The Ridgeway is a splendid 87-mile track from the standing stones of Avebury, Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. In ancient times this was a trading route that crossed England and it has the advantage of keeping mostly to high ground. This means that unlike many National Walks, you are up on the crests of hills much of the time, looking down on the patchwork wonder of England's farm land. At one point you even pass Chequers, the country home of the British prime minister where, if you can wave at the security cameras as they chart your progress.
At Nuffield, a village that stands halfway along the Ridgeway, it's a welcome relief to get off for a break. The village itself contains Nuffield Place, the home of William Morris, the celebrated British car manufacturer. This is a perfect moment to stop and seek out the National Trust tea shop. Even better ring for a taxi to take you into nearby Henley.
Henley on Thames is one of the sweetest– and most expensive – towns in Britain famed for its Victorian Regatta (an annual tea party on the river ) and Brakespear's brewery which for many years sat close to the Thames embankment. Apart from making ale Brakespear is famous for its distant connection to Nicholas Brakespear, who became Adrian IV in 1154 — the only English pope.
In 2002 Brakespear ceased production in Henley and its sturdy Victorian brick premises became a Hotel du Vin. It took several years to convert this listed building but the painstaking work has paid off. As a group Hotel du Vin specialises in converting heritage properties and in Henley they have kept the brewery's old iron girders and pillars and made a feature of them. You'll probably find you have a great black girder rising up next to your bed, and the original white glazed bricks have been kept on the bedroom walls as well.
Here baths are to be found in all sorts of places. One is in the winch housing that used to lift barrels up into the brewery and there are two rooftop baths in the “Thames View” duplexes named after the champagnes Laurent Perrier and Ruinart. Both suites also have interior baths but at the end of a long day's walking I know where I would like to sip my champagne: in a hot bath overlooking the Thames.
Downstairs, Hotel du Vin Henley has an atmospheric, spacious dining room typical of the brand with cream walls that seem to have been painted with a century of nicotine stain.
In the morning you really will feel very ready to hit the Ridgeway again.
The South West Coast Path is the longest of Britain's National Trails, a total of 630 miles of gorgeous sea views that starts at Purbeck and run west to Chesil Beach through Lyme Regis, of French Lieutenant's Woman fame, and round Torquay, the fictional location of Fawlty Towers. Half way along the southern stretch of the route, just past Salcombe is a very different kind of hotel which is an ideal resting place for anyone undertaking even the smallest part of this trail.
South Sands sits on the Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary, tucked away in a small niche cut into the coastline. And the trail runs right past its front door. You come down the hill from Salcombe into a tiny valley with its own beach and boat house and there it is, a modern hotel with the delicious smell of wood-smoke rising from its open fireplace.
The best rooms at South Sands – bright and white with a New England clapboard style - face out towards the estuary but the best view of all is from the cheery bar on a summer's evening. Or a winter evening too when you can sit in one of the warm old armchairs by the fire. The food is intelligently ambitious and the glass-plated dining room makes the best use of that seascape outside.
From South Sands the South West Coast Path continues towards Cornwall, past Plymouth and through Polperro and Penzance to turn the corner at Land's End. Nearer to home however a short wander up hill from the hotel will bring you to RAF Bolt Head which today is just a grass airstrip but which during World War II helped protect shipping in the English Channel. There's a memorial to the airfield's war-time service in the centre of the site that commemorates the 17 service personnel killed here.
No matter how far you walk the hotel staff - who are hugely enthusiastic about their work - will come collect you if you get lost or too tired to stumble back. I have written on these pages before, this is a very kind, generous hotel. Its only cruel streak lies in the tempting nature of its wine list. Do not pick it up if you're planning to continue along the South West Coast Path tomorrow
When it comes to fine-dining there are few hotel restaurants as splendid or rewarding to the walker than Sindhu at The Compleat Angler in Marlow. The hotel takes its name from Isaak Walton's seventeenth century classic book about fishing and has the distinction of being one of the few British hotels where Queen Elizabeth II has dined in private. On this particular occasion it was as the guest of the Hungarian ambassador because he wanted her to eat opposite the chain bridge built by the engineer, William Tierney Clark in 1832. From certain angles this bridge is a dead ringer for the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest, a later work by Clark.
These days people dining at The Compleat Angler either eat at the Riverside Restaurant or at Sindhu, an Indian restaurant from Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar with stained glass windows looking out over the Thames weir.
What is remarkable about Sindhu is its imaginative wine pairings. If you still think that Indian cuisine needs a chilled lager or a robustly-oaked chardonnay to stand up to the strong spices, order the tasting menu and enjoy Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Pinot Noirs that gently bring out the flavours in a range of beautifully prepared dishes. Having the wizard behind Benares in London designing the menu for your Indian restaurant is quite a coup for the management of Compleat Angler. If there is any complaint to make, it's that Sindhu is so popular the tables are crammed in too closely on a Saturday night!
But getting back to walking: The Thames Path is unique among Britain's National Trails because it follows the royal river for almost all of its 184 miles, from the Cotswold hills where it rises down through London to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. One of the loveliest sections of the path is from Oxford where the Thames is briefly known as the Isis (just to confuse outsiders) down to the Compleat Angler. And do take the time to explore Marlow itself, a lovely Buckinghamshire market town where lived the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and T. S. Eliot. Although the two men wrote here 100 years apart, they were both residents of West Street. Other writers to enjoy the Thames at Marlow included Shelley's wife Mary who worked on her novel Frankenstein while living here, and Thomas Love Peacock who penned the epithet: “Not drunk is he who from the floor - Can rise alone and still drink more.”
Jerome K. Jerome is said to have written parts of his comic novel, Three Men in a Boat at the Two Brewers, a pub on the opposite side of the Thames from the Compleat Angler.
This Victorian hotel enjoys one of the best riverside locations in England. With both English and Indian restaurants to enjoy and a lively outdoor bar in the summer, The Compleat Angler is reason in itself to walk the Thames Path.
The Noel Arms is one of a number of an ancient inns tucked away in the picture-perfect town of Chipping Camden where the Cotswold Way begins. This low rise honey-coloured hostelry is just a few yards from the Market Hall where bushy-tailed walkers set off on the 102 mile trek to Bath.
Like the town itself the Noel Arms is steeped in British history. The hotel even suggests that Charles II stayed here during the English Civil War. That's more than possible, although so many English hotels claim the fugitive monarch's presence I sometimes wonder whether he moonlighted as a travel journalist.
The hotel offers a series of cozy rooms around its courtyard, a warming log fire in the bar and a restaurant whose chef has now won the Best Pub Curry Chef Award three times.
As for the walk itself: The first stage of the journey is to Broadway Tower, a tall stone folly built in 1799 so that Lady Coventry would have something imposing to look at on the horizon from her home, 22 miles away in Worcester. To get there walkers pass through tranquil, sheep-cropped pasture that includes a field where in 1612 the British made the first attempt in modern times to revive the Olympic Games. To this day shin-kicking - a little known “Olympick” sport - is still played annually in the fields between Chipping Camden and Broadway.
The Tower itself is circled by golden maple trees. In the 1880s it was rented as a country retreat for pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. For a small fee visitors can climb up to the level of their studio for great views of the Avon Valley and a dawning realization that there are another 100 miles still to cover.
The Cotswold Way takes in some of the loveliest rural views and villages you'll find in England, as well as some great pubs and a few stately homes of boutique dimensions. It's a leisurely walk if you allow seven days and there are plenty of places, just as comfy as the Noel Arms to stay en route.
One of the most rugged and rewarding walks in Britain is along Hadrian's Wall, the 74- mile stone barrier that the Romans built to keep the Picts and Scots at bay. These twin scourges of the Roman Empire have retreated north since and are now to be found around Edinburgh where they only dress in woad for international matches.
The Hadrian's Wall Path runs ten miles longer from Barrow in Furness on the Cumbrian coast to the aptly named Wallsend near Newcastle. Except when passing through major towns and villages, you follow not just the route of the second-century AD wall but the vallum itself which remains the longest Roman remain in Europe. Some keen walkers aim to complete it over a long weekend, but there is a lot of up and down and the Romans, believing in straight lines, when they came to a cliff just went straight up and over it.
Better to aim for a five-day trek and stay at some of the agreeable hotels and inns along the way, like the String of Horses. This is a traditional coaching inn six miles south of the wall outside Carlisle. It dates from 1659 and is built around a large courtyard where tired steeds could be changed for fresh ones (hence the name “String of Horses”). Inside there is plenty of oak panelling plus log fires, sandstone fireplaces, leaded windows and wooden beams. It's everything you'd expect of a British coaching inn. From the menu walkers should order the traditional – and enormously long - Cumberland sausages well as local real ales. This is a lovely place to schedule into your walk along the old Roman Wall. Start at Wallsend and head west. That way you can keep String of Horses for the final stage of your walk.
The Chequers Inn in Thornham, Norfolk is the latest venture by the Agellus Group who have some delightful inns in Suffolk including top foodie rural destination, Tuddenham Mill.
Chequers dates back to the sixteenth century, and offers a traditional low-ceilinged bar with a large open fire and eleven dog-friendly bedrooms under the eaves upstairs. These were refurbished when Agellus took over and are now offered in four delightful categories: “Small Good”, “Good”, “Better” and “Best”.
Thornham itself stands on the Norfolk Coast Path and is perfectly placed for exploring the beaches of Brancaster and Holkham as well as bird reserves at Titchwell and Holme and the royal estate at Sandringham.
The Norfolk Coast Path is an unusual national trail because it consists of two very different sections, one of which is not coastal. It starts inland at Knettishall Heath and then follows a Roman road (now known as “Peddars Way”) out to the coast at Hunstanton before running east along the Norfolk coast to Cromer. Hunstanton to Thornham is only five miles so Chequers makes a good stopping point at the end of your first day of coastal walking.
The whole route is 93 miles and passes through The Brecks, which said to be one of the driest places in England. It's mainly made up gorse-covered sandy heath with the occasional Scots Pine and unusual flora and fauna like the rare - and very shy - golden pheasant. And the views of the North Sea are not to be missed on a sunny day or even a bracing one.
The North Downs Way follows in the footsteps of mediaeval pilgrims on a 153-mile journey from Farnham, across the Surrey Hills to Canterbury with the White Cliffs of Dover added in at the end.
Three miles south of this national trail, as it passes Mertsham in Surrey, stands Nutfield Priory, a Victorian mansion that dates back to 1872. It's worth turning off your Chaucerian pilgrimage to spend a luxurious night here. A number of houses have stood up here on Nutfield Ridge. The present mansion was built for Joshua Fielden who was a Lancashire MP in need of an imposing home near London. The architect was John Gibson who claimed to have took his inspiration from the Palace of Westminster, although the style of the building looks more Tudorbethan these days.
When Joshua died in 1887 his wife lived in the house until 1920, when Nutfield Priory became the private residence of a Mr Ferris and then, in 1930 a hotel with golf course owned by one Mr Oliver Picton Davis.
After a spell as a school, the Nutfield became a hotel again in 1988 following a sympathetic renovation that restored its stone carvings, wood panelling and marble fireplaces. The organ installed in 1874 was also meticulously restored for the new owners, Handpicked Hotels.
If you're feeling flush stay in the Byron Suite, located in Nutfield's impressive stone tower and spread over three floors. Cloisters Restaurant – originally the dining room of the Fielden family - is a distinctly Neo-Gothic in design and a good place to restore your walking batteries for another day on the road to Canterbury.
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