Get outdoors this Christmas: best activities, walks and experiences
Whether stargazing somewhere magical or roasting chestnuts over a bonfire, here is a selection of the best outdoor activities to enjoy in the British countryside over the festive season.
The festive season is a joyous time, a chance to celebrate with family and friends. But when the endless shopping, cooking, baking, entertaining and family politics takes its toll, it's time to get outdoors and into the winter landscape.
Just being outside in the quiet woodlands, listening to the crunch of the frosty ground underfoot, being surrounded by tall beeches or gnarly oaks, reminds us – in the best way – that Christmas doesn't really matter. Walking to the top of a hill, feeling the nip of the wind against our cheeks, invites contemplation for the year that's passed... along with a little wrapped-up Christmas pudding and a dram of something warming.
So, be it stargazing and winter wildlife-watching or roasting chestnuts over a bonfire in the back garden, there are plenty of revitalising outdoor activities to enjoy in the British countryside in December and beyond. Helen Moat gives us her best suggestions below.
Christmas activities, walks and experiences
Experience the Winter Solstice
The hibernal solstice marks midwinter and the shortest day of the year, 21 December. To catch the full extent of daylight, rise at night to see the sunrise. There’s something magical about striding out in the pre-dawn, torch in hand. Your sense of hearing and smell is heightened in the dark: the snap of twig, rustle of wildlife and smell of mulched vegetation intensified. As the sky lightens, watch the land take on colour and definition, then wait for the sunrise to reveal the landscape at your feet. If you feel ambitious, journey to the ancient site of Stonehenge (pictured) to mark this special time of year.
Embrace the weather
Snow is never guaranteed in December, but if it falls, abandon the car and step out on foot. This is the time to relinquish all duties and make the most of a British rarity. Go sledging, build a snowman, create a snow angel or have a snowball fight. Take long walks and enjoy the sound of crunchy footsteps. Admire frosted trees, branches lined in white and caught with buds of snow. If there is no fall where you are, take public transport to higher land and climb the hills until you reach the snowline, such as along a snow-shrouded Corn Du and Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons.
Build a bonfire and roast chestnuts
Christmas markets are filled with the smoky smell of roasting chestnuts. The scent of charred shell and soft bite of the steaming nut inside belong to the festive season, but they taste even better in the countryside. Find a river or lakeside beach and gather fallen wood to build a bonfire. Once the flames have died down, wash the chestnuts in river water, score each one, then place in a roasting pan or wrap in tin foil and cook over the fire. When the shells begin to split and the insides are soft, they’re ready to eat. Enjoy with spicy sausage and crusty bread.
Watch wading birds
This is a rich time of year for both non-migratory and overwintering wading birds in the UK – and the clear skies and low sun offer fantastic photographic opportunities. The RSPB has a host of wetland sites across the country where you can watch waterfowl and waders. Find a sheltering hide on a coastal marsh or beach and look out for winter waders: oystercatchers, dunlins and plovers or waterfowl such as wigeons, teal, mallards and shelducks. Spot lapwings and curlews (pictured) on the edge of wetlands, keeping warm with a hot toddy in your hideaway. Alternatively, head for the peaceful solitude of the woods to watch finches, tits and other native woodland birds.
Hike the coast
Blow the cobwebs away with a windswept coastal walk. At the northern reaches of Britain, where the wild Atlantic hits the wall of the North Sea at Duncansby Head, beacons strung across the mainland and the Orkneys flash warning in the haar. This cold sea fog is sure to dash the festive fug away. At the other end of the country, in northern Cornwall, Atlantic waves crash against rocky headlands, while in between, the atmospheric whip of wing and harsh honk of goose fill the chilled air of coastal wetlands. Head to the sea to cast off seasonal stupor and to feel alive again.
Wrap up for a frosty morning stroll
A frosted landscape on a sub-zero winter morning is extraordinarily beautiful. Feel the crunch of ice underfoot and watch your breath smoke the air. Stroll along riverbanks, lakesides or ponds, their surfaces steaming in the early morning light. Walk along a frozen canal and smile at waterfowl slipping and sliding on the frozen surface. Climb above a valley to experience an inversion mist, the valley floor shrouded in fog while the sun shines brightly on top. Rising early to walk through the winter silvers of frost and mist is an invigorating start to the day.
Long December nights offer the chance to explore more of the northern hemisphere skies. Find a local Dark Sky Site – where light pollution is minimal – or travel to an International Dark Site Place, then download an app to help you identify winter constellations such as Orion, Taurus and Gemini. From the Isle of Coll, Galloway Forest Park and Moffat in Scotland, and Kielder Water & Forest Park in Northumberland (pictured at Freya’s Cabin), you have a chance of seeing the Northern Lights, too. In England and Wales search out the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and Exmoor, or Sark on the Channel Islands, for star-studded skies and thrilling meteor showers on clear nights.
For more information, visit darkskydiscovery.org.uk
Sing carols by candlelight
Many of our villages look enchanting at Christmas, decorated with traditional fir trees and fairylights. Stroll through the villages of Scotland’s Royal Deeside, surrounded by the snow-capped Cairngorms. Enjoy the softer honey-hued cottages of the Cotswold villages, tucked into rolling hills. Find a bijou village church of colourful stained glass and carved pews and join in a candlelight carol service. For something different, explore the brightly decorated Derbyshire village of Castleton beneath Mam Tor and sing with a brass band in Peak Cavern, or join a festive concert at Treak Cliff Cavern with its semi-precious Blue John.
Create natural Christmas decorations
Old traditions are sometimes lost in the commercialisation of Christmas, so there’s something deeply satisfying about creating simple decorations from nature’s bounty. Head for a mixed woodland to gather materials to make a Christmas wreath, or find greenery to hang from mantlepieces or picture rails. Look for pine cones on the forest floor and wind-lopped fir branches. Pick rosehips and wizened seed heads, ivy and holly bright with red berries. Wander down paths carpeted with pine needles, breathe in the scent of evergreens and enjoy the shafts of light that fall in clearings.
Savour a winter picnic
The days may be chilly but there’s no reason to forgo the delights of a winter picnic. Pack flasks of homemade soup, hot chocolate or mulled wine for your winter walk. Revel in a favourite seasonal activity, such as storm-watching on the coast or spotting snowy-white mountain hares on Britain’s uplands. Photograph winter landscapes for homemade Christmas cards, or brave a December swim if you feel daring, before settling down on a picnic rug for warming food and drink, wrapped in
a fleecy blanket.
Help those in need
Christmas is a time for giving and a time to extend goodwill to others. Offer to take a housebound neighbour’s dog for a walk. Accompany an elderly relative on a short stroll in the countryside. Help infirm members of your community by offering to clear their paths and driveways of snow and ice. Borrow the children of busy parents and teach them how to identify animal tracks or build dens in the woods – and find your inner child. In providing these services that take you out into the countryside, you will rediscover the simpler joys of the season and the mental-health benefits that come with being out in the fresh air.
Learn more about helping neighbours from the Royal Voluntary Service: royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk
Helen is the author of Slow Travel The Peak District, Bradt and A Time of Birds, Saraband, a memoir and travelogue describing her journey across Europe to Istanbul on her sit-up-and-beg bike.