22 January 2021 by Sally Prosser
Above my head stretch dark, spiky twigs like witches’ fingers from twisted arms swathed in dark, green, velvet-lichen against the cobalt sky. Walking onto the moor, the same blue is reflected like molten steel in the streams caused by torrents of rain, which streak the turf. Wind hits my cheekbones so they feel stiff but the view is crystal clear and free from the veil of summer leaves. It’s mid-afternoon but the sun is setting rapidly, a vermillion streak below trails of scudding Turner clouds. This is the view I have missed in 25 years of living in the Middle East and only visiting the UK during summertime. The magic of walking in winter is a memory that was buried deep.
My summer breaks to see family were about getting out in the countryside as much as possible between visits. I kept a pair of hiking boots and gaiters in the UK along with a very old Barbour and a showerproof cagoule. The landscapes most tramped were in my home county of Gloucestershire, and Dartmoor where my husband grew up, generally sticking to familiar routes and places.
This year COVID threw an unexpected spanner in the works of my life. Not extreme hardship experienced by those in the frontline or who have suffered from the devastating effects of the virus, but uprooting me from my home in Dubai to a village near Tavistock to stay for an unpredictable amount of time (who can make plans right now?).
Joining Ramblers’ first forays in July after lockdown tested my ability to plan for the weather. In the Gulf, I’d been used to wearing what I fancied in my wardrobe every single day without any consideration of unpredictable elements. My daughters teased me about shivering in August, “You’ve forgotten what winter is like, Mum.” This sparked a fear that kept creeping into my thoughts. Winter on Dartmoor - how would I cope?
On my very first hike, the sun shone brightly until the end of the walk when the heavens opened and the rain drummed so forcefully it blurred our vision. We ran, laughing, back to our cars. I was soaked through and realised just how inadequate my hiking gear was even in summer.
As the days grew shorter I revelled in the changes in my surroundings, scavenging blackberries, rosehips and apples from laden trees. The vibrant colours of autumn leaves and scuffing through piles of their crisp skeletons is a pleasure shared by many. For me, it was the slow reveal as winter crept in bringing new things into focus that was equally enthralling. Ferns turned brown overnight making the sharpness of the tors more dramatic; birds and their abandoned nests were laid bare in the naked branches and their calls more distinct; the tracks of animals moulded in mud; pops of colour like holly berries were more luminous in a starring role; and delicate lichens emerged like lacy bouquets.
My sense of being inadequately prepared for the climatic lottery escalated. My wishlist of hiking gear started to grow with every ramble, based on the conditions faced and what ingenious, practical kit other people turned up in for our walks. As you can imagine I faced many challenges, this is Dartmoor after all. It’s rare there is no wind and it can be horizontal, ice-cold and even painful, especially if combined with hailstones. Mizzle is common - a local term for a mixture of mist and drizzle – and when you’re out on open moorland there is nowhere to hide from a barrage of big, black clouds and their contents. The sun can burst forth suddenly from behind those same clouds so you appreciate the stunning beauty of the vista while frantically peeling off your layers of thermals. Underfoot, mud-locked paths and algae-slicked stiles can be precarious with a squelchy mire for a landing.
However, no walk is ever the same because of how the elements treat us; they act as a talking point bringing back the memory of certain hikes in vivid detail. A verdant field bathed in hazy sunshine was almost impassable as we sunk up to our shins in its unexpectedly boggy depths; we picnicked on the banks of a roaring waterfall while an equal torrent descended upon our heads; we battened down our rain hoods to clamber up a towering tor to be greeted at the summit by a magnificent double rainbow on the horizon.
There’s also a certain satisfaction that comes from braving less appealing walking conditions. Overcoming your innate resistance and getting outdoors to exercise in the fresh air always lifts the spirits and makes the warm shower or hot drink on your return home feel luxurious. When a crisp, bright day does come along where you can see for miles, swollen rivers roar, waterfalls dance, the earth is like Christmas cake crumbs, wood smoke smoulders, your cheeks glow and lungs tingle, it’s a tonic for the soul and every single one of your senses.
After much research, rumination (especially about choosing a jacket) and valuable guidance from my fellow ramblers, I’ve built a small but effective hiking arsenal which I’m still putting through its paces. Budget is an issue obviously but I was amazed at the range of technologically-advanced and innovative gear designed to fight the elements effectively. As the saying goes “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.” It’s something I find liberating especially after being confined to indoor living during the intense heat of Middle Eastern summers which are an exception to that old adage.
Not only have I survived being outdoors in December in the UK, I’ve relished every ramble during this allegedly Spartan time of the year. Being led on new routes to different places is one of the things I value most about being with Tavistock Ramblers. However, revisiting lanes, tracks, fields and tors during this striking season brings a new perspective.
So don’t be alarmed if you hear me take a sharp intake of breath or see me wandering along with an irrepressible grin on my face (even if it is mostly obscured by a hat with earflaps!); it’s the beauty in small details and striking panoramas alike which makes walking in winter so irresistibly, captivating. Have I tempted you to join me?
PS I know I’m not alone in my appreciation of a #walkinwinter as a quick browse of the hashtag reveals on Instagram. I join our community of many keen Ramblers by posting highlights of my winter walks ( @mycustardpie ) and @ramblersgb reshare many of our images. Well worth a look if you’re on Instagram or Twitter.
This winter wrap up warm, embrace the elements and savour time spent in the great outdoors. #walkinwinter.