From breezy beaches to dazzling waterfalls, these scenic walks are perfect for an invigorating winter stroll, writes Christopher Somerville
It's very tempting to leave the walking boots in the cupboard until spring calls them forth. But then you'd miss out on the best things about the dark months in Britain – furious waves crashing into cliffs, wild geese flocking across a marshland sky, snow crunching under the boots, a red sunset flaring like a furnace...
Here are five of my favourite winter walks, all expeditions that put you right at the heart of all that's best about winter in these islands.
This northernmost stretch of Cornwall is a wild weather coast. Its long rampart of black carboniferous cliffs slants into a sea that grows furiously angry in winter gales. Storms come straight in off the Atlantic, unimpeded after a run of some 4,000 miles, and crash their waves into the cliffs in a hissing welter of foam – a black and white maelstrom that's thrilling to see and hear.
After battling the wind northwards for a couple of noisy, exhilarating miles to Duckpool cove, the peace and quiet among the oaks and sweet chestnuts of Coombe Valley comes as a relief. The steam trickles, the wind sighs, and you look up to see the clouds flying as the gale rushes far overhead.
Top Tip: Stay in one of the Landmark Trust's cottages near the ford at Coombe; they are unpretentious, but immaculately kept (01628-825925; landmarktrust.org.uk).
The North Norfolk Coast is famous for its birdwatching, particularly in winter when hundreds of thousand of birds take refuge here from the ravages of their Arctic breeding grounds.
You don't need to be a twitcher – the spectacle of massed pinkfooted geese filling the sky with their babbling cries is spellbinding as you walk the Norfolk Coast Path to Wells-next-the-Sea and on to Blakeney and Cley with its mighty windmill. The frequent Coasthopper bus service connects all the towns and villages along the coast.
Top tip: The Victoria Hotel, Holkham (01328-711008; holkham.co.uk/victoria) is friendly and comfortable, with good meals made from local produce.
You can make this walk long or short, but make sure you choose a proper cold day after a good interlude of sub-zero temperatures, when the 240ft cascade of Wales's highest waterfall drops between elaborate plumes of ice, to thunder out under a rock bridge and crash on down into the lower pool.
A three-mile circuit crosses the foot of the fall and returns to the car park via old quarry heaps and hillsides where the lambs of Tyn-y-wern farm bleat plaintively. A much more adventurous alternative climbs steeply on the right of the waterfall and continues uphill, as far as you want to go along the great cliffs of the Berwyn ridge.
Top tip: Picture the scene, as described by George Borrow in his classic Victorian travel book, Wild Wales, when a Russian visitor wriggled up one side of the rock bridge like an eel, stood upright at the apex for a minute, and then slithered down the other side.
Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays knows what he's doing. You can trust him to lead you where few hikers care to go, up into the below-zero world of the Cairngorm plateau, to sleep the night in a spacious snow hole, a hobbit-like burrow that you carve yourself out of a snowbank.
Tea-lights glow, the icy walls glitter, and the whisky bottle goes round. This is one of life's ultimate adventures – a cold, demanding, sociable and absolutely unforgettable experience, after which you descend to earth and the warmth and delicious cooking at Fraoch Lodge, Andy's home in Boat of Garten.
Top tip: Take Andy's kit list seriously; you are going to need every last piece of clothing and equipment he recommends. scotmountainholidays.com
A narrow inlet of the sea some 20 miles long, the tidal channel of Strangford Lough lies south of Belfast, trapped in the stubby armpit of the Ards peninsula. Seabirds and wildfowl flock here in winter to pick worms, crustacea and shellfish out of the huge expanses of mud flats exposed at low tide.
The National Trust offer memorable guided walks along the lough, the best of which ventures out to Chapel Island near Newtownards. From the remains of the hermit chapel on the grassy spine of the island, the sight of a wintry sun descending like a ball of fire into the uplifted arms of the Mourne Mountains is one to savour.
Top tip: Don't try this walk unguided; there are soft mudholes you wouldn't want to blunder into.
Christopher Somerville has written nearly 40 books and several thousand articles, mostly about his explorations on foot, often within the UK, with an emphasis on obscure, remote and disregarded places. He is the author of The Times Britain's Best Walks, out now and available on Amazon, and The January Man: A Year of Walking Britain.