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9 January 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 5:40am

How to make the most of winter walking

A good winter walk can be found almost anywhere, and the rules are few - but worth observing.

By John Burnside

One of the foremost pleasures of moving to a new place is the search for a good winter walk. Oddly, this is easier to do in a city than in the suburbs, while the countryside varies from paradise to Slough of Despond, depending on the territorial instincts of nearby landowners. When I lived in Surrey, my strolls led through mature woods scented with beech mast and wood smoke, up Gilbert White’s celebrated zigzag at Selborne in Hampshire, or over chalky ridges on paths lined with silvery old man’s beard, in pursuit of Chaucer’s voluble pilgrims. These first outings involved a preliminary drive and I quickly settled on a route through less historical, but equally rewarding woodlands.

Other locations present more of a challenge, but a good winter walk can be found almost anywhere. Any city with a botanical garden offers its own satisfactions: coming across a stand of Hamamelis in the middle of winter, with its abundance of sweetly scented, sulphur-yellow flowers, is one of the great pleasures of winter walking in public gardens. Old allotments, edgelands and canal paths offer similar beauties, and in winter, wind-pollinated plants are always worthy of close inspection: our common hazel, for instance, offers the casual walker not only its elegant catkins, but also a delicate cerise flower, whose intricacies are best observed en route through a hand magnifying glass.

Hazels are usually found coppiced, alongside bridleways and footpaths, but if allowed to grow freely they reach heights of 12 feet and more, and were once a source of nourishment for walkers and pilgrims. Indeed, the discovery of a good winter walk can be the beginning of a lifetime of happy foraging: hazelnuts, blackberries, sloes, deciduous plants good for soups and seasonings, and groves of Castanea sativa that, ever since they were introduced by the Romans, have delivered a harvest of sweet chestnuts, rich in minerals and vitamins.

Another advantage of cities is the old-fashioned graveyard with its mature trees and abundant ground flora. When I first moved to Berlin, I was lucky enough to find a cemetery full of broadleaved trees, with narrow pathways leading down to a deep pond lined with evergreens and ornamental conifers. A graveyard walk may not afford rich pickings to the forager, but research suggests there are still health benefits to be gained. One study claimed that a timely reminder of mortality “can motivate people to enhance their physical health and prioritise growth-oriented goals”. For me, this awareness becomes palpable in winter: it is reassuring to know that, as swaths of fallen leaves and nuts and bodies of birds and small animals go down to enrich the soil, so do the human dead, entering into the same cycle of decay and regeneration.

The rules for a good winter walk are few but they are worth observing. It is important to find a route that can be repeated easily, close to home, if possible, and not too vulnerable to a property owner’s whims. This allows for the gradual development of a deep relationship with a specific tract of land, a relationship potentially as rewarding as a long friendship. Things change on the land from day to day, season to season, or decade to decade – and a good walker becomes a vigilant observer who, in league with others of her kind, can sometimes prevent the harm done to the Earth by this society’s outmoded and, in the minds of many, unjustifiable system of land ownership.

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More important still is to pay attention to the finer details; there is as much to see and taste on a winter’s day as there is in summer, but it doesn’t just offer itself up: it has to be sought out. In short, a winter’s walk is a kind of quest; and as every attentive wayfarer knows, every quest becomes a blessing, sooner or later.

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue