The UK gets pretty grim during the winter, with its dark, early nights and splutteringly cold weather. But if you can’t wait until spring to start having fun again, there’s still hope.
Rough Guides editor Greg Dickinson has compiled eight ideas for alternative UK breaks during the winter months, from a singing retreat in Northumberland to husky-sledding in Gloucestershire.
1. Visit the UK’s only free-ranging reindeer herd in the Cairngorms
Do you need living proof that reindeer are not just for Christmas? Around 150 reindeer roam the Cairngorms in Scotland; throughout both summer and winter an experienced reindeer herder from the Glenmore centre leads visitors on a walk up the mountains to find them.
They’re a tame bunch, so you’ll be able to give them a stroke and take selfies as you please, providing your fingers don’t drop off in the cold. On that note, wrap up warmer than you think is possibly appropriate; Scotland doesn’t do winter in half measures.
2. Sing away the winter blues in Northumberland
Now, this isn’t the sort of winter break you’d want to invite your tone-deaf mate on. The Unthanks Singing Weekends are run by Mercury Prize-nominated musician sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, who host visitors in the Northumberland countryside for a weekend of walking, singalongs and pub grub.
Their mantra is simple: “a down to earth, inclusive experience, designed to bring people together for the joy of group singing and good company”. Better start practicing in the shower, people.
3. Pretend you’re in Game of Thrones at the Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland
This otherworldly avenue of inward-leaning, gnarled trees is one of the most stunning and photogenic spots in the whole of Northern Ireland. So photogenic, in fact, that it is used in Game of Thrones as the filming location for the Kingsroad.
You can visit the Dark Hedges all year, but there’s something quite magical about coming here during the winter, when the leafless branches may well be covered in a layer of snow.
4. Take a Mediterranean escape… in Wales
The technicoloured village of Portmeirion, in northwest Wales, is unlike anywhere else in the UK. In the 1920s, eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis dreamt of building an ideal village, and this fantastical Italianate settlement is the result.
On top of its peculiar hotch-potch of Mediterranean architecture and subtropical gardens, Portmeirion has been known to get unusually balmy weather during the winter – possibly due to the warm winds that blow down from nearby Snowdonia.
The place is chocker with visitors in the summer but pleasantly quieter in the winter, when you’ll have its piazzas and pastel-painted buildings near enough all to yourself.
5. Learn how to survive in the woods in the East Midlands
If your idea of a perfect winter break involves sitting by a fireplace, mug of mulled wine in right hand, mince pie in left, you should probably scroll past this one.
This winter break is all about getting back to nature. Dave Watson at Woodland Survival Crafts runs “bushcraft” weekend trips throughout the year, where you get to make fires using natural materials, forage for food and – in the Winter Bushcraft Course – learn how to survive overnight without a sleeping bag.
6. Go husky sledding in Gloucestershire
Think husky sledding is all about gliding across thick Alaskan snow, through dense pine forests to some hidden wooden cabin? Think again. The guys at adventure company Arctic Quest have set up a dog sledding track at Croft Farm, in Gloucestershire. The “sled” is really a kind of stand-up, three-wheeled bike-like mechanism, pulled along by a couple of huskies.
Day trips are available, but in the overnight experience you can stay in the Sami Tipi or the Herder’s Hut. If you go for this option, you can spend some of the money you saved on not booking flights to Lapland on extra bags of firewood.
7. Witness the northern lights in Shetland
The northern lights are actually visible all over the UK, occasionally as far south as Kent during particularly violent solar storms – but the best chance of catching the aurora borealis is by travelling to the northernmost reaches of the British Isles.
Closer to the North Pole than anywhere else in the country, Shetland is statistically the best place to catch the flickering lights known locally as the “merrie dancers”. The elusive natural phenomenon is hard to predict, and cloud cover is always a possibility up here, so consider a week-long trip – maybe hopping between Orkney and Shetland – to maximise your chances of catching the show.
8. Go walking with wolves* in Cumbria
OK, the asterisk is because they’re not fully fledged wolves but rather a wolf hybrid pack (wolf-wolves aren’t allowed to be kept as pets in the UK). But don’t let this deter you from considering this unique experience.
Nearby to Humphrey Head, the site where the last wolf in England was killed in the fourteenth century, the folks at Predator Experience have set up a “Walking with Wolves” experience. On this you can take a stroll through the Lake District with Maska and Kajika (the pack) and – if you’re lucky – hear them howl.