Distance/time 10 miles/5 hours
Refuel The Three Chimneys, Biddenden
“Unless a man understands the Weald, he cannot easily write about the beginnings of England,” Hilaire Belloc noted early in the last century, admiring “all that roll of land which lies held between and above the chalk of south-eastern England” and that crosses Sussex, Kent, Surrey, Hampshire.
The point at which the High Weald arcs into Kent is to my eye the English landscape at its most sublime – a stretch of ancient woodland and oast housed-prettiness, where the combination of earth scent and leaf shade seems to suggest that here the land sits at its deepest. Every season brings its own particular joy for walkers, but the winter months hold the landscape’s subtlest pleasures: goldcrests, linnets and hawfinches; frosted hazel and hornbeam; the red hips of the wild dog rose. The paths are clay, and soft underfoot, which makes for occasionally muddy though always pleasurable walking.
The jewel in the walk is undoubtedly Sissinghurst Castle, once home to the writer Vita Sackville-West
Head out from St Dunstan’s Church in Cranbrook. Known as the Cathedral of the Weald, the church is more than 500 years old, and the depictions of the pagan Green Man, in both wooden shields and a porch stone carving, nod to the time when the surrounding area was covered by dense forest. From here you head northwards, away from the town and the main road and out into woodland. There is an intimacy to the landscape here, in part due to the patchwork of small, oddly shaped fields, a remnant of medieval times when the land was first cleared for farming: the hedgerows you pass today evolved out of the strips of woodland – or “shaws” – that once divided them.
This particular walk is long, though easy to abbreviate, and guides you through some of the county’s agricultural history – past fruit orchards, hopper huts that housed workers from London during the picking season, former millponds, and clothiers’ houses. At one point you will spill out on to the intriguingly named Digdog Lane — so-called for the stray dogs that would dig up plague victims buried in the land nearby.
The jewel in the walk is undoubtedly Sissinghurst Castle, once home to the writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, author and diplomat Harold Nicolson. Over the course of 30 years, the couple transformed the one-time farmstead into one of the most revered gardens in England. Winter, when Sackville-West’s exuberant planting stands in relief, is a fine moment to relish the formality of Nicolson’s garden design: the series of garden rooms and immaculate hedges, the long walk of pleached limes.
From the castle you may turn towards Sissinghurst itself, a handsome village built on the wealth of the Wealden iron and cloth industries, and then back to Cranbrook. Or head east towards the Three Chimneys, an oak-beamed and open-fired freehouse, winner of the Good Pub Guide’s county dining award, and a fine place to sample Kentish ale.
Laura Barton, journalist and author of Twenty-One Locks
Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail, Wester Ross
Start/finish A832 by Loch Maree
Distance/time 4 miles/3½ hours
Refuel Kinlochewe Hotel, Kinlochewe
Setting out from the luscious banks of Loch Maree, this walk climbs through pine woods to an icy quartzite plateau with stupendous mountain views. The ascent is hard work, but the steepness makes it special. In few other places can walkers cross so many habitats, or seem to see so many seasons, quite this quickly.
The ascent is up a well-marked but extremely rugged path that’s unalleviated by flat ground (a free guide to the route can be picked up in the car park). It’s worth taking this route up Coille na Glas Leitir (the Wood of the Grey Slope) slowly, because there’s an extraordinary amount to see. The pines on the lower slopes accommodate rich communities of mosses and liverworts. Look out for pine martens and woodland birds. Soon, these tall trees give way to stunted rowans and the bird-life becomes sparse. But an eagle – white-tailed or golden – might drift above.
Climb higher, and things get stranger. Look for polygonal patterns of frost heave underfoot, and spiny prostrate junipers that cower in fissures in the rock. You might spot flurries of snow buntings, and even orange liverwort (the species is found in only four known sites; the other three are in Norway). The greatest appeal of this walk, however, is the scale of the view as you breach the plateau. This is the kind of scene that you can only usually get from the highest peaks (which would require crampons and ice axe); catch it on a cold, clear day and these mountains will be etched in your memory for ever.
From the plateau you could take a different route back down the same slope, but there are many alternatives to extend the walk. Whatever you choose, warm up at the Kinlochewe Hotel afterwards. It has rooms, a bunkhouse, hearty dishes and whisky, including Octomore (an intense peat hit) and the full range of Old Pulteneys (for warming sweetness on any budget). You can also take a look at Beinn Eighe: the Saw-Toothed Mountain, Dick Balbarry and J Laughton’s book outlining the rich history of the slopes you’ve just climbed.
• Check weather conditions and mountain guide advice, scotlandinfo.eu
David Gange, author of The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel
Chelmorton, Peak District
Start/finish Main Street, Chelmorton
Distance/time 6 miles/2½ hours
Refuel The Church Inn, Chelmorton
Winter sees the Peak District at its bleakest, but as vegetation disappears and pasture is stripped of wildlife, the landscape gives up clues to its history. The linear village of Chelmorton is famous for its distinctive pattern of drystone walls, which delineate thin strips of land said to predate the enclosure acts. From Main Street, the hill of Chelmorton Low, topped by two prehistoric tumuli, looms over the village. At its foot is St John the Baptist, said to be the highest church in Derbyshire, where a golden locust weather vane glints atop the spire.
The road ends at Bank Pit Spring where Illy Willy Water cascades into an underground stream. The uphill path runs through the remains of a rake, a mined vertical vein of lead. Some of the undulating grassy mounds in the fields are old mine workings. The industrial is never far away in the Peak District.
At the top, it is worth taking a short detour along the concessionary path to Five Wells cairn, one of the UK’s highest megalithic burial chambers, with fine views across Taddington Moor. There are many ancient tombs on the hills around Chelmorton, most of them excavated (or desecrated, depending on your point of view) by Victorian antiquarians.
Back on the bridleway, tramp through the fields until you meet the Limestone Way, the long-distance footpath through the White Peak plateau. Head towards the village of Flagg, whose Elizabethan manor was once renowned for its “haunted” skull, which repelled all attempts to give it a decent burial.
The final leg, crossing fields on signposted footpaths, leads to a junction known as Chelmorton Thorn, a reminder of the old tradition of planting hawthorn bushes at crossroads and other liminal places. From here, it drops back down into Chelmorton and the 18th-century Church Inn, with its excellent food and an open fire that keeps temperatures inside close to tropical. A welcome contrast to the Peak District bite.
Sarah Ward, author of the DC Connie Childs crime novels (Faber Books)
Meall a’Bhuachaille, Cairngorms
Start/finish Glenmore Forest visitor centre
Distance/time 5.5 miles/4 hours
Refuel The Pine Marten Bar, Glenmore
For a journey into winter wonderland, the circular walk up Meall a’Bhuachaille (the Shepherd’s Hill) takes some beating. Stunning views, rare wildlife and native woodland regeneration: think of this walk as a whisky; the Cairngorms distilled into pure, rich form. Climbing this peak, I always experience “that joyous release of body” that Nan Shepherd terms feyness.
From the visitor centre, follow a track uphill through the forest. Keep your eyes peeled for red squirrels, roe deer and pine martens. As the track narrows to a path, you emerge on to open southern slopes. The hard edge of the forest is beginning to soften. Deer are carefully managed to enable pine, birch and willow trees to self-seed and grow up the hill. Among the new seedlings, regal old granny pines stand tall. When the sun reflects off the snow, the crowns of these 100-year-old survivors glow a wonderful warm copper colour.
Gaining the ridge, continue uphill to the bulky granite cairn. At 810 metres high, there are excellent views across Glenmore Forest, the Cairngorms plateau, the Moray Firth and – on an exceptionally clear day – Ben Nevis. It can be very cold and windy, so lunch is best saved for the shelter of Ryvoan bothy; then turn right along the Thieves Road, an old drovers’ route that was also used by fearsome cateran (cattle raiders). The track leads into a dramatic glacial valley: meltwater once poured through this channel; now the steep sides are lined with regenerating Caledonian forest.
Leave the track for a moment to visit Lochan Uaine (the Green Lochan). The water is a distinctive turquoise because fairies wash their clothes here (although the wee people must struggle in winter, because the lochan is often frozen).
Turn right on a smaller path that soon winds uphill through beautiful old Scots pines with views to the Northern Corries. A gentle descent on forest track leads back to your starting point. Call into the Reindeer Centre to see if Rudolph is at home. Finish up in the cosy wood-panelled Pine Marten Bar for a taste of Cairngorm après ski.
• Check weather forecast and mountain guide advice before setting off, walkhighlands.co.uk
Anna Fleming, writer and climber, whose book, Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains, will be published by Canongate in 2022
The Blorenge, Brecon Beacons
Distance/time 10 miles/5 hours
Refuel The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny
Pick up an almond croissant from the town’s Angel Bakery. You’ll need energy, because after a gentle (pre)amble past the castle, along the River Usk and then under the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal using a low, vaulted, dripping foot tunnel, you start the steep ascent of the Blorenge. The climb follows the route of Hill’s Tramroad, built in the 1820s to transport pig iron and limestone to the canal, a reminder of the area’s rich industrial heritage. Luckily, the stone sleepers are still there to provide steps.
Two-thirds of the way up, turn left and follow the mercifully flatter path along the Cwm Craf, a hollow on Blorenge’s north-east face, past Keeper’s Pond, cradled by the Punchbowl, once the scene of bare-knuckle fights, and along a sunken road between huge, ancient trees described by Richard Mabey as “a whirlpool of wood … immense gargoyles of beech”.
Climb again now, above the trees, squelching through bog and gorse, to the bleak, tussocky summit plateau, the world around you opening up. To the north the Skirrid and Sugar Loaf loom proprietorially over Abergavenny; to the west is Pen y Fan, south Wales’ highest peak; and to the south the Bristol Channel glints under the winter sun, if you are so blessed. Take extra clothes, for the Blorenge can be a beast when she blows.
Near the summit (561 metres) is a bronze age burial site, and a plaque marking the place where Foxhunter, a champion showjumper, was buried in 1959. The ashes of his rider, Sir Harry Llewellyn, were scattered on the same spot in 1999. Find a place in the lee of rocks to eat your sandwiches and contemplate the two words in the English language that rhyme with orange. You’re sitting on one.
Turn for home now, the hard work done, dropping down around the western flank of the mountain, past a Somme-like wasteland on the hillside, until recently a magnificent larch wood before the rampaging ramorum disease wiped it out.
Back in Abergavenny, bag one of the sumptuous leather sofas next to the roaring fire in the wood-panelled Foxhunter bar of the Angel Hotel – 2020 Cesar Welsh Hotel of the Year – and order a pint of Sir Harry, named after the late, great showjumper. You will have earned it.
Mike Carter, whose latest book is All Together Now: One Man’s Walk in Search of His Father and a Lost England
Clare and Cavendish, Suffolk/Essex
Start/finish Clare country park
Distance/time 7 miles/3 hours
Refuel Five Bells, Cavendish; Swan, Clare
It would be perfect to arrive in picturesque Clare by train to start this stroll amid quietly magical countryside, but Richard Beeching took that from us in the 1960s. The ornate Victorian station building is now the friendly, warm Platform One cafe.
Clare country park is hard to tear yourself away from, with its lofty ruins of a Norman castle, its greens, woods, old priory, ponds and railway platforms. And then there’s one of southern England’s most charismatic rivers, the Stour, of Constable fame. His most famous painting, at Flatford Mill, depicts scenes 30 miles south-east, in the more frequented Dedham Vale. But Clare revels in its relative obscurity, with a profusion of well-signposted walks starting from the country park.
This route to another characterful village, Cavendish, takes walkers south initially, past the handsome Mill House and across the Stour into Essex. Here it turns east along a never-ending line of hedgerows alive with the flitterings of small birds, including linnets and corn buntings. In front of 16th-century Bower Hall, the swiftly flowing Stour is shrouded by willows, a perfect spot to watch for kingfishers and, less likely, the otters now re-established on this stretch. Nearing Cavendish, at Pentlow hamlet, an evocative early medieval church, St Gregory’s, with an unusual round tower and in great nick, appears between trees.
Now turning north and crossing the river back into Suffolk, the route passes gardens and eccentric cottages as it enters Cavendish. The unpretentious, Greene King-serving Five Bells commands the large village green and is an ideal pit stop. Behind is St Mary’s church, where it’s claimed that in 1381 the local big cheese, John Cavendish, was seized, later to be killed in revenge for the slaying of peasants’ revolt leader Wat Tyler.
Cross the green and pass the cemetery to head west across low hills and vast fields, gold, green and black under the lowering winter sun, and through woody dips back to Clare. The village finally appears below, dominated by yet another Grade I-listed church. Drop in at the traditionally styled Swan, which serves Adnams, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and solid homemade pub grub, including four veggie options and pizzas. But beer aficionados who aren’t hungry might prefer to walk through the village for 10 minutes to The Globe, a lively Camra-award winner, with guest ales and live bands. Both are dog friendly.
Adam McCulloch, author of the Kent Walks Near London guide
St Ives to Zennor, Cornwall
Start St Ives, Porthmeor beach
Finish Tinners Arms, Zennor
Distance/time 6.5 miles/4 hours
Refuel Tinners Arms
New Year’s Day is my New Year’s Eve. I celebrate when the first light of a new year hits the skies. For day one I need to be outside, with a face full of cold sea air and a view of some broiling waves. This walk delivers exactly that. It is a point-to-point walk along the North Cornwall coastal path. The path is clear but requires scrambling in places. It’s one of those you might decide upon casually, perhaps the morning after a night in St Ives, thinking a walk to a pub would be nice; then halfway through you remember it’s four hours long and that’s quite a long time.
After a couple of hours, the headland becomes wild Atlantic coast. You might see seals below, basking on black rocks by turquoise, ice-cold water. You consider scrambling down the cliffside to strip off and dunk yourself in that refreshing scene as a baptism of faith – in the days and seasons to come. The walk becomes a meditation of sorts, where all that needs to happen is to reach point B and you will find civilisation again; but for now the work of putting one foot in front of the other brings space and peace.
Just when you feel thoroughly fatigued you take the path away from the sea to Zennor, and find yourself in a low-ceilinged 13th-century inn with a roaring fire, ordering thick-cut salty chips and sipping cold beer through wind-chapped lips. DH Lawrence called Zennor “the most beautiful place”, with a view of the “infinite Atlantic … lovelier even than the Mediterranean … It is the best place I have been in, I think.” Made even lovelier by arriving on foot, the whole walk is a fantastic way to process the year past and begin anew.
On reaching Zennor you can book a taxi back to St Ives, or take the bus, although as there are no buses on New Year’s Day, you could make this a circular walk back through the countryside, via Tremedda and Trevalgan – a total distance of 12 miles.
Kate Friend, photographer
Craggy Woods, Cumbria
Start/finish Staveley village
Distance/time 3 miles/ 1 hour 20 minutes
Refuel Wilf’s Café
At the entrance to the Kentmere valley a perfect wooded dome rises behind the village of Staveley. The path enters Craggy Woods at a small wooden gate on the back road to Littlewood, then traverses the hillside beneath the eponymous vaulting crags. The route winds its way steeply, affording views south over the valley of the River Kent. Buzzards frequent Craggy, as the wood is known, and with the right conditions they can be heard mewing contact calls as they surf thermals.
On reaching the top, the rewards are great. Not only do walkers continue at the level of the ancient beech canopy, but looking north, a zen landscape of rocky outcrops and sheltering field hawthorn unfolds, leading the eye into the head of the Kentmere valley and the summits of Shipman Knotts, Kentmere Pike, Froswick, Ill Bell and Yoke.
The path continues through a sheltered vale of ancient yew and beech, accumulations of last season’s golden leaves and beech mast crunching underfoot, then passes a pair of four-foot-high stone obelisks. The pillars mark the position of air-vents used during the construction of the Thirlmere-to-Manchester aqueduct. This feat of engineering, which opened in 1894, transports water directly from the centre of the Lake District 96 miles into the heart of Manchester, and tunnels directly underneath the wooded hillside. It’s the longest gravity-fed aqueduct in Britain – there’s not a single pump along the route.
Elsewhere, a series of black gates inserted into drystone walls mark the ongoing route of the aqueduct.
At the woodland boundary turn right over the fields to Littlewood, along the lanes at the back of Craggy, passing beneath the slopes of Potter Fell and winding past a discreet little tarn hidden behind an outcrop fusion of rock and tree.
Staveley offers a choice of excellent hostelries, from the Mill Yard’s Wilf’s Café, on the banks of the River Kent, More Bakery or, further along the main street, ale and good grub at the Eagle and Child.
Karen Lloyd, author of The Blackbird Diaries
The Twelve Apostles, West Yorkshire
Start/finish Dick Hudsons Pub, Bingley
Distance/time 4 miles/1 hour 30 minutes
Refuel Dick Hudsons Pub
A shifting and moody landscape, one minute frozen solid, then squelching through mud, this is the perfect walk to shift gear into winter. It’s not a taxing route, but encourages a steady rhythm, allowing the mind to wander and random conversation to ensue while bumping into the odd fell runner or solo walker. The landscape provides a rich tapestry of colours and textures you can’t help but pause to take in, savouring the moment and allowing yourself the pleasure of setting your own pace.
Long enough to feel virtuous, the real treat is finding The Twelve Apostles, a prehistoric stone circle set high up on the moors, the perfect place for a winter solstice gathering to gaze at the stars. Originally said to have been 20 stones, it is believed it was used to observe the sun and the moon, allowing bronze age settlers to know when winter was coming. This intriguing and playful ancient site is the perfect pit stop before continuing on to either the Doubler Stones and Ilkley, or back to the pub for warmth and rewards.
Dick Hudsons Pub was formerly a hostelry that was famous for its food and wine between 1850 and 1878, long before it was taken over by the eponymous Mr Hudson, who was a farmer and food lover. A cosy country pub complete with roaring log fire, it welcomes “muddy boots and paws”. Savour a hot chocolate or a warming whisky as you look out onto one of the best views in the country and plan your next ramble.
• See another version of this walk at ilkleymoor.org
Shanaz Gulzar, presenter of Yorkshire Walks on BBC Four, available on BBC iPlayer
North Down coastal path, County Down
Start Holywood Esplanade
End Orlock Point, Portavo
Distance/time 16 miles/7 hours
Refuel The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn; Grace Neill’s, Donaghadee
Taking in some of Northern Ireland’s most picturesque coastal towns and villages, this 16-mile trek sees beachy vistas and country parks give way to tucked-away treasures and much more besides.
After taking in postcard-worthy panoramas at the esplanade in Holywood, start off in the morning towards Bangor via the Royal North Yacht Club. In this first section, navigating a little public footpath before rejoining the coastal path is a pay-off in itself – with the consistent promise of beautifully rugged coastline, by way of winding gravel and asphalt pathways, blooms of winter wildflowers, offshore grey seals and a soul-affirming sea breeze.
A jewel in the crown of windswept North Down, even in winter, Helen’s Bay Beach in Crawfordsburn country park is as idyllic as it comes. Set aside some time to take in its gently shelving sands, which are framed by the wooded headlands and meadows.
Ready for a little rest? Mosey into the village of Crawfordsburn to warm up in The Old Inn, which is also a fine boutique hotel (doubles from £80 B&B) located on one of the island’s most ancient highways, leading from Holywood Priory to the Parent Abbey at Bangor.
You will find easy access to Helen’s Bay railway station if you wish to cut the walk short here. Otherwise, resume towards Orlock Point in Portavo via the seaside town of Bangor. Offering stunning views of the Copeland Islands, across the Irish Sea towards Scotland, the end of the trail doubles up as an enchanting mosaic of semi-natural habitats which support a rich medley of plants and animals.
Still kicking? A further two-mile amble down the coast to rest up at the supremely cosy Grace Neill’s in Donaghadee will seal the deal. Opened in 1611, it’s a perfectly secluded little inn to come into from out of the cold, sip a hot whiskey and reflect upon sore heels and a day well spent.
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