Country Life’s guide to England’s 10 breakthtaking national parks

One year on from Michael Gove's consultation on our nation's national parks, we round up the reasons to visit the places which inspired some of our country's most famous and talented poets, writers and painters.

Seventy years ago, an Act of Parliament was created as ‘a gift for returning service men and women’. It was to cheer a country deflated by war and to calm the increasingly angry demands for public access to wild and beautiful places.

The National Parks Act 1949 was a natural progression of the ideas of the romantic poets – Wordsworth said the Lake District was ‘a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest’ – and the Scottish naturalist and thinker John Muir, known as the Father of the National Parks in America for his work in establishing protected areas, including Yosemite in California.

1951 – Peak District

River Derwent, Peak District, Derbyshire

Size: 555sq miles

Population: 38,000

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Visitors: 13.25 million a year

USPs: Dark Peak, White Peak and South West Peak, Kinder Scout, Nine Ladies Stone Circle, Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall, Haddon Hall, Buxton Festival, Edale (start of the Pennine Way), Dovedale, Bakewell puddings, Blue John Cavern and the Titan Shaft (Britain’s largest cave shaft)

People: The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Bess of Hardwick, Thomas Cook, Alan Bates, John Hurt, Florence Nightingale, Arthur Lowe, Dame Ellen MacArthur

1951 – Lake District

Mist burns off Lake Grasmere in the early morning, Lake District, Cumbria, England. Autumn (October) 2012.

Mist burns off Lake Grasmere in the early morning, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Size: 912sq miles

Population: 41,100

Visitors: 15.8 million

USPs: Dramatic lakes (known as meres or waters) – of which Windermere is the largest – tarns and fells, the only national park with a UNESCO listing, Dale-main’s Marmalade Festival, hound trailing, Dove Cottage, Hill Top Farm, England’s highest mountain (Scafell Pike), Lowther Show, Fell ponies, Lakeland terriers, Herdwick sheep

People: William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, John Peel, Alfred Wainwright, Bluebird pilot Donald Campbell, Arthur Ransome, Sir Chris Bonington, Melvyn Bragg

1951 – Dartmoor

Sunset over Arm's Tor, Dartmoor National Park, Devon, England. Summer (August) 2014.

Sunset over Arm’s Tor, Dartmoor National Park, Devon, England

Size: 368sq miles

Population: 34,000

Visitors: 2.3 million

USPs: The Ten Tors (there are 160-plus granite tors in all), numerous standing stones, deep mires, River Dart, River Teign, Wistman’s Wood, Widecombe Fair, Castle Drogo, Buckfast Abbey, Dart-moor Prison, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Belstone Fox, meadow pipits, Dartmoor ponies, St Michael de Rupe church on Brentor

People: Sir Francis Drake, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, Ted Hughes, Jennifer Saunders, Adrian Edmondson, Tom Daley, Josh Widdicombe, Ann Widde-combe, Bryony Frost

1952 – North York Moors

Roseberry Topping from Gribdale, North York Moors National Park

Roseberry Topping from Gribdale, North York Moors National Park

Size: 554sq miles

Population: 23,000-plus

Visitors: 7.9 million

USPs: Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show, Lilla Cross, Scarborough, freshwater-pearl mussels of the River Esk, merlins, golden plovers, Duke of Bur-gundy butterflies (below), the Cleveland Way, Robin Hood’s Bay, the Staithes Group artists, North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Whitby, Dinosaur Coast, Heartbeat

People: Bram Stoker, Laurence Sterne, Philippa Gregory, James Herriot, Julian Norton (The Yorkshire Vet)

1954 – Yorkshire Dales

A steam train crosses the Ribblehead Viaduct in North Yorkshire.

A steam train crosses the Ribblehead Viaduct in North Yorkshire.

Size: 841sq miles

Population: 23,000-plus

Visitors 3.5 million

USPs: The Three Peaks (Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent) and 40-odd dales, brown long-eared bats, Dales ponies, Pennine Way and Pennine Bridleway, Settle-Carlisle railway, Malham Cove, Aysgarth Falls, Swaledale, Wensleydale cheese, Wuthering Heights

People: The Brontës, Hannah Hauxwell, Jodie Whittaker, Joanne Froggatt

1954 – Exmoor

Sunset over Porlock Bay, Exmoor National Park, Somerset, England. Summer (August) 2014.

Size: 267sq miles

Population: 10,600

Visitors: 2 million

USPs: Tarr Steps, Exmoor ponies, red deer, the Devon & Somerset Stag-hounds, Stoke Pero and Culbone churches, bolving contests, feral goats, high tides, Dunkery Beacon, the Caratacus Stone, Valley of the Rocks, Porlock Bay oysters, start (or finish) of the South West Coast Path, beech hedges, the Beast of Exmoor, Tarka the Otter, Lorna Doone, Dunster Castle, Snowdrop Valley, Bampton Charter Fair

People: Hope Bourne, Laura Waugh, Victor Bonham-Carter, Stanley Johnson, Rachel Johnson, the Waley-Cohens, Baroness Mallalieu, Margaret Drabble, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Dieter Helm

1956 – Northumberland

Harthope Valley, Cheviot Hills, Northumberland

Harthope Valley, Cheviot Hills, Northumberland

Size: 405sq miles

Population: 2,000

Visitors: 1.5 million

USPs: Hadrian’s Wall, Sycamore Gap, The Cheviot, Hareshaw Linn waterfall, Cragside, the Pennine Way, Coquetdale, Brinkburn Priory (left), Harbottle and the Drake Stone, Holystone and Lady’s Well, Alwinton, Kielder Forest, Otterburn Ranges, Queen Mab, The Shadow on the Moor

People: Admiral Lord Collingwood, Willy Poole

1989 – The Broads

The ruins of the Brograve Windmill on the Norfolk Broads at Sea Palling.

The ruins of the Brograve Windmill on the Norfolk Broads at Sea Palling

Size: 117sq miles

Population: 6,300

Visitors: 7.6 million

USPs: Norwich (the only English city to include part of a national park), 60-plus areas of open water and 125 miles of navigable waterway, eight traditional sailing wherries, Boudicca, Norfolk hawker dragonflies, fen raft spiders, cranes, bitterns and marsh harriers (below), the greatest concentration of windmills in Britain

People: Horatio Nelson, Arthur Ransome, Anna Sewell, Joyce Lambert, Ted Ellis

2006 – The New Forest

Bratley View, New Forest, Hampshire, England, UK

Size: 220sq miles

Population: 34,000

Visitors: 13.5 million

USPs: A historic Commoner grazing system – there are 500 Commoners and some 7,000 animals grazing – the New Forest Pony Drift, pannage (release of pigs to graze), fallow deer, the 180ft Wellingtonia tree on Rhinefield Drive, the 1,000-year-old Com-mon Yew in Brockenhurst churchyard, National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Exbury Gardens

People: William the Conqueror, Florence Nightingale, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gilbert Oswald Smith, John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, Dennis Wheatley, Sir Ben Ainslie

2010 – The South Downs

Sunrise over Ditchling Beacon, South Downs National Park

Sunrise over Ditchling Beacon, South Downs National Park

Size: 628sq miles

Population: 108,000

Visitors: 16 million

USPs: Beachy Head, polo at Cowdray, racing at Goodwood, South Downs Way, Ditchling Museum, Uppark, Long Man of Wilmington, West Dean, Charleston, Berwick church, Chanctonbury Ring, Firle Beacon, Stane Street, Devil’s Dyke, Lewes Castle, Arundel Castle

People: Jane Austen, Eric Gill, Gilbert White, the Bloomsbury set, the Dukes of Richmond and Norfolk, William Nicholson, Hugh Bonneville, Viscount Cowdray