Discovering a secret stretch of singletrack wending through woods, crossing cliffs or tracing a ridgeline to a peak is a rare joy that puts a spring in every off-road runners’ stride. Here’s a round up of 15 dream trails from around the country
The Devil’s Punchbowl, Surry
- 6 miles (9.6km)
You don’t have to cover ultra distances or climb mountains to find dreamy trails – many are surprisingly accessible and eminently do-able. The Devil’s Punchbowl offers fantastic, well-marked tracks that transport you into the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Beauty, within a few kilometres of leaving your car.
Combine the Highcombe Hike and the Hidden Hindhead trail to loop through gorgeous woods, cross colourful heathland and climb to the summit of Surrey’s second tallest point, Gibbet Hill, with stunning views over the weald (and a dark backstory of murder most foul). Look out for wild ponies and other animals en route.
Bradgate Park Loop, Leicester
- 6.5 miles (10.5km)
A mediaeval deer park in the heart of Charnwood Forest, once owned by the family of Lady Jane Gray (Queen of England for just nine days in 1553), Bradgate offers a historic and serene environment for runners, with great mixed trails. A circuit of the park reveals its diversity, starting off flat and easy before the trails proper begin with some hill climbs and more technical terrain.
The steepest ascent is to the Old John Tower, a folly with sensational views across Leicester.
More info: bradgatepark.org
Dewerstone Loop, Dartmoor
- 4.5 miles (7km)
Dartmoor is liberally covered in dream trails, but this is the perfect introduction to running on the moor. Starting in the National Trust car park at Shaugh Bridge, by the confluence of the Meavy and Plym rivers, you follow sensational single track along the river banks before climbing up onto the evocative moorscape and crossing Wigford Down, passing eerie 800-yearold crosses, ancient stone circles and looking out for wild Dartmoor ponies and deer as you go.
Crossing the River Plym at Cadover Bridge you follow a sublime trail through woodlands, tracing the Pipe Track until you get back to the car park.
Kingshouse to Kinlochleven, Scotland
- 9 miles (14.4km)
The West Highland Way (WHW) has some serious celebrity trail fans: British ultra-runner Jezz Bragg says this long-distance path made him fall in love with off-road running and adventurer Sean Conway, who ran the entire length of Britain earlier this year, nominated this section of the WHW as his favourite part of the entire experience.
Pick up the trail in Kingshouse, run through Altnafeadh and then brace yourself for a beasting as you climb out of Glen Coe to the path’s highest point, via the aptly named Devil’s Staircase. At the summit, marked by a stone cairn, soak up the vista and then begin the descent to the River Leven.
Follow the riverside trail into Kinlochleven, or you can carry on for 16 miles (26 kilometres) through Nevis Forest to Fort William, the WHW’s western trailhead.
More info: west-highland-way.co.uk
Streatley To Watlington, Berkshire
- 15.3 miles (24.6km)
Dating back 5,000 years, the Ridgeway is Britain’s oldest long-distance path (by a country mile) and while running it you’ll be following in the footsteps of ancient travellers and soldiers who left their mark along the way, in the shape of burial mounds and stone-age forts. The entire route is 87 miles (140 kilometres) long, stretching from the Chilterns in Oxfordshire over the Thames to the North Wessex Downs, but it can be broken into sections that make great day runs.
Streatley to Watlington is a super-scenic stretch where the singletrack trail skirts the River Thames and historic Grim’s Ditch, and wends through wonderful wildflower carpeted woodlands. If you’ve got the legs for it, continue another 17 miles (27.2 kilometres) to Wendover to experience the most undulating section of the Ridgeway, with the trail ducking and diving through the Chilterns’ famously beautiful beech woodlands.
More info: nationaltrail.co.uk/ridgeway
Middleton-In- Teesdale–Dufton Durham-Cumbria
- 21 miles (34km)
- Intermediate to Advanced
The 268-mile-long (431 kilometres) Pennine Way is one of Britain’s most famous trails – and one of its hardest. Beautiful and brutal all in the same gasp. And if you’re going to do that, it really has to be Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton.
Don’t take my word for it, ask Damian Hall, the trail-running author of The Pennine Way (and regular Outdoor Fitness writer), who describes it thus: “You follow the River Tees first, passing three waterfalls, all of very different character. Then there’s some scrambling, some bog-trotting, you reach the highest point in England outside the Lake District (Cross Fell) and get to experience the glorious apocalyptic cleft of High Cup Nick – England’s Grand Canyon.”
More info: nationaltrail.co.uk/pennine-way
Cleeve Hill To Birdlip, The Cotswolds
- 16 miles (25.5km)
Rolling green hills, limestone villages, beech-wood forests and farmland – the Cotswolds Way is a veritable highlights show of England at its bucolic best. In its entirety the trail wends 102 miles (163 kilometres) through the Severn Vale from Chipping Campden to Bath, but the northern and middle sections offer particular delights for tasty trail-seeking runners.
Pick up the track at Cleeve Hill, on the highest part of the trail, and run the open paths that cross Cleeve Common. Continue along singletrack through Dowdeswell and Lineover woods, climb to Wistley Plantation and Charlton Kings Common and then follow the escarpment to Leckhampton Hill.
Quiet paths take you though Crickley Hill Country Park and across Barrow Wake before you thread the woods to arrive at Birdlip.
More info: nationaltrail.co.uk/cotswold-way
Seaton–Exmouth, Jurassic Coast, Devon
- 20 miles (32km)
The South West Coast Path traces 630 miles (1,013 kilometres) of cracking coastline from Somerset’s Minehead to Poole Harbour in Dorset. The entire distance has been run in sub 15 days this year, but for us mere mortals, it’s best to bite off a section at a time.
One of most dramatic stretches runs west from Seaton, along the Devon part of the Jurassic Coast, where the trail hugs the cliff edge all the way to Exmouth, via Beer, Branscombe, Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton – offering stunning views all the way.
An annual race – the Exe to Axe – covers the same route, but in reverse, from the River Exe to the River Axe.
More info: southwestcoastpath.com
Round-Sheffield Trail, Yorkshire
- 15 miles (24.5km)
The Steel City is completely surrounded… by a big trail. You can jump on the Round-Sheffield route anywhere if you’re doing all or part of it independently, or opt to do a circumnavigation of the city as part of a relay team in the Round-Sheffield race, which takes over the trails once a year.
The route offers an extraordinary diversity of trail terrain, from semi-urban paths through to park and woodland singletrack.
More info/race it: roundsheffieldrun.com
Beacon Hill–Buriton, Hampshire
- 16.5 miles (26.5km)
- Intermediate– Advanced
This rollercoaster route is a combination of two sections of the 100-mile-long (160-kilometre) South Downs Way, tracing the spine of the Downs to their highest point, with spectacular views out over the Solent. Join the trail at Beacon Hill National Nature Reserve and ascend to the summit for an eyeful of Meon Valley.
Take the “walkers only” path into the village of Exton, and then climb into Old Winchester Hill National Nature Reserve, where you’ll find an Iron Age hill fort. Drop down again, before climbing Salt Hill, from where you trace a ridge to 270-metre Butser Hill, the high point of the whole South Downs Way and crown of Queen Elizabeth Country Park.
Inhale the hard-earned view and then enjoy the long grassy descent into Buriton.
More info: nationaltrail.co.uk/south-downs-way
Horseshoe Ridge Trail, Brecon Beacons, Wales
- 9 miles (14km)
Following a trail along a ridgeline is running gold, and the Brecon Beacons offers serious treasure. This trail starts at the old pump house at Lower Neuadd Reservoir and quickly climbs onto the Craig Fan Ddu ridge.
Stick to the ridge and run towards Corn Du. The route veers left to take you over the highest point in the Beacons, Pen y Fan, past a Bronze Age burial cairn. After a steep drop there’s more climbing, up onto the summit of Fan y Big, before a descent back to the reservoir via Craig Cwm Oergwm ridge.
Not challenging enough? Try the 46-mile (73-kilometre) Beacons Ultra, which takes place during the frigid embrace of November.
More info: nationaltrust.org.uk
Edale Skyline, Peak District
- 21-miles (33.5km)
This challenging fell route begins with a run up Ringing Roger, followed by a clockwise loop around the flanks of the Kinder Plateau, over Win Hill, the Great Ridge of Lose Hill and Mam Tor – where there’s a Roman Fort.
Descend at Mam Nick and then climb back to Rushup Edge before traversing the quagmire at Brown Knoll to Edale Cross, then follow the southern edge path past the wind-sculpted rocks known as the Woolpacks and the Pagoda, and then up to Grindslow Knoll. The technical terrain and length of the loop make this a choice for more experienced runners.
The trail is exposed and conditions can be brutal, but on the right day this is a stunning trail.
Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland
- 20 miles (32km)
The Causeway Coast Way runs for 33 fantastic miles (53 kilometres) along trails that hug County Antrim’s incredible shoreline – a World Heritage–listed site full of character, castles, myth, history, culture and natural drama.
Some runners will be capable of tackling the whole route, but if you have to choose a section, start at the famous Giants Causeway and follow cliff-tops and coves to the end of the Way at Ballycastle. Highlights include Benbane Head (the trail’s highest point) Dunseverick Castle and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
The route involves some beach running, so you need to check tide times.
More info: walkni.com
Climbers Traverse And Sphynx Ridge, Lake District
- 8 miles (13km)
- Very Advanced
Elite Salomon sky- and fell-runner Ricky Lightfoot nominates this super-steep route as his favourite trail in the entire country, and this is the terrain that produced fell-running legend Joss Naylor. The route starts at Seathwaite and follows the Climbers Traverse towards Great Gable, passing iconic landmark Napes Needle.
Leave the traverse to scramble up Sphinx Ridge, and then run over Great Gable’s stony summit plateau. To make a loop, follow a trail towards Base Brown and, before you reach it, swing left to descend via the hanging valley of Gillercombe, and then take the flagstone path via Sourmilk Gill to Seathwaite.
Parts of this route are definitely not for the faint hearted, and it shouldn’t be attempted in bad weather, but the view down Wasdale Valley is sensational.
Lairig Ghru, Highlands Of Scotland
- 19 miles (30.5km)
- Very Advanced
Traversing the Cairngorms, arguably the UK’s wildest region, the Lairig Ghru is Scotland’s most famous hill-pass. The route tops out at 835 metres and demands full commitment – conditions can change quickly and the only shelter is Corrour bothy.
Choose your time carefully, only attempt it if you’re an experienced wilderness runner with good navigations skills (the path disappears amid the stones at points) and take emergency gear. But the trail is as sensational as it is technical, and it can be one of the most rewarding challenges in the country.
Join the route at Coylumbridge in Speyside, follow it through Rothiemurchus forest up through the treeline into the mountains and thread the gorgeous gap between mighty Ben Macdui (Britain’s second highest mountain) and Cairn Toul. The far trailhead is the Linn of Dee car park. An annual 27-mile (43-kilometre) race goes through Lairig Ghru between the police stations of Braemar and Aviemore.
More info: walkhighlands.co.uk
Words Pat Kinsella Pictures Shutterstock