From crumbling ruins to holy wells and butterfly-filled forests, some of the country’s loveliest spots have been all but forgotten. Our experts name their favourites
Dolbadarn Castle, Llanberis, Gwynedd
I found the fairytale tower of Dolbadarn Castle near Llanberis quite by chance as I climbed the hills behind the Dinorwic slate museum. Halfway up the steep slope, in search of a row of ruined slate workers’ cottages, I stopped to catch my breath. The sky cleared and I looked down over the clear deep waters of Llyn Peris. There it was, perched on the hillside, against a backdrop of Welsh mountains: a perfect humble little tower, built by Prince Llywelyn the Great around 1230. It was here that the prince’s grandson Llywelyn the Last kept his brother Owain imprisoned for 20 years.
Dave Hamilton, author of Wild Ruins: The Explorer’s Guide to Britain’s Lost Castles, Follies, Relics and Remains
Millican Dalton’s Cave, Borrowdale, Cumbria
Head to the small community of Borrowdale, about 12km south of Keswick, and you can’t fail to notice Castle Crag, the pointed little peak rising up alongside the river Derwent. But it’s not just the summit that is special. Hidden underneath it is a secret cave. Back in the 1930s, it was home to Millican Dalton, the self-described Professor of Adventure who gave up a house and a good job in London to move into his “cave hotel”. Something of a celebrity walking and climbing guide, he wore a wide-brimmed Tyrolean hat and was a teetotal, pacifist vegetarian. Look for the faint path in the woodland while walking north on the Cumbria Way, about 1.5km after leaving the car park in Rosthwaite.
Phoebe Smith, author of Wilderness Weekends: Wild Adventures in Britain’s Rugged Corners
The Rudston Monolith, Rudston, Yorkshire
Given the interest in Britain’s great megalithic monuments – Stonehenge, Avebury, Callanish and so on – you would be forgiven for thinking these are the most massive. But no, the tallest standing stone in the UK (7.6m above ground, 4.5m below), sits in a quiet churchyard in the Yorkshire Wolds. Scientists claim the 40 tonne monster was dragged at least 15km to Rudston and set up, probably on a sacred hill. The truth, however, is that the devil hurled it there in fury when early Christians built a church. Only divine intervention sent the diabolical warhead off-course into the graveyard. There are two village pubs and a good walk could take in Burton Agnes Hall, a fine Elizabethan manor house (with handy cafe).
Kevin Rushby, writer, Guardian Travel
Pine tree circle, Wimbledon Common, London
It’s easy to forget that pockets of wild exist within cities. One of my favourites, nestled in a wooded part in the west bit of Wimbledon Common, is the Corsican pine tree circle and the natural springs within it. The original stone-ringed Caesar’s Well, just uphill, was believed to date back to neolithic times, although it is now closed up. You’ll often find the common busy at the weekend but, thankfully, not the tree circle. If you’re into folklore, you might be interested to know that this space is believed to lie on a ley line.
Jini Reddy, author of Wild Times: Extraordinary Experiences Connecting with Nature in Britain
Kennall Vale Gunpowder Works, Ponsanooth, Cornwall
On a scorching south Cornish day, I wandered down a long lane to find Kennall Vale gunpowder works among a canopy of beech trees not far from Ponsanooth village. Fifty or so abandoned buildings stood amid rushing streams, a lush carpet of mosses and a jungle of bright green ferns. After the sun-soaked beaches and exposed moors, the woods felt teeming with life, full of birdsong and buzzing insects. In this tucked-away Eden, it was hard to imagine this was the site of a huge accident, causing five mills to explode and hurling a section of roof over a mile away.
Kingley Vale, Chichester, West Sussex
This is a very special place: a mix of ancient yew woodland and chalk grassland. It lies within a steep valley in the South Downs national park but is still not very well known – it feels like a secret forest. Besides 500-year-old yew trees there are 11 different species of orchid to be found here, including bee, frog and common-spotted varieties, and butterflies such as the chalkhill blue.
Ben Le Blas, senior adviser, Natural Nature Reserves
Ariundle Oakwood, Strontian, the Highlands
Ariundle (Airigh Fhionndail in Gaelic) is a peaceful woodland in the northern end of Strontian glen. Often referred to as Scotland’s rainforest, it features remnants of the ancient coastal oak forest that once spanned the Atlantic coasts of Europe, and the damp woodland floor is covered with primitive plants, lichens and mosses. It is also one of the best places in Scotland to catch a glimpse of the rare chequered skipper butterfly. When I walked here on a sunny day last spring, the path was fringed with wildflowers and hovering dragonflies.
Kimberley Grant, co-author of Wild Guide Scotland: Hidden Places, Great Adventures and the Good Life
Inchnadamph Bone Caves, Assynt, the Highlands
The three caves hidden beneath the northern crags of Beinn an Fhuarain are named after the remarkable number of animal bones discovered inside: northern lynx, brown bear, Arctic fox and, more recently, the skull of a polar bear. About 4km south of Inchnadamph there’s a car park and small wooden sign for the caves. I followed the dramatic limestone valley of Allt nan Uamh (Burn of the Caves), passing a tumbling waterfall and curious underground watercourse flowing out from beneath a limestone crag. Beyond here, the riverbed was almost dry. I continued following it until the path forked and I took a right across the rocky bed and on to a steep narrow path that led to Creag nan Uamh (Crag of the Caves). The caves themselves weren’t as dark and shadowy as I had expected, but a warm rusty colour with impressive views of the mountains. I sat inside the largest for a while, thinking about the many animals that would have found shelter here hundreds of years ago.
Bellirica Chapel and Holy Well, Hythe, Kent
Looking at the stone-walled buildings of Manor Farm, in the hamlet of Court-at-Street beside the B2067, you wouldn’t think this was somewhere of any particular significance. But on a slope behind the farm, accessed by a public footpath and the Saxon Shore Way, are the roofless remains of an old chapel, and the still-saturated ground of a once supremely holy well. This was a popular spot for pilgrims in the early 16th century (before pilgrimages were outlawed by Henry VIII). This was because of its connection with Elizabeth Barton, aka the Holy Maid of Kent, known for her divine prophecies until Henry had her executed and her head placed on a spike at London Bridge. Go now with a silver pin in hand (gifting silver to water is an age-old tradition to thank it for sustaining us with life) and bend it as you make a wish, before offering it to the water. The little patch of land feels quite wild, surrounded by wizened old trees and with nettles and grass growing over the ruins.
Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses, Shropshire/Wrexham
Some of the best sites for wildlife, habitats and geology in Britain are designated as national nature reserves – and many are quite under the radar. This is one I particularly love. Straddling the border near Whitchurch in Shropshire and Wrexham in Wales lies one of the biggest raised bogs in Britain. It’s an interesting place – you could be in the Canadian Shield or the wilds of Finland. It’s a long way from any buildings; you’ll just hear birds and the wind. It has incredibly varied wildlife, from pink-flowered cranberry to the emperor dragonfly (Britain’s largest), buzzards and Daubenton’s bats. I had a picnic here once and felt something move under my cagoule; an adder reared up when I moved.
Ben Le Blas
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010