CALL OF THE WILD

TRIED & TESTED After the gluttony of Christmas, what could be better than a brisk walk? Our experts suggest five varied routes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SALCOMBE

Coastal Devon; six miles; cliff-top views and forested tunnels

This six-mile round trip along the coastal path from Salcombe to Gara Rock is the favourite West country walk of Martin Wright, environment and travel writer. It is, he says, at its best on a bright, sharp winter's day.

Packed bull bar to bull bar with the Land Rover Discoveries of yacht- owning tourists in the summer, Sal-combe's narrow streets are far more agreeable in the peace of winter. Follow the main street south and turn left down some steps marked "To Ferry" by the Ferry Boat Inn. You emerge on a jetty, with the glittering waters of Salcombe's vast estuary spread before you. Take the ferry across the bay.

On the other side, steep steps climb to a tea shop, where you turn right on to a lane winding round to Mill Bay (about half a mile from the ferry point). Crossing the landward side of this sandy inlet, you curve right to hug the coast, following the acorn waymarks. Passing through coastal woods offering tantalising glimpses of the estuary through the trees, you emerge to breathtaking views across to Fort Charles and the grand mansions built along the estuary by the prosperous residents of Salcombe before planning regulations saved it from urban sprawl.

The intrepid can leave the path at this point to explore the flat rocks below - scene of many a picnic in the summer - but take care not to get caught by the incoming tide. The coastal path turns the corner of the estuary here, so you are now heading south-east with the open sea on your right. This is, says Wright, the "most heart-lifting section of the walk, along a narrow cliff path with the seagulls whirling incandescent white below you, circling through a wide and sometimes wild sky".

So much for spiritual sustenance. Thankfully you are nearing the Gara Rock Hotel, reached via a path past a summer house. Sit here "with a pastie and pint looking over a scene of wild beauty". To get back to Salcombe, take the road at the side of the hotel, turning left on a footpath signposted to Mill Bay which cuts across farmland through a long tunnel of trees. If it's mild, you'll see the pink stars of campion amongst the hart's tongue fern. Like a sloping cathedral nave, the path dips gently down to emerge out of the woods into Mill Bay. Turn right, and retrace your steps along the lane to the ferry point.

SLAD VALLEY

Cotswold villages; five miles; `Cider with Rosie' country

Of the five valleys that run into Stroud in Gloucestershire, the least spoilt is still Slad Valley, which runs between the two ancient parishes of Bisley and Painswick, widely referred to as the "queen of the Cotswolds". Current plans to develop the area are being fiercely contested in the courts, but meanwhile the fields, streams and villages immortalised in Cider with Rosie look much as they did in the boyhood of Laurie Lee and his classmate Jim Fern, now a local guide.

The walk is approximately five miles long and takes in points of historic as well as literary interest. Fern starts at Bull's Cross, a peaceful spot by day, but a ghostly one at night: a phantom stagecoach has been seen here at midnight, rising up from the old hangman's cottage at Dead- combe Bottom - especially on New Year's Eve, according to Fern.

From here the walk takes you down into the valley past some farm cottages now run as a guest house, to Packhorse Bridge, which has been eroded to a grassy mound over a stream. Bearing right from the bridge you cross the field in a south-westerly direction,, an come into woodland where a recently restored path leads you through the beech trees to Elcombe. Renamed `Ashcombe' in Cider with Rosie, this is where Miss Flynn committed suicide in the waterlily pond. You walk through Elcombe to Swift's Hill, climbing its high, bare sides to the top, where you can rest and take in the view. Just below you is Slad village, with the cottage where Jim Fern grew up (now owned by Laurie Lee); beyond, you can see deep into the Severn Vale.

The walk continues down the other side of the hill to a hamlet of beautiful 16th-century farms called the Vatch. Turning right on to the main road to Slad, follow it until you pass the old Star Inn, taking a path to the left before the village. This leads up the other side of the valley to the ridge road, which winds through beech-covered hilltops back to Bull's Cross. Details of this walk are in a booklet published by the Ramblers' Assoc-iation. For a copy ring 01453 873625.

TWEED AND TEVIOT

Scottish Borders; five miles; abbey, castle and salmon river

When first asked to suggest a walk in Scotland, Robin Neillands, travel writer, military historian and hardened trekker, proposed "a stroll up Ben Nevis". Despite the fact that this is Britain's highest mountain, there is, he says, "a pretty way, from just by the Youth Hostel. Allow six hours up and down, and if the weather is reasonable, I cannot think of a better way to chase off the headache that arrives shortly after the Queen's speech."

I vetoed this suggestion in favour of a family walk - that's to say, not too long and preferably fairly flat. So this walk is five miles or a little less, and begins in the main square of Kelso, a pretty town on the broad river Tweed. Its chief attraction, says Neillands, is Floors Castle, home of the Duke of Roxburghe, but your route also leads past the ruins of an abbey, along the banks of the Tweed. This is a fine river, usually well supplied with salmon fishermen, but your path lies up its tributary, the Teviot, which flows into the Tweed half a mile up-stream from Kelso. On the way there are good views across the Tweed to the splendour of Floors Castle.

Follow the riverside path along the left bank of the Teviot past the ruins of a medieval castle and up the river towards Sunlaws House. Stick as close to the river as possible and a large brick viaduct will soon loom up ahead. This no longer supports an active railway line, and under the viaduct a wooden footbridge leads across to the right bank. Once across, turn right upstream and follow the obvious path to the gates of Sunlaws House, which Neillands recommends for lunch. Once a hunting lodge for the Dukes of Roxburghe, Sunlaws House is now the Duke's Hotel. "This may sound imposing," he says, "but it's a friendly place, well used to people in muddy boots and they do a good, inexpensive lunch and equally good tea. They are also remarkably nice to both children and dogs. After a meal before a log fire - and perhaps a dram at the bar - it's into the boots and back along the old railway track to the centre of Kelso and the car."

Robin Neillands is the author of "Walking through Scotland: from the Border to Cape Wrath" (Little Brown and Warner Paperbacks).

HOLKHAM

Norfolk dunes; five miles; oyster catchers, terns and toadstools

Forget Noel Coward: Norfolk isn't all flat. On 27 December at 11am, Jo Bird of the Ramblers' Association will be leading walkers across the sand dunes of Holkham Bay, a curious and magical "lunar landscape".

The meeting point for this five-mile walk, which forms part of the association's Festival of Winter Walks (see local press for a guided walk in your area) is Holkham Beach car park (map ref GR: 891448). Partici-pants should wear wellington boots to cope with the reclaimed salt marshes and bring a picnic.

Following the Norfolk coastal path, the walk begins on an inland track through a belt of pine trees, populated by high-pitched goldcrests and thick underfoot with ferns and toadstools. The track emerges from the woods on the marram grass-tufted dunes, among which, Bird says, "you feel completely isolated, sheltered from the wind and with only the faintest sound of the waves".

This comparatively undiscovered part of the coast is maintained as a nature reserve and, weather permitting, walkers can wander down to the water's edge to see the terns, oyster catchers and even geese skid-landing on the waves. The walk returns in a circle to the car park via the woods for an al fresco lunch.

PILGRIMS' WAY

Kent countryside; six and a half miles; part of the medieval pilgrims' route to Canterbury

In his book Ancient Tracks, Des Hannigan describes the route of the famous medieval pilgrimage to Canterbury, through "an archetypal Kent countryside of tree-shaded tracks and footpaths, orchards and hop gardens". It's a long march if you want to do it all, but for a Christmas walk "ankle- deep in crisp leaves" he suggests this circular route of six and a half miles, starting at a small parking area in the chocolate-box village of Chilham. The place does not meet wholly with Des Hannigan's approval today; he likes to picture a time when medieval pilgrims thronged Chil-ham and "the square was a stinking morass of mud and ordure, trampled by squealing animals".

Go through a gate by the parking area and follow a track. Where it bends right, keep ahead over a stile and follow a field track to another gate. Follow waymarks down a track between railed-off paddocks. At a cross track, go left and then right across an open meadow to join the road at the gates of Godmersham Park. The Palladian mansion here was owned by Jane Austen's brother.

Follow the road ahead through Godmersham village to the main road. Turn left and cross the river by a footbridge, then turn right to cross the A28, with care. Go over stiles and follow a field track to pass under the railway. Turn sharp right and go over another stile. Past an old shack, veer left across a field to a stile into a lane by some houses. Cross the lane and go up some wooden steps and over another stile. Follow field edges to reach another lane by houses. Turn left down this lane to reach a road and follow it for about a mile, then go right by a footpath sign and down a field to cross the Great Stour by a metal bridge. Follow a field track and go over the railway crossing. Con-tinue up the rough lane to reach the main road at Bilting.

Cross the A28 again, then follow a rising green lane to a junction with the Pilgrim's Way in the lovely sweet chestnuts of King's Wood, once a terrifying place where robbers might leap out upon unwary pilgrims. Turn right on to the Way and after a mile and a half turn right again and go downhill. At the foot of the hill go left, to emerge through a gate a road end. Continue along the road through Mountain Street, and where the road bends right, keep left up School Hill and into Chilham Square.

"Ancient Tracks" by Des Hannigan is published by Pavilion at pounds 12,99.

Comments