Winter walking

I'm a child of the summer, and as such, I was always yearning for long golden days and the feeling of heat soaking into my skin. Winter was a time to dread: painful dragging months, which had to be borne but not enjoyed. Not to mention the obstacles of Christmas 'cheer' and family dramas.

There were all sorts of mind tricks I'd employ to get through the terrible period; denial, partying, reading Narnia, running away to a hot country, and later, planting spring bulbs and watching and waiting (with desperation) for their little buds to poke out of the earth.

But then I discovered walking.

Winter ForestLots of people talk about how walking changed their life – Walking for Health has some great stories from walkers about the health and social benefits of walking – but despite being raised by parents who love a good walk, I just thought it was a nice thing to do when you were bored on a Sunday.

It all changed when I finished university and started to discover the countryside around Berkshire, where I was living out my self-imposed exile years (from London). I got hooked. When I started working for the Ramblers, there was no denying a full-blown addiction.

But I still dreaded winter. Then my friend suggested a week of walking in December. She was being paid to check some guidebook routes and did I want to come keep her company? I thought she was mad, but she was a friend, and I thought it might distract me from the stress of another year having flown past and what-had-I-achieved type fears.

So we set off to Surrey and the North Downs Way. The meteorologists told us that it was going to get cold. That was okay; we knew our gear and we were well-equipped for wet and cold weather. We had booked our YHA and prepped our routes, chosen the maps we'd need and bought along torches and other important provisions (like lots of chocolate).

For the first few days we hiked, gossiped and exclaimed at the exceptional walks we had found ourselves on. If you've never walked it before, you need to get yourself to the North Downs Way; it is a delightful long-distance path, my favourite National Trail. The landscape is extremely varied and includes the fantastic Greensand Way and Pilgrims Way, where you can follow in the footsteps of pilgrims en route to Canterbury. It rained and we slogged through mud, got lost and had to navigate in the dark more often than not. But it was a great way to spend some time off.

We were staying in Tanners Hatch youth hostel, the most wonderful secret place, hidden in the midst of National Trust woodland. You can only access the hostel on foot, deep into the woods down a long track, until you come upon the 17th-century cottage – either on a summer's day (as I would have chosen) with rambling roses in bloom, or on a dark winter's evening with smoke billowing out of the chimney to welcome you inside. Through the heavy door and into a large common room with a roaring fire and smoke-blackened beams, complete with photos and plaques showing Ramblers, Scouts and other hostellers in outdoor action. It's enough to put you in mind of Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor, finding welcome at a friendly inn along the open road.

Each evening we'd get home to Tanners exhausted and ruddy-cheeked, to chow down pasta and drink wine before clocking up deep and restive sleep. We felt that lovely sense of moral superiority that comes from spending your time in a “good” way; we weren't staying up all night and sleeping all day, we were out in the fresh air and hooray to us!

Then one morning we woke in our bunk beds to an incredible hush. The normal outdoor noises all seemed to be muffled, as though an evil witch or wizard had cast an enchantment on us. Even inside, no-one was stirring, no clanking of water pipes, or piping of kettle on the stove, no sounds of wood being cut or doors being slammed. It was also very dark, despite my watch saying 0700 hours. Hmmm.

Winter walking in a snow-clad SurreyI still remember the amazing delight which tingled through me, from toes to hair, when I pulled back the curtains to see a white blanket spread over Surrey.

The garden was a sparkling whiteness, the trees were laden with thick layers of fluffy white, only slight touches of brown could be seen from tree branches and the wooden chairs and table. The light fell on the ice creating hundreds of fragments of coloured sparks, which danced in front of my amazed eyes.

For a time, my friend and I stared at the pristine white, memorised. We discussed how we didn't want to go out into it, to ruin the flawlessness of the snow; how we wanted to capture this moment forever. Then it occurred to us that we still had a series of walks to check! You haven't seen anyone get dressed and booted so quickly. Instead of any anxiety about navigation, we shot out of the YHA as though our lives depended on it.

We didn't manage to check many routes that day but I'll always remember the joy of walking in the magical white silence; boughs bending under the weight of snow, our feet sinking into drifts and the shocking sense of the world having undergone a complete transformation in the course of just one night.

So, I don't hate on winter any more. I can't even imagine why I used to. It might not snow this year, but it doesn't mean I'm not going to get outside and discover those beautiful frosty days when your breath blows out small clouds in the air, and your cheeks and nose grow red from the wind. The whole world is different in winter, and even those local walks you've done a hundred times over seem new and exciting again.

If you fancy a winter walk why not join the Ramblers Festival of Winter Walks? It runs from 21 December 2013 until 5 January 2014. Many of the walks are short and family-friendly, although there are always plenty of longer walks for the seasoned hiker too.

Sarah Gardner blogs about solo hikes, walking with groups, and working alongside volunteers. Find out more about her and read her previous blogs.