Call of the wild

Time and again, remoteness has been declared dead in Britain. "There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, and no deserted valley," mourned EM Forster in 1964. AA Gill put it less politely: "Tourism has subjected Britain to a cream-tea enema."

There's plenty of hard evidence to support Gill and Forster. Sixty-one million people now live in 93,000 square miles of land. There are 210,000 miles of road on the mainland alone: if these roads were joined into a single continuous carriageway, you could drive almost to the moon on it. And now there's also the Sauron's Eye of Google Earth, which challenges the very possibility of remoteness.

Despite all of this, the remote hasn't vanished in Britain. It's a threatened quality, but it isn't dead. I can say this with reasonable confidence, because I've spent several years travelling in search of the remaining wild places of these islands.

The first journey I made was to the camel-backed mountain of Suilven in the far north of Scotland. If you've been near Suilven, you'll have an unforgettable sense of its remoteness. Its twin Bactrian humps rise from a vast area of lochs, bluffs and streams. No road comes within miles of its piedmont.

I walked into Suilven from the east, the long way in (though there's no short way), tramping over pavements of glacier-scarred gneiss before climbing to its summit. Then I dropped into the mazy land on the mountain's south side: a 40-square-mile labyrinth of lochs and scarps, empty apart from a few ruined shielings. I bivouacked that night on a tiny gravel beach by the side of a loch. Just before dark, I swam in the loch. The next morning I woke, swam again beneath tartrazine dawn clouds, and then began the long walk out. I remember meeting tarmac again, and finding it an alien substance, even after only a few days away from roads. I'd seen four other people the whole time I'd been out.

That Suilven adventure began a series of expeditions along the north and west of Britain. I sailed out to Ynys Enlli (or Bardsey Island in English), a place of pilgrimage off the north Wales coast, and slept on its southerly cliffs, to be woken by birds and seals. Back in Scotland, I climbed Ben Hope, the most northerly of the Munros, and spent a cold night on its summit, raked by snow squalls and moonlight. Inspired by reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, my father and I traversed the great expanse of Rannoch Moor from east to west, sleeping a night out in its wild centre.

These were wonderful adventures, all in places that could be described as remote in the traditional sense of the word. But they also caused me to rethink my understanding of "remoteness".

Remote comes from the Latin verb "removere" meaning "to remove". There's no stipulation of distance in this etymology, however: remoteness is a function of separateness, rather than of scale. "Situated not necessarily at a great distance", is one definition of remote given by the Oxford English Dictionary.

And it's true that you don't need to go too far to find remoteness. Weather, for instance, can make even a familiar landscape strange. The sudden arrival of snow, fog or mist can transform a copse, field or river into somewhere profoundly foreign. Night can have the same effect, and I spent many hours out walking in darkness - along a ridge of winter mountains in Cumbria, and through snow-filled woods.

This idea of "nearby remoteness" became most convincing when I began to travel in England. There is, for instance, a moment on the Suffolk coast, a mile or two south of Kessingland, where you pass out of sight of housing. Suddenly, eroding orange sand-cliffs rear to your west, and the North Sea rolls away to your east. Your sight lines are restricted to rock, water, and the single oak - dead and sea-polished - that landmarks the shingle near Benacre Broad, like a stage-prop from Waiting For Godot. Walking those few miles, you get a powerful edge-of-the-world feeling. I had a similar sensation while swimming off the easterly brink of Orford Ness, the vast shingle desert further down the coast in Suffolk, which has inspired artists and poets including Turner and Crabbe.

I explored the network of holloways - sunken ancient roads, now thickly overgrown - that exist in Dorset. In Devon I walked up into the remote reaches of Dartmoor, padded through the cloud-forest of Black-a-Tor Copse, before sleeping the night next to a nameless waterfall near the moor's heart. And on the north Cornwall coast, a mile from a road, I slept out on a cliff-top bed of soft moss and sea-pinks, while a lightning storm raged over the Atlantic.

Wherever I travelled, I talked to the people I met, and asked them where their favourite remote places were: where they went to hear themselves think. One man spoke of kayaking out to the islands of the north Essex estuaries. Another told me about canoeing the river Stour, discovering its secret places and listening to the sound of the wind in the reeds and the fluttering leaves of the black poplars - as well as the chatter of picnicking families and the burble of pleasure boats. It was another reminder to me that the remote can be surprisingly close at hand.

· If I had to recommend one remote place in Britain, it would be Suilven in Sutherland where you can pitch a tent somewhere on the mountain's south side. If, inexplicably, this doesn't take your fancy then visit the exceptional Summer Isles Hotel (, doubles from £140 B&B.
Robert Macfarlane

· Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places (Granta) is published in paperback this month.

Cherryblossom Cottage, Devon

Set in quiet countryside, slightly inland from Bude, this recently renovated cottage boasts easy access to woodlands, rolling fields and country pubs. Part of a 32-acre farm, it's not the largest - or the most originally decorated - of cottages, but it is a good, practical option, especially for guests with young children. An enclosed garden, fully equipped modern kitchen, new bathroom and central heating all make for a fuss-free holiday, while babysitting can be arranged on request. If you happen to have a horse, you can bring it along too.

· 01326 555555,, from £308 pw, sleeps 4.

Silverton Park Stables, Devon

This must be one of the Landmark Trust's most lengthy renovation projects. Though the architectural restoration charity first acquired the Grade II-listed building 20 years ago, intensive work only began on it in 2005. Tucked away in the Devon countryside, outside the village of Cullompton, the Stables were originally designed for the Earl of Egremont, alongside his Silverton Park mansion (which has since been demolished), but had never been finished. Thanks to a team of local craftsmen, the conversion into a large self-catering property is now complete and the building finally opened for bookings last month.

· 01628 825925,, from £807 for 4 nights, sleeps up to 14.

The Farmers Inn, Somerset

Set in the village of Higher West Hatch, a couple of miles outside Taunton, this is an unpretentious 16th-century hostelry with five five-star guest suites attached (each named after the hills it overlooks). The Farmers Inn ticks most of the rural weekender's boxes: log fires, local ales and ciders, squishy sofas and no-nonsense, locally sourced food come as standard. Outside, guests can enjoy the fresh air (manure and silage aside) on a ramble or bike ride through the Quantocks.

· 01823 480480,, doubles from £90 B&B.

The Treehouse, Somerset

A little more refined than your average back-garden den, what takes the Treehouse to new heights is its sheer level of luxury. Just outside the conservation village of Halse, this fancy five-star perch features underfloor heating, a fully equipped Shaker-style kitchen, Freeview, an iPod dock and a super-kingsize bed. You can even order in gourmet ready-meals if you don't fancy cooking. It's also family friendly, with a stack of children's DVDs, and everything from cots to sterilisers available to borrow. Due to open in September.

· 01823 431622,, from £450 for 4 nights, sleeps 5. Opens September.

The Rectory, Wiltshire

For a boutique hotel, the Rectory doesn't appear to be trying too hard, which isn't to say that standards are sloppy, just that the atmosphere is deceptively laid-back. Set in historic Malmesbury and boasting a walled garden, a heated outdoor pool and a honey-coloured stone exterior, this is modern English hospitality at its most romantic. The hotel's 12 bedrooms offer plenty of comfort without being scarily contemporary while, in the public spaces, there's just the right balance between cosy and smart.

· 01666 577194,, doubles from £105, B&B.

Colmers View House, Dorset

Colmers View House, outside Bridport, is the zip-lock bed of self-catering properties. Rentable as one large property (sleeping up to 12) or as two individual components (the main house sleeps eight and the annexe four), it looks more like a contemporary barn conversion than the 1950s bungalow it actually is. A light-filled open-plan space with views across fields, this stylish retreat is owned by Ruth Collier, who runs garden design courses and is establishing a natural garden around the property. The only catch is that the annexe can be rented year-round but the rest of the property is only available from July to October.

· 01308 458787,, from £1,755 pw for the whole house or from £560pw for the annexe.

Palace Farm, Kent

Describing itself as a "hostel-style B&B", Palace Farm offers clean, comfortable accommodation for up to 30 guests in the North Kent Downs. With as many bunk beds as doubles and access to a communal lounge, kitchen and dining room, this definitely veers more towards the hostel end of the scale than B&B, but a continental breakfast is included in the price. Those who want to explore the surrounding villages, marshes and valleys can hire bikes on site. Its environmental policies have also won Palace Farm a Green Tourism Business Scheme gold medal.

· 01795 886200,, from £16pp pn, B&B.

The Miller of Mansfield, Berkshire

If you don't want to travel too far to enjoy a slice of country life, the Miller of Mansfield might suit. Only eight miles or so outside Reading, in the pretty riverside village of Goring-On-Thames, this is an 18th-century inn reinvented for the 21st century. Its 10 individually styled bedrooms feature strikingly contemporary decor - including patterned Cole & Son wallpaper and Philippe Starck Ghost chairs - while the hotel's shabby-chic bar serves up pints of local ale. There's also a fairly sophisticated restaurant. Just the place to recuperate after a day out on the Berkshire Downs.

· 01491 872829,, doubles from £110, B&B.

Somerton Mill Oxfordshire

This tiny 17th-century property, slipped between seven acres of water meadows and woodlands, is like something from a storybook (which might explain why it was the inspiration for the 2005 children's TV series Summerton Mill). With its riverside setting and secluded location it's great for nature lovers, but not really advisable for small children. The closest village, Deddington, is just four miles away, or you can pull on some wellies and hike across the valley to the Red Lion pub in Steeple Aston.

· 01386 701177,, from £128pp for three nights.

The Swan At Ascott, Oxfordshire

After suffering severe damage in last year's floods, this Cotswolds country pub was thoroughly refurbished and has now re-opened under the direction of new owner Richard Lait. Essentially still a village pub, it doesn't have the round-the-clock services a hotel might, but it does have modern guestrooms, a friendly bar and a restaurant serving traditional pies, home-cooked casseroles and proper puddings.

· 01993 832332,, doubles from £75 pn, B&B.

Shadingfield Hall, Suffolk

As impulse buys go, Shadingfield Hall must be one of the grandest. An elegant country house set in five acres of landscaped grounds, it was bought by the celebrity photographer Dave Hogan last year, after an advert in a local magazine caught his wife's eye. Refurbished in record time, it officially opens as a self-catering property on July 22. The interiors aren't quite as sophisticated as the architecture, but at least the effect is more laid-back here than in properties boasting a more high-spec design brief. If you don't want to be surrounded by the likes of David Beckham, Madonna and Girls Aloud on holiday, steer clear - Hogan's portraits are on display throughout the property.

· 07836 672829,, from £3,000 pw, sleeps up to 21.

The Peren, Herefordshire

Location aside, there's little that's rustic about this sophisticated self-catering property. Set in the Brecon Beacons, on the outskirts of Wales's famous book town, Hay-on-Wye, The Peren is a model of restrained rural style. Its pared-down wooden details, slate floors and natural textiles prove that you don't have to go down the floor-to-ceiling Cath Kidston route just because you're in the country. Attached to an organic smallholding, this restored 18th-century barn blends high-spec design with laid-back charm - guests are invited to help themselves to pickings from the adjacent herb garden.

· 01497 831225, From £350 for 4 nights, sleeps 4-6.

Bull Barn, North Yorkshire

From the outside, this newly converted stone barn is not distinctive. Inside, though, it's a different story. With its gleaming bathroom, smart bedrooms and vast open-plan kitchen, dining and living area, Bull Barn promises a better class of country retreat. Better still, being set off a quiet lane in the pretty village of Kirkby Malham, it has on its doorstep some of the biggest attractions in the Yorkshire Dales national park, including Malham Tarn nature reserve, Malham Cove and Gordale Scar.

· 01535 632616,, from £854 pw, sleeps 6.

Bluestone, Pembrokeshire

If Center Parcs were designed by eco-minded Scandinavians, it would look like this. The new Bluestone resort on the edge of the National Park has 186 timber lodges, 30 cottages and 17 studios relying on natural materials, and gives a nod to sustainable principles. Whether a giant new holiday village can ever be green is debatable, but the waterpark (with hot tubs, rapids and indoor surfing) is heated by a biomass fuel burner; and the (purpose built) resort village is car-free. If the Preseli mountains, dolphin watching or coasteering don't grab you, there's a sports club, gym, tennis courts, wildlife and arts activities.

· 0800 0224 517, From £25 pppn based on four sharing a self-catering cottage for three nights.

The Lodge, Conwy

Possibly the most stylish bunkhouse in the UK, this converted stone barn is set in the Glasgwm valley in Snowdonia. A stone's throw from the main mountain biking centres, as well as spectacular walking and climbing, it's normally used as accommodation for those participating in one of the owners' outdoor activity courses. But with gleaming stainless-steel finishes, "drencher" showers and satellite TV part of the four-star package, it also makes a luxurious self-catering retreat when courses aren't running. Rooms can also be rented individually.

· 01690 760181, From £150 pn, for up to 8, self-catering, and doubles from £70 pn, room only.

Fronlas, Carmarthenshire

Despite its tiny size (only 2,000 people live here), the town of Llandeilo, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park, has just about everything you could wish for. Shops include a branch of fashion store Toast, there's a local chocolatier, and cosy pubs proliferate. It even boasts a swish new organic B&B, Fronlas. If you can drag yourself out into the surrounding countryside you'll find nature reserves, ruined castles, river valleys, deer parks and the National Botanic Garden of Wales all within a short drive or bike ride (Fronlas thoughtfully provides a bike and boot wash, drying room and lock-up for outdoor gear).

· 01558 824733,, doubles from £70 pn B&B.

Sophie's Cottage, Fermanagh

The lakelands of Northern Ireland must be one of the most neglected rural destinations in the UK, yet there's plenty to make a trip there worthwhile, from canoeing, fishing and sailing around Lough Erne to picnicking in the scenic grounds of Crom Estate. The trouble is that, until recently, the choice of accommodation in the region was often underwhelming. Not so Sophie's Cottage. Set in Glassmullagh, Fermanagh, this five-star, former gamekeeper's cottage was restored in 2006 and now offers underfloor heating, Wi-Fi and smart white bed linen, along with lashings of country charm.

· 02867 748551,, from £275 for 3 nights, sleeps 4.

The Chapel, Inverness-shire

One of two properties on the 52,000-acre Corrour Estate that have been given a makeover by ex-Wallpaper* interiors stylist Suzy Hoodless, this former chapel has been reinvented as a 1950s-style Scandinavian ski cabin. It is surrounded by semi-wild Victorian gardens 15m from the shore of Loch Ossian. Fortunately, the facilities are a little more up-to-date than the decor, with a well-equipped kitchen, fluffy duvets, TV, DVD player and underfloor heating. It's also only four miles from Corrour station, served by sleeper trains from London.

· 01397 732200,, from £550 pw, sleeps 10.

Keepers At Garth, Perthshire

Whisking someone away for a weekend à deux often means deliberating between hotel glamour and self-catering privacy. So hurrah for the owners of Keepers Cottage, in rural Perthshire, for combining the two. This pretty stone cottage may only sleep two, but what it lacks in space it makes up for with luxuries. A log fire, swanky kitchen, Wi-Fi and Vi-Spring bed are all included, while a private walled garden, hot tub and walks into neighbouring Glen Lyon promise plenty of scope for romance.

· 01887 830689,, from £150 per couple per night (minimum three-night stay).

The GuardianTramp

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