National parks spent years trying to remind everyone how important natural beauty is for the spirit, and what an abundance of it they have. Then, suddenly, everyone discovered them at once, in the middle of a lockdown, and they had to do a handbrake turn and persuade us all to enjoy them online instead.
However, now you’re allowed to travel for exercise, they are back in action, with the important rider: check what the rules are before you set off and if it feels too crowded, it is.
There are 15 parks in all; if you have been to any, you’ll have a favourite (mine is the Peak District). You possibly haven’t been to them all, unless you’re methodically ticking them off. Originally, thinking of the health benefits, it was all about the air quality – a municipal park doesn’t compare: there simply are no other Yorkshire Dales. They have closed their visitor centres and landmarks, cancelled their events, but the wide open space isn’t going anywhere.
What you have to work with depends on where you are. At the time of writing, Welsh national parks were only open to locals. Some (the Peaks again) have amazing boulders and you can do your own mini-hipster-triathlon, running, cycling, bouldering. I went to the South Downs for the track bike paths, which are mainly stone-free enough for a road bike. The national park doesn’t exist that isn’t fun to run in. Some have mountain bike trails, others wild ponies who prefer you not to do that. You can always call ahead. There are places where the wildlife is so stunning (the Pembrokeshire coast has basking sharks) that you’ll get distracted. Maybe don’t see it as a distraction; maybe see it as the point.
Start by figuring out how much time you have, and when: if it’s a half day once a week, rambling is better than running, unless you have stamina. If it’s 20 minutes a day, you can still vary your workload simply with the inclines on your choice of route – it would be a criminal waste of so much space to go the same way every time. But it would also be a waste to go too fast, when this much effort has gone into the botany and wildlife, so even if you’re going for short bursts, mix up the running with a Nordic walk. A quarter of all the rarest species in the UK are found in the Norfolk Broads.
There aren’t many rules, and those they do have will be written on site (such as “Don’t tread on this plant”). But you have to use the dog sense you were born with. Don’t run up to sheep; they don’t like it. They don’t mind if you run past them. Cattle are a bit more skittish.
National parks evolved from a social movement to retain the countryside amid the encroachments of the Industrial Revolution, to give people somewhere to clear their lungs and spend time in nature, far more than a century before there were any studies to this effect. They were a gift to one another that money couldn’t touch or buy.
What I learned
Dartmoor is where you get the ponies; Snowdonia, the bats; Northumberland, the native red squirrels everyone’s so exercised about.
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