A writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and How To Spend It, Cumbria native Grace Cook on the Wordsworthian allure of a festive walk amongst the bleak and beautiful landscape of her home county.
Iluustration by John Molesworth
To most people, Cumbria is a land of picturesque vistas, glassy lakes and off-grid idyll. Having grown up on its wild, western coast, however, my vantage point is somewhat different. Because while the Lake District is all of the things that drive hoards of tourists to flock there every summer, to me, Cumbria is gritty, often grey, and remote to the point of inconvenience. And that’s exactly what makes it so special at wintertime.
That quiet lull between Christmas and New Year is one of my favourite parts of the whole year. As I open the first door on my advent calendar and scoff the first of 24 chocolates, I begin a mental countdown that gets me through the frantic run of social events that seemingly punctuate each December day. While my body and wardrobe are very much in the concrete city, my mind is already slowing, and crawling towards the 26th December and that first proper walk of the festive season.
Nothing blows off the cobwebs of a year of city living quite like a walk along the beachfront in my rural home village. Forget about the trappings of modern life, there’s no coffee shop... there’s barely any phone signal, and sheep outnumber residents by about 50-1. Situated on the shores of the Irish tide with views that stretch towards the Isle of Man and Scotland, the seafront in December is usually harsh and bitterly cold, with gusts that tear your lungs from the inside out.
Look at a snap of my hometown village, with a dramatic grassy head that sweeps out into the bay, and it’s quintessentially Wordsworthian; some even might fancy themselves a modern-day Heathcliff, standing on the edge in a long woollen overcoat, wind-whipped, sea-sprayed and high on the vitality of life. But this landscape, with its steep and muddy fields, winding country roads that lack pavements, street lights or any other modern safety measures, are no place for such clothes. Trust me when I say you’d soon feel so claustrophobic in a coat like that you’d throw it off the cliff. But gym kit alone won’t cut the mustard, either; it’s far too cold for that.
Dressing for a 10-mile amble on Boxing Day morning requires a little more consideration, then, than most countryside strolls — especially when it ends with a well-deserved (half) pint of Guinness and a bowl of chips at lunchtime. Proper mountain wear is all fair and well when you’re traversing the peaks and hiking the tumultuous terrain of Scafell Pike, but sodden spandex leaves you cold when you’re finally perched in the pub, weatherbeaten and triumphant.
So here’s where the tangible joy starts — layers. Outdoorsy textiles that are both cosy, and yet appropriate for the country weather, are key. Think utilitarian waxed cottons, boucle wool fleece and natural fibres. Basically, stuff that won’t make you sweat and which you can put on and take off with ease.
Merino wool specifically is a bit of a country walk gamechanger. The original performance textile, the Aussie woollen fibre wicks away sweat and moisture while also keeping you warm and dry, so it’s excellent both outdoors and in the pub. Whenever I schlep the mountains, I opt for a merino vest that can easily be taken on or off and which doesn’t take up much room in a backpack. In fact, opt for sleeveless under layers full stop. They keep you cosy but don’t feel stuffy — Drake’s fleecy gilet is as preppy as it is practical, and mileage - whether on foot or of the sartorial sort - is the name of the game here. Slip it on under a waxy pocketed overcoat and you’re onto a winner.
Aside from the usual hats and gloves to ward off the north-western chill, the real must-have of any Cumbrian Christmas is a Fair Isle sweater, an homage to our northerly region’s sheep-rearing traditions and Gaelic-Norse ancestry, worn down the pub on Christmas Eve, or on top of a fell on Boxing Day. Whimsical, Wordsworthian Cumbria, this is not. Heathcliff wouldn’t stand a chance.