Christmas for me has always been as much about (ideally) crunchy (but usually) splodgy, slushy, muddy walks in the countryside as anything else. In my family, no-one can sit on a comfy sofa with a whisky in hand and a cheesy film on the tele for more than an hour without someone piping up, “anyone for a stroll?” This is nothing but British understatement, because this humble ‘stroll’ will soon become a 6-mile slog over cliffs, along a freezing beach, or up a bleak hillside. I remember sheltering in the lee of a sand-dune eating turkey sandwiches in wind so strong my brother got a mouthful of sand instead. Or my cousin chasing waves in his wellies and having to walk home crying, with one sodden foot. Or the disastrous episode we tried to fly a new kite on a hill in a storm. But these Christmas walks are always a good chance to test drive the new jumper/flask/gloves etc, as well as being wonderful opportunity for conversation with family members we don’t often see. And, most importantly, as everyone knows, a hearty winter walk is always to be rewarded with cake and a glass of something warming, followed by a totally non-guilty sofa session, where chocolates, cheese and mince pies are not just allowed, but actively encouraged. What’s not to like? So read on for my Twelve Walks of Christmas; one for each day of the festive period. Hearty strolling, one and all!
1) In July, I will be leading a 4-day walking journey along the Pilgrim’s Way from Rochester to Canterbury. This is a route I have walked in the past and am looking forward to repeating. It really feels like Kent deserves its moniker of the ‘Garden of England’, with ancient woodland, castles and fruit farms along the way. And of course this is the route on which Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ is based, so there is an anthology of stories to accompany your walk, should you wish! One stretch I particularly enjoy is the 8 miles from Charing to Chilham; although sections are hilly, you’ll enjoy the views walking along a part ridge, & a pear tree orchard in the distance. Train stations at both ends make this an achievable day-walk if you need to escape from the Aunties of Tunbridge Wells!
2) From Ilam, Thorpe or Milldale in the Peak District, there is a gorgeous valley walk along the River Dove. There are limestone caves en-route and a smashing set of stepping stones for pooh sticks and frolicking. There are also a couple of deep stretches of the river where a wild dip might be in order. Just make sure there’s a friend there to keep an eye on you (two’s safety) and wrap up warm afterwards. I find if I keep my throat warm after a swim, I feel great; a turtleneck sweater and a snood or scarf does the job well. There’s a café at Milldale, or a lovely pub in Alstonefield which will aid your recovery before your walk home.
3. Arundel in West Sussex has an old Norman castle which is certainly worth a look around on a cold winter’s day, and opposite is a decent museum, for if it’s really chucking it down. In the event of a break in the rain though, there’s a lovely 3-mile riverside walk along the Arun, all the way to Offham where there’s a fantastic pub overlooking the river, with views back to the French-designed castle. You can follow Mill Road all the way back, via the WWT wetland centre, where there have been recent sightings of snipe and their hens, along with egret and the elusive kingfisher. Back in town there are countless cafes and lots of charming antique shops to mooch around.
4) There’s a cracking 5-mile walk along the South Downs Way from Ditchling Beacon to Blackcap and back. You can catch a bus up to Ditchling from the centre of Brighton, then you simply face east and follow the track, with the Sussex plains stretching out on your left, and the sea in the distance on your right. The air and space is marvellous, it’s usually windy and refreshing, and there are always dog-walkers and families as well as mud-splattering cyclists zipping cheerily along. But best of all is the turning point of Blackcap; it’s a stand of gnarled trees, with a central clearing, a trig point and brilliant views both north and south. The name is great too. It makes me think of magicians and scholars, but apparently it takes its name from the common songbird, Blackcap. Along with bluebirds and wagtails, someone clearly had a penchant for calling birds obvious names! A quick sit-down and picnic in the clearing, and you can head back to Ditchling to gaze out to sea from the beacon before catching the bus back into town.
5) Not so much a walk this, as a spooky feature. But up on the South Downs near Washington, there’s a circular stand of beech trees called Chanctonbury Ring. It was a prehistoric hill fort possibly the site of Bronze Age rituals, and the ruins of Roman temples have been found there too, making it an atmospheric place popular with pagans. Legend has it that the Devil can be summoned by walking around the ring seven times anti-clockwise. I once got to five times, got cold and scared and abandoned the project. Both Robert Macfarlane and I have slept out at Chanctonbury Ring; he was woken by fearful screaming, and I got shouted at by an enraged Tawny Owl. This experience is not for the faint-hearted, but it makes an excellent focus point for a walk from Washington or Steyning.
6) In Norfolk, a peaceful sandy track leads you along the curve of the coast just in-land through pine forests from picturesque Wells to stately Holkham. It’s a six-mile round route, returning on the sandy beach, via dunes and painted beach huts, with cafés at both ends. On one side is the soft sound of the sea, filtered through whispering pine trees, and on the other side, spacious views over the marshes of the nature reserve, full of the sounds of squabbling ducks, waders and skeins of geese heading home to their nesting sites. In summer, it’s common to see families laying out their picnic rugs nestled in amongst the dunes. Kites, drones and frisbees are all flown on the wide expanses of Holkham beach, and horses gallop in the shallows. There’s even a miniature train to take you the final mile, if your legs can’t make it all the way back to Wells for your fish and chip supper.
7) This 6-mile circular route starts in East Dean, heads up on the South Downs, takes in the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, curves in along the meanders of Cuckmere Haven, before delivering you back to your starting point via Friston Forest. It really has got everything you might want in a walk (or Year 9 geography project); hills, cliffs, ox-bow lakes, a spooky wood, a church with a rare style of gate! It’s a nature reserve with a rich bird population. I’ve seen heron, geese and swans in the estuary, and of course it’s a good spot for swimming in the sea if you wish. There’s a fab little tearoom at Exceat, and the start and end point is the Tiger Inn at East Dean, so you won’t go long without refreshment.
8) In the Brecon Beacons there’s a wonderful, slippery, muddy 5-mile route called ‘Waterfall Walk’, taking in four stunning waterfalls and ending in ‘The Snow Falls’, aptly named for Christmas, which is a majestic tumbling of the River Hepste, behind which you can walk, with a curtain of milky water thundering in front of you. I was last there in the summer, and true to form, did indeed leap in and swim. The force from the waterfall was so strong that it was like being in an Olympic training pool and utterly impossible to get near to the cascade; my eyes were streaming and my ears full of the deafening roar at least 8 feet distant. There’s an audio trail at listening posts along the way back to Dinas Rock, which tells the tale of the farmers, fairies, magic and maids who have inhabited this mined and mysterious landscape for centuries.
9) Just off the road in Uckfield, tucked away on a gate in a layby is a whimsical and inviting sign; Lake Wood. This has become my absolute favourite local place. It very much does what it says on the tin; it’s a lake in the middle of the wood. But what is special is that it’s surrounded by the most wonderful caves and rounded rocky outcrops. You can stroll around the woods, explore the caves, and climb the rocks for gorgeous views over the lake. It’s possible to swim in the lake too, though it’s cold even in summer. If you’re really lucky, you might visit when it’s frozen over in winter! I led a convoy of campers here during a festival and we spent a happy afternoon until 9pm, still light at midsummer, lounging on the rocks, swimming and picnicking while the children were leaping like lords off the rocks. I love that it’s right by a main road, but feels totally cut-off and invisible, like a pocket of Enid Blyton whimsy that is timeless and secret.
10) In Yorkshire there’s a three peaks challenge, where you hike Pen y Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside all in one day. It’s 24 miles, really steep, and people struggle to complete it in twelve hours. Much more pleasant and do-able even on a short winter’s day is a 6-mile circular route up and over Pen y Ghent from Horton in Ribblesdale. Approaching the hill from the south side, it’s a steep up, intersecting the Pennine Way, and a rocky scramble to the summit. Then a brilliant wide track down the west side, with little detours to take in the spectacular features of Hunt and Hull Pot. Hunt Pot is a natural chasm, with a series of ledges to get you tantalisingly close to thunderous brackeny water which is being swallowed underground. Hull Pot is the largest hole in England, and is Yorkshire’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It is wonderfully impressive and stark and I love it. A swift trot down the gravel path will have you back in Horton for tea, and a train home should you need it. Last time I did this walk was when leading a wintry workshop for women; a group of us hiked, took part in art therapy sessions, and did 5 rhythms dancing in the evening. I can tell you, the sight of 10 ladies dancing in the shadow of Pen y Ghent was a wonderful thing to behold, and I recommend the Women’s Holiday Centre at Horton to any women in need of a retreat surrounded by nature.
11) Eriskay is a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides. It’s connected to South Uist by a long bridge, or to Barra, which has an airport(!) via ferry, and it makes a fantastic location for a day’s expedition if you happen to be holidaying on these remote islands. You can visit the beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie first arrived in Scotland and explore the main village where in 1941 a cargo ship, the SS Politician, ran aground with 264,000 bottles of malt whisky. As you can imagine, in that era of wartime rationing, the night-time raids went on for days, until customs officials were dispatched to search haystacks and bogs to reclaim the stash! Visit the Politician pub for the full story, and a hearty lunch, then climb the hill via a lovely wee loch for great views over the island. I spent a happy 11-day summer holiday camping in the Outer Hebrides, attending Highland Games, agricultural shows and Scottish dancing competitions, all regaled with the incessant piping of the local pipers. It’s a rural idyll, which feels both geographically and temporally removed from the mainland, and a wonderful place for indulging one’s childhood Famous Five fantasies.
12) The Undercliff walk East from Brighton pier, past the Marina to Saltdean is absolutely brilliant in stormy weather; you simply follow the sea wall as far as it goes, with steep chalk cliffs on your left and the sea to your right. At a couple of points the walk turns a sharp corner, and in high seas you must run the gauntlet; will you make it to the other side without getting splashed by a giant wave? The sea booms and crashes wildly, the cliffs echo the sound back like a dozen drummers drumming, and the seabirds wheel and screech overhead. There’s a café halfway, and fish and chips to be had in Saltdean. Best of all, this walk ends really satisfyingly, when the wall hits an outcrop of cliff. You have reached the end and can go no further. It’s a tremendous reason to stop and go to the pub before catching a bus home.
Happy walking, merry Christmas and I wish you all a joyful New Year!