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Winter walking not just for mud wallowers

WALKING is good for your health - and it lifts your spirit. Stepping out in the open air is the best way to banish autumn and winter blues and pick up the last of the magnificent golds and crimsons in the trees this year. Winter walking isn't just for mud wallowers. Here are a few of my favourite walks where, whatever the weather, you should stay (reasonably) dry underfoot - but remember to wear good boots. So wrap up, pack an Ordnance Survey map, a compass and a warming flask and set off to enjoy some of the best views in Britain. . . Photograph - Ashridge Boundary Trail, Herts. By Tim Davies (www.timkdavies.co.uk)

The Chalke Valley

A FEW high clouds too white and fluffy to intend mischief billowed across a vast blue sky.
The weather was set fair for our expedition to one of Britain''s deeply secret places, the proof that Wiltshire isn''t all wide open plain and Stonehenge.
The Chalke Valley is a line of snoozing villages in stone and thatch, 12 miles south-west of Salisbury, in a secluded oblong between the A30 and the A354.
It was bypassed in the days when road rage was a drover with a line of oxen cutting up a flock of geese.
You only find it by accident or by studying the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map, your guide to a maze of little paths through this valley. At every place, from Stratford Tony to Berwick St John, via Stoke Farthing and Fifield Bavant, traffic jams are as rare as snow in the desert.
We planned a modest walk, left the car at Broad Chalke at the head of the valley and set off up the slope towards the wide shoulder of Cranborne Chase, where there are views to the Dorset coast. Then after a few miles we let gravity draw us back again.
Down a wide grassy track, over a few stiles, across the sparkling River Ebble, the thin blue line through this valley and we were soon lounging in the Horseshoe at Ebbesbourne Wake enjoying a traditional Sunday roast. So often botched, here it was impeccable to the last roast potato.
One last hill to climb up to the Ox Drove Way on the hill behind. This ancient Saxon route took us, arrow-straight, back to the car.

Ashridge

THE Ashridge boundary trail, in the Chilterns, north of London, is the perfect circular walk. But if its 16 miles seem long, there are lots of places to cut corners.
This is the path for all-comers.
Park and walk, or take the bus, or catch the train - Tring station, just 40 minutes from Euston, is a few yards from the path.
Consulting the map on the station forecourt, I plotted my clockwise course.
For the first three miles the path doubles as the Ridgeway, one of Britain''s top trails. And within minutes I was scuffing up the right sort of leaves in the beech wood. The only sound was the occasional squawk of a green woodpecker or the furtive tiptoe of one of Ashridge''s herd of fallow deer.
I emerged on to high, sheepnibbled downland, with views as far as the Milton Keynes Snowdome. Really lucky walkers may spot a red kite, the new bird around here.
This famous sweep of landscape is safe for ever - the National Trust owns it all and is restoring large tracts to wildlife. Skylarks filled the sky all the way to Ivinghoe Beacon.
I plunged back into the woods and reached the monument honouring the Duke of Bridgewater, pioneer of British canal building.
I ended my walk by the softie''s short cut to Aldbury, a familiar TV setting.
Then a tough choice: lunch in the Valiant Trooper or the Greyhound?

Ashbourne

YOU want a walk that is guaranteed dry underfoot? Nothing beats the Tissington Trail, once a railway out of the pretty Georgian market town of Ashbourne.
It still serves Dovedale, Buxton and all points north. When this line through the Peak National Park closed, the council snapped it up and turned it into an allweather, all-year combined path and cycleway.
I joined the idiot-proof path at the Ashbourne ''terminus''. I set my boots to autopilot, took a gulp from my hipflask and walked on as far as an October afternoon would allow, passing under bridges still blackened from the days of steam trains and through tunnels dripping gently.
I paused at a dry stone wall to take in the view. Before me, the gentle ridge and furrow of a medieval field. Beyond, an old stone farmhouse dribbling smoke. In the distance, smoothed peaks striped gold by the setting sun.
After three miles I headed back in the dimming autumn afternoon. The sound of the bells of Ashbourne''s St Oswald''s - in novelist George Eliot''s opinion, the handsomest church in England - slithered around the valley fold.
Back in town, I was just in time for tea in the Gingerbread Shop on the steeply sloping marketplace.

Great Malvern

I WAS in a rural time warp, on the ridge high above Great Malvern which soars up like a sort of geographical buffer stop for trains coming in on the railway from Oxford.
Here Elgar took his inspirational wanderings - he lived in the town for 13 years, choosing his addresses for their views of the hills.
The 1897 Toposcope, which gives a 360-degree viewpoint, is the newest thing here, designed by Troyte Griffith, one of the people Elgar put into his Enigma Variations. You can see 15 (old) counties on a clear day.
There are 100 miles of paths on these wide open heights, so you can compose a route to suit yourself from the crosshatching of well surfaced trails.
On the way down I passed St Anne''s well, from which Malvern water still gushes. From here it was a 97-step descent into the drowsy, elegant town.
Former grandee Lady Foley kept standards high by insisting on large stone houses and landscaped gardens.
And there she was again, at Great Malvern station, posthumously spreading-good taste. I lingered over apple and walnut cake in Lady Foley''s Tea Rooms, arranged like a set from Brief Encounter, before my train home.

Kenfig National Nature Reserve

THE Kenfig National Nature Reserve near Bridgend in South Wales is one of Britain''s most tantalisingly familiar landscapes. Millions must have seen it from the M4, which runs right past; but how many know what it''s all about?
A simple diversion at junction 37 (or a short walk, or taxi ride, from nearby Pyle station) reveals all. Head for the Reserve Centre, the start of a sevenmile signposted walk around the dunes, and read all about it.
Five hundred years ago the sands closed over a thriving Norman town, leaving only an outcrop of castle visible today. Ever since, Nature has scarcely paused for breath; there is a riot of weird insects and rare plants in the springy turf - including the fen orchid for which Kenfig is internationally famous.
The well signed path leads past a freshwater pool that is a winter service station for migrating birds. The sharpeared may catch the boom of the rarely seen bittern on a still, frosty morning.
The path passes ancient, newly restored Sker House, which inspired Lorna Doone author R. D. Blackmore, who used to stay locally, to write The Maid Of Sker.
Then a bracing three-mile walk along the beach and, to finish, a meander over the dunes for a drink in the Prince of Wales Inn, spiritual home to the men who guard the memory of the ancient buried town.

GETTING THERE
The Chalke Valley is midway between the A30 and A354. Information from Wiltshire Tourism on 0870 240 5599 or see its website visitwiltshire.co.uk.
Wiltshire Bus Line, 0845 709 0899.
For details on Ashridge Boundary Trail contact the estate office on 01442 851227. Buses in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, 0870 608 2608.
Ashbourne Tourist Office (01335 343666) 13 Market Place, Ashbourne DE6 1EU.
Malvern Tourist Office, 01684 892289.
Information on Kenfig: The Warden, Kenfig National Nature Reserve, Ton Kenfig, Pyle, Bridgend CF33 4PT, or call 01656 743386.
National Rail Enquiries, 0845 748 4950. Bus journey planners on websites ukbus.u-net.co.uk and Ordnance Survey (0845 605 0505) Romsey Road, Southampton SO16 4GU, www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk
www.traveline.org.uk
www.visitwiltshire.co.uk
www.timkdavies.co.uk

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