Grab some fresh air...

Even for those people who don’t see walking as something they like to do, Christmas time brings a change. Everyone is suddenly keen on a walk after lunch or a few hours in the woods to escape from visiting relatives. For others who love the winter, this time of the year is perfect for social walking in the hills, where other visitors are more sparse and a quietness settles on the land.

We headed to the North York Moors for a walking weekend and Christmas dinner on board the North York Moors Railway

Walking as a means of escaping relatives or relieving the huge amount of food eaten is one thing, but there is surely another reason to walk at this time of year. The idea of pilgrimage may be a religious one, but it is something that at least seems to unite all religions. The act of walking to a place to show dedication has as much to do, as all walkers know, with the act of the walk itself as with the destination. More often than not, it is not the destination that changes you and teaches you about the world, but the journey itself. Whether you celebrate Christmas as a Christian, a lover of the outdoors, a member of another religion or none at all, there is something ritualised about walking on or around Christmas Day.

We headed to the North York Moors for a walking weekend and Christmas dinner on board the North York Moors Railway

It is a time of year that was symbolic with our pagan ancestors, when the sun began to come back after the darkest day of December 21st, the winter solstice. No doubt walking in the woods meant even more back then, as they were places filled with spirits and gods, and far more wildlife. Even today, when out among the bare trees where tiny birds congregate and the snow dulls the usual sounds, it feels there could be something of the ‘other’ out there.

Winter Walking weekend exploring the Brecon Beacons

It is certainly not the time of year for challenge walks, though it may be the time to plan some for the summer. But it is the time to think about the people you’re walking with, even if you’ve only just met them on a guided walking weekend. The hills in winter possess that strange quality of being harsh but alluring at the same time; the high mountains covered in snow look inaccessible, but at the same time we’re drawn to try and walk them. These confusing emotions make any winter day out a chance snatched out of an otherwise seemingly dead landscape.

Walking, for however short a distance, is a way of saying that we are still willing to tread the woods and hills, despite the bitterness of the wind and and failing light. We do this because we know there is still life out there, that the trees are not dead but waiting for the spring, and that many animals are carrying on as normal. If that isn’t the state of mind for a pilgrimage, then what is?

If there’s a tradition that you want to keep this Christmas, make it walking. Go with a group in the far away hills, or with your friends and family closer to home (or escaping in-laws). The act of walking is something suited to all times of year, but has a particular place around Christmas. It doesn’t matter how far you go, but if you can appreciate the world at its darkest and coldest, it won’t seem so harsh and bleak after all.

Author: Alex Kendall

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