Sunday, July 18, 2021


Falls at Ystradfellte

Often when I walk with Jane she says I may as well be somewhere else. Other couples she points out, use walking as a chance to chat and hold hands, whereas more often than not I'm striding ahead and miles away in my mind  If this seems selfish, then I must beg forgiveness or at least understanding.  It's as if the repetitive act of this simplest of exercises gives rise to meditations that I'm powerless to resist. 

In truth, I'm glad of her presence even if inwardly elsewhere. So in an attempt to bridge the divide, I've recently taken to sharing more of what I'm thinking. I call it 'the kind of things I ponder' conversation and though more often as not it elicits an eye roll,  just occasionally it engenders a discussion that slows my pace and brings us together.  

'Things underrated' I said the other day, is one of my go-to ruminations.  We all have our lists of the best and the worst—the finest restaurant, the funniest book, the town we'd least like to live in... Whatever category takes our interest it's natural enough to rank and rate it in an order of excellence. So much is commonplace and pleasant enough to debate on a hike or a wander.

But 'underrated' is something slightly different.  It's not about what or who is the best or worst, it's about the gap between our perception and reality; it's about changing our focus from a scale based on excellence to a one of latent potential or unrecognised achievement.  

We all know that Pele and Maradona are among the best footballers of all time; but who are the lesser mentioned players that have a claim to be up there with the greats?  And while we're at it, considering what's overrated is a good muse too; which towns and counties, for example, have reputations (or house prices) that far surpass what they actually deliver?

I was thinking of all this in a slightly different context when walking in the hills this weekend.  My son had asked me earlier if I'd visited every national park and which I thought was the best.  I told him I had and although it was hard to pick a favourite I'd probably opt for The Lake District as the quintessential UK example.  Others might disagree with my assessment but that's not the point—which is that I picked an option that would almost certainly be pretty high on any public vote.  

I've no idea if such a survey has ever taken place but if one has I'd bet a lot of money that the Norfolk Broads or South Downs were not contenders for the top medals. And just to add a bit of speculative spice, if I had to declare my choice of 'least favourite' national park, I'd opt for the New Forest. This will no doubt offend some, but then we all have our preferences. And a good thing that is too.

But returning to my theme, and what occupied my walking meditations, which national park is the most underrated?  

Now that's much harder to decide.  Northumberland is the least visited, but for all I love that land, it is actually the coast (not in the park) which draws most visitors.  The North York Moors is relatively little known too, as is Dartmoor; the Trossachs are often passed over in favour of the Highlands or West Coast. And what about Exmoor, surely there's underrated potential there...  

Magnificent as these parks are I fear they will always be overshadowed by other attractions—none of them has the latent possibilities I'm looking for. On the other hand, I can't in all conscience choose the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District or the Cairngorms: these are obvious star performers, well known and well-trod by millions.

There's no right answer of course.  

For what it's worth I'd make the case that the Brecon Beacons is the UK's most underrated national park. It's within an hour's drive of four large cities, has some of the best mountain walking south of Scotland and is vast and varied and lonely and lovely... 

Why is it so little visited compared to others?  Frankly, I'm mystified but I sense the lack of an obvious tourist centre (like say Keswick or Hawes) plays a part—so too that its major peaks are just a touch under 3,000 ft.  Maybe the Welsh language is off-putting to some - all those consonants and not enough vowels. 

The trouble of course is that what would make it more attractive to many risks destroying why it's so brilliant for the few. 

On Saturday we stopped by Maen Llia, a standing stone of  4,000 years provenance; erected by the Beaker people, we can only guess at its significance. Legend says it occasionally walks to the nearby stream for a drink—waters that feed the magnificent falls at Ystradfellte, and which hollow the caves at Dan yr Ogof, the biggest underground system in the UK.  From the hills above here, you can see the Carmarthen Fans, the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains; hundred of miles to explore.

And you can do so alone, or together, or like me and Jane, a bit of both! Because other than the honey pots (of which the waterfalls are one) the visitor density here is among the lowest of any high mountain area within easy reach of millions of people. And because, in a landscape like this, we are drawn to looking in as much as out, and to talking to ourselves, as much as our closest of loved ones. 

And I reckon that's underrated too. 


  1. Hari OM
    Interesting musings; of course, living on the doorstep of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park as I do, you may surmise which I might favour! YAM xx

  2. Living as I do only two miles outside the Border of The Yorkshire Dales - Wensleydale in particular - I am of course prejudiced. But sadly during the Summer months they are very busy. You have given me an idea for a start to my post for today - so thank you for that.

  3. I like walking alone and thinking, so I understand your tendency to ponder. Can you believe I've never been to any UK national parks? Part of the reason is we don't have a car or UK driving licenses, which makes traveling in rural areas a challenge, if not impossible. We tend to stick to towns and cities. One of these days I'll get ambitious and get a license and then we can hire a car.

  4. The Norfolk Broads were only designated a National Park relatively recently and I don't think anybody locally considers it to be one! The Broads described an area where we sometimes went instead of the beach when we were children, it wasn't particularly isolated, deserted or miles from anywhere with Wroxham slap bang in the middle and one of the few places where shops were open in the Summer during high season which was a bit of a novelty in itself although I don't recall that we ever went in them. Boats and cruisers were hired by northerners who came down for a week or two, and still are, but with more drunkeness now the annual drownings continue and there is a campaign on at the moment to remind holidaymakers that the Broads and booze do not go together. I don't have a favourite National Park and I haven't been to many. I went to the Lakes a few times when I lived in Newcastle but didn't like it, being a flatlander I found the hills and deep lakes rather forbidding.

    1. Rachel makes a good point - I don't think many locals consider the Broads to be a "National Park". Having just returned to Norfolk, after 6 years living on the edge of the New Forest, I have to say that these two are the places I know best on your list, and familiarity has fostered much love for them both.

  5. This: "The trouble of course is that what would make it more attractive to many risks destroying why it's so brilliant for the few." for me the crux of regarding something as underrated. If I rate something highly because it is a great place to get away, find peace, spend time in contemplation, the last thing I want for that place is that it become easily accessible or attractive to people who seek commercialism, a cafe, a souvenir shop, public toilets, picnic tables, all close to a carpark. Celebrate the underrated I say, but do it quietly.

  6. I can't decide on the most under-rated National Park, so in the manner of our politicians, I'll answer a slightly different question. Prompted by a wonderful long bike ride yesterday from Aberdeen to Leith Hall near Kennethmont and back, I want to nominate Aberdeenshire as 'most under-rated county for cycling". Hugely varied landscape from Cairngorm mountains via undulating hills, forests, sparkling clean rivers to a very under-rated coastline, excellent network of quiet country lanes, a good supply of tea stops etc. etc. OK So it can be windy and cold, but that all adds to the experience!
    Cheers, Gail.

  7. Funny. I only like to walk alone. If I'm with someone I have to worry about my pace and I do not want to talk while I'm walking. I feel that if I can talk I am not walking fast enough.
    You certainly do have some beautiful places to walk though, either alone or with someone.

  8. Having grown up there, I know the New Forest well and it has always been used as a playground by the good people of Southampton and its environs. When I was growing up, most people didn't move far from their cars - they parked up, put up the windbreak and the deckchairs, and lit the primus, and spent the afternoon reading the News of the World! Nowadays it is walked, ridden, cycled over and there are people in the most remote of spots (mind you, you can say the same of Dartmoor, which is my favourite National Park as its where my roots are).

    The Brecon Beacons are under-rated, though the obvious honey-pot spots like Pen-y-Fan always attract the hordes. Thank heavens they leave the rest of it to more local folk, who can appreciate it whatever the weather.

    I am still amazed that the area where we now live seems to be pretty much a well-kept secret! Long may it remain so.

  9. You're lucky to ha walking friend/wife Mark. I often walk on my own and listen to music on my phone for company.

  10. I remember once going to the Brecons. I had acquired an old motor van, and stayed there a couple of nights. The weather was hot and I climbed up a hill which had an I/A settlement at the top I think. But having arrived at the top the most beautiful memory happened. A skylark flew out of the grass and curled its way up to the heavens above singing all the way up. I think like M/s Moon that I like solitude when walking.

  11. I like to ramble, on foot and in my mind both. I'm not sure that I walk and cogitate mightily at the same time. I like talking and holding hands. My cogitating time is when I'm driving.

  12. I miss walking alone with my own thoughts. These days, my twice daily walks involve my dog and my husband, who likes to chat. Don't get me wrong, I love those family walks, they just don't give me much chance to let my mind wander.

  13. Are The Norfolk Boards close to The Norfolk Broads? I must admit that I had never heard of them. I imagine a landscape of old floorboards heading off in a jumbly fashion to the horizon. As for engaging in "normal" marital walks, perhaps you could take an online course. LESSON ONE - "Small Talk" - topics include wallpaper choices, getting a new vacuum cleaner and Jane Austen.