10 awe-inspiring walks around the UK

Scientists found weekly ‘awe walks’ led to more positive emotions among study participants - here are some of the nation’s most wondrous locations

The Romantics first drew our attention to “awe” in the natural world and now scientists have confirmed its value.

Older adults who took weekly “awe walks” reported increased positive emotions and less distress in their daily lives, according to a study published in the journal Emotion.

Awe, a positive emotion triggered by an awareness of something much larger than the self – such as nature, art or a collective act from concerts to political marches – can enhance feelings of generosity, wellbeing and humility, according to researchers at the University of California and Trinity College, Dublin.

As well as health benefits, the researchers noticed differences in the walkers’ selfies, which increasingly showed their surroundings rather than themselves and measurably broader smiles towards the end of the eight-week study.

The lead author, Virginia Sturm, said: “Experiencing awe is such a simple practice – just taking a moment to look out the window or pausing to consider the technological marvels that surround us – and we now show it can have measurable effects on our emotional wellbeing.”

Here are 10 starters for your weekly awe walk.

1. Murlough Bay, Antrim coast, Northern Ireland

Early morning sun illuminates the coastline of Murlough Bay, near the coastal town of Ballycastle.
Early morning sun illuminates the coastline of Murlough Bay, near the coastal town of Ballycastle. Photograph: Jason Friend Photography/Getty

Many tourists know Antrim for the Giant’s Causeway but the spectacular coast either side is far less populated. The grandeur and vertiginous expanses of dolerite on the cliffs around Fair Head are coveted by rock climbers. Across the blue water lies Rathlin, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island, Islay and the rounded hummocks that are the Paps of Jura. There’s a three-mile circular walk at Murlough Bay or the 33-mile Causeway Coast Way from Ballycastle in the east to Portstewart in the west.

2. Eigg, Scotland

A waterfall flows along a small gorge to form a still pool with almost infinity aspect out to sea, looking out eastward to the isle of Eigg.
A waterfall flows along a small gorge to form a still pool with almost infinity aspect out to sea, looking out eastward to the isle of Eigg. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The inner Hebridean island of Eigg is nestled within the grand amphitheatre of the Highlands and the peaks of Skye. Most walkers head for An Sgúrr, a nose-like protuberance which gives Eigg its distinctive profile, but there’s another lovely walk along the ridge Beinn Bhuidhe, which ends in a formidable crescent of columnar basalt cliffs. Peace, space, hen harriers, and the awe-inspiring story of Eigg’s revival via community ownership (bringing affordable housing and a renewable energy grid) too.

3. Morwenstow, Cornwall

View from Vicarage cliff near Morwenstow on the north Cornish coast.
View from Vicarage cliff near Morwenstow on the north Cornish coast. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Almost any stretch of the 630-mile South West Coast Path from Minehead, Somerset, to Poole Harbour, Dorset, will inspire awe. The dark granite cliffs either side of Morwenstow, north Cornwall, are perhaps the toughest of the path, with ascents along the 15-mile Hartland Quay to Bude stretch the equivalent to Ben Nevis. For easier awe, there’s a two-mile circuit from Morwenstow’s teashop to the cliffside wooden hut built by the eccentric Victorian vicar Robert Hawker.

4. North Downs, Box Hill

Chalk pit on North Downs Way, Surrey.
Chalk pit on North Downs Way, Surrey. Photograph: Oleksandr Ivanchenko/Alamy

Experiencing awe just a day trip (48 mins on the train) from central London was what drew earlier admirers including Jane Austen. Undeniably a busy honeypot, there is still peace to be found walking the North Downs Way either side of Box Hill, with chalk grassland flowers in spring, rare butterflies in summer, fungi in autumn and scenic views south across the wooded, rolling Weald to the South Downs at all times of year.

5. Arnside Knott, Cumbria

A farm with Arnside Knott behind, Cumbria.
A farm with Arnside Knott behind, Cumbria. Photograph: Robin Weaver/Alamy

As the birthplace of the Romantics’ rediscovery of awe, the Lake District is not short on breathtaking mountainscapes (or visitors). A quieter experience can be found to the south, in the flower-rich landscape of Morecambe Bay limestone. The Knott juts out like the prow of a ship, offering a short, steep climb and expansive views over the tidal reaches of Morecambe Bay.

6. Cader Idris, Wales

Cadair Idris offers spectacular views of Snowdonia.
Cadair Idris offers spectacular views of Snowdonia. Photograph: Jason Hornblow/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy

The walk up and around “Idris’s Chair” close to the town of Dolgellau gave Theresa May some clarity when she was prime minister. Politicians require awe, wonder and solace more than most of us. This chair-like ridge and mountain surrounding a glacial lake creates a stunning circular walk, climbing to the peak at 893 metres, revealing fine views across Snowdonia national park.

7. Orford Ness, Suffolk

The lighthouse at Orford Ness
The lighthouse at Orford Ness Photograph: Alamy

Shock and awe, that bombastic phrase of wartime bombing, is delivered by this shingle peninsula, once a secret atomic site for testing weapons during the cold war. Remnants of concrete labs, known as pagodas, are a sinister feature of the skyline. But this apocalyptic site, accessed via the National Trust ferry outside bird-nesting season, also sings of the sea, shorebirds and the ability of nature to thrive when we depart.

8. Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire

Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, has associations with the Robin Hood legend.
Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, has associations with the Robin Hood legend. Photograph: Steve Taylor ARPS/Alamy

Almost any native wood in Britain delivers human wellbeing. Strolling into this well-peopled forest is an act of communal worship, with woodpeckers drumming for hymns and leaf litter for incense. Awe is provided by the wood’s great celebrity, the Major Oak, a repository for myths since Robin Hood’s day. Other charismatic trees are also available: at least 997 oaks of 400+ years in Sherwood, probably Europe’s largest group of ancient oaks.

9. Old Oswestry Hill Fort, Shropshire

The town of Oswestry, Shropshire.
The town of Oswestry, Shropshire. Photograph: David Toase/Getty Images

This epic circle of ramparts a three-minute drive north of Owestry encloses 20 acres of grassy hilltop where once stood an Iron Age city. There is no visitor centre, no fuss, just epic earthworks delivering views over the rolling green borderlands of England and Wales. It’s a walk back to 800BC, the fort positively humming with deep history and the unfathomable scale of the digging task performed by humans long before machines.

10. Canvey Wick, Essex

The remains of the Occidental Petroleum jetty on Canvey Island in Essex.
The remains of the Occidental Petroleum jetty on Canvey Island in Essex. Photograph: Meibion/Alamy

The hummocks of bramble and sallow over Canvey Island’s Thames-side shores are not beautiful. Nor are they peaceful, with the thuds and beeps of surrounding industry penetrating this flat, rough nature reserve. But Canvey Wick, an abandoned oil refinery, inspires a different awe. The human race’s destructive tendencies can be inadvertently creative. Canvey Wick’s ruination has made it a “brownfield rainforest” of 2,000 invertebrates including the shrill carder bee, one of Britain’s rarest bumblebees, and metallic-coloured bombardier beetles. Awe can be urban, and on our doorstep too. But it requires protection.

• This article was amended on 23 September to replace a picture of Shingle Street, Suffolk, that had been used instead of one of Orford Ness.


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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