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 2021. Whether it's cycling, dog walking, volunteering, fishing or wildlife watching, get outside, get active and feel the body benefits this winter
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.
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 2021.
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 2020 the year you up your intake of fresh country air, in ways that leave you happier, springier, healthier and wiser.
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.
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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.
• 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.
• Don’t wait for spring, or summer. Start today. And don’t let rain put you off.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Our expert dog walking guide offers training tips to ensure your dog behaves beautifully – allowing you to enjoy yourself more, too!
There are few more immersive experiences of the natural world than standing up to your waist in a river.
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
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 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
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.
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
Rather than lounging on the beach this year, why not try something more active, for mind and body?
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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