Monday 21 April 2014

Take a shot at early redemption off the beaten track

You can't ask much more from winter than the feeling that it hasn't really started yet. But with barely more than a week to go before mid-winter, the last shreds of autumn are hanging on gamely and Ireland is really rather gorgeous. The ground, should you venture off-road, is about as dry as it's going to get, and notwithstanding Met éireann's standing warning of worse to come, has 'Walk Me' written all over it.

Most of us don't walk on rough ground. There are plenty of reasons not to -- it can get mucky and it's all a bit of a faff, for a start. And there's no shortage of splendid walks on the highways and byways, or in the parks.

I was well into my 30s before I owned a pair of boots fit for hillwalking, and I'm still far too infrequent a visitor to the wild places. But even if I never again set foot off the beaten path, I'll be forever glad that I once did, because so many of my most vivid experiences came that way.

The Undertones at the Kilburn National in London were one thing, the Beenkeragh Ridge was and is another, and one of them is still out there in the same shape as I left it.

Winter is the best time for hillwalking in Ireland -- the views are clearer; the gear, which can be cumbersome in summer, is welcome in cold weather; and the midges are mostly either dead or doing whatever it is they do. If I'm missing something from that short list, it's the indefinable pleasure of briskness that goes with winter walking, making it somehow special.

To my mind, one of the most valuable aspects of hillwalking is that it frees you from the tyranny of time and distance. Though distance is an inescapable currency, and you would hardly trust a walking route that didn't include a figure, the experience of a hillwalk is made up of so many variables that the distance covered is close to irrelevant.

At this time of year, it's often the length of the day that restricts a good hillwalk -- come dusk, you really don't want to be anywhere very knobbly, even with the best of headtorches. So the midlife crisis personal challenge-type expeditions are definitely best taken on between April and October.

But there's still so much you can achieve and enjoy in the winter months, especially if you haven't started yet. Wherever you live in Ireland, you're never more than an hour from inspiring, accessible and walkable countryside.

And, if you go to, you'll find a huge database of looped walks that will see you out and back in whatever length of time you have to spare, whether it's an hour or a day. Or, if you're up for it, a week.

But if wilderness is best, you can't beat the place and time you're at. In other words, there's no time like the present. Even now, as Christmas hoves into view and thoughts are seldom on anything healthy, there's the chance to lay down the most basic of groundwork without going anywhere in particular.

Starting from zero, as it were, by opening up the front door and staying on your feet for no more than 20 minutes, you can start something that will transform your life.

Take the pressure off New Year and get your redemption started early -- before winter knows you're out there.

Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine.

Irish Independent

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