‘Dark days are a time to recharge’: how to walk well in winter | Hiking holidays

I want to like winter walking, but I have two problems. First, I don’t like winter very much: it makes me lazy and probably makes me sad (Seasonal Affective Disorder). The leaves become mushy and the ground becomes muddy. The rain becomes torrential, cold and – around Pendle Hill, Lancashire, where I live – oblique. Gales mean mental turbulence, at least for me.

The other, more serious problem is that I tend to walk too fast. For that, I have to keep a close eye on the ground, so I walk with my head down (I’m 1m80 tall so it’s almost a reflex). My mind is focused on the top, even when I pretend it isn’t. If I see a slope, I accelerate; once on it, I run against myself. I’m no mountaineer – I’m talking about the Pennine Moors, not K2. I am assailed by a drive to arrive. Then I sit down, eat a sandwich and drink hot tea. I even do it out of breath, as if I had an appointment to keep, or a clock to beat.

Although aware of all these issues, I never tried anything to change the habits acquired over some 30 years of walking and hiking, until I was invited to take a mindful mini walk with Stacey McKenna- Seed.

His Lancashire-based company, Rewilding Outdoor Therapy, works with the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership (PHLP), a lottery-supported program of community activities and events.

On a short walk with a group of about 20 people in a wooded patch, Stacey helps us listen to birds, study fungi, and turn off our mental antennae for a few minutes. For once, I manage to decompress and relax while walking. More importantly, I’m starting to realize that walking well isn’t just common sense. It may take some work, or at least attention.

“A good walk is about connecting and feeling with the environment,” says Stacey. “It’s about getting out of the head and into the body, and also going from the wide angle to the small details.”

But it’s even deeper than that. She adds, “We are usually in fight or flight mode, dealing with one thing or another. Being busy has congratulations. People think that being exhausted is the pinnacle. So I always tell people to slow down. Walking slowly is the most radical thing you can do these days. I often recommend that clients find a seat or move slowly through the landscape.

“Winter, especially, is an opportunity to take it easy. We spend the whole summer rushing the hot, long days as much as possible. Dark days are a time to replenish.

Walkers on top of the hill in winter
Walkers at the top of Pendle Hill. Photograph: Jon Sparks/Alamy

What about my anxiety at the top? “We use, exploit and conquer nature to have power over it,” she says. “We should ask ourselves: what are we trying to conquer? We need power with nature, not over it. The best place on Pendle Hill might not be at the top, where there’s all that wind and noise, but just down below, where we can feel protected and enclosed.

She points out that we should all seek to walk in places where we feel “comfortable” and that walking doesn’t always have to be a challenge. “I always ask my clients where they feel safest. For me it’s a forest of conifers because I like to be contained, like in a belly. It’s a fairy tale feeling and it helps me connect with being a kid. Ultimately, the best thing about walking in nature is to feel awe and wonder – and we all know how kids do that.

I’ve always tended to think of “mindfulness” as vague and unscientific, I tell Stacey. “I could be okay with that,” she concedes. “But it’s all based on evidence: walking takes us from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the creative side of the brain. It can flood the body with happy chemicals.

These chemicals must be flowing out of Pendle Hill like lava, because another local project, called 72 Seasons, showed me a way to break winter into manageable chunks and hopefully exorcise my Sad .

Kirsty Rose Parker, a Barnoldswick-based creative researcher and founder of The Evaluator agency, came up with the idea when she was commissioned by PHLP to answer the question “What is a hill worth?” and asked to focus on community and well-being.

Frost patterns illustration of fallen leaves
One of 72 illustrations of the seasons, by artist Cath Ford

“I got the idea when a woman from Japan shared it with a Facebook group I belong to,” she says. “It’s an old Japanese calendar, and the basic idea is to divide the year into microseasons. I looked at the 72 Seasons app and it was great, but there were Japanese seasons, so there had bears and cherry blossoms. I thought maybe I could translate the idea into Pendle’s landscape.

“I have worked with over 300 volunteers for a year and together we have created our very own 72 Seasons – they work for Lancashire and possibly many places in the North of England. A lovely artist named Cath Ford drew pictures to represent the seasons.

“The project started during lockdowns and worked through emails, but last year we went out into the landscape. Some people take notebooks; some prefer to look around and think, and chat later. Others use the concept to make them see more clearly or use their senses – to sniff out snowdrops – or they adapt the seasons to their gardening.The seasons, which only last four or five days, can serve to remind people the traditional festivals like Lammas.

“We recently redesigned the way we introduce seasons so that they work with members of the Asian community and for people who don’t use the internet – who we missed the first time around. Some people have found seasons fit well with their Muslim faith.We used the Women’s Institute and local walking groups to connect with local people who are not connected.

Kirsty is now sharing the seasons on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. A short film shows the kinds of things people are looking for when wandering rural psychogeographically – guided by the names of the microseasons, which include: “Hedgehogs Shut their Door”, “Morning Grass Glistens” and “Puddles Galore!”

She says: “People said our 72 seasons brought them joy, that they slept better and felt less angry. When we assessed their responses, their well-being had increased.

“The reason it works is because it puts people in the present. Instead of scanning the horizon, they can enjoy watching nature do its thing – and that can be comforting.

She now plans to develop 72 Seasons further, to involve more people, in face-to-face sessions and as a potential toolkit that others can adopt.

I wonder if we should not personalize the microseasons. My last week went from Rainbow Days to Wuthering Nights to First Frost. I also had a Briar Blitz. For Scottish Highlanders, it will soon be ptarmigan time. For those on the west coast of Wales, Corwynt Bach or mini-hurricane. For people in southern climates, maybe Waders and Wet. Seasons to be happy, not sad.

Chris Moss' cat, Pumpkin, exploring the foothills of the Pennines
Chris Moss’ cat, Pumpkin, exploring the foothills of the Pennines

My third and, for now, last bid for slowness and well-being of the season is from home. A year ago I adopted a cat from the Blue Cross charity. She was already called Pumpkin despite being a slender, athletic four-year-old tabby who can stretch like a snake until she looks more like a sausage than a round vegetable – but I don’t didn’t like changing his name. Pumpkin likes to be accompanied on walks, so I join her – and my pace, breaks, route choices and scrambles through hedgerows mimic hers.

It can seem potentially stressful to follow an animal known for its selfish and stubborn indiscipline. But a working relationship developed and we have half a dozen routes that we now use around local farmland. She doesn’t climb too high in the gnarled trees, she eventually joins me if I sit down to rest, and she comes (usually) when it’s time to go home.

Numerous studies have shown that owning cats is beneficial to people’s psychological health, and many people believe that therapy cats are as valuable as dogs. I don’t use a harness. As long as you’re careful never to put a cat in awkward situations — making sure they can take flight, avoiding dog encounters, and generally following the rules — there’s little reason to not to be a cat-loafer. Cats are territorial and prefer to explore within limited parameters. Thanks to Pumpkin, I strolled over a bridge and saw a kingfisher, learned the names of all the trees and shrubs used in hedges, and learned to be patient and look into the empty. When she makes a sudden gust for the trunk of a potentially upgradable tree, I admire her like you would a downed runner or speed climber.

As for incorporating catwalking into my new worldview, it’s easy. For many micro-seasons to come from mid-winter, Pumpkin will be sleeping, eating, drinking and sleeping again, perhaps venturing out to test the snow, study a robin, mark his territory. She’s closer to nature than even the wildest human – and a perfect tutor to help me lose my puppy dog ​​attitude.

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