The beauty of England, minus the crowds: What to see and do in our 34 unsung AONBs

The beauty of England, minus the crowds: What to see and do in our 34 unsung AONBs


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 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 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.

1. 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 ( 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 in nearby Carnforth with a large garden that enjoys regular visits from roe and fallow deer. Sleeps 12.

2. Blackdown Hills

On the border between Somerset and Devon, the Blackdown Hills ( 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.

3. Cannock Chase
Size isn’t everything: at just 28 square miles, Cannock Chase ( 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.

4. Chichester Harbour
One the few remaining undeveloped coastal areas in southern England, Chichester Harbour ( 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 offers stylish yurts with hot tubs. Read our complete guide to the best hotels in Sussex.

5. Chilterns
A verdant rampart stretching between Luton and the Thames, the Chilterns ( 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. Read our complete guide to the best hotels in the Chilterns.

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