Winning tip: Woods and Romans, West Sussex
Like many I suppose, we found lockdown gifted us that most beautiful of thing: time, but also, with two boys under five, the absolute necessity to get out of the house. Just a few miles from us, between Chichester and Arundel, is Eartham Wood. This beech woodland, spliced almost perfectly in half by Stane Street – the Roman road that used to connect Chichester and London – is zigzagged by bridleways and footpaths, and is part of the Monarch’s Way long-distance path. Even on gloriously sunny weekends you can walk for hours and not hear another voice.
Worth the climb, Dolomites
A miracle! The virus relented a little, giving a chance to escape and enjoy beautiful late-summer days in the Dolomites. A sweaty climb up the famed Brigata Tridentina via ferrata revealed the welcome sight of Rifugio Pisciadù, 10 minutes from the precipitous bridge finish. High above Passo Gardeno, it served us cold beer, ham, eggs and potatoes, rustic style on a terrace surrounded by dramatic limestone towers. Later from Corvara, far below, we looked back up to the single light at the rifugio, twinkling in the dark black sky. Another time we will stay there.
Nature and ancient history, south Devon
I discovered Pebblebed Heaths while looking for wild places to walk closer to home in Exeter. They offer more than 1,000 hectares of heath and woodland along a high ridge, with panoramic views across countryside and coast (Sidmouth is just a few miles to the east). Social distancing is easy with only a few other visitors in a vast expanse. There is no cafe, shop or timed entry to remind you how the world has changed, just the soothing influence of nature and ancient history. Internationally important for wildlife, there is also an iron-age hillfort. These commons were made accessible to the public in 1930 for “air and exercise” – much appreciated in 2020.
River swimming, North Yorkshire
I’ve tried just about every well known wild swimming spot in Yorkshire but discovered the best of the lot on a walk beside the River Ure north of West Witton in Wensleydale. The river bends at this point creating a pool where the water backs up. It’s screened by a steep, wooded slope and there’s also a stony beach backed by grass, perfect for picnicking. As we swam, a herd of cows came down in single file for a drink and then marched back up again to their meadow. Over two visits on scorching days they were our only company.
Top trumps, Cambridgeshire
Trumpington Meadows nature reserve is a relatively new reserve that straddles the M11 south of Cambridge and is within running distance of my home. Lockdown emphasised the significance of local patches and, in the summer, I was thrilled to discover a short but flourishing riverside path on the reserve that I hadn’t explored before. From sprinklings of gregarious goldfinches in the meadow to reassuring numbers of butterflies among the wildflowers, there was a lot to revel in. Above all, the wildlife seemed to be less bothered by the proximity of the motorway than I was.
Flat, wet and wonderful, Cumbria
Look, a slow worm! Not so slow, it shoots off the path into the wetness of the moss. I discovered this legless lizard on South Solway Mosses nature reserve near my home in north Cumbria during lockdown. Just five minutes away, it offers a place to escape the confines of my home. I love the sway of the abundant hare’s-tail cottongrass in the wind. I also spotted bog rosemary and all three species of sundew in one afternoon. It’s flat and wet, but there is an outstanding view towards the Skiddaw massif, where we hiked before lockdown.
Wild oasis, Brighton
Racehill Community Orchard is on chalky downland high up on the eastern fringe of Brighton. Set up by volunteers in 2013, this three-acre site boasts a huge variety of fruit trees and hedgerow plants. During the summer I would wander among the colourful sweet peas and oxeye daisies, relishing this wild oasis that, until this year, I had been oblivious to. I sat on the wooden benches taking in the far-reaching views to the sea. As the summer progressed into autumn I went back to pick blackberries and a few damsons.
Post-industrial beauty, Cornwall
Living in Cornwall I’m used to amazing discoveries on my doorstep. But Luxulyan Valley proved to be in another league on a crisp November morning. It’s a natural woodland and now a post-industrial nature reserve littered with mining detritus and historically significant infrastructure including a viaduct-aqueduct and a defunct water-powered freight railway. All of this was enhanced by dappled sunlight, fast-flowing waterways, a cool mist in the valley and a friend I hadn’t seen since before lockdown.
Wild plunge pool, Sardinia
Sardinia is peppered with amazing wild swimming spots and Piscina Naturale di Caddargiu ’e Sini, which we visited in September, has to be one of the most beautiful. From the bridge about five minutes north of Ussassai; from there and scramble down to the river over a makeshift stile next to the road. Wade south through shallow river pools surrounded by olive trees. You’ll reach a clear green plunge pool surrounded by steel white rocks perfect for launching yourself off. For a post-swim picnic, pick up delicious tarts stuffed with fresh tomatoes and herbs from L’Oro dei Granai on the way back to the coast in Bari Sardo before you go. Take the winding mountain roads to see haunting abandoned villages like Gairo Vecchia.
Black, white and rare all over, Eswatini
We were lucky enough to visit the enchanting Mkhaya game reserve in January, before Covid shut down travel. Pocket-sized Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) prides itself on its conservation record (just three rhinos have been poached here in 40 years). And it’s the rhinos that are the big draw: both varieties, white and the rarer black, are abundant here. If you’ve always wanted to safari but have no time for ostentious lodges, this is the way to do it. Guests stay in simple open-sided but comfortable stone huts and enjoy spectacular food, entertainment and unforgettable rhino experiences, including an up-close walking safari. And there’s no wifi.
• Doubles £280 inc meals and safaris, biggameparks.org