Well, there goes the summer. Nice while it lasted, wasn’t it? Lots of long evenings filled with nice things like barbecues and bike rides. And it seemed like the whole country was getting out and getting fit, with a whole host of fair-weather joggers and walkers crowding into city parks in the evenings, putting the remaining beer garden revellers to shame.
But that’s done now. Time for hibernation. Wrap up warm, and batten down the hatches. But outdoor adventure companies are dampening our little fireside reveries by informing us that there’s never been a better time of year to brave the elements. In fact, they say they see an uptake in interest in autumn and winter, as the evenings grow darker and the opportunities to take advantage of the great outdoors grow slimmer. Let’s face it, beer gardens and barbecues are no fun with a chill in the air. Instead, people are deciding to join walking and running clubs and outdoor activity groups, essentially to force themselves outside (and perhaps to shift those pounds brought on by all those barbecues...).
Why the move towards the great outdoors? Well, many people just prefer it to the idea of a windowless basement gym. It’s also far more social, with no age restrictions - mothers and daughters go hiking together, or the kids can all be involved in a family bike ride. But it’s not very… British, is it? All that clean living and outdoorsy-ness feels a bit more... German, or Nordic.
Funnily enough, one very Scandinavian pursuit has gone down a storm in Britain, and is perhaps helping us to emulate our healthier, fairer neighbours. Nordic walking came about in the 1930s in Finland, when competitive cross-country skiers started using their poles during training in summer, and noticed results. Using the poles when walking over rough terrain helped them to use the whole body as an animal would - essentially becoming four-legged. This increases heart and lung activity as well as helping to build the upper body. The practice was formalised in the late 1990s, with special poles developed for walkers. In 2004, it was introduced to the UK with the launch of Nordic Walking UK.
Nordic walking looks quite easy (and perhaps it is if you’re more co-ordinated than I am). It takes a while to get the momentum right, but once you’re in the swing of things, it’s incredibly enjoyable. Group sessions vary to suit different requirements, but in the main you will walk faster than you are used to while still being able to hold a conversation. Fans of Nordic Walking say this is important - it is as much about the social aspect as the health benefits.
Sports therapist and former ultra runner Gill Stewart is the marketing and development officer for Nordic Walking UK, and author of The Complete Guide to Nordic Walking. She believes the sessions are inspirational and provide real results across the board. “It is like using a cross-trainer, only translated into the outdoors,” she said. “The poles and techniques give you more power, like an animal, with your shoulders and back working rather than just your arms and legs. For the calorie burn, improved fitness levels and improved posture, I’ve found nothing else quite like it.
“The most important thing for me is that it’s not a fad - the Finnish army uses it to train, and now there are 23 physios in London hospitals delivering it. It has been really helpful for rehabilitiating people with conditions like Parkinson’s, or who have suffered strokes.”
The big question, perhaps, is do you feel a bit silly going all four-legged in your local park? “For a new group, it breaks the ice, and they have such a good laugh doing it. I first came across Nordic walking when I lived in the Alps and initially thought, ‘Brits won’t do that.’ But it has really taken off - it’s such a bonding experience in a group, and quite mindful when you’re on your own - rhythmic and natural.”
Autumn in the UK: where to visit
Autumn in the UK: where to visit
1/10 Stourhead, Wiltshire
When this world-famous landscape garden opened in the 1740s, a magazine described it as a “living work of art”. You can see why – the sight of the trees around the lake in their autumn colours is spectacular. (01747 841152; nationaltrust.org.uk/stourhead)
2/10 Grizedale Forest, Lake District
Sprawled over the hills between Coniston Water and Windermere, Grizedale Forest looks its best at this time of the year. Go for a walk, or hop on a mountain bike, and enjoy the 60 outdoor sculptures that are dotted among the trees. (01229 860010; forestry.gov.uk/grizedale)
3/10 Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire
The National Arboretum is home to some 18,000 trees and shrubs, set in a grade one listed historic landscape. The Old Arboretum features a host of rare and exotic specimens dating back to the 1850s, while the Silk Wood remains a traditional working woodland. (01666 880220; forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt)
4/10 Richmond Park, London
With its 2,500 acres of parkland and woodland not far from central London, this former royal hunting ground is at its most beautiful during autumn. Try to go just before sunrise, when the soft light illuminates the rich colours of the leaves. (0300 061 2200; royalparks.gov.uk/parks/richmond-park)
5/10 Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire
This beautiful area of ancient woodland, wood pasture, water and heath has been managed by humans since the medieval period. It also provided the setting for The Prince of Thieves – a Robin Hood film shot in 1991. (01753 647358; http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do)
6/10 Faskally Wood, Perthshire
This part of Perthshire is especially popular with cyclists, who come for its challenging trails and scenic views. The woods around Loch Dunmore served as a training area for foresters during the 1950s, and are currently lit up at night as part of the Enchanted Forest show. (0131 524 2121; visitscotland.com)
7/10 Studley Royal Park, North Yorkshire
This 18th-century landscaped garden houses the epic ruins of Fountains Abbey, and a large variety of ancient trees. Statues peek through the foliage, and mirror-like ponds reflect the pillars of classical temples. (01765 608888; nationaltrust.org.uk/fountains-abbey)
8/10 Powis Castle and Garden, Powys
Constructed around the medieval castle, this landscape garden retains its original lead statues and an orangery on the terrace. Enjoy the attractive seasonal colours in the twenty-six acres of lawns and shrubbery below the red-brick fortress. (01938 551944; nationaltrust.org.uk/powis-castle)
9/10 Mount Stewart, County Down
Mount Stewart was the masterpiece of Edith, Lady Londonderry, who used the mild climate of Strangford Lough to experiment with new planting styles. The formal areas reflect traditional Italianate style, while the woodlands feature plants from across the globe. (028 4278 8387; nationaltrust.org.uk/mount-stewart)
10/10 Meikleour Beech Hedge, Perthshire
The Meikleour Beech Hedge is the longest hedge in Britain, and the highest of its kind in the world. It was planted in 1745 – supposedly in memory of the dead of the Jacobite Rebellion – and provides a stunning backdrop to a drive or cycle. (0131 524 2121; visitscotland.com)
It can be tough maintaining the motivation to lace up your trainers in the morning if you’re heading for a solo run into the grey, dank drizzle. But with a club, it makes every activity become more of a responsibility - you don’t want to let others down - as well as safer in the dark, more fun and more of a shared experience. Bootcamps and adventure companies still see a huge number of participants in winter and, for some, the worse the weather the better the high. “During the hurricane this summer I expected to see people cancelling - the weather was horrendous,” one bootcamp regular told me. “But instead even more people signed up. We were covered head to toe in mud, and battered by rain and wind. And we loved it.”
Yup, it seems that nothing beats that feeling of being well ‘ard, and we’re far too tough for a little step class in the depths of winter. Tough Mudders are big business nowadays, with men and women seeing scrambling through freezing muddy assault courses as their idea of the perfect Sunday morning. Tackling obstacles with names like Arctic Enema and Electroshock Therapy. Each to their own. There are 10,000 to 15,000 people showing up to every event, with 1.3 million participants since its launch in 2010. So either we’re a nation of masochists, or there is something to this outdoorsy lark.
If you draw the line at encountering challenges called Sewage Outlet, there are still plenty of activities to get the blood pumping on even the bleakest of days. Jake Thompsett is a rock climbing instructor, ice climber, mountaineer, adventure racer and mountain marathon runner - and runs an outdoor adventure company called JT Expeditions. Although a CV like that would be daunting for even the fittest and most outdoorsy people, Jake says that most activities can actually be very inclusive, and enjoyed at all fitness levels.
“There are people out there who simply hate the treadmill,” says Jake. “Getting outdoors is far more fun, and has fewer limitations. Rock climbing, for instance, is better than any weights session, and you’ll be having so much fun it won’t even feel like a workout.”
And is it still fun when it gets cold and dark? “Winter is one of my favourite times of the year - to be out getting blasted by rain, hail or snow… you feel quite proud. If you get pasted you think, that was wicked!”
Why now is the time to get outdoors:
- No crowds. All the fair-weather trekkers are cowering on the couch - the mountain is all yours.
- It’s cooler. Sunshine is lovely and all that, but would you fancy a four-hour hike in 30C heat?
- No distractions. The barbecues are all packed away and the beer gardens are empty - it’s not like you have any better offers.
- The scenery. It’s the most stunning time of the year, get out and see the reds and russets.
- Safety. Your solo evening run/walk is a bit more daunting now it’s darker - a club means safety in numbers.
- Pride. Because while others are laying down their winter padding, you’re out there with the elements. You animal, you.
The Complete Guide to Nordic Walking, by GIll Stewart, is published by Bloomsbury and available now.
For more information, visit nordicwalking.co.uk and jtexpeditions.co.uk