How to get active in the British countryside in the New Year

Breathe some fresh air into the New Year with our guide on the best ways to get active in the countryside in 2020. Whether it's cycling, dog walking, volunteering, fishing or wildlife watching, get outside, get active and feel the body benefits this winter

Hiking, Scotland, Walking, Group Of People, Hill

Do you spend winter yearning for spring and the return of long days in the countryside? We instinctively know that time spent outdoors is good for us – sunlight, activity and a dose of clean air provide a welcome detox if you live in a polluted city. Unfortunately, many of us find that by the end of the summer, we haven’t really spent as much time outdoors as we hoped. Then December brings long nights, and with them the epic feasting of Christmas and new year.

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From wintery walks to country pubs, windswept beaches and generally getting outdoors as much as possible, here is our guide on the best ways to get active and enjoy time spent in the countryside in 2020.

By January, you may be feeling cooped up, heavy and restless. You need a plan. It’s time to get your diary out and work out when and how you are going to change things this year. So make 2019 the year you up your intake of fresh country air, in ways that leave you happier, springier, healthier and wiser.

"A very cold winter morning begins at St Oswalds bay on the world heritage coastline of Dorset/Credit: Getty Images

Here are just a few ways to help you get into the habit of spending time outdoors this year. Some are more active than others, some may be familiar or new to you, but all bring you lungfuls of fresh air, and the special, soothing properties that the countryside offers.

Petworth Park in the heart of the South Downs National Park, West Sussex ©Alamy
Crisp crunchy frost underfoot, bright, sharp air in your lungs: energise body and soul with a bracing walk on a winter’s morning in Petworth Park in the heart of the South Downs National Park, West Sussex ©Alamy

Walking part 1: How to set a daily challenge

For most of us, walking is the easiest way to exercise in the fresh air. Even if time is tight, here are some ways to make room in your life for a stroll. 

Family Walking Dog Through Winter Woodland
Make time for a short walk ©Getty Images

• Set yourself a little daily challenge. Walk all or part of your route to work, to the shops, or other regular journeys you make. If you can, go out after breakfast every day, or walk up a hill to watch the sunset. Step counters may be a help. Wear one on your wrist to keep track of your daily activity. Many will set you a daily target automatically; 10,000 steps is a good target for many of us. 

• Keep it local; if you plan to travel for every walk, they won’t happen so often. If you live in a city, you may be surprised at the green routes you can find by canals, riversides and in parks. 

• Choose one day a week to do a longer walk. Make a list of walks that are no more than an hour’s journey from your home, stick it to the fridge, and work your way down the list. 

• Walk with a friend or neighbour; you’ll encourage each other to keep going. 

• Join a walking group; to find one near you, go to walkingforhealth.org.uk; ramblers.org.uk; walkni.com, or for longer distances ldwa.org.uk.

• Don’t wait for spring, or summer. Start today. And don’t let rain put you off. 

Walking groups: how to find and join a walking group

From improving your health and fitness to making new friends, joining a walking group has many benefits.

Our guide on walking groups looks at the many benefits of rambling with others and how to find and join a walking club in your local area

Walkers in woodland

Walking part 2: How to take on a big challenge

Set a goal to get training for: choose a long-distance route, a mountain or hill to climb. It doesn’t have to be a beast; something gentler may suit you better, but make it a challenge. 

Snowdonia’s stately mountains offer the perfect ‘big challenge’, jaw-dropping views and an unbeatable sense of achievement ©Getty
Snowdonia’s stately mountains offer the perfect ‘big challenge’, jaw-dropping views and an unbeatable sense of achievement ©Getty

Find the most spectacular picture of your destination you can find and stick it on the fridge door or make it your home screen on your phone. Put the date in the diary and book your B&B. 

UK’s best easy mountains and peaks for beginners

Sometimes, the prospect of climbing to the top of a mountain can be a little intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be – discover some of Britain’s best mountains and peaks with our guide to the top easy climbs for beginner hikers.

Man running on grassy road in mountains

Make sure you have all the gear you need, including effective waterproofs, sturdy, comfortable walking shoes and a lightweight backpack. 

Tell everyone what you’re doing. You could even do it to fundraise for charity. Then the sheer embarrassment of backing out will make you stick to your plans, even when the temptation to shirk is strongest. 


Wildlife watching 

Time spent watching wildlife has a soothing effect. You switch off your phone, quieten down and slowly sync to the rhythms of the world around you. 

Birdwatching ©Getty
Birdwatching ©Getty

Visit a wetland or woodland and you may become absorbed in the plash and flutter of teeming birdlife, the hum of insects, the stealthy dart of small mammals. All that close observation brings its rewards: you soon begin to understand the intricate relations that bind the place together and define its character. 

Britain’s best winter wildlife spectacles

Winter is the season to enjoy some of nature’s greatest wonders. Here is our guide to Britain’s most impressive winter wildlife spectacles, plus some of the best wilder sounds to listen out for in the darker months.

Barn owl in winter

You may soon find yourself hooked on identifying bird species and recording sightings; enjoying the thrill of seeing something rare. It’s not for everyone. The roamers out there may be restless after long hours in hides, but you won’t know until you try. 

So buy or borrow some binoculars, pull on your wellies and your warmest coat, pocket a field guide, a flask and sandwiches, and head for your nearest nature reserve for the day. 

• The RSPB runs guided walks on its many nature reserves, where local experts explain how these complex habitats tick. rspb.org.uk/walks

• The Wildlife Trust holds thousands of events across the country every year, from guided walks to pond-dipping and bat-spotting. wildlifetrusts.org/events


Dog walking

Buy or borrow one; either way, get yourself a dog. It’s guaranteed to get you outdoors in the fresh air every day, in all weathers. There’s something infectious about a dog’s pleasure at being released into the outdoors. But are humans really so different? After all, time spent in the open air can change your day for the better. 

A hiker and their dog exploring the Scottish Countryside ©Getty
Strengthen the bond with your pooch, walk off seasonal excesses and really experience nature – it’s time for walkies ©Getty Images

If you can’t commit to owning your own dog, you might consider walking a neighbour’s dog. There are lots of people out there who aren’t able to get out as often as they would wish. Here are some organisations who can put you in touch with dogs who need walking.

• Become an RSPCA dog-walking volunteer. rspca.org.uk/voluntary_dog_walking

• Cinnamon Trust helps elderly and terminally ill people take care of their pets. cinnamon.org.uk

• Make it official through Borrow My Doggy. borrowmydoggy.com

Dog walking guide: expert training tips to help your dog behave

A long dog walk in the countryside should be a relaxing activity for both you and your dog. Unfortunately, not all dogs are well-behaved on country walks, which can be both stressful and dangerous.

Our expert dog walking guide offers training tips to ensure your dog behaves beautifully – allowing you to enjoy yourself more, too!

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Fishing

There are few more immersive experiences of the natural world than standing up to your waist in a river. 

Try your hand at fishing ©Getty
Try your hand at fishing ©Getty

Of course, there are less wet ways to go fishing, but whether you are on a quayside or the bank of a canal this is one of the most absorbing ways of spending time in the outdoors. The challenge of catching something elusive, barely glimpsed beneath the shimmering surface – of decoding the secrets of the river – lures anglers through long hours of sunshine and showers, until they return home, red-cheeked and happy. Or grieving the one that got away. 

• Find hints and beginners’ tips at canalrivertrust.org.uk/learn-to-fish


Environmental volunteering 

If you like the idea of working outdoors in woodlands, on beaches or riverbanks, this will appeal to you. You don’t need specialist knowledge; just time, and a good pair of wellies. Much of the work isn’t strenuous; you might be asked to identify plants in a nature reserve, pick up litter, pull up weeds or clear footpaths. You may even get the chance to learn a skill, such as hedge-laying, coppicing, haymaking or drystone walling. 

Volunteers for Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust maintaining river bed at Lemsford Springs © Katie Davey
Volunteers for Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust maintaining river bed at Lemsford Springs © Katie Davey

Volunteers often find the work itself therapeutic. On top of that, there is the company of others and a rewarding sense of belonging, not to mention the feeling that your hard work has made the world that bit better. The following organisations will help you find the right opportunity for you. 

• Find out more about volunteering with your local Wildlife Trust, including current opportunities, at wildlifetrusts.org/volunteer

• With The Conservation Volunteers, the emphasis is on community: ‘Join in, feel good’. You can even join a Green Gym, where the focus is on boosting fitness. Many of its projects are in urban spaces. tcv.org.uk

• The Woodland Trust manages 1,000 sites around the UK. Find out more about how you can help preserve woodlands at woodlandtrust.org.uk/volunteer-with-us

• Help keep the 2,000 miles of English waterways clean by volunteering for The Canal and River Trust. canalrivertrust.org.uk/volunteer

Volunteering guide: how to get involved with wildlife, conservation and environmental projects

The countryside relies heavily on volunteers to help with conservation and environmental projects such as litter picking, wildlife spotting, tree planting and building habitats. Here is our guide on volunteering opportunities in the British countryside.

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Cycling 

Cycling gives you an exhilarating sense of freedom that four-wheeled travel can’t match; you’re in the landscape rather than watching it behind glass; you’re breathing the air and hearing the birdsong. Even novice cyclists can travel good distances, so you get a strong sense of having explored a landscape. And at the end of the day, there’s the pride that you’ve powered your own journey.  

Forest of Dean cycling ©Getty
Forest of Dean cycling ©Getty

Cycling is relatively low-impact exercise, compared to walking or trail running, so If your knees are a bit dodgy, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to rack up plenty of miles in the saddle. 

If you’re not planning to go off-road, any bike will do, provided you have good brakes, grippy tyres, and a few gears to make the hills more manageable. If you haven’t got a bike of your own, they are quite easy to rent. 

• Learn more about the National Cycle Network and search routes across the UK at sustrans.org.uk.

• Try cycling with one of Britain’s hundreds of cycling clubs or find a free HSBC UK Guided Ride with a local leader at britishcycling.org.uk/clubs

Beginner’s guide to cycling in Britain: best places to ride and how to stay safe

Our beginner’s guide to cycling in the British countryside offers tips on choosing a suitable bike, best places to ride and how to stay safe while cycling. 

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Fresh-air breaks

Rather than lounging on the beach this year, why not try something more active, for mind and body?

Yoga retreats

Not just a good stretch, yoga is the ultimate anti-ageing elixir for body and mind, offering flexibility, strength and revitalising relaxation in one seamless package. From energetic Ashtanga to meditative Yin, there’s a style of yoga to suit every temperament. Practising asanas (poses) in peaceful countryside offers the maximum calming benefits. 

Group of women from a sports boot camp sitting on their exercise mats listening to the fitness instructor ©Getty
Yoga on the beach ©Getty

With a sustainability focus, ecoYoga on the shores of Loch Awe in the Highlands offers four-night retreats throughout the year; ecoyoga.org. Combine yoga with wild swimming on the isle of Anglesey on a two- or five-day retreat;thezestlife.co.uk. For more options, see nealsyardholidays.com


Farm holidays 

Witness the life of a farmer by staying on a working farm. Many breaks include the chance of a tour around the farm and to feed the animals; farmstay.co.uk

Lori de Mori WOOFING at Cusgarne Organic Farm, Cornwall ©World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
Lori de Mori WWOOFING at Cusgarne Organic Farm, Cornwall ©World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

For a more hands-on experience, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF UK) offers volunteers the chance to work on the land, and stay on one of 600 UK farms, gardens or smallholdings. You’ll get food and accommodation in return. See wwoof.org.uk


Walking holidays 

Plan your own route, or let someone else take the strain. Supported walking breaks make holidays that little bit easier. Organisers carry your luggage while you travel light from place to place. They also book your accommodation, provide the routes and other support. Organisers include Footpath Holidays (footpath-holidays.com), Contours Walking Holidays (contours.co.uk) and the Walking Holiday Company (thewalkingholidaycompany.co.uk). 

Guided walking group on hillside track heading toward Storey Arms in the Brecon Beacons National Park ©Getty
Guided walking group on hillside track heading toward Storey Arms in the Brecon Beacons National Park ©Getty

Guided walking holidays involve groups led by guides. Providers include HF Holidays, which has bases in 18 country houses around the UK; hfholidays.co.uk


Learn a traditional craft 

Wildwomen ©Marieke McBean
Wildwomen ©Marieke McBean
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From basket-weaving to woodcarving, chair-making or bushcraft (pictured), hundreds of courses take place daily in the countryside. Some, especially woodland craft or traditional rural skills such as hurdle-making, are held in the open air. Find out more at craftcourses.com