Has the novelty of a prescribed stroll long since worn off? From tracking animals to uncovering hidden history, here’s how to discover a new world in your neighbourhood…
The weather is rubbish, there is nowhere to go and, bereft of the joys of spring, the daily lockdown walk can feel pointless. But, of course, it is not: the mental and physical health perks of exercise are immune to seasonal changes. We need to gallivant around outside in daylight so that our circadian rhythms can regulate sleep and alertness. (Yes, even when the sky is resolutely leaden, it is still technically daylight.) Walking warms you up, too; when you get back indoors, it will feel positively tropical.
But if meeting these basic needs isn’t enough to enthuse you, there are myriad ways to add purpose to your stride and draw your attention to the underappreciated joys of winter walking.
Even Alex Strauss, the author of The Mindful Walker, has to tackle her resistance to get out on wild winter days. Sometimes, she says, “it takes a few mind games to get motivated. When it’s cold, when it’s grey, instead of saying you’re going to go out and do a 40-minute walk, allow yourself to say: ‘I’m going to do five minutes.’ Your brain is much less likely to resist that. Then, once you’re out there, it often turns into a longer walk.”
Spot winter birds
“It’s a big misconception that not a lot goes on in winter,” says the Springwatch presenter Megan McCubbin, who will be gracing our screens again from 19 January on BBC Two with her stepdad, Chris Packham, in Winterwatch. Plus, it is easier to spot birds in leafless trees. “There are some amazing winter spectacles to see, if it’s safe to do so within regulations. One of my favourites is the starling murmurations. The birds come together in their hundreds, if not thousands, in particular areas across the UK – for safety in numbers, as they’re going in to roost. They perform the most amazing synchronised movements in the sky.”Advertisementhttps://1850ba17b24698eaff0bc86018758f06.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
If you can get to open fields at dusk, you might spot “the beautiful white silhouettes of barn owls hunting along the hedgerows and across fields”, she says. “While our summer and spring visitors might have left on their migration, we’ve got a lot of winter visitors.” Waxwings come to the UK for some relief from freezing Russia and their fluffy crests and waxy red wing markings make them “one of the most attractive visitors we get. We often see them around car parks and in urban trees.”
Take a story walk
The Echoes interactive “sound walks” app contains audio made by artists, musicians, authors and historians around the world, with content triggered by GPS or Apple iBeacons along the route. The musical soundtrack for a Gloucestershire country walk – or a murder mystery in Coventry, or the stories of the forgotten bodies in Bath’s 19th-century workhouse burial ground – unfolds as you go.
Try mindful walking
A salve for the soul … mindfulness can slow our heart rate and reduce anxiety. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images
Being mindful, says Strauss, “just means to be present, focused and aware of your internal and external landscapes in any given moment. When we bring mindfulness into the equation, we take everything up a notch in terms of benefits. We know that mindfulness can slow our heart rate and reduce anxiety and depression.” When we are mindful during exercise, our workout is more effective. One of the easiest ways to “drop into mindfulness” while walking, she says, is to listen to your footsteps. “I like to do a little activity where I breathe in for four steps, hold my breath for about four steps – whatever feels comfortable – and then exhale for four steps,” she says. This takes a little concentration, but it allows you to release the extraneous thoughts in your head and live in the present.
Give yourself a mission
Winter is a surprisingly good time of year to practise mindfulness outside, says Strauss: “The fact that the natural world is partly dormant can prompt us to turn our attention inward more. Things tend to come into sharper focus in the outdoors.” It is the perfect season, therefore, to try a “mindful mission”. Once you are “quiet inside” from the breathing exercise outlined earlier, “notice five things in nature you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste, although I don’t recommend licking trees or anything. It’s just a way to bring all of your senses into sharp focus.”