Top universities for the great outdoors – England

Wide-angle shot of the Lake District
Explore where you could study if you love walking, climbing and other outdoor pursuits.

England offers up plenty of crags, cliffs, fells, bogs, hills and wild rivers to satisfy a student with a taste for hours in the wilderness. From Plymouth in the south to Penrith in the north, there’s lots of great terrain and many student societies ready to explore it.

University of Bristol/UWE

You might not think of Bristol as being the great outdoors – and of course it isn’t – but it’s said to have the second largest climbing community in the UK. The Avon Gorge is a popular location; it’s not exactly the wilderness but it is demanding. Student groups also climb Cheddar Gorge and the sea cliffs on the south-west coast of England and Wales – all within driving distance of Bristol. Within the region there are also plenty of top-class walks in Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Brecon Beacons or the Mendips (which is also a caving area).

Clubs and facilities:

  • University of Bristol: clubs for canoeing, climbing, cycling, sailing, and expeditions (hiking, scrambling and mountaineering).
  • UWE: clubs for canoeing, cycling, and climbing, plus a climbing wall.
  • There are also several good public climbing walls also in the city.

University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN)

The university is in an excellent location for the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, North Pennines and motorway routes to Scotland. The awe-inspiring landscapes featured in the works of Jane Austen, Wordsworth and Emily Bronte are nearby for you to explore.

Clubs and facilities:

  • University Mountaineering Club activities include: a freshers’ trip to Snowdonia; a day trip to the Lake District scrambling up rocks; a weekend in the Lake District walking and climbing; a mountaineering trip to Glen Coe; and a three-day winter skills development excursion.
  • A club for canoeing and kayaking.
  • A climbing wall at UCLan Sports Arena.

University of Cumbria

The university is based over three campuses. The Ambleside campus is within the national park with easy access to fells, crags, fast-flowing rivers and steep valleys. The other two are in Carlisle and Lancaster, both within easy driving distance of the Lake District. All campuses are also within reach of the Yorkshire Dales and the rolling moorlands of the North Pennines.

Clubs and facilities:

  • Mountaineering Club (Ambleside campus) for climbing in the Lake District and Scottish Highlands.
  • Bushcraft society (Ambleside campus).
  • Climbing walls for all abilities at Ambleside and at Penrith.

University of Derby

The Derby and Chesterfield campuses are within easy reach of the Peak District. The Buxton campus is within the national park, close to great terrain for trail-walking in the summer through moors of purple heather. Hardier students with a head for heights might choose to scale one of the gritstone crags, which are steep stacks of exposed sedimentary rocks. If you climb one it takes 100% commitment.

Clubs and facilities:

  • Clubs for walking, mountaineering and cycling.
  • 30-foot climbing wall and rope courses.
  • Artificial underground caving course.

University of Exeter

Exmoor has the highest sea cliffs in England. It also has great walks, which are at the picturesque and civilised end of the wilderness spectrum. Dartmoor has greater challenges although it’s equally as beautiful. Both are near to Exeter.

Clubs, societies and facilities:

  • Clubs for canoeing, caving, climbing, and sub aqua.
  • Out of Doors Society (for strollers) and Expedition Society (for adventurous hikers).
  • University climbing wall and a public climbing wall in Exeter.

University of Leeds/Leeds Beckett University

Leeds is well located for the Yorkshire Dales and Yorkshire Moors. Students who hike across the latter might want to stop for a break at the Tan Hill Inn – a remote pub and, at 1,732ft above sea level, the highest one in Great Britain.

Clubs and facilities:

  • University of Leeds: clubs for caving, canoeing, hiking, horse riding, mountaineering, orienteering and fell walking.
  • Leeds Beckett University: Leeds Beckett Outdoor Society and a club for kayaking and canoeing.
  • University of Leeds climbing wall, Leeds Beckett climbing wall and three public climbing walls in the city.

University of Manchester/Manchester Metropolitan University/University of Salford

Manchester is within reach of the Lake District and Snowdonia but the Peak District is its closest national park, with many treasures and challenges for walkers and climbers. The park has something for all levels of explorer, from walking high above the valley of the River Derwent to scaling the rock face of Frogatt Edge.

Clubs and facilities:

  • University of Manchester: clubs for canoeing, climbing, mountaineering and walking.
  • Manchester Metropolitan University: clubs for canoeing and mountaineering (Manchester campus) and horse riding (Cheshire campus).
  • University of Salford: clubs and societies for canoeing and kayaking, cycling and mountaineering.
  • Climbing walls at the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. Numerous public climbing walls in the city.

Plymouth University/University of St Mark & St John, Plymouth

A short distance from where Francis Drake set sail to defeat the Spanish Armada, students pack themselves in minibuses to explore nearby Dartmoor or climb sea cliffs. There’s plenty of bracken, bogs, granite and limestone terrain to get stuck into.

Clubs and facilities:

  • Plymouth University: clubs for canoeing and scuba, plus the Adventure & Expo society (caving and climbing).
  • Climbing walls at Plymouth University and the University of St Mark & St John, Plymouth.

University of Sheffield/Sheffield Hallam University

From the outskirts of the city, the first gritstones are less than 15 minutes’ drive away. The renowned Stanage Edge is near the city and many world-class climbers live in the area, practising on its cliffs, boulders and edges. But there’s plenty for walkers too – whether you're looking for a leisurely stroll or a serious hike.

Clubs and facilities:

  • University of Sheffield:clubs for walking, mountaineering and canoeing.
  • Sheffield Hallam: clubs for fell walking, mountaineering and canoeing.
  • University of Sheffield bouldering (climbing) wall and three Sheffield-based public climbing walls.

But note…

Where there’s a will (and a minibus) there’s a way for students in urban areas to reach the UK’s wilderness. Lots of London and metropolitan universities have outdoors clubs. Think of the city of Reading and you probably wouldn’t picture men and women lacing up their walking boots or donning a climber’s hard hat, but it has a strong mountaineering club despite being far from mountains. Oxford and Cambridge also have among the best mountaineering teams in the country.

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