We started in drizzle, progressed into blow-you-off-your-feet wind, moved into milk-chocolatey mud and finished in stair-rod rain. But it was great to be outside. Following guides Anthea and Wally, their energetic collie and a bunch of other waterproof-encased walkers along this Black Mountains route, I’d ticked off 11 miles, three hills and one legend-laced lake (home, they say, to the Afanc, the Loch Ness Monster of Wales). Had I been alone, I’d have been lost – or, more likely, wouldn’t have ventured out at all in such inclement weather. But spurred on by walking with others, I’d had a mini-adventure. At the end, I bade goodbye to a new walking mate. As he was peeling off his sopping gloves and over-trousers, he smiled: “This is what it’s all about.”
At a rough count, there are 150-odd walking festivals planned in the UK in 2019. Most wait until May or later to take advantage of better weather, but they’re tough in south Wales, and the Crickhowell Walking Festival in March is one of the first of the year. You might experience some Welsh weather. Or you could get lucky. And you’ll definitely find excellent trekking on emptier trails, plus blooming daffodils, new lambs, stories, legends and bonhomie.
“The weather doesn’t stop us,” said Roger, one of many volunteers who help lead Crickhowell’s programme of almost 80 walks, which range from easy canal ambles to tougher treks in the Brecon Beacons, and include history-focused hikes, Nordic walk tasters and more.
A key element of the festival – indeed, all such festivals – is encouraging people who wouldn’t ordinarily hike to join a structured event that promotes the physical and mental benefits of walking, as well as giving ideas for routes people could do by themselves.
True to Roger’s word, the weather never entirely stopped play. For instance, when we gathered at dusk for a planned torchlight procession up Crug Hywel (the Welsh for both Crickhowell and Table Mountain) the skies looked so grim it was cancelled. But a lower-level alternative still went ahead, and the assembled crowd, a mix of ages, tramped off in good spirits. We walked through an old farmyard, wound uphill, crossed springy fields and looked down on the wintry drama of the Usk valley. At one point, a shard of late sunlight cut through the gunmetal sky, combining brightness and foreboding simultaneously.
All the way, there was chatter as the group mingled happily. Occasionally we stopped for local tales: returning via Everest Drive, we were told that it was named for George Everest, surveyor-general of India, who was born in Crickhowell in 1790.
I fell into step with an older man, who’d come alone. “I do a lot of group walks,” he told me, as we came along the town’s independent-lined main street. “I like walks with experts; you find out more.”
There were people from as far afield as Shropshire, Oxfordshire and London on the walk, as well as from nearby. I asked one local woman why she’d signed up. “I haven’t walked much in the past,” she said, “but I’m trying to lose a little weight.”
An admirable goal, though one not necessarily easy to accomplish in Crickhowell. Our twilight walk ended in Clarence Hall, where homemade soup and chocolate brownies were being dished up. Likewise, a short town history walk the following day finished in St Edmund’s Church, which was warm as a womb and busy with volunteers serving free tea in china cups and chunks of lemon drizzle cake. We sat and ate while rain evaporated off our waterproofs and a harpist played by the pulpit. A Walking Festival brochure lay on the table. Cake, company and pages of possibilities – what more could you want?
• The festival runs 9-17 March, walk prices vary from free to £12.50, booking essential, crickhowellfestival.com
FIVE MORE WALKING FESTIVALS
1. Redcar & Cleveland walking festival, 28 January-3 February
This region of North Yorkshire is so suited to hikers it has two festivals, one in winter and one in summer (15-23 June). This year there will be events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Way national trail, such as a coastal nine-miler from Staithes to Saltburn, along the route. Other walks focus on history and wildlife, including a winter tree identification walk and a short stroll around Gisborough Priory.
• Walks £2, redcar-cleveland.gov.uk/walkingfestival
2. Braemar mountain festival, 28 February-3 March
Not strictly a walking festival, but a great way to get into the Highlands in winter. This event features low-level walks, including a Braemar history stroll and a winter wildlife walk in Ballochbuie Forest. There are also more technical options: the full-day winter skills courses teaches you how to stay safe in the mountains, or there’s an introduction to snowshoeing, which covers everything from kit fitting to judging conditions and avalanche awareness. Days finish with talks, film screenings and ceilidhs.
• Prices vary, braemarmountainfestival.com
3. Boscastle walking week, 30 March-5 April
Blow away the cobwebs on a week of Cornish walks around this picturesque harbour village, before retiring to The Cobweb (Boscastle’s lively pub) for post-hike refuelling. The final programme has yet to be confirmed, but in past years has included 12 or so events, from easy walks along the Valency valley to loops via the cliff-top castle ruins of Tintagel and wilder strides across Bodmin Moor.
4. Walk Scilly, 3-12 April
The Isles of Scilly can afford to hold a walking festival earlier in the season, this being the warmest place in the UK. This well-established event runs a diverse programme of guided walks across the archipelago. Expect family-friendly outings, cross-island hikes, foraging walks, history trails and even sunrise strolls with guided meditation and night hikes for stargazing.
• Details and tickets will be released in late January, visitislesofscilly.com
5. Kington walks spring weekend, 12-14 April 2019
The Herefordshire market town of Kington, close to the Welsh border, is a real walkers’ hub: more long-distance trails converge in Kington than virtually anywhere else in the country. To mark 50 years of the Offa’s Dyke Association, founded in 1969, several of the mini-festival’s walks will follow the eighth-century landmark – for instance, there’s a six-miler from Huntington to Kington or a tougher 15-miler from Hay-on-Wye to Kington. There are also walks along the River Wye and ancient trackways, and a strenuous Eight Peaks Challenge, on which hikers have to self-navigate between the highest surrounding summits.
• Half-day walks £5.50, longer walks £7.50, kingtonwalks.org
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