Great British walks: Put your best foot forward this winter
With Britain's landscapes blissfully deserted, wrap up warm and stride out, says Mark Rowe
You used to know where you were with winter, with day after day of crisp, cold weather. Now things are a bit more unpredictable – recent years have seen mild spells, the deepest of freezes, and torrential floods – and anyone planning a day's hiking could be forgiven for packing both a collapsible kayak and a survival blanket.
Yet winter is a glorious time to tear yourself away from the sofa and strike out. When the leaves have fallen from the trees, you can see more, from elusive deer to distant skylines backlit by a low winter sun. And there's a change of shift among the wildlife too. Swallows and swifts are now basking in Africa but in their place will come huge flocks of winter migrants.
All the walks chosen here have their own appeal, offering something different and uplifting in winter, from skeletons of leafless trees to storm-pummelled beaches. And with Christmas on the horizon, you can feel all the more virtuous by burning off the calories in advance, before stacking them all back on again.
Rhossili Bay, Gower Peninsula
This is a lovely loop around enormous Rhossili Bay at the western end of the Gower Peninsula. In an ideal world you'll start this walk at high tide, taking in the full power of the sea as it muscles inland. By the time you start to head back there'll be space enough for some beachcombing.
The signature landmark, Worm's Head, is a mesmerising spectacle, resembling a Welsh version of the Loch Ness Monster – the word is a corruption of the Old English "wurm", or serpent.
Make your way along the southern cliffs, past exposed rocks and stone gables fronting air high above Mewslade Bay. Then it's a steep, breathless climb up Rhossili Down, rewarded by stirring views in all directions.
Finally, if you have time and energy, you can cross the dramatic causeway to Worm's Head for two and a half hours either side of low tide.
Start/finish Rhossili Bay car park
Distance Seven miles
Time Three hours
OS map Explorer 164 Gower.
Directions From Rhossili drop down to the coast path at Worm's Head and follow the coast to Mewslade Bay. Take the field path to Middleton. Turn left onto the road and then take the path in front of the church over Rhossili Down. At Hillend, drop down onto the beach and return south to Rhossili.
More information enjoygower.com
Ashridge Estate, Chilterns, Buckinghamshire
A walk around the Ashridge estate in Buckinghamshire in winter is framed by the skeletons of trees such as ash, beech and oak. Their leaves may have fallen and the green may have gone, but these giant, ancient trees now allow unexpected views across the Chilterns to landmarks such as Ivinghoe Beacon and the Bridgewater Monument, as well as sweeping views across the Vale of Aylesbury and the prehistoric Ridgeway.
The spectacular shapes of such trees also becomes more apparent in winter: look out for the extraordinary sweet chestnut – probably introduced by the Romans – with wide trunks and sprawling root-like branches, as well as the spurs, known as "witches' brooms", sprouting from silver birch.
The thinned-out trees also make it easier to spot wildlife, so keep your eyes peeled for larger animals and brids such as red kites, buzzards, fallow deer and the more diminutive muntjac deer, along with goldcrests nipping in and out of hawthorn hedges, fluffed up against the cold. With luck, you should even be able to see (as well as hear) lesser-spotted woodpeckers.
Start/finish Ashridge visitor centre
Distance Two miles
Time One hour
OS map Explorer 181 Chiltern Hills North
Directions/more information The route is available on nationaltrust.org.uk/ashridge – click on protected landscapes walk
Mam Tor, Castleton, Peak District
Mam Tor is called the "Shivering Mountain" – not because you'll feel the cold, but because of its frequent rock falls and landslides. This striking whaleback of a mountain has been shuffling its foundations for 3,600 years so it's unlikely to give way under your feet soon. This is an atmospheric hike: heading west out of Castleton and through steep, claustrophobic Winnat's Pass before climbing on to the ridgeline.
To the north, the view takes in the Pennine Way, contouring around Kinder Scout and its surreally, alien rock formations, such as the Woolpacks and Crowden Tower. To the east you can pick out Derwent Edge, Stanage Edge and Froggatt Edge. Hidden deep in these geological folds are the mighty reservoirs of Derwent, Howden and Ladybower. You can keep bouncing along the whale back summits all the way to Hope railway station, but it's winter, so better to drop down into Castleton and limit your decisions to which pub to settle in.
Distance Four miles
Time 2.5 hours.
Directions From Castleton follow the A625 to Winnat's Pass, follow the footpath through the pass and behind Winnat's Head farm. Cross B6061 with care then, via Windy Knoll, the A625 to climb Mam Tor summit. At Hollins Cross take the path south-east down to Castleton via Hollowford Road.
More information peakdistrict.gov.uk
River Lea, East London
The Olympic bandwagon moves on, destination Rio in 2016. But winter is a good time to enjoy one of the meaningful legacies of the London 2012 Games.
The River Lea, which originates in the Chiltern Hills and flows south into London to meet the Thames, had been neglected for decades. However it has had a facelift and now sports 30 new bridges, five miles of waterways and newly scrubbed towpaths in and around the Olympic Park.
They allow walkers to explore the Lea, and a frosty morning will reveal cormorants elegantly perched on slivers of ice, or moorhens slithering on icy paths.
This is still a Jekyll and Hyde landscape, more Lowry than Constable, but beneath the sclerotic overhead pylons lies rare marshland at Walthamstow marshes. At East India Dock, dwarfed by the Canary Wharf cityscape and the 02 Arena, over-wintering black redstart nest in derelict buildings.
Start Tottenham Hale underground station
Finish East India Dock DLR/ Limehouse DLR
Distance Eight miles
Time Four hours
Directions Pick up the towpath on Ferry Lane and head south along the river to the Thames. At Three Mills there is a choice of cutting south-east to Limehouse Basin, or south to East India Dock.
Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
The bagpipe player will no doubt be going strong in deepest winter outside Waverley railway station, but this walk quickly escapes the clichéd Edinburgh experience.
Crossing over Princes Street Gardens, head towards Holyrood Park and then begin the steep climb from the palace. On the way you pass the fragmented remains of St Anthony's Chapel before making for Arthur's Seat at a mighty height of 251m.
The view from the top is arguably the finest city vista in the UK. Look north across the Firth of Forth to Fife, south to the Pentland Hills, and east to the Isle of May and the volcanic dome of North Berwick Law, deep in East Lothian.
With binoculars you may just be able to make out the curious whale bones on its summit. To the north-west the Highlands begin to rise up – many of the peaks are usually snow-capped by the end of the year.
Start/finish Edinburgh Waverley station
Distance Three miles
Time Two hours
Directions From Waverley station cross North Bridge and turn left along Canongate to Holyrood House, in Holyrood Park, to follow a path directly below Salisbury Crags. Then climb to the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel and upwards again to Arthur's Seat (251m). Retrace your steps back to Waverley station.
More information visitscotland.com
Cat Bells, Lake District
In bad weather, hikers drop down from the fells to the Lakes' valleys and shorelines. But Cat Bells is the perfect winter mountain: it's high enough for superb views, but sufficiently stumpy to be climbed in all but the worst weather, though there are times when the steep zig-zag paths belie the mountain's modest 450m.
Your reward is the spectacle of beautiful Derwentwater laid out below. At this time of year, with few boats to disturb its surface, the lake can seem frozen in time.
Keswick huddles nearby, behind it the looming triangular flanks of Skiddaw. Turning north-west there's a more knobbly landscape fronted by Grisedale. The second half of this walk follows the shoreline through Brandelhow Woods by Derwentwater, a landscape of wonderful mixed woodland, a mixture of semi-ancient trees above which rise Douglas firs, 150 years old.
Start/finish Hawes End car park
Distance Five miles
Time Three hours
OS map OL4 English Lakes North-west
Directions From Catbells Barn, follow the obvious tracks to the summit. Then bear south-west past two cairns through Hause Gate and descend the mountain. Turn left on Borrowdale lane. Then enter Manesty Woods, and walk through Brandelhow along the water's edge to return to the car park.
More information golakes.co.uk
Craster and Dunstanburgh, Northumberland
Nowhere beats the Northumbrian coast in winter. You may be lucky enough to pick a day when the sun makes a guest appearance and the wind drops, or you'll have to wrap up in wet-weather gear as the wind howls and the elements seem to shake the cliffs and hardy villages to their foundations.
Either way, it all feels wonderfully remote and raw. Throw in the spectacular ruins of Dunstanburgh castle, perched defiantly on the edge of the North Sea, and a superb pub, and you've pretty much got the box set for the perfect winter walk.
Look out for eider ducks, over-wintering from the Arctic. They're known locally as Cuddy's Duck after Saint Cuthbert who is said to have cared for them on the Farne Islands where he lived as a hermit in the seventh century.
At the top of Embleton Bay stands the village of Low Newton By the Sea, whose cream whitewashed 18th-century fishermen's cottages are set like almshouses around a green and enclose the Ship Inn, one of Britain's great seaside pubs.
Distance Six miles
Time Three hours
OS map Explorer 332 Alnwick and Amble
More information the route is available on visitnorthumberland.com
St Ives to Zennor, Cornwall
The Tate gallery has made St Ives a year-round destination for art lovers, but the wild north coast of Cornwall is truly glorious in winter, taking in half a dozen increasingly wild and exposed headlands between St Ives and Zennor. As you leave the Tate and Porthmeor and its hardy surfers behind, the first landmark is the grassy rise of Clodgy Point, offering views across St Ives Bay towards Godrevy Lighthouse.
The path rises and threads its way past the rocky outcrops of the Carracks, where you have a good chance of seeing grey seals hauled out. From here, things get strenuous but increasingly dramatic and, in winter, thrillingly elemental: I've often seen three kestrels hanging in a gale, as if synchronised, above the cliffs trying to spot a vole or a field mouse. The cliff above the deep bays either side of the Gala Rocks are superb vantage points to just sit and watch the surf smash into the coastline. At Zennor Head it's time to turn inland and agonise over beer (the Tinner's Arms) or cake (Zennor Backpackers). Or perhaps both.
Start St Ives
Distance 6.5 miles
Time Four hours
Directions Simply follow the coast path (waymarked with the Acorn sign) out of St Ives to Zennor Head, then turn in land along the country lane for the last mile.
OS map Explorer 201 Land's End
More information visitcornwall.com
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