A bracing hike is the best gift of the season, says Sarah Marshall.
So you’ve spent a day on the sofa, eating and drinking non-stop for every waking hour. The only way to reignite the Christmas is spirit is to get outdoors and walk off some of that excess.
From strolls along wave-lashed coastlines, to gentle woodland ambles – exploring nature’s winter wonderland is a seasonal delight. Red-bellied robins and delicate snow bunting compose their own chorus of festive carols, while hardy evergreens and winter blooms bear spectacular gifts.
All you need to do is wrap up warm and fill a Thermos to enjoy one of these post-Christmas walks…
1. Holkham Beach, Norfolk
A seemingly endless stretch of sand wrapped by vast horizons, Holkham Beach is a place where possibilities feel infinite. At high tide, a basin fills to form a shallow lagoon filled with wading birds and cackling flocks of migrating pink-footed geese. Other seasonal visitors include snow bunting escaping Arctic chills. Aside from its birdlife, Holkham’s seascapes are an attraction; whether serene or stormy, they invigorate the soul.
How: Access to the beach is via Lady Anne’s Drive on the A149 (opposite The Victoria Inn). For a two-hour amble, take the raised walkway to the right towards Wells-next-the-Sea, returning by Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path. Visit Holkham.co.uk.
2. Dartmoor National Park, Devon
Exposed to the elements, Dartmoor’s wide, sweeping landscapes feel wild in any season – especially so in winter months. Hike up granite tors, stride through gorse and stumble into archaeological finds. Quite often it’s possible to have part of the 954 square km national park all to yourself, reflecting on how many snowfalls the glacier-carved, millennia-old rocks have seen; scientists suggest the Devon moor once had an ice cap.
How: If you prefer a structured hike, download a guided audio walk from Dartmoor.gov.uk. The 10km circular Postbridge walk includes views from Hartland Tor, historical remains from Dartmoor’s industrial past and an impressive waterfall. Start from the Postbridge Visitor Centre on the B3212 and continue along the East Dart River. There’s an option to climb 462 metres to the top of Stannon Tor if you’re feeling energetic. Be prepared for boggy and uneven terrain.
3. New Forest, Hampshire
A regal woodland of oaks, ash and beech, Hampshire’s New Forest was given royal status in the 11th century. Noblemen and women have since disappeared, but one sovereign figure remains: a 500-year-old Knightwood Oak, known as the Queen of the Forest. From the gnarled, twisted trunks of its ancient inhabitants, to heathland grazed by free-grazing ponies – every setting in this national park has a fairy-tale feel.
How: The UK’s Forestry Commission provides a variety of guided walks, best accessed by downloading their free app. An easy walk taking less than an hour, the Knightwood Oak Trail visits the New Forest’s A-list star. Alternatively, the Bolderwood: Deer Watch Trail is a short circular walk visiting a deer viewing platform. Visit newforestnpa.gov.uk.
4. Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland
The Mourne Mountains are an impressive site – even more daunting if you plan to scale any peaks in Northern Ireland’s tallest range. Slieve Bearnagh, towering at 739 metres, and Slieve Meelmore, rising to 682 metres, form part of a walking circuit close to the town of Newcastle in County Down. Born in Belfast, author CS Lewis apparently based his mythical land of Narnia on the Mournes, with their mighty granite tors and bluffs.
How: Although technically easy, the 11.2km route is strenuous, with a few steep climbs and scrambles. Start from the car park at Trassey, and follow the route marked Mourne Way, heading south. Walk NI (walkni.com) have a route plan and lots of useful information about the area.
5. Cairngorms, Scotland
There’s a good reason why the Queen spends her summers at Balmoral. It’s a mystery why she doesn’t go there for Christmas, too. Her castle sits amidst ancient woodland in the Cairngorms National Park, where red squirrels, deer and mountain hares create a winter wildlife idyll. Around 57 m west of Aberdeen, the small village of Braemar is the starting point for several enjoyable hikes.
How: Experience the magic of the forest by following a circular route along a carriage drive once favoured by Queen Victoria, whose love of the Highlands convinced Prince Albert to purchase Balmoral in 1852. Taking approximately 1.5 hours, the 3.8km route starts in Braemar and follows the River Clunie. Visit cairngorms.co.uk.
6. South Downs, Eastbourne
Every year, thousands of people visit the South Downs National Park, one of the UK’s most accessible areas of natural beauty. Stretching from Eastbourne along the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and Seven Sisters to Splash Point at Seaford, the Heritage Coast offers opportunities for brisk sea walks. Inland, there are historical trails passing churches, abandoned 18th century mills and Bronze Age burial mounds.
How: Running from Eastbourne’s seafront to Butts Lane in Willingdon, The Jubilee Way explore the town’s woodland and open chalk grassland, taking in the contours around the back of Meads village, Old Town and Ratton. The full stretch is 9.6km. Go to visiteastbourne.com.