Don’t pack away your hiking shoes just yet! As the temperature drops around the UK, and as green valleys make way for frost-covered fields, we’re inclined to wrap up, sit indoors, and hold out until the spring — especially under our current pandemic. But then we’ll be missing out on one of the most magical times to explore Britain’s countryside. Colourful leaves, the new smells, the drama of the coast, the welcome of a warm pub, and the peaceful silence: all captured in the English imagination by writers, artists, and filmmakers (yes, Withnail, too!) — there is no better time to get out there than in winter. Here are some of the areas and walks where the season’s beauty becomes a special, unforgettable highlight.
Note: While the walks are fair game at the moment, some of the indoor recommendations are off limits (under lockdown v.2.0) at the time of writing this.
1. Holkham, Norfolk
Photo by Archie Eke
Perfect for ‘twitchers’ (or bird-watching aficionados). The gorgeous coastline of Holkham in Norfolk is more magical by winter, as hundreds of thousands of unique birds take refuge here from their Arctic breeding grounds; bringing with them distinctive calls as they fly overhead. As you walk the coastline and the interior – edging into the quaint villages or finding the stately Holkham Hall manor house – the wet, sandy beach stretches far out into the distance to meet the sea, while the grass sways with the wind. A satisfying way to pass a cold morning, before taking refuge at the family-run, The Victoria Inn.
2. Frogham to Fritham, Hampshire
Photo by Scott Evans
For: The inland explorer
Sure, it sounds like a pair of villages from Middle Earth — but the atmosphere is no less fantastical. The wide expanse of the valley, dotted only with horses and proud oak trees, has a frosty glaze over the Winter, raised by the auburn, green, or scarlet shrubbery beneath. As you enter the New Forest, you’re greeted by the fresh smell of wet oak and holly; sensations hidden by the dry warmth of the summertime. Finally exiting (with an appetite built up, no less) for the Royal Oak tavern, you can treat yourself to a hearty pub lunch by the fire. It’s well deserved, after all!
3. Northcott Mouth to Coombe Valley, Cornwall
Photo by Judy Grayson
For: The contemplative walker
There’s something so epic (dare we say, meditative?) about watching giant waves thrash against Britain’s cliff walls, while a soft mist clears over the chalk rocks. Cornwall’s coastline is naturally stunning at all times of the year, but really comes alive in winter. This is a walk that rewards you with the thrills and drama of stormy, wind-racked Northcott Mouth, before you descend into Duckpool Cove. Here, everything quietens and your senses are attuned to the smells of wet oak, the layer of mist, and calm streams — a contrast to the action earlier in the day.
4. Cairngorm mountains, Scotland
Photo by Alyssa Bossom
For: The expedition-hungry
In winter, the peaks of Scotland stick out like white, Alpine wonderlands. This makes the Cairngorms especially scenic, but also in need of some assistance. We suggest asking for Andy Bateman at Scot Mountain Holidays, who has traversed the famously sub-zero plateau for years, taking the more adventurous among you on an expedition that involves burrowing a snowy hole for camp, sharing bottles of scotch, and the reflection of tea lights off of ice walls. It’s a gruelling, unforgettable experience, that is rewarded with a warm supper at Andy’s home when you’ve descended.
5. Wye Valley, Monmouthshire, Wales
Image by Krisztina Papp
For: Roving romantics
The ruins of this country are only more romantic during the winter. Tintern Abbey dates back to the 12th century, but has been kept alive in spirit by poets and artists (like Turner and Wordsworth) who have reflected on it — its ghostly grandeur amidst the backdrop of woodland and rolling fields. This walk covers the River Wye to, if you’re lucky, a snowy Tintern Abbey, before approaching the Devil’s Pulpit to complete a view of both the river and abbey, and its vast surroundings. Pop into the Anchor Inn pub for a drink right after. The Abbey’s dignified ruin in the cold winter will stay in your memory for a long time.