6 of the Best County Peaks to Run in England
You know, sometimes I feel a pang of envy towards our continental neighbours and their big mountain ranges: the Alps of Austria, the Dolomites of Italy, the Pyrenees of France and Spain. But then I look at what we have on our little island - not the highest, but surely some of the most varied and challenging terrain in Europe and a climate that can completely change the complexion of an area in an hour. This is why running here will always hold a special place in my heart, and one of the reasons that over the past few years I've made it my goal to reach the highest point in each of the 48 counties of England. So far I've checked off 35 and here are six of my favourites, ranging from the relatively obscure to one of the Goliaths of our green and pleasant land.
1. Norfolk - Beacon Hill, 103m
Grid ref: TG186413, map: OS Explorer 252 (Norfolk Coast East)
Perhaps the highlight of this challenge for me has been visiting the tops of our lowest-lying counties, and Norfolk is no exception - the most unlikely places often yield the most fun adventures! Located just outside Cromer, a seaside town frequently exposed to arctic winds and the full force of the North Sea, a short but surprisingly arduous climb awaits from the town centre or the seafront. At the summit, you'll find an area of ancient earthworks known as "Roman Camp", so called by Victorian horse-drawn cab drivers looking to make a quick buck from gullible tourists - recent excavations have uncovered no evidence of Roman occupation!
2. East Sussex - Ditchling Beacon, 248m
Grid ref: TQ331130, map: OS Explorer OL11 (Brighton & Hove)
Perhaps better known as a challenge for those on two wheels than two feet, the road up Ditchling Beacon is one of the South's most famous climbs - as well as being the final hurdle of the London to Brighton bike ride, it has featured in numerous professional cycle races including the 1994 Tour de France. But to really savour the far-reaching views from the top - with the High Weald and North Downs in front and the English Channel behind, the best way up is on foot. You can park at the bottom for a short but very steep climb to the trig, or make a day of it and run a section of the South Downs Way between towns or train stations.
3. Devon - High Willhays, 621m
Grid ref: SX580892, map: OS Explorer OL28 (Dartmoor)
This stunning rocky summit (adjacent to the perhaps better-known Yes Tor) is the highest point in the Dartmoor National Park, and is as tough a climb as anything to be found in the higher peaks further north. If you catch a break in the famously changeable weather, expect views of much of the southwest of England including Exmoor, Bodmin Moor, and the Cornish county top Brown Willy. Tackle the steepest and most direct route from the hamlet of Meldon, or for a more relaxed ascent utilise some of the many military tracks that reach into the moors from the pretty market town of Okehampton.
Credit: Clare Bennett
4. Greater London - Westerham Heights, 245m
Grid ref: TQ436564, map: OS Explorer 147 (Sevenoaks & Tonbridge)
The highest point in the metropolitan area of Greater London is positioned on its southern extremity, just inside the M25 motorway above the village of Westerham. Positioned right by the A233 on the driveway of Little Betsoms Farm, the summit is indistinct and on private land, although fabulous vistas across the High Weald can be enjoyed from a couple of hundred metres down the road. The North Downs Way passes nearby and it is well worth the diversion from the trail to know that (apart from those at the very top of The Shard) you are the highest person in a city of more than 8.5 million people!
5. West Midlands - Turners Hill, 271m
Grid ref: SO969887, map: OS Explorer 219 (Wolverhampton & Dudley)
I loved visiting this county top when I was passing through the area in the winter of 2015. Unlike Westerham Heights which sits on edge of London, Turners Hill is right in the thick of it between West Birmingham and central Dudley. The radio towers atop the summit can be seen for miles around, and a great route beginning at Windmill End will take you first along a section of the Dudley Canal (to the entrance to the famous Netherton Tunnel) before following mostly paved footpaths up the hill. It feels a little like an 'urban' fell run, as you climb quite steeply through Warrens Hall Park and past a horse riding school before turning right onto Oakham Road to complete the climb to the masts.
6. North Yorkshire - Whernside, 736m
Grid ref: SD738814, map: OS Explorer OL2 (Yorkshire Dales - Southern & Western Area)
The highest point in the Yorkshire Dales and one of the jewels in the crown of northern England, Whernside is a challenging but achievable fell run, encouraging a sense of remoteness and solitude that few other areas can match. Starting from Ribblehead (either the car park or the train station) follow the footpath north alongside the famous viaduct, and cross the near the entrance to the Bleamoor Tunnel. From here it is a long but never too taxing drag around the side of the mountain until turning left and taking the 'A Pennine Journey' Trail (PJT) south to the summit. Return the way you came or continue south following the PJT to tackle the very steep descent to Bruntscar, head for the viaduct, and follow your nose back to the start. Be sure to refuel at The Station Inn or why not stay overnight and tackle the adjacent monster Ingleborough the next day?
These are some of my favourites, but do you know where the highest point in your county is? Running fast or slow, for hill training or for pleasure, this weekend, get out there and experience the satisfaction of knowing there's nobody higher up than you for miles around. Check out my blog for more information and more detailed reports of some of my experiences - if you don't see yours on the list, don't be afraid to get in touch via my contact page as I may have already visited but not yet written about it!