Best of the British countryside in December

From frozen rivers and snowy hilltops to magical winter wildlife, here are a few highlights to look out for in the British countryside this December.

Fox in snow
Published: December 1st, 2021 at 9:00 am
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December signals the start of winter. Snow falls, wildfowl and waders fill the waterways and the light sits low, creating multi-hued sunsets over frosty hills, farmland and mountains.

It's a festive month too, when twinkling Christmas lights fill Britain's villages and towns, and hot soups offer comfort and warmth after cold winter wanders.

We’ve come across some spectacular photography while putting together the December print issue of BBC Countryfile Magazine, from seal pups and frosty footpath to mistletoe and festive country houses.

Celebrate the weeks ahead with our pick of the best December highlights from the British countryside.

Spectacular solstice

Standing stones and stars
Stonehenge at night with starry Milky Way sky on the winter solstice/Credit: D. Lentz, Getty
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.

Seasonal snow

A woman walking along a snow covered suburban road
The average speed of a falling snowflake is 3–4mph/Credit: Stephen Hyde, Alamy

Did you know that the average speed of a falling snowflake is 3–4mph? However, some snowflakes – the really fast ones – can reach lightning speeds of 9mph or even 10mph. Also, freshly fallen snow absorbs sound waves. That is why our cities and countryside sound so hushed after a flurry. Not many people know that summertime snowbursts occur on Mars. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Chionophobia describes an intense fear of snow. There are other weather-related phobias, too, including astraphobia (thunderstorms) and ancraophobia (wind).

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Magical towns

Town in snow
The Georgian town of Stamford in winter/Credit: Travel Pix, Getty

The magnificently preserved Georgian town of Stamford earned its wealth from the 18th-century wool trade and its position halfway between London and York on the Great North Road. Sir Walter Scott deemed it “the finest stone town in England”.


Christmas tree harvest

Christmas tree harvest
Workers cut a Christmas tree for a customer in Scotland/Credit: Iain Masterton, Alamy

Workers at the Kilted Tree Company in Milnathort, Perth and Kinross, cut a Christmas tree specifically chosen by a customer. Christmas-tree delivery issues may mean more of us will have to go direct to the grower if we want a real tree to decorate in our homes this year.


Leaping fox

Fox in snow
Red fox jumping in the snow/Credit: John Conrad, Getty
“On a hill above a valley there was a wood. In the wood there was a huge tree. Under the tree there was a hole. In the hole live Mr Fox and Mrs Fox and their four Small Foxes.” Roald Dahl's words in Fantastic Mr Fox are so evocative that you practically feel like you're there with the fox family, digging and bounding in the snow.

These omnivorous mammals tend to only group together when they are raising their young. Once they are old enough to take care of themselves, foxes prefer to hunt and sleep alone. Look out for these lone rangers this winter – their fiery fur like small flames against a backdrop of monochrome hills and woods.


Illuminated villages

Countryside village at Christmas
Wander Clovelly's streets at Christmas/Credit: Terry Mathews, Alamy

The Christmas lights celebration in Clovelly is a joyful affair, with carol singing and a brass band procession down to the harbour, before the festive illuminations are turned on and fireworks sparkle over the cobbled streets of this pretty Devon fishing village.


Neolithic mounds

Neolithic hill in winter
Silbury Hill blanketed in snow/Credit: Tim Gainey, Alamy

This extraordinary landscape includes Silbury Hill, Wiltshire’s prehistoric chalk and turf ‘pyramid’, built by Neolithic people and the largest manmade hill in Europe. Conical, with a (possibly uncontemporary) flat top, it remains a commanding and mysterious presence, stolidly keeping its 4,700-year-old authority to itself. 


Winter birds

Bird in tree with berries
Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus, on a rowan tree/Credit: Mike Lane, Getty

Drupes (holly berries) from holly trees, rosehips, rowan berries and hawthorn berries provide red fruit for song and mistle thrushes, tits, fieldfares, blackbirds, redwings, waxwings (pictured) and finches during the winter months. 


Chilly nature reserves

Moss grows over an old stone wall
Moss grows over an old stone wall on Brook Vessons Nature Reserve, Shropshire/Credit: John Hayward, Alamy

If you're heading to Shropshire this winter, don’t miss the opportunity to explore secluded Brook Vessons Nature Reserve, rich in its own arboreal treasure, and home to bats and dormice to boot. You will find hollies here, but of particular note are the ancient crab apple, birch and rowan, sheltered from south-westerlies by the hill. The trees are grown-out hedges, remembering the miners’ old boundaries and tracks.


Festive folklore

Christmas lights in village
Chritsmas trees and lights at night in Pembridge. Herefordshire. England/Credit: Tim Gainey, Alamy

Where did wassailing originate and what does wassailing mean? This ancient tradition holds it roots in the south-west of England. Visit the region in winter and enjoy a short walk around the town of Pembridge, a place pivotal in the popularisation of the famous Christmas carol, Gloucestershire Wassail.


Owls on the hunt

Short-eared owl
Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) adult, in flight over snow/Credit: unknown, Alamy

Often active during the day, the short-eared owl – one of several owl species resident to the UK – is restricted as a breeding species to upland moorland and, occasionally, coastal grazing marsh. This latter habitat is often used in winter, when it may hunt alongside barn owls. Rather nomadic in its movement, the bird moves between Britain and overseas in response to vole numbers. Population: around 1,400 pairs.


Mistletoe in trees

Mistletoe in winter
Mistletoe clings to snow-covered trees in winter/Credit: Iryna Nazarova, Getty

Often found on broadleaved trees, mistletoe can grow into thick spherical balls up to one-metre wide. The most highly prized plants are those with fresh green leaves and plump white berries.


Frosty rivers

River Avon in Worcestershire
Wintertime along River Avon in Worcestershire/Credit: nagelestock.com, Alamy

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.


Grey seal pups

Grey seal pup, (Halichoerus grypus)
Grey seal pup, (Halichoerus grypus) in the sand dunes/Credit: unknown, Alamy

A newborn seal pup rolls on its back among the sand dunes. Seal pups survive on their mother’s rich milk for the first three weeks of life; they then go without food or water until they brave the sea.


Country houses

Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire at Christmas
Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire at Christmas/Credit: Susie Kearley, Alamy

Waddesdon Manor – one of Britain's most beautiful country houses – was built between 1874 and 1889 for British politician and banker Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild as a weekend retreat where he would throw summer parties for important guests.

Queen Victoria visited in 1890 and was most impressed by the electric lighting, repeatedly requesting it to be turned on and off. However, she refused to use the lift installed specifically for her visit because she didn’t quite trust the magic of electricity.


Snowy mountains

Corn Du heading for Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons National Park
Corn Du heading for Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons National Park/Credit: unknown, Getty

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 crunch of snow underfoot. 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 here on snow-shrouded Corn Du and Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons.


Cold coasts

Winter dawn breaking over the river Eske in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast
Winter dawn breaking over the River Eske in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast/Credit: Alamy

Situated on the North Yorkshire Coast, the seaside town of Whitby is a feast for the eye and perfect for a winter visit. The beautiful Whitby abbey towers over the town on top of the cliffs looking over the River Esk, which can be crossed by the swing bridge that opens up when passing boats come through.


Dawn walks

River Stour Dedham Vale Essex sussex
River Stour running through Dedham Vale on the Essex-Suffolk border/Credit: unknown, Getty

A dawn walk in the depths of winter offers so much beauty and mystery. You see the countryside in a completely new light, such as here along the River Stour in Dedham Vale on the Essex-Suffolk border, which is famously green and lush in summer. Creeping frost transforms the sullen and slumbering vegetation while extraordinary peach and plum tints exploding across the sky reflect in the still water. Magical.

St Mary the Virgin church in Cavendish

Whisky making

Whisky and barrels
Mark checks the hue of a liquor; the longer a whisky spends in the barrel, the darker its colour/Credit: Mark Unsworth

The story of single malt Scots whisky is an intoxicating tale – a heady mix of myths and legends, swirling beneath a dense veil of Scotch mist. One thing is certain: some of the most distinctive whiskies in Scotland emanate from the west-coast island of Islay, home to eight (soon to be nine) of Scotland’s 98 active distilleries.


Winter churches

Chapel Stile
Holy Trinity Church is built on the northern flank of the dramatic Great Langdale valley in the Lake District National Park/Credit: unknown, Getty

Perched at the mouth of Great Langdale in the midst of the Lake District is Chapel Stile, a small community of blue-grey stone buildings, raised from the slate quarries that surround it. 

On a rocky shelf overlooking the village is Holy Trinity Church, completed in 1858 on a site that has seen Christian worship for centuries. Like much of the village, the neo-Gothic-style building is made of local slate, giving the place a distinctly North-Wales flavour. 


December trains

North Yorkshire Moors Railway
North Yorkshire Moors Railway/Credit: John Hunt
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Icy rails and blustery snow won't stop the North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s Santa Special from winding its merry way to Levisham station, with the man himself on-board.

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