Sauna and a swim on the Dorset coast
Tara and I are happily glowing when our sauna host, Sarah, enters with a bucket of birch water and a tea towel. Tara is sitting on the top level of the sauna, squinting out of a small window at the bright Dorset coast and the seaweed-slippery sea we’ve just come from, while I am down a rung, where the heat is milder. Sarah is beaded with sweat, her eyes bright blue above a deep smile. She emanates the kind of wellness that can make those around her feel a bit blessed, which is ideal as what I am doing here is a kind of worship: of water, friendship, the sea and the seasons. Swimming can be a non-liturgical service, a naked exchange between you and the planet where words fall away and you drop back into the world as if you belong.
Today, we’re ramping up the winter swim experience and drawing it out by introducing some heat – why this has been missing for so long from the English winter swimming scene in all its stoic forebearance, I don’t know, but I thank the swim gods that it is here now. We have run between the sauna and the sea for a while now and are a long way into our hot-cold-hot-cold sauna-swim journey. I feel like human honey: all warm, smooth contentment and peace.
Sarah kneels to put some more wood in the burner and ladles the birch water (literally water with birch leaves) on to the big caged rock mass that is throwing out heat. She invites us to close our eyes, feel the moment, let it go … and soon pretty much everything has gone, wafted away in curtains of hot citrus air. I can’t see her, but I can sense her, vigorously spiralling the tea towel over her head in figures of eight.
It’s part ritual, part flamboyant theatre: Sarah has looked at the cold countries – Lithuania, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark – that are steeped in sauna rituals and, with the UK sauna scene being so young, has just start inventing her own. Next, some frankincense goes on the burner, and the tea towel starts helicoptering, pulling the steam down to warm our feet, and then we’re back outside in the elements, plunging into the sea.
I am not one of those who gets high from winter swimming particularly – it often leaves me cold and a bit tired – so if it means I can do it and feel content for the rest of the day, let me in.
Sessions at Seaside Saunahause in Bridport cost from £60 for up to five people. To find a sauna near you, visit wildsaunas.info. Kate Rew is author of The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook (Rider, £22)
Theatre and Christmas carols
When I was growing up, one of my most treasured family traditions was, in retrospect, a hygge-inspired affair; one of cosiness and contentment. On Christmas Eve, my siblings and I would settle down to wrap our presents, with fairy lights twinkling and the King’s College carol service softly playing on the radio. For us, Christmas didn’t begin until an angelic chorister had delivered the opening lines of Once in Royal David’s City. To borrow from another popular carol: all was calm; all was bright.
A few years ago, I went to a carol service at Christ Church, Oxford, and the college carol service experience was even more enchanting in real life. For an hour or so, the mad bustle of the festive season stopped and serenity seeped in. For that sense of occasion and history, any of the Oxbridge colleges is worth a visit (the chapels are all so different and all so beautiful), and they often put on a whole series of concerts in the run-up to Christmas.
Beyond the university setting, there’s something rather grand yet comforting about the carol services at Saint Martin’s-in-the-Fields, near Trafalgar Square in London. It does a number of family-focused concerts and, as a bonus, has a ridiculously good shop in the crypt. Further afield, Carols By Candlelight at Fountains Abbey near Ripon, North Yorkshire, always gets rave reviews, Salisbury Cathedral is a knockout any time of year and there’s something spiritual about some of London’s busiest spots – Southbank, Barbican, Saint Paul’s – standing still for a bit of a sing-song.
Theatres also get a lot cosier – somehow softer and more inviting – around the festive season. Productions of A Christmas Carol pop up just about everywhere, but you can’t beat the now-traditional Jack Thorne adaptation at London’s Old Vic, with a stunning score that will warm your insides. With its hug-of-a-venue, Leicester’s Curve always feels welcoming at Christmas, and there’s something about the Globe’s open architecture that is extra special in winter. This year an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s festive tale The Fir Tree will see the Globe transformed into a hand-crafted forest full of puppets, and there will be mulled wine and hot chocolate by the bucket-load. Aaaaand relax.
Wild camping in Snowdonia
It starts slowly at first – the dimming light of the afternoon fading from blue to a gunmetal grey. For a while I sit in the porch of my tent in the half-light, snuggling deeper into the feather-filled baffles of my duvet jacket. I wait, patiently, for the moment when the last of the light will erupt on the horizon in the final throes of sunset.
Snow lies thick on the ground, muffling any other sound, as I gaze out at the Welsh peaks of the Snowdonia range known as the Glyderau. The light is pallid now, providing a foil to the deep, green walls of my tent. In summer this area is swarming with tourists. Even late into the evening you may see other wild campers pitching up, or climbers finishing a day on an epic crag. But as it’s winter, a time when most people put away their tents for the season, I am quite alone.
I take a sip of hot chocolate from my flask – camping in cold weather requires a steady stream of warm drinks – and keep watching. Then it begins. As the sun slumps beyond the last in the line of mountains, a plethora of reds, ambers and purples illuminate the darkness in Technicolor ribbons. It feels as though this natural lightshow is happening just for me.
When people ask me why I continue to camp in the winter, it’s this moment that always comes to mind. Because being out there, alone, with the right gear (lots of layers and a decent sleeping bag and camping mat), I no longer feel the cold. I am instead at one with my surroundings, completely immersed in the wilderness.
The first time I experienced a true winter camp was under the big skies of Norfolk more than a decade ago. I hadn’t planned to sleep out in quite such cold conditions, but an unexpected cold weather front descended on Britain’s eastern shores directly from the Arctic during a research trip, and the B&B I was meant to stay at had a power cut and was forced to close. So I took my tent and checked in to a proper campsite and, unsurprisingly, was the only one there. As I had my car with me, I took a duvet as well as a sleeping bag and a hot-water bottle to keep me warm. I had to cook my meal in the washroom as my stove kept cutting out in the biting wind. But as hard as it was, I relished the challenge of sticking it out, and as sunset that evening silhouetted my tent against the sky and silence surrounded me, whatever I was feeling, I knew I wanted more.
Since then I have never let the seasons stop my wild nights out. I’ve undertaken a 40-night crossing of mainland Britain from north to south, in November and December, wild camping the entire time, experiencing temperatures as low as -15C. I have slept on the summit of Britain’s highest mountain on Christmas Eve and woken up to my tent walls coated in frost and a cloud inversion billowing at my feet. And I have experienced the utter silence of an English forest made mute by the snow while the light of dusk paints the sky like a rainbow.
When the temperature drops, the magic of Britain’s wild places doesn’t stop – and neither do my outdoor adventures.
Fishing in southern England
Can there be any greater sign of appreciation for the harsh beauty of winter than ice fishing? The willingness to sit alone for hours on end in a landscape devoid of obvious life and colour, jigging a baited line through a hole drilled through the ceiling of a frozen river or lake. It’s about as tantric as it gets – very little movement or sound, no distractions, and a big spiritual payoff.
Scandinavians love it. The website Fishing in Finland says: “At some point in their life, almost every Finn has sat by an ice hole, ice-fishing for perch.” And Finland was the happiest country in the world in 2022 – for the fifth year in a row. I once fished lying on reindeer fur on the glassy-roofed river Torne in northern Sweden. It was good for me.
But then as a child I spent winter weekends fishing for roach and perch from dawn to dusk on a mill race off the River Trent. It was my happiest place for at least eight years in a row.
What did I love so much about it? The fact that though the world appeared to be in a state of suspended animation – the skeletal trees, the dead undergrowth, the watery sun – the river was alive with movement and possibility. No matter how hot with anger I was when I arrived at the bank, the cold air would cool me down, and the river would still my mind. Except for the time I set my parka on fire when the lighted charcoal fell out of my Highlander hand warmer and smoke billowed from my pocket.
Over more recent winters, I have started fishing the chalk streams of southern England for grayling – a highly prized fish in Sweden and other parts of Europe, but once considered a pest over here. This beautiful silvery fish acts as a valuable barometer in our precious chalk streams, as they are extremely sensitive to pollution and chemicals. They also provide more reasonable sport outside the expensive trout-fishing season.
Winter offers a different perspective on the chalk streams also. These are rivers that in spring and summer are redolent of storybook England with gin-clear water, ribbons of green ranunculus weed and clouds of mayfly on the wing. In winter, they are a less manicured affair – messy, brown and muddy, with wind-blown flotsam and jetsam bumping the banks. But even in their seasonal scrappiness, they still offer that calming, steady pulse.
Fishing Breaks offers fishing for grayling on a number of rivers in England, visit fishingbreaks.co.uk
Dog-sledding in the Cotswolds
There is nothing quite like it: the knife of freezing air in your throat, the tussle with the tangled harnesses, the deranged noise of the dogs. Then, abruptly, it all goes. With a cathartic jolt, you leap forward and are whizzing across the frozen landscape accompanied by no more than the steady hiss of sled runners on the snow. For a blissful minute your mind is as tranquil and empty as the great northern forests. Only a minute, mind you. Then the huskies, running full tilt, take a corner too fast, or start fighting, or start their morning ablutions, and the bliss is over until the next start.
There may not be much frozen tundra in Tewkesbury or Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but dog-sledding in Britain can still create those moments of epiphany, thanks to the teamwork of human and hound. The sled becomes a trolley, but you still get that exhilarating sense of speed, and the madcap joy of dogs being allowed to run as fast as they can in a pack – a pack that has enthusiastically adopted you for this journey.
While some may yearn for frozen torture in the Finnmarksløpet, Europe’s longest and most demanding dog sled race, the UK’s nascent and rather less-furiously paced dog-sledding world is quietly gaining adherents. Away from the sled and trolley, huskies can be seen as a breed of madness to be avoided, but this experience is a mind-changer. Their sheer vitality and giddy pleasure in group running is infectious.
The following businesses all offer musher training and experiences, from £70-£120 for a two-hour session: Tewkesbury, arcticquest.co.uk; Leicestershire, uk9dogsportscentre.co.uk; Stonehaven, Aberdeen, huskyhaven.co.uk; Denbigh, north Wales, mynyddsleddogadventures.com; Skipton, North Yorkshire, runwiththepack.co.uk. To commune with huskies on a walk in Kent, visit eagleheights.co.uk.
Scandinavian cookery in Cornwall
There’s little as comforting as the sight of a well-stocked log pile like the one outside the kitchen at Philleigh Way Cookery School. It speaks of warmth and comfort in the winter months. My Danish friends would inevitably reach for the word hygge.
The term comes to mind again when I enter the converted stable block to the smell of fresh coffee and baking bread for a day learning to cook Scandinavian style. Philleigh Way, on a working farm in a quiet corner of Cornwall’s Roseland peninsula, is run by former professional rugby player, Rupert Cooper. After fika – the Swedish version of the coffee break, so important it is enshrined in Swedish employment law – Rupert guides five of us, ranging from complete novices like me to competent cooks, through a series of recipes from across Sweden, Denmark and Norway, from semlor buns and cinnamon knots to meatballs and pickled sardines.
This is definitively not a healthy-eating course, he warns us as we prepare what will become our lunch; it is all about eating for enjoyment, for comfort, flavour and punch. If this is in preparation for the amount of cream, sugar and butter we are about to use, it is well timed. We move between the farmhouse table where Rupert demonstrates each recipe, and the Bake Off-style preparation area where we knead dough and stir sauces, with Rupert occasionally moving in to add more cream when we aren’t looking. Unlike in The Great British Bake Off, there is no competition, just more coffee breaks, and we return home with boxes of freshly baked rolls, meatballs in rich cream sauce, slabs of gravlax, jars of rollmops, and rye crackers wrapped in paper – provisions we can put aside to keep us full and warm as the cold months set in. And if that’s not hygge, I’m not sure what is.
The one-day Scandinavian Cooking course at Philleigh Way on 9 Dec costs £120pp; its Italian Christmas course, 15 Dec, costs £110pp. Stay at the nearby 17th-century Trewithian Farm (doubles from £70 B&B)
Birdwatching in Norfolk
Winter has many consolations, and one of the greatest is the sound of a gaggle of pink-footed geese coming into land. This strangely relaxing cacophony is heard all around the Norfolk coast as overwintering flocks shuttle at dawn and dusk between saltmarsh, pasture and fields of sugar beet inland.
On a cold, clear winter’s dusk, there is no better place to hear it than at Hickling Broad national nature reserve. There may not be the sheer quantity of geese in this boggy corner of east Norfolk as congregate along the more celebrated north Norfolk coast, but what’s found alongside them is truly spectacular. Hickling is the largest of the lakes formed by medieval peat-diggings, but it is the size of the surrounding reed beds that is the key to its superlative birdlife.
As dusk approaches and the huge winter skies turn orange and pink, birds fly into roost on this inaccessible wilderness of marshland and reed bed. The path out to Stubb Mill, one of numerous ruined wind pumps that originally drained Britain’s largest lowland wetland, passes a small wood where woodpeckers dash, and a watery scrape where lapwing flounce and avocets and curlew loiter. There’s usually a barn owl quartering the fields, too.
Beside the mill is a viewing platform that offers a wide prospect of bleak reed bed. Standing here, hunkered against the chill wind, is strangely soothing and meditative. For a few minutes, nothing much happens. Then a large bird of prey glides in – a marsh harrier seeking to spend the night in the reed beds and low scrub. Suddenly, it’s followed by a traffic jam of harriers, dozens of them: they are now common in these parts but still nationally rarer than the golden eagle. There are often hen harriers too, swivelling their owl-like faces above the reeds, and the spectacular cranes, which re-established UK populations here in the 1980s.
In spring, both cranes and marsh harriers breed here alongside bitterns, but winter is the real time for birds, both the regulars and chance rarities gusted here by the fierce winds – the Hickling visitor centre manager says that 60 cranes are now coming in to roost at Stubb Mill this autumn. Bathing in their sights and sounds is both peaceful and exhilarating, in the way that only the natural world can be. PB
Hickling Broad national nature reserve opens daily dawn until dusk, visitor centre Thur–Sun 10am–4pm
Night walks on the South Downs
As winter closes in, night walking is the perfect way to extend the day. Head into countryside or walk across a deserted beach. Look up at starlit skies, spot owls, watch bats swooping and breathe in the earthy night air.
You can strap on a head torch, but to really reap the wellness benefits of night walking, it’s best to dispense with artificial illumination and allow your night vision to kick in. As it does, your other senses begin to sharpen; you really feel the ground beneath your feet, become aware of the breeze caressing your face, hear the calls of the wild and see the swirling of clouds against the night sky. Darkness forces you to be present, allowing a powerful reconnection with nature.
I embraced night walking after a trip to northern Norway during the polar night, when the sun never rises. Undeterred, locals wrapped up and strode through snowy valleys and icy hills, stopping to look up at the midwinter sky as they sipped hot chocolate from flasks.
Back home, the South Downs provided the perfect antidote to winter blues. The chalky paths shine in the dark, lending themselves to the hygge of hiking. My favourite route is along the Juggs Road, an old fishwives’ trail between Lewes and Brighton. The ridge along which it runs is easy to spot beneath the paler strip of sky. And a silhouetted windmill, familiar copse and mobile-phone mast make useful navigational aids. The air feels different at night, heavier and earthier. Owls swoop, foxes cry and the silver strip of the English Channel lights the way down.
To walk in safety after dark, it’s best to know your route by day. Then you can more easily pinpoint landmarks against the night sky. Moonlight is not essential but it’s best to avoid wooded areas, which block out too much residual daylight. Avoid bad weather, which also reduces visibility. Wear warm, waterproof clothing and take a torch – just in case. Some Ramblers groups organise night hikes, and Adventure Cafe leads walks in both town and country. Numerous charities also run organised night walks – the original is the MoonWalk, run by breast cancer charity Walk the Walk. Nature lovers can walk with the Bat Conservation Trust or School of the Wild, and stargazers can stroll under the stars as part of a growing number of dark sky festivals.
Silent retreats in Devon
Winter is an exquisite time to retreat, when we have every excuse to “go inside”, get comfy and (hopefully) just be in the present moment – it’s what the Scandinavian concept of focusing on simple pleasures is all about. And while the dominant Scandi aesthetic is a pared-back space, I find the most important space to pare back is the inside of my own head.
I am a Vedic meditator, and meditate twice a day all year round, but every time the seasons change I retreat for an extra dose of spaciousness. Sharpham in south Devon is one of my go-to places – an astonishingly lovely private estate on a bend of the River Dart in Ashprington. It offers friendly and approachable secular meditation retreats for anyone – including those new to both retreating and meditating.
One of my favourites is the Find Your Peace five-night retreat, during which daily guided meditations, optional morning movement sessions and afternoon walks take place in a nurturing silence. There’s a chance to connect each morning in a small group, but without having to give a backstory and engage in daily chit-chat, my mind is freer to think clearly and creatively, and I feel more, rather than less, connected to the group and humanity in general.
It helps that the home-cooked vegetarian meals are generous and delicious (quinoa pilaf with tahini sauce and greens straight from the garden; an insanely good orange cake with cream). And accommodation is in a Palladian mansion, where colourful oil paintings grace the walls of a spiral staircase, and you can stay in heritage rooms like Walnut, with top-floor views out to the river. Leaving rejigged and re-centred, I find it easier to look after myself, whether that means having the courage for a wild swim even though the sea’s now freezing or saying no (nicely) to a party invite when I’d far rather just stay home.
The next Find Your Peace retreat starts 12 Nov, but if you don’t fancy silence and are exhausted, try the Rest Deeply retreat starting 1 Dec. The Coach House, which opened this year on the estate has a four-night Burnout retreat from 4 Dec. Retreats £495-£645pp. For more retreat ideas visit Queen of Retreats
Caroline Sylger Jones