Winter walks and refreshing rambles

As the Christmas festivities get under way, why not take a break from all that excessive consumption with a refreshing ramble. Mark Rowe offers a selection of seasonal hikes

The latest addition to the Walkers Are Welcome network of towns and cities is well timed for the arrival of winter. Winchcombe, tucked away in the north of the Cotswolds, is the 33rd town to join the association, which encourages walkers, viewing them as "economic assets", bringing money to cafés, pubs, restaurants, and B&Bs.

There are few better towns in which to secure a warm seat in a welcoming pub – such as the Tudor era The Old Corner Cupboard – after a stirring walk along the Cotswolds skyline. The Cotswolds may not be as rugged as the Pennines, but these limestone uplands are high and exposed enough to be dusted with snow at any time during winter, when the low sun glistens off the honey-coloured stones.

To mark Winchcombe's membership, the town has outlined six routes that originate in the centre. The pick of these links it to the Neolithic burial site of Belas Knapp. Leave the town via Vineyard Street, a tree-lined avenue that leads over the River Isbourne, and follow the Cotswold Way signs to the top of Corndean Lane. Follow the road for a short distance before turning right up a short steep section past a cricket pitch and through woodland and then follow the signed footpath, via a steep uphill path round a field edge, to Belas Knapp – one of the finest of the many long barrows found in the Cotswolds.

Belas Knapp dates back 4,500 years, and is encircled by a ditch and built with dry-stone walls and lintels. Look out for the false entrance, possibly intended to confuse evil spirits. The views from here are impressive; looking due west you'll see the transmitters of Cleve Common, at 1,035ft the highest point in the Cotswolds.

Return the same way and turn right at the road, following it until you reach a footpath on your left. Go downhill to Humblebee Cottages and then follow the trail around the wood until you meet a stony track and turn left downhill to Newmeadow Farm. Here, follow the quiet lane back to Winchcombe. Alternatively, by Wadfield Grove turn right for approximately 50 yards and turn left through a gate and follow the waymarked signs to the main drive to Sudeley Castle. At the metalled private road, turn left and follow the drive over a bridge by a lake and on to Vineyard Street.

Back in town, make time to nose around the sandstone church of St Peter's, with its superb collection of ostentatious gargoyles, supposedly modelled on 15th-century local figures. For more information, go to winchcombewelcomeswalkers.com and consult OS Map: Cotswolds Outdoor Leisure 45.

One of the largest reservoirs in Europe, Rutland Water offers gentle but delightful winter walking. It may be man-made, but Rutland has become a haven for wildfowl over-wintering from Scandinavia and northern Russia. Walking between any of the many car parks will bring you close to birds – many actively looking for food around the fringes of the lagoons on crisp cold days. There may even be a thin coating of ice, so you can hear the ducks tinkling as they slither across the waterways. When busy with birdlife, more than 23,000 birds, including 28 species of wildfowl, have been recorded here – including rare types such as scaup, smew, long-tailed duck, scoter and Bewick's swan.

A good choice is to start at Normanton car park on the south shore, visit the church and cross the dam to Sykes Lane and back. Another fine walk strikes out over the Hambleton Peninsula in the heart of the reservoir, which will add around six miles to any walk. To find out more, go to anglianwater .co.uk/leisure.

Bath has more in common with Rome than the fact it was occupied by the Romans. It is also built on seven hills, and the Bath Skyline Walk enables you to traverse some of these to gain striking, wide-angle panoramic views of the city, and to get a sense of what Bath must have looked like in its Regency pomp.

The six-mile walk passes through land owned by the National Trust, which manages nearly 500 acres of the skyline to the south and east of Bath, much of it limestone grassland. The walk takes you through beautiful Bathampton Woods, a wonderfully atmospheric woodland, full of moss-covered trees and winding paths; later you come to Sham Castle, an 18th-century folly, with your first full view of the city below. For more details, go to nationaltrust.org.uk/bathskyline.

The Ramblers' Festival of Winter Walks grows larger every year, and this Christmas the hikers' charity will organise more than 700 walks between Boxing Day and 3 January. At least 300 of these walks will be less than 5 miles, and more than 100 are aimed at the 20- to 30-year-old market, a target audience for the Ramblers. One of the highlights is a five-mile walk around Holy Island in Northumbria on Boxing Day. The island's elemental qualities are in full swing in winter, as birds hunker down in the face of North Sea gales – the pale-bellied Brent goose, from Svalbard, north of Norway, over-winters here in numbers of up to 3,000. If you can't make it on the actual day, the island lends itself to easy walking at any time – strike out north from the village centre along the Straight Lonnen to the dunes and Coves Haven, before turning east and then south along the waggonway, past Storm Beach, to Lindisfarne Castle and back to the village. To find out more, go to ramblers.org.uk/winterwalks.

The Scottish city of Perth celebrates its 800th anniversary next year and north of the city lies a delightful 10-mile walk from Pitlochry to the Linn of Tummel. Passing through the gorge of Killiecrankie, the walk takes in the viewpoint of Soldier's Leap, Garry Road Bridge high above the gorge, and the Coronation Bridge over the River Tummel. Killiecrankie's 8,000-year-old semi-natural ancient woodland is special to Scotland: less than one per cent of Scotland's woodlands fit this description. For more information, go to walking. visitscotland.com/perfect-walks.

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