By Jess Cartwright
Now more than ever it’s important we look after our mental health. Although we are currently over halfway through the second national lockdown, there is still quite a hill to climb. Being isolated in a house, away from friends and family you might otherwise regularly see, can be very lonely. It also doesn’t help that days are shorter, light is limited and it can be hard to muster the energy to go outside in the crisp winter air, but maybe that’s just what we need to be doing.
Spending time outdoors has helped many people with their mental health. Going for a brisk walk can help clear your mind and physical activity releases endorphins which can improve your mood and outlook. Getting outside while the sun is shining is also helpful if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and can give you a little bit of extra vitamin D that’s hard to come by in winter months. In line with current lockdown rules, you may also meet up with one other person for exercise, so that can help with feeling lonely, too.
In the UK we are blessed with beautiful scenery that’s just asking to be explored. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some of the best local walks you can go on in Avon and Cardiff, with some points of interest to spot while you’re there. Just remember to stick to lockdown rules, clear up after yourself and leave these great places as you find them.
Just outside of Bristol is this beautiful wood that teeters on the edge of the city, giving incredible views from the top of Avon Gorge out onto the Clifton Suspension Bridge and beyond. You’ll feel like you’re a million miles away from the city, lost in deep woodlands full of interesting fairytale-esque trees including veteran and ancient trees. Take particular care to spot whitebeams; some species of which only grow in this woodland. This includes the Bristol, Leigh Woods and Wilmott’s whitebeam. As well as a wealth of trees, the woodland is home to bats, insects, birds, animals, reptiles and interesting flora.
Ashton Court Estate
This is one to go to if you want to spot some deer. The estate has been open to visitors since the owner passed away and left it to the city of Bristol. While a lot of the facilities are currently closed to the public, you can still go for a walk on the grounds. You’ll be treated to views over the city as well as the chance to spot deer. There are over one hundred red deer (which are Britain’s largest land animal) and around one hundred fallow deer. You’ll find it hard not to notice the red deers’ large antlers, which determine the ‘rank’ in the herd. Silhouettes of the antlers set against the backdrop of the city on a winter morning is a magical sight. Just make sure you keep your distance from the deer, they are free-roaming and should be treated with respect and approached with caution, keeping loud noises to a minimum and a safe distance at all times.
Quantock Hills is a vast area of natural beauty. Situated in Somerset, this area is full of wonderful landscape and nature. You can find views of the jurassic coast, babbling brooks, pine forests, heath and combe - something for everyone! Even if you immerse yourself in the hills for hours, or take multiple visits, it’ll be a while before you’ve witnessed everything it has to offer. There is a wealth of animal activity, including birds and deer and you can even go hunting for fossils. There are some handy leaflets to help you find wildlife, which you can access here.
Situated in the Mendip Hills - which is an Area Of Natural Beauty - is Dolebury Warren. Make your way to the top of the hill and be met with views over North Somerset and beyond. Previously, the area was part of the Mendip Lodge Estate and you can find remnants of this in drystone walls that surround a raised platform called The Lookout.
The woodland is filled with a variety of trees you can spot as you walk around, including a mass of regenerated ash as well as areas of oak, small-leaved lime and hazel and conifer and beech trees. It is especially beautiful in Autumn when all the different leaves start to change colour. If you go off-track and meander through the trees, you might be lucky enough to spot wild deer and rabbits. There are also areas of flora associated with ancient woodlands plus an abundance of beautiful wild flowers, which attract many species of butterflies in the summer.
Ham Wall is the perfect wetland spot for spotting wildlife. Within the marshes you can search for otters and water voles and it’s particularly famous for the array of wading birds including Britain’s loudest bird, the bitton with its booming call, as well as the impressive starling roosts. It is usually a great place to watch the starling murmurations, but due to Covid-19 the amount of visitors needs to be reduced to ensure social distancing can be maintained. If you do want to watch the murmurations, you can find other places to visit here.
Not only will you find incredible views from the top of the gorge, you will also see a lot of different wildlife on this walk. The gorge is known for its free-roaming goats as well as sheep, and both do a pretty good job grazing and keeping the greenery neat. You can also find impressive birds here - have you ever seen a peregrine falcon? This amazing bird of prey is the fastest bird in flight, blink and you might miss them. Other species include buzzards, kestrels, ravens and jackdaws but let’s hope they don’t spot some of the adorable dormice that have made the gorge their home. If you go at dusk, expect to spot some Greater and Lesser Horseshoe bats as well!
There are three unique trails to pick from, depending on your mood. You can opt for the sculpture trail which will take you past impressive wooden carvings, or walk around Castell Coch, which looks like it has come straight out of a story book, or visit the old mining caves. The complex landscape has allowed a whole range of wildlife to make this their home, so keep an eye out as you’re walking around.
Following the River Ely, this walk is full of opportunities to spot kingfishers, herons and waterfowl. If you are really lucky you might spy an otter in the water. If plants are your thing you should go in Spring to see the bluebells, wild garlic and wood anemones that coat the ground. The route is easy to access from Cardiff and is accessible to both walkers and bikes, with much of it being traffic-free.
Forest Farm Country Park
This beautiful site includes the last remaining stretch of the Glamorganshire canal. Due to the quality of fresh water the canal is teeming with wildlife such as kingfishers and herons who visit here to hunt. Other ponds, scrapes and wetlands on site entice many birds to feed and nest, which can be watched from two bird hides. As well as birds, you can find beech and oak trees (some that are over 200 years old!) and there’s even a designated Facebook group where visitors can post photos of the wildlife they see. You can check it out here.
To help you spot wildlife on your walks, Wildlife Watch has got a range of resources to help you identify various animals, plants and wildlife. You can find these useful spotter sheets here.