Winter Walking

by frankbeswick

A countryside walk in winter can be an enchanting experience, as the bare land reveals its character.

You have to pick your winter days, for some are definitely not for walking, though there are hardy souls seen striding across windy landscapes or over snow-shrouded moors. Some people relish their winter mountaineering, for the rough conditions are the challenge to which they must rise and test their mettle. But there are winter days when the sun shines and the weather is not too cold or wet, when we want to walk the stiffness out of our limbs or use up some of the calories that we have added; and these days, when a slight frostiness in their air nips our cheeks, make for lovely experiences.

Picture courtesy of Lindrik

The bones of the land.

Summer wears a garment, a green dress that proclaims  her loveliness, but hides her form, but as the year ebbs away the greenery fades and the stark features of the land are revealed. The deciduous trees have months-since shed their leaves and stand skeletal in the pale  landscape, their branches brown against the stark blue sky.It is on these bare trees that the winter allows us to see the mistletoe, normally hidden by the greenery. In rural Worcestershire, in the English West Midlands, one December I walked along an English country lane in whose  winding hedgerows trees were adorned with mistletoe clumps at their highest points. Mistletoe evokes ancestral memories of our druid forebears,   making you feel in touch with Britain's past when you see mistletoe still flourishing in our ancient land. 

I love the winter sunlight. My mind roams back over the years to a January day in Cumbria,  in years when that lovely country was not beset by floods that wreck homes and ruin businesses. The morning had dawned totally clear and I  set off from my climbing hut  in Langdale,near the centre of the Lake District, to ascend the crags. The sky was ice-blue, and the sun, rising in the East was behind me, so there was no glare to dazzle my eyes. Having ascended to the top of Crinkle Crags, I took in the view. The air was clear of mist, as the Summer's haze was off the land, leaving the air with crystal clarity. The atmosphere was so clear that from this vantage I could see as far  as Southern Scotland and the Isle of Man, serried ranges of rock rolling into  the distance. The thin light makes the distinctive winter scene.

Gerald Manley Hopkins, writing in his poem Inversnaid,  said it well when he spoke of a "beadbonny ash" and the groins [field walls] of the braes [hillsides] being degged and dappled with dew. This priest and poet  had hiked up the Scottish hillside to a fast flowing burn  [Scottish and Northern English for stream]  that cascaded down to a loch via a dark pool, and he tried to  give voice to his experience in poetry. His invented word, beadbonny, tried to capture the beauty of an ash tree that caught the sunlight in the droplets of rain or condensation that dripped from it  and scattered them in a tiny glitter of light by which the dew droplets bedeck the land around them. Spiders' webs also catch the sunlight in their dewy covering and  redistribute it, answering the sun with a  reflected sparkling, Earth's chorus to the blessing of the sun. 

Dunham Massey

Dunham Massey, in north Cheshire,  is one of  Britain's deer parks and is one of my favourite places, a place of gentle Winter walking. The home of the Earls Grey, famous for Earl and Lady Grey tea, which are both still sold in the lovely cafe,  it has a herd of fallow deer that roam through what is Trafford's only mediaeval deer park. It was held by a Saxon thane until the Norman conquest in 1066, and was then handed over to a Norman, so it has been an estate for over a thousand years.  You see the occasional white stag amongst the herd. A white hart [old word for deer] was for the Saxons a creature of almost mythical significance. We quite often walk through the park on a Sunday afternoon. Much of the park is  being managed for improved tree growth, and several areas are fenced to prevent the deer eating the bark of the saplings, but the other areas are retained as open space for the deer, which thrive in a woodland environment. The deer are concealed among the summer greenery, though you can sometimes peer  to see a stag resting on the ground, but in Winter when the leaves are shed it is far easier to see these creatures.  You can be walking along the paths when a herd of fallow deer race  across in front of  you and soon stop to graze. They stand their distance, observing humans with some interest, but no intimacy

But there are other park inhabitants. One winter's day I was delighted to  see a heron standing motionless by one of the small lakes. A powerful sight. A winter walk by the moat, which has been modified into a lake, will show coots and moor fowl, ducks of various species and geese, and as ever the portenders of Winter storms, gulls flocking inland in abundance ahead of the coming winds and shrieking their complaints to all who will listen. 

But there are signs of  the passage of time.We pass the site of a fallen tree and its broken stump, in Summer it is shrouded by bracken, but in winter when the bracken has died down the tree is still there, but smaller. Years ago our infant children used to scramble and play on it, but over the years it has slowly dissolved back into the Earth, eaten by bugs and fungi, and the children are now adults. We become acutely aware of the passage of the years. That's Winter, a metaphor for the cycle of life. All things return to the Earth, but there is hope, as the cycle swings round. As I write this the year has turned, the winter solstice come and gone, and the days growing longer.

Dunham Massey

Dunham Massey
Dunham Massey

Walking the Winter Mountains.

The most memorable part of Winter mountaineering is  snow, but the walks of earlier years fall into a confusion of memories. The places are clear enough, but the dates are forgotten. I can recall one time when we walked up  the Glyders, in Snowdonia,  whose jumbled boulder field was shrouded  by a thick layer of snow. The path upward was past the Devil's Kitchen, Twll Dhu, a dark cleft through which water surges down from the summit. There is a climbing route, but only in Summer, and this time the cascade was hanging with icicles. We took the alternative and safer route, the footpath that rises steadily to the higher slopes of the mountain. You have to be wary as you tread, for the summits have small hanging valleys, tiny U-shaped stream beds, residues of the pre-glacial drainage of the hill, whose streamlets cascade in Summer over the dark wall of the Cwm. I was not careful enough and put my foot through the ice into the stream bed below. Wringing out your sock at 3000 feet in snowy weather is a chilly experience. We ambled round the summit and  walked across the saddle to Glydr Vawr. The misty air limited the view, but the majesty of the Winter mountain takes you out of your human comfort zone, to the edge of habitabilty, to a place where humans pay fleeting visits and then retreat. The Winter mountain is real wilderness. We need it but cannot stay long in its presence. We  descended to the safety of the valley, stopping at the Tea Shack for a cup of steaming tea and a burger.

Yet some walks are memorable for what went wrong. Three of us, two males and a female, once walked into the south Carneddau, divided from the Glydrs by the Ogwen Valley. The white magnificence of the hills entranced us, but the group leader navigated wrongly and as the snow storm swirled away visibility to a few yards he misread the route and took us into the uninhabited part of the range with evening falling. Once we recovered our bearings in the fading light, we were faced with three choices:  go back over the mountain, go the long route round it, or stay the night on the hill, but the last would have meant the mountain rescue team being alerted. But my legs were too tired for the former, so we took the long trek round the mountain. We managed to return to the climbing hut just before our panicking friends telephoned the rescue team to report us missing. The drinks in a warm bar were welcome that night, but next day my legs felt like stone. Lessons learned!.

Yet there are times when the air is clear and the snow is light. One time in Langdale,Cumbria,  we, the Beswick family,  walked up to Stickle Tarn and on the way found a snow bank. The children piled in and soon the children of other families joined in the fun, leaping and rolling down the bank, throwing snowballs and having a really good time. Purists might complain about the pristine beauty of the snow being spoiled, but by the end of the day there were several happy children whose  family walks had produced unexpected fun.      

Winter by the shore

The shore is a special place in Winter, but it is an environment in which visitors should tread carefully, for in stormy conditions waves can overwhelm the unwary. Even in seaside resorts with sea defences there are memories of casualties, not all of them walkers, being swept  to their deaths by storm waves.  

Yet the shore is a liminal place. For our pagan forebears liminal places were those where two worlds met: mountain tops, wells, caves, and shores. Headlands were particularly significant, as they can be where Earth, sea and sky meet, and the power of the wind is keenly felt. For pagans these were sacred places,where humans sense the presence of the Other.  I once walked along Black Head on the south side of Galway Bay, Western Ireland, a bare, rocky shore bearing one road and little habitation, with the bay to the north and the barren limestone lands of the Burren inland of me. I climbed to the top of the headland and surveyed the barren limestone karst, a harsh land unrelenting to humans in Winter and then in the light of a crystal clear sky I looked over the bay to Galway and the cold,barren hills of  Connemara in the far distance. A Winter stroll on the Burren that rolled away eastwards in grey silence was shortened by the fading evening light, so I returned to the campsite and sausages cooked on the campfire. 

After a storm the shore has lapsed from a place of terror to one of relief. The huge swells that crash ashore and roll up to the sea walls and beyond are past. The air is still and the sense of calm is heightened by the recollection of the previous day's or night's storm. The land is  beadbonny with wet droplets sparkling their response to the sunlight,  and the shore is scattered with seaweed and flotsam, remnants of nets and pots, and the detritus of human life. Michael Viney, an Englishman who dwelt with his Irish wife on the Atlantic coast at the foot  of Mweelrea mountain, writing in A Year's Turning, tells how the couple used to wake at dawn after a storm to fill their freezer with fish washed ashore. This lovely little book begins with the image of a windy shore, where sandy skeins are whipped up by the wind and wavelets scurry across the surfaces of the shallow pools, while the wind sings its accompaniment to the dancing of the waters. 


When I have finished this article we are heading for Dunham Massey, for a walk in the deer park, followed by lunch at a local inn. It will be wet and muddy, and the stream that we cross on the narrow footbridge will still be in spate. The bucks  will be bounding through the park to keep warm, and the hinds will be huddled together.   We have some vouchers for a meal at the nearby inn, a Christmas present from our daughter in Anglesey. We should have been going to see her today, but the main roads through North Wales are cut by floods, so plans had to be changed and we fell back onto one of our favourite walks. The fallen tree will have dissolved a little bit more, marking the passing of the years, but the lengthening of the days says that the depth of Winter has passed.  

Updated: 01/21/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 11/21/2023

I believe that there is a small number of mistletoe farms, but much of it is foraged wild in western England.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/21/2023

The first paragraph to the first subheading, The bones of the land, describes mistletoe as suddenly visible because of the winter-barren trees.

Might that mistletoe stay in the trees or must it be collected by those who sell holiday mistletoe?

In other words, would mistletoe purchased on your, eastern-pond side be from mistletoe farms -- as they are on this, eastern-pond side -- or from the wild?

frankbeswick on 11/21/2023

Climate change. Hurricanes in the Americas cause streams of warm air to cross the Atlantic, picking up moisture as they go, which precipitated on Cumbria.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/20/2023

The second sentence in the second paragraph to your first subheading, The bones of the land, considers that "My mind roams back over the years to a January day in Cumbria, in years when that lovely country was not beset by floods that wreck homes and ruin businesses."

Why does Cumbria suffer from floods now even as that county escaped such environmental catastrophe in the past?

frankbeswick on 09/15/2016

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frankbeswick on 05/21/2016

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Mira on 05/21/2016

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frankbeswick on 05/21/2016

I have used a variety of boots over the years,and currently I use a Johnscliffe boot, an English brand, which has a hard heel. Can you obtain a bandage that will protect your heel? If you can get one, apply it to keep the gel pads in place. Good luck.

Mira on 05/21/2016

This was a nice, pleasant read about appreciating nature in winter. What boots do you use on your hikes though? I find the ones with a hard back (at the heel) chafe my skin. I tried using gel pads (the kind that you stick onto the inside of the boot), but they come unstuck.

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