee Bay and Combe Martin. Away from the sandcastles and surfboards, the North Devon coast (northdevon-aonb.org.uk) is a wild rollercoaster of shipwrecking rock outcrops – Hartland Point being the craggy epicentre – interspersed with attractive villages including Mortehoe and the vastly popular fishing harbour of Clovelly. Venture among Braunton Burrows’ sand dunes to discover more than 400 species of wild plants.
Highview Barn is just minutes away from Saunton Sands. Sleeps four; from £1,131pw (0330 113 7005; luxurycoastal.co.uk).
Neatly encircled by northern England’s busiest roads, this AONB (northpennines.org.uk) – the second largest in the UK – still manages to feel a world away from the frenetic pace of a motorway. Taking in the top section of the “Backbone of England” – the 250-mile chain of the Pennine range – the area is famous among hikers who have walked the eponymous long-distance trail and been rewarded with sights such as the Grand Canyon of Britain (aka High Cup), High Force (the dramatic waterfall deep in a forest) and the high point of Cross Fell which even experiences England’s only named wind (Helm).
Pennines Curlew Cottage is a converted barn with the Waskerley Way just outside the door. Sleeps two; from £523 for seven nights (01665 661273; cottagesinnorthumberland.co.uk).
North Wessex Downs
The western reaches of the chalk hills spanning Wiltshire, Berkshire and parts of Oxfordshire are rich in Neolithic sites (northwessexdowns.org.uk). Visit the most impressive along the Great Stones Way, snaking south from Barbury Castle hill fort near Swindon to Old Sarum via Avebury Stone Circle, Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow. Chase butterflies on Watership Down (yes, that one) or meander along the Kennet & Avon Canal by barge or bike.
Opt for a floating home away from home aboard narrowboat Foxglove. Sleeps four; from £969pw (0344 984 0322; drifters.co.uk).
Hugging the North Sea coast in the most north-easterly English county, the Northumberland Coast AONB (northumberlandcoastaonb.org) is one of high drama, with sweeping sandy beaches and isolated islands. As well as the tidal island of Holy Island and Lindisfarne, the coastline is punctuated by castles at Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth. Stroll along the superb beaches at Spittal, Bamburgh and Low Newton.
If it’s sea views you’re looking for, it is hard to beat Rock Lobster on the coast at Craster. Sleeps eight; from £1,025pw (01665 830783; northumbria-cottages.co.uk).
This serene slice of south-west Somerset encompasses heather-purpled uplands, lovely wooded combes and Jurassic limestone cliffs (quantockhills.com). Kilve Beach, its slate shelf ridged and wrinkled like elephant skin, is rockpooling heaven and littered with 200 million-year-old ammonites and fossils of prehistoric reptiles. The 51-mile Coleridge Way loops west around the northern hills from that romantic poet’s cottage in Nether Stowey.
Tilbury Cottage is a homely den with far-reaching views to Exmoor. Sleeps two; from £70pn (0117 204 7810; sawdays.co.uk).
Criminally overlooked by most staycationers, the uplands south of Shrewsbury pack in a surprisingly varied array of crags, valleys, ancient sites and natural delights. Of the claimed 50 hills (shropshirehillsaonb.co.uk), perhaps best known to walkers is the Long Mynd. Swathed in heath, traversed by the ancient Portway and littered by archaeological sites, it is endlessly rewarding. Wilder and rockier is Stiperstones, while the Wrekin is the peak-baggers’ pick. This strategic stronghold on the Welsh border is guarded by numerous castles and earthworks, including Offa’s Dyke.
Caer View Cottage is a charming hideaway on the fringes of Church Stretton. Sleeps four; from £676 for seven nights (01237 426726; thelittledomain.com).
By the time most people reach Carlisle, after funnelling towards the Scottish border or the Lake District, most don’t consider heading west to the briny stretch of water known as the Solway Firth (solwaycoastaonb.org.uk). Separating the two countries with its narrowing channel, on the English coast it has created fringing shorelines of wetlands, marshes and sand dunes, between Rockcliffe and as far as the northern outskirts of Maryport. Drumburgh Moss, Glasson and Bowness are visited by red grouse and curlew, as well as otters, while the dunes near Silloth and Mawbray are also home to the rare natterjack toad and great crested newt.
Sonya’s Cottage, in Anthorn, has sea views and is next to an RSPB bird sanctuary. Sleeps four; from £572 for three nights (01244 352296; sykescottages.co.uk).
Between Torbay and the edge of Plymouth, this AONB (southdevonaonb.org.uk) is often neglected given that it sits below the much better known Dartmoor National Park. Yet it has a unique combination of rugged coastline, as well as pretty Victorian hubs such as Brixham where colourful fishing boats and sailing yachts bob in the harbour. Inland there is more, with deep Devonshire countryside found by tracing the wooden valley of the River Avon.
Burr Barn lies just outside Dartmouth and comes with an indoor heated pool. Sleeps eight; from £2,355 for seven nights (01326 555555; classic.co.uk).
Suffolk Coast and Heaths
In Suffolk’s AONB (suffolkcoastandheaths.org) the number of wildlife watching opportunities is rivalled only by the diversity of the terrain. There are woodlands, estuaries, salt marshes, ancient heaths, shingle beaches, mudflats and reed beds – so it’s no surprise that amid all that there are three national nature reserves.
Beaver Cottage in Aldeburgh has its own private river beach and the use of a kayak. Sleeps five from £908pw (01728 452611; beaver-cottage.co.uk).
Sitting between two other AONBs (Kent Downs to the east and South Downs to the south-west), the group of peaks that make up the Surrey Hills (surreyhills.org) have some strong competition – but they more than hold their own. Running from Farnham to Oxted, the range of chalk downs that make up their designation not only offer cycling, running and walking routes, but also historical places to visit. Military forts from 1899 adorn Box Hill, near Dorking, and anti-invasion pillboxes left over from the Second World War crumble amid the yew trees scattered across the hillsides.
Surrey Hills Yurts has six self-catering yurts. Sleep two to six; from £250 for two nights (07817 269565; surreyhillsyurts.co.uk).
A wide wooded and deeply incised river valley, this AONB (tamarvalley.org.uk) embraces the rivers Tamar, Tavy and Lynher and stretches from Bodmin Moor to Dartmoor and from the beaches of east Cornwall to the towns of west Devon. The landscape is dotted with crumbling copper and tin mines and Tudor houses such as Buckland Abbey, the former home of Sir Francis Drake. Cyclists can explore the 14 miles of the Tamar Trails near Gunnislake while the Discovery Trail is a great option for walkers.
The glamping huts of Star Bed Hideaways offer fire pits and freedom. Sleep two; from £555 for three nights (01822 259062; starbedhideaways.co.uk).
Straddling the English-Welsh border, the Wye Valley (wyevalleyaonb.org.uk) is a winding land of woodland that follows the river through dramatic gorges with sheer cliffs and steep wooded slopes. This collision of geology reaches a crescendo at the high bluff of Symonds Yat, where the elemental landscape may be enhanced by the sighting of a goshawk. Downstream lie the skeletal ruins of Tintern Abbey, while Wintour’s Leap promises unforgettable sunsets.
Lydbrook Cottage sits just south of Lower Lydbrook to the east of Symonds Yat. Sleeps five; from £209 for three nights (01873 890573; wyevalleyholidaycottages.co.uk).
Wales and Scotland currently have different rules to those in England regarding travel restrictions, so please check before travelling across borders. Some tourist areas are still discouraging visitors. All rental options listed are taking bookings from July 4 (government guidelines allowing) and have availability for summer.