There is nothing quite like the warm glow from a long walk on a crisp winter's day. Seasoned hiker Peta Hodge recommends her favourite frosty treks from around the UK
My enthusiasm for winter walking was born of necessity during the seven years I owned a small hotel and only had the time (and energy) for hitting the trail during the low season. I am now convinced that these are the best months for a good rural hike.
The wildness of nature is part of the appeal. Crashing waves and rivers in spate, wind-blasted moorland and hapless birds blown across blackened skies; these are invigorating, even awe-inspiring sights to people who live cosseted, indoor lives.
But you can't count on bad weather. It's surprising how often the sun shines in winter and, perhaps because of the shortness of the days, there is something precious about the quality of the light. On days like these you can enjoy the gentler pleasures of leafless trees against clear blue skies; a robin accompanying your trek through ancient woodland; frosted grasses and dew-covered cobwebs.
A good winter walk is one that takes in a variety of landscapes or points of interest and can be easily and safely completed before it gets dark (see our top-tips below). The best have a cosy pub or café serving good warming food at some point on their route.
There are many thousands of wonderful winter walks you can do throughout the British Isles. Here is a selection of some of the best I have come across.
This eight-mile circular walk starts at the clapper bridge of Tarr Steps: rumoured to have been erected by the devil as a place to sunbathe. The route follows the clear, cold waters of the River Barle, through woodland and watermeadows, eventually bringing you to the Royal Oak pub, Withypool. Here you will find welcoming fires, good food and extensive displays of taxidermy—an excellent place to stop for coffee or lunch.
Cross Withypool's pretty bridge, and the route takes you through Westwater Farm, across several fields to Parsonage Farm, finally following a path through woodland back to Tarr Steps and the opportunity to warm your toes in front of the fire at Tarr Farm Inn.
What makes this a great winter walk? An easy to follow route over gentle terrain (though it can be muddy in places after rain and there is one steepish climb out of Withypool), easily tackled by older children. Variety of landscapes and wildlife.
This five-mile circular walk is all about the gentler pleasures: lovely views and a route that takes you through pretty woodland and gently folding hills and valleys. It starts from the church in the picturesque and well heeled village of Westerham, with its many antique shops, pubs and restaurants. The route crosses the village green—with its imposing, toad-like statue of Churchill—slips through the narrow passageway of Water Lane, and crosses two small streams before heading across meadows and a beautiful wooded valley towards Crockham House. Then it's on to Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill's country home. A short stretch of road walking takes you right past the back of Chartwell, but you get much better views of the lakes and gardens once you leave the road, joining the long-distance path of the Greensand Way towards French Street. A pretty woodland pathway takes you on to Hosey Hill and through more woodland and meadows to Water Lane and Westerham. Perhaps the best thing about this lovely walk is that, at just five miles in length, it can be easily completed in time for lunch at one of the many eateries in Westerham. A personal favourite is the Grasshopper on the Green, a 700-year-old haven of low ceilings and log fires serving award-winning beers from the Westerham Brewery, one of 20 local food heroes named by the BBC Countryfile magazine this year.
What makes this a great winter walk? This is perfect if you want a bit of exercise but don't want to go too far off the beaten track (it's easily doable as a day trip from London). The woods and valleys offer shelter from the wind—though it can be a muddy walk after wet weather—and the gentle folds of the Greensand Ridge offer many fine views. There's an embarrassment of riches in terms of places to eat and drink at both the beginning and end of the walk.
This five-mile circular walk is a Ramblers' Association winter favourite. It starts in the peaceful farming village of Alstonefield, where you will find the George, a stone building recommended in the Good Pub Guide, offering a warm welcome to walkers (as long as they take off their muddy boots). From Alstonefield, a footpath crosses fields to the picturesque hamlet of Milldale and then follows the River Dove—a good place for spotting dippers and kingfishers—through the wonderful limestone crags of Dovedale. Crossing the river near the natural limestone fortress of Pickering Tor, the route takes you back towards Hall Dale, a dry dale offering a delightful mix of wooded slopes, open pastures and dry stone walls so typical of this area. Then it's on to the small cluster of farms that make up the hamlet of Stanshope, before heading back to the starting point at Alstonefield.
What makes this a great winter walk? It takes on a haunting beauty as the leaves fall and expose the full drama of the rocky setting and the silver bark of the ash trees. A fairly easy trek over five miles, it can easily be completed before a warming lunch at the George in Alstonefield.
This eight-mile circular walk starts from the large village green in St Helens. After a short stretch along Carpenter's Road, it joins the disused railway line in the direction of Brading. This area of saltwater marshland is a great place to see flocks of overwintering birds, such as wigeon, grazing in the wet meadows. Keeping to the right-hand side of the chalk ridge of Culver Down, there are sweeping views down to Sandown and Shanklin bays, while buzzards soar overhead. The route then climbs to the Culver Haven pub at the top of the ridge before descending to pick up the coastal path to the large village of Bembridge. If the tide's out, walk along the beach to Bembridge Harbour, and along the road back to St Helens.
What makes this a great winter walk? On a fine day Culver Down offers life-affirming views of pastoral tranquillity; in bad weather it offers all the King Lear-style buffeting you could ask for.
This seven-mile circular is recommended as a great winter walk by Lou Johnson, editor of www.walkingbritain.co.uk, for the dramatic and varied views it offers in return for a moderate level of exertion. In particular, this trek across the undulating hills and moorland of the Clwydian hills offers great views of Snowdonia without the full-on dangers of mountain walking in winter. It starts in Cilcain, where a narrow lane to the side of the church takes you down to a crossroads and soon afterwards picks up a path across fields, past a reservoir and through a steep-sided valley to climb to the highest point on the Clwydian hills, with wonderful views towards Snowdonia and the Midlands. You then follow the Offa's Dyke National Trail down towards the hilltop of Moel Arthur. This two-and-a-half-mile stretch takes you along the main ridgeway and offers more spectacular views. The final descent to the road is the only tricky part of the walk—it is steep and eroded and can be icy in winter, so you need to take care. Once you're safely down, the route follows a track back to Cilcain.
What makes this a great winter walk? Wonderful views and a taste of mountain walking without the dangers (though it's probably one to save for a bright, crisp day when the route is easy to follow). There is a pub, with requisite warming food and log fires, at Cilcain.
You don't have to be out in the wilds to enjoy the pleasures of winter walking. There are wonderful green spaces in most of our major cities offering a great opportunity to combine bracing fresh air and exercise with a bit of high (or, indeed, low) culture and a good cup of coffee. Here are three of my personal favourites.
A yomp up Calton Hill or Arthur's Seat will blow away the cobwebs, offering fine views of Edinburgh and beyond. If you prefer something less rigorous, try hiking along the Water of Leith from the Gallery of Modern Art to the Botanic Garden.
Try the stretch of the Thames Path from Teddington Locks to Barnes. Or head to Barnet to enjoy the old oaks, fine holly trees and streams of Monken Hadley Common; the narrow strip of wilderness where London meets rural Hertfordshire.
Enjoy a bracing ramble on Clifton Down with panoramic views of the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge. Or walk along the waterfront and up Brandon Hill to Cabot Tower.
1. Know your limits
Build up experience and confidence before tackling harder, longer walks. Unless you are really experienced and have the right equipment, walking in mountain areas is best avoided in winter.
2. Start early
Overestimate the time it will take. You will want to be ensconced in a cosy pub with a warming tipple or some hearty food by the time it's dark at 4pm.
3. Keep an eye on the weather forecast
In particular, snow and fog can limit visibility to a couple of feet, obliterating landmarks and making distance and direction difficult to judge.
4. Wear layers
The old adage that "there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes" could have been coined for winter walking. Waterproofs, hats, scarves and gloves are pretty much standard equipment and wearing several thin layers over your thermals, rather than the chunky jumper your mum knitted, makes it easier to regulate your body temperature.
5. Take an Ordnance Survey map
Even if you are following a walk from a book or downloaded from the internet, you should have a map as backup. Directions have a funny way of not quite working out. If you are going off the beaten track, a compass is also a good idea—but only if you know how to use it. Mobile phones (while sounding a jarring note in the rural idyll) can be useful in emergencies, provided you can get a signal.