Walking in Winter
Climate Champion Jennifer explains the benefits of winter walking and describes the sense of wellbeing she feels on her own favourite route.
In Scotland, January and February are often the months when winter throws its worst weather at us. Spring still seems a long way off and there is a temptation to stay indoors, turn up the heating , and long for summer to return. But, providing we have appropriate clothing to keep us warm and dry, outdoor walking in the winter can be a real tonic.
There are plenty of good scientific reasons for making regular walking part of our lifestyle at any time of the year. We can listen to doctors who tell us that sitting is very bad for our health, that regular walking is good for our hearts, can lower blood pressure, helps to keep bones healthy, strengthens muscles and protects our joints. Walking anywhere is good, but getting away from the built environments of towns and cities to walk is particularly beneficial: research shows that getting out for a walk or run, in natural surroundings, activates areas in the brain which lead to inner calm and a sense of well-being, and that trees emit chemicals which boost our immune systems.
Those of us who already love walking don’t need to be convinced by science; we do it because there is so much to enjoy all year round. In January, gone is the lush, green foliage of early Spring, the fragrance of Summer flowers, the softness of grassy meadows underfoot and the vivid red and orange on Autumn trees, but the Winter landscape presents new pleasures. We can enjoy tramping over stubble fields, admire the dark silhouettes of bare trees, etched against clear blue skies, notice how silvery green lichens nestle on bare branches and realise that tiny, dormant buds have already formed on bare twigs and are patiently waiting for longer daylight hours and extra sunshine to bring them into life.
Wherever you live in Fife, there is easy access to a wide variety of beautiful places to walk whatever your preference. The recently opened Pilgrim Way provides inland footpaths right across Fife , linking Culross to St Andrews whilst the Fife Coastal Path stretches for 117 miles along the coastline, from the Forth to the Tay and the Fife Core Path network outlines public access to networks of pathways all across Fife. In addition, there are parklands, woodland rambles and Lochside trails to be found all over the Kingdom.
My own particular favourite walks are through hilly woodland settings: the Formonthills Community Woodland and Coul Den Nature Reserve, run by the Woodland Trust is a fine example
As soon as I step through the gate and enter the woods, I am conscious of moving out of ‘doing’ mode – leaving behind the to-do lists, unresolved problems and time schedules – and moving into ‘being’ mode where stress and tensions slip away, and I connect with the gentler pace of the natural world. I feel my shoulders relax I notice my breathing gets deeper and slower and my steps find a natural rhythm as I stride out. There is a special stillness in the winter woodland: a sense that the trees and shrubs are enjoying their peaceful slumber whilst the ground is tucked up under the soft blanket of fallen, decaying leaves. It’s only in winter, now that the branches are bare, that I notice the beautiful silver trunks of the birch trees.
Different weather conditions create many beautiful scenes : sparkling frost highlights the delicacy of spiders’ webs on hedgerows and lichens on branches; low winter sunshine turns raindrops on bare twigs into strings of twinkling, iridescent ‘fairy lights’ and billowing clouds form a kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns across the sky.
Following the gently meandering track, I notice hungry blackbirds and finches working hard to find food as the winter months roll on, and berries and seeds become ever more scarce. There is little bird song to be heard, but the robin obliges, chirping merrily as he perches on gate post or bare branch, posing as if pleading to be chosen for next year’s Christmas card. From time to time the rough, plaintive call of wild geese can be heard as they fly overhead, grouping and re-grouping in a variety of V formations, searching for fields which might yet yield some spilled grain or growing vegetation.
Having reached the summit, I stop to marvel at the panoramic view. On a clear day, I can see right along the river: the May Isle, the Bass Rock, Berwick Law, Arthur’s Seat, and the tops of the towers of the Queensferry Crossing.
At this point in the walk, I realise that the exercise has indeed improved my circulation and I am now feeling very warm. Having chosen to wear layers, I can gladly dispense with the woolly hat and muffler which were so necessary at the start.
The track winds its way down through young plantations. Startled roe deer dart across my path, taking the ditches in effortless, graceful leaps then bounding off to find shelter, their dark, grey winter coats providing camouflage among the low bushes. The occasional fox can be seen, lured out in daylight hours by hunger, nose to the ground stealthily following a scent, quickly disappearing into the undergrowth with only the white tip of his bushy tail to be seen.
As I climb the hill, I am presented with a striking view: the bare branches of large deciduous trees form stark, linear patterns, especially spectacular when seen against the fiery red of early morning skies or the molten copper of the setting sun as it begins to sink in late afternoon
And so, the walk is almost over and, reluctantly, I head back home to the business of everyday life, aware that I have absorbed some of the tranquillity from this lovely environment and that this sense of wellbeing will remain with me throughout the rest of the day. And, after all, I can always have another lovely winter woodland walk tomorrow.
This post is one of a series of walking blogs by our Climate Champions to promote our Winter Walking Festival. You can find a number of great Kirkcaldy walks with downloadable routes in our Kirkcaldy Winter Walking Festival Programme. You can also take part in our walking photo competition to win a £30 Kirkcaldy Gift Card – click the festival link above for details.