National Trails – from old to new

Published 25 June 2023

National Trail Acorn logo on a lamp post in Filey
The Acorn National Trail logo attached to a lampost near Filey.

In 2025, there will be a new National Trail. Although it isn’t actually that new.

Just in case you don’t know, National Trail’s are long distance walking routes and bridleways. They stretch across England and Wales, and are administered by a government agency – Natural England in England, and National Resources Wales in, err, Wales.

They’re basically the gold standard of walking trails. Anyone can create a walking trail. But not every walking trail can be a National Trail. It takes a LOT of effort to get National Trail status. You need government buy-in for starters. In 2025, the newest National Trail will be the Coast to Coast National Trail. It will follow the route given by Alfred Wainwright in his book, A Coast to Coast Walk. It’s one of the most popular walking routes in this country, nay, the world. And it’s taken decades of campaigning to turn it into a National Trail.

The Coast to Coast’s looming new status got me wondering about the age of our National Trails. So I decided to have a look. For good measure, I’ve included four Scottish “Long Distance Routes”. In recent years these got subsumed under the Scottish Great Trails brand, and there’s nearly 30 of them. But four trails preceded them and have a similar legal status to the National Trails in England and Wales.

(For good measure, there’s also the Scottish National Trail which confusingly is not a National Trail, nor a Scottish Great Trail, nor has any legal backing or recognition as far as I can tell. I’m only mentioning it to point out how confusing the name is…)

'Thistle' waymark on the Southern Upland Way
The Thistle waymark sign, used on the Scottish Long Distance Walks.

Including the forthcoming Coast to Coast and the four Scottish routes, there’s 21 trails. I decided to order them ranking them from oldest to newest. Note that the year of opening given below is the year the National Trail officially opened. Some trails (like the Cotswold Way and Glyndŵr’s Way) existed before becoming National Trails. Anyway, that ordering…

Trail nameCountryOfficially Opened
Pennine WayEngland1965
Cleveland WayEngland1969
Pembrokeshire Coast PathWales1970
Offa’s DykeEngland and Wales1971
South Downs WayEngland1972
North Downs WayEngland1978
South West Coast PathEngland1978
West Highland WayScotland1980
Speyside WayScotland1981
Yorkshire Wolds WayEngland1982
Southern Upland WayScotland1984
Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast PathEngland1986
Thames PathEngland1996
Glyndŵr’s WayWales2000
Great Glen WayScotland2002
Hadrian’s Wall PathEngland2003
Cotswold WayEngland2007
Pennine BridlewayEngland2012
Coast to CoastEngland2025 (planned)
England Coast PathEnglandtbc (currently partially open)

Looking at those figures, there’s some things that leap out to me. One is to note how many opened in the 1970s. It’s not that surprising. The idea for the trails was established in the 1960s, and so there were lots of ideas and proposals. Working through them and getting up and running took its time. But by 1978, the backbone of the England and Wales networks was formally founded. Then, besides the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path (two routes that are combined into a single National Trail) it all went very quiet.

Meanwhile Scotland was way behind. Nothing happened there until three routes opened in quick succession in the early 1980s. And then they stopped too.

Somehow the Thames Path broke the English impasse. And with the arrival of the Labour government of 1997, it seems it was action stations all over again. The same government brought in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, introducing the right to roam in parts of England and Wales. The Glyndŵr’s Way was previously a local route upgraded to celebrate the Millennium. Hadrian’s Wall Path, the Cotswold Way and the Pennine Bridleway all followed (the Pennine Bridleway launching more slowly no doubt to the complications of making it a bridleway rather than a footpath.) Scotland added the Great Glen Way.

And then it all stopped again. Well in England and Wales. As mentioned, Scotland folded its four long distance routes under its Great Trails brand. But in England and Wales, no new trails have opened yet.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been work. The Welsh Coastal Path launched in 2012, providing a route round the coast of the country. But – annoyingly for this list – it’s not a designated National Trail despite its links to the Welsh Government. The success of that path led to plans to develop the England Coast Path being announced in 2014. And that WILL be a National Trail. Parts of it are already open, although it’s going to take time for the whole route to be finalised.

But other than that, there has been little progress on new trails. Well with one exception. In August 2022 it was announced that Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk would become a National Trail.

Campaigners, including the Wainwright Society, have been trying to get official recognition for many years. In fact I wrote about one such attempt in 2016.

As National Trail launches go, it should be relatively simple as it’s already there. But why now? Who knows. Although it’s notable that in 2016 the campaign was thoroughly supported by the then MP for Richmond. You probably haven’t heard of him. Some guy named Rishi Sunak. Bit of a nobody.

Of course Sunak wasn’t prime minister at the time of the announcement. But he had recently finished his stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer. And one can’t help but suspect having a supporter in high places can’t have hindered the case.

What comes next though? What does the future look like? In 2025 when the Coast to Coast National Trail officially “opens” the Pennine Way, our first National Trail, will be 70. Will it be joined by any more trails any time soon? Or are we in for another fallow period?

Only time will tell.

N.b. I am well aware that the England Coast Path has now rebranded King Charles III Coast Path. For record, it’s not a name I will be using because it’s ridiculously cumbersome, and frankly quite stupid. Other than him being the current monarch for the country of England – a role that by its nature is transitory – he has absolutely no connection with the trail. If he was a keen coastal walker, had spent decades exploring the British coastline, then maybe, just maybe I’d accept it. But it’s a pointless rebrand done by a bunch of toadying politicians that frankly means nothing on the ground. I hope that, in time, it will formally return to its simpler, original name. Because, after all, the number of people who are ever going to call the trail by it’s “full” name, is going to be embarrassingly small.


Amanda C

11 August 2023 at 11:24 am

Hi Andrew, enjoyed this article and agree re the naming of the English Coast Path. I note the East Highland Way isn’t listed, is this because it doesn’t count as one of the Scottish ‘Long Distance Routes’?

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

11 August 2023 at 2:31 pm

Hi Amanda – the East Highland Way is an “unofficial” route, so isn’t included.

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