Cheer up, it's winter

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The Independent Online

WINTER WONDERLANDS Simon Calder, travel editor

From tomorrow, travel becomes fun once again: an affordable, uncrowded joy. The airlines define the last Sunday of October as the start of the winter season - a thankless time of empty seats and low fares. Fewer people travel, and those who do pay a lot less than in summer.

Winter brings places into a sharp clarity unmatched in the haze of July and August. Places that look drab in summer, such as much of the world's largest country, Russia, acquire a dazzling appeal when blanketed by snow. Great cities such as Venice and Rome are reclaimed by their citizens, and acquire a seductive mystique in the misty half-light. The few hours of daylight in Iceland, Norway and Alaska acquire the cherished status of precious commodities The nights hold the prospect of natural theatre: the Northern Lights are warming up for their winter season, bringing an unworldly fluorescence to the Arctic skies.

TOP TIP: You need not venture too close to the North Pole to wrap yourself in winter. Sail north through the night from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Wander through the huddle of houses that serves as the capital of Shetland. Explore the austere landscapes of the Northern Isles that define the world " bleak". And be energised by the chill and entertained by the skies.

CURL UP WITH A BOOK Suzi Feay, literary editor

Bring on winter! Not that I need an excuse to climb on to the chaise longue with a heap of enticing volumes. This year, Bleak House, which I've read at least six times (I stopped counting after that) is being lavishly televised, so even I don't need another fix. The perfect supplementary volume is John Sutherland's Inside Bleak House: A guide for the modern Dickensian (Duckworth). Keep it by the telly. .

Winter is for pure comfort reading, and for that you can't do better than children's classics. Everyone will have their own favourites, but two of mine are Elizabeth Goudge's enchanting fable The Little White Horse (J K Rowling is also a fan), and Alison Uttley's A Country Child, the semi-autobiographical tale of a year in the life of a young girl living on a remote farm. Money is short, but spiritual riches are plentiful; there is a specially magical chapter about Christmas.

Stories of the macabre exert their pull from Hallowe'en onwards, such as the stories of Arthur Machen, republished by Tartarus Press in handsome editions, made for reading by a flickering fire. Alan Garner's creepy Thursbitch (Vintage) hints at the shadowy horrors waiting out in the snowy fields.

TOP TIP: In preparation for springjourneys into the countryside, curl up with The Lore of the Land, Penguin's new guide to English legends (" from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys").

HOW TO AVOID THE BLUES Professor Raj Persaud, psychiatrist

Lowering of mood during winter is common and associated with a cluster of other problematic symptoms, including sleeping more, social withdrawal and weight gain.

This cluster is now suggesting to neuroscientists that winter depression reflects a genetically programmed attempt to conserve energy during periods of dwindling food supply.

It is difficult to remember this with a Tesco on every corner, but food in our evolutionary past was a seasonally varying commodity, and therefore conserving energy by a kind of emotional and physical hibernation could have been advantageous.

Day length is the most predictable signal of the onset of winter, more reliable than temperature change, so it would make sense for the human brain to become, over many generations, particularly sensitive to this and to start its "biological winter programme" when it begins to detect shorter days.

What this suggests is that it is not the cold of winter which really lowers mood, but the darkness - a vital distinction to grasp if you want to combat the winter blues. It means you should fight the natural instinct to stay indoors in the warm, and make a particular effort to get outside for at least one whole hour each day.

The amount of light available even on the most dismally overcast winter day is still measurably more than obtainable from the high-intensity, fancy and expensive "light boxes" designed for sufferers of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to use indoors in winter.

This advice could be particularly important for women to consider because although about twice as many women as men suffer from depression generally, the gender disparity is substantially greater in winter depression or, to use the technical term, SAD, with fewer than 20 per cent of most samples being men.

TOP TIP: A brisk walk outdoors produces a positive double whammy, not only exposing the brain to the potent antidepressant effects of light, but by releasing powerful natural bodily antidepressants such as endorphins through exercise.

Dr Raj Persuad is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry

DREAMING OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS Matthew Roberts, personal trainer

If it is a very, very cold winter, as has been promised by some forecasters, everyone's inclination will be to exercise indoors. Winter is obviously the busiest time of the year for gyms.

But you don't have to queue for the running machine if you don't want to. There are great benefits to exercising outside. If you are going outside and exercising when it is very cold you are actually working out at a very high rate. You're working very hard to maintain a high body temperature.

You also tend to work a bit faster when it's cold. So winter workouts can help you to burn loads more calories. In the country in general, there has been a massive trend back to exercising outside again.

People are going trekking - which is really good. Jogging in parks has increased. And the triathlon - swimming, cycling and running - is Britain's fastest growing sport. It's all about not getting bored with training, and about really testing yourself. More and more people are doing it.

If it snows, that's a great opportunity. You can do some really hard work by just doing everyday things in the snow.Walking in deep snow, especially, is a good work out.

TOP TIP: For a real winter workout, simply build a snowman.

WINTER FOOD Mark Hix, chef and food writer

Winter's the best season for cooking. If you cook seasonally and shop seasonally there are some really interesting things on offer and it's a good opportunity to get out of the supermarket and into the farmer's markets.

There are some great things you can do with all these root vegetables that are just coming into season. People tend to boil them or mash them. But you can give them an Asian or a Caribbean twist, and doing a winter vegetable crumble can be really fun, whether you're a vegetarian or not. On the meat front, winter is the time for game. The bird-flu scare will probably put a few people off eating poultry, but if you know where your goose has come from, you can get on with enjoying it.

Produce such as rare breed pork is much more readily available now. And that's having a knock-on effect on consumers. Instead of going into a butcher's shop and asking how long to cook their joint of meat for, people are tending to ask where it's come from. People's interest in provenance seems a bit more genuine now. Everyone's interested in the specifics of food, which means this winter is going to bring a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

TOP TIP: Serve mashed neeps (turnips), celeriac, or a gratin of parsnips instead of potatoes, and meals will become more interesting.

DRESS TO INVEST Susie Rushton, fashion writer

Retail tycoon Philip Green doesn't like the unseasonably warm weather (he says it's hit sales of his winter coats) and neither does any self-respecting fashionista. Winter, after all, is when all the serious "investment" pieces come into play: coats, suits, knitwear.

With its heftier price tags, winter fashion is a high-stakes game, where summer's straw handbags and flip-flops picked up for under a fiver were mere tiddlywinks. Accessories, too, are more desirable, with heavyweight status handbags coming into their own. At the moment, any bag featuring a gilt chain scores the highest points. But this season there's also the status woolly scarf (Burberry's pom-pom scarf for girls, the three-metre long Dior Homme scarf for boys), the status belt (YSL Rive Gauche's big-buckled number) and even the status beret (Miu Miu's patent version) to consider. That's before you've tackled the issue of boots, a product category that drives the most sensible women to make ill-considered requests for an overdraft extension.

Costly investment pieces aside, the joy of winter fashion is simply that the quantity of clothes required to get dressed each morning increases sharply. British women, used to unpredictable winter weather, have evolved into experts at "layering" their outfits. By definition, winter layering requires lots and lots of clothes, far more than at any other time of year. Now isn't that something to warm the heart?

TOP TIP: Buy a warm winter coat that's slightly above your budget and just a little too "on trend", and you'll wind up with the fashion equivalent of a white elephant, useful for only one season and even then likely to end up on the sale rail by 1 December. The truly canny will spread their risk with a portfolio of well-made classics (a pea coat, or a trench) and cheaper, high street trends (capes, for instance).