Winning tip: On the beach in London
London is an amazing city, but loses some of its charm when you find yourself confined to your too-small flat. In the first lockdown I found myself strolling the streets of Wapping one morning in an attempt to stave off cabin fever. Near Shadwell Basin I dropped off the Thames path on to a tiny sandy patch of foreshore where I sat for a while listening to the river lap and break over the rocks and watching the water glinting in the early-morning light. If it hadn’t been for the offices of Canary Wharf on the skyline, I could have easily believed for a moment that I wasn’t in the middle of a city in the grip of a pandemic.
Birmingham waterway – but it’s not a canal
While Birmingham is known for its extensive canal network, less attention is paid to its natural rivers and streams – . Since the first lockdown, however, I have discovered the Bourn Brook Walkway, a leafy public path which follows this small stream between Harborne and Woodgate Valley country park. I now walk a stretch of it most weeks and love how peaceful it is. I always pause on a particular bridge to listen to the sound of running water that’s so hard to find elsewhere in the city, and observe the changing seasons.
Tumultuous life, peaceful grave, Lancashire
Claughton-on-Brock church, where we christened our first child, is sequestered in rolling hills that rise to the Bowland Fells. The interior of sumptuous beauty, all reds and gold, is now locked but not the graveyard, which is at its best on a sunny day when the encircling trees provide dappled shade.
A gravestone of unusual elegance carved by sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill is decaying rather quickly, a softer stone than the surrounding granite monoliths. The grave is for May Reeves, a former lover of Gill’s, and her parents. Reeves was a schoolteacher who abandoned respectability to live with Gill and his bohemian extended family. Nearby graves contain the bones of early saints. It’s such a peaceful spot to reflect on birth, love, life and death.
Watercress wanderings, Hertfordshire
The London Road in St Albans is a busy route that leads to the M25. After living here for 15 years, I recently discovered a hidden oasis, the Watercress Wildlife Association. This is a nature reserve in miniature, with a mosaic of habitats created from old watercress beds. Now it’s a mere and a meadow, a spit and scrub and a bog of reeds and the rushes. There is never anyone here when I visit during the week. Just me, the dabbling ducks and the songsters of the robin and wren. It’s a peaceful place where breathing slows and thoughts evaporate.
Cinder Track silence, North Yorkshire
The Cinder Track runs for more than 20 miles between Whitby and Scarborough, an old railway line now paved for the pleasure of walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Less than a mile from my house, the path crosses a grand viaduct over the Esk. Here, you can see for miles. The abbey to the north, snow-dusted moors to the south and, below me, the calm flow of the river. On silent evenings I take my camera out to the viaduct to snap the fiery winter sunsets, the trio of horses beneath the gnarled tree, and the boneyard of ships laid to rest on the banks. I am at peace in a loud world.
Ancient calm on the Ridgeway, Oxfordshire
A view out to sea was my usual shortcut to tranquillity. Locked down in a landlocked county this is no longer possible, but I found a similar peace in the expansive views from the Ridgeway national trail, high on the North Wessex Downs. It can be busy around Uffington, where there is a prehistoric white horse carved into the chalk and an iron age hillfort, but there are also quiet sections across remote downland. It is calming to walk along such an ancient road, thinking of the bronze age traders, Viking armies and generations of drovers who walked the same route.
Barbados, Ross & Cromarty
Gruinard Bay in north-west Scotland is my tranquil place. It’s a remote coastal embayment on the west coast, a very relaxing and calming place and great for walking. It has a fantastic little beach with a walkway leading down to it from the small road above, and the views from the beach itself are lovely, especially on a clear day. I was last here at the end of last year in between lockdowns, and if you didn’t know any better you’d have thought it was Barbados!
Hills and marshes, Suffolk
Herringfleet Hills lies on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, just off the B1074. There is a short walk across a wide grassy expanse, where the huge skies fully expose you to the elements. The woods of the hills provide a beautiful canopy of deciduous trees to explore. There are magical dens and adventurous swings for the children and young at heart. The opposite side of the wood offers stunning views of the Herringfleet marshes, as well as the wildlife and farm animals that call them home. The Hills offer three contrasting landscapes within one walk, always different, never crowded.
• Small charge for parking
River of dreams, Hertfordshire
There are around 200 chalk rivers worldwide and most of them are in southern and eastern England. One is within a short walk of my house. The Rhee rises from chalk springs in Ashwell, Hertfordshire, meanders northwards through south Cambridgeshire, and forms part of the parish boundary of my home village. Whether it is transient specks of sunlight on the water, looking like fairy lights in flashing mode, dancing banded demoiselles in the summer or moorhens emerging from the bank edge, there’s always something to appreciate. When at this tranquil spot, everything else is on pause.
Rising above it all, Glasgow
The viewpoint on Glasgow’s Cathkin Braes – from which all four undulating corners of the city are visible – gives those lucky enough to find it the sensation that they are hovering above real life, surveying the bustle and drama (or lack thereof) from a distant time and place. Accessed via the higgledy-piggledy bike tracks of Cathkin’s “Big Wood”, the view of the city’s landmarks – the gothic cathedral, the Finnieston Crane, the domino like high-rises – provides a welcome reminder that nothing is for ever. City noises are muffled by trees, with children and blackbirds providing just the right amount of racket.