A feast for the soul: The simple joy of winter walks
From beating stress to slowing down to witness the changes of the season, Abi Jackson ponders one of winter's greatest gifts
WE'VE long been sold the notion that January is an anti-climax. The parties are over; all we've got now are tightened purse strings and an expanse of cold, grey weeks to get through.
But with the chaos of Christmas done, now we can really settle into the heart of winter. Now we can stop rushing, stop spending, stop staring at to-do lists that defy all realistic restrictions of time. Now we can just slow down and enjoy the walks, and there really is little better than a winter walk.
We may have less daylight to play with and be more at the mercy of weather conditions, but those wintry windows when we can get outdoors are a feast for the soul. There's something uniquely comforting about rummaging for your thickest socks, zipping into a fleece and waterproof, pulling your favourite woolly hat over your ears.
A crisp morning, when frosty dew glistens on crunchy grass and sun streams through bare, zig-zaggy branches. The robust drama of a sky full of bulging rain clouds, all shadows and contours, or the oddly soothing peace of a gloomy white horizon.
Where summer heat stifles and tires, there's an energising magic to moving through chilly air, our senses awaken as cold nips at the nose and fingers tingle and numb. If you've planned things really well, there'll be a flask of something hot to wrap your hands around.
We asked some fellow winter walking fans to tell us what they love about it, and the good it does for body and soul...
Tuning into the rhythm of nature
Malachy Dunne, founder of Lifetime Therapy (lifetimetherapy.co.uk), a counselling practice, training centre and wellness clinic in Cornwall.
"It can feel that winter imposes a curfew on us, keeping us in our homes and out of wild, natural spaces until spring comes again. I like to break that curfew and encourage others to do the same. The hush of nature at this time of year is just that - a hush. If you look at the trees and shrubs, you'll see the buds are set. These living things are alive and well, and resting. Perhaps we should follow their lead.
"When I walk around Cornwall's Fal Valley, close to my home, I feel like one of those plants. A little withdrawn and reflective perhaps, but thinking, creating and steadily preparing myself to embark on exciting new things with restored vigour when the time comes."
Making the most of shorter days
John O' Sullivan, a guide with The Reeks Guiding Company in Co. Kerry (lodgeandreeksguiding.com)
"Winter means there are fewer daylight hours in the Reeks District, so I like to do something challenging but that doesn't take too much time. The Gap of Dunloe is an ideal choice. It takes you over one of Ireland's highest mountain passes, so there are some bragging rights too.
"The best place to start is Kate Kearney's Cottage, from here there's the chance to trek through the valley between the MacGillycuddy's Reeks and the Purple Mountain. It reaches around 250m and offers amazing views of the Black Valley and Upper Lake of Killarney. There are some exciting winter colours too, with wild goats and sheep around."
Stepping away from stress
Nikki Hall, member of Take a Hike Ramblers in Leeds, West Yorkshire (ramblers.org.uk)
"Walking is great when you're feeling stressed, because it's almost impossible to worry about things when you're out in the fresh air for the day with friends, enjoying the stunning wintry scenery Yorkshire has to offer. You should definitely get involved with a Ramblers Festival of Winter Walks event near you.
"Until I went out with the Ramblers, I had no idea how many beautiful places were right on my doorstep. You might discover a whole new world like I did – my Ramblers group has given me so much support, confidence and walking experience. My favourite place to walk in winter is the Yorkshire Dales, especially near Buckden Pike – it's just stunning. And when you are on a winter walk, my top tip is to keep an extra fleece in your bag just to wear when you have lunch, as the cold can catch up with you when you stop."
Savouring the character of the season
Tiffany Francis-Baker, illustrator, author of Dark Skies (Bloomsbury, £16.99) and Forestry England 2019 writer in residence (tiffanyfrancisbaker.com)
"I love exploring woodlands in the winter months because as the trees drop their leaves, a new landscape is revealed. Not only is the heart of the tree uncovered in all its gnarled beauty, but it's much easier to spot winter birds like goldcrests, redwings and robins hopping through the branches. My favourite place to walk is Kingley Vale in Sussex, because the yew trees there stay green all year round."