Land of poems and stories: the Cotswolds
“If ever I heard blessing it is there. Where birds in trees that shoals and shadows are.” In April and May the Cotswold landscape still speaks in the soft, calm tones of Laurie Lee. For a first-time visitor it can take a while to tune into the hard, spare, wall-bound fields of the Cotswold plateau. Yet in the valleys and on the scarp edges, there are bluebells and wood anemones, clear spring-fed streams and a soundtrack of willow warblers and blackcaps, fresh back from their winter travels.
The deep valleys around Stroud hold hanging woods, filled in April with the scent of wild garlic. At the National Trust-maintained Woodchester Park, where the half-completed Victorian manor stands mysterious in the valley bottom, it feels as though the clock has stopped and no one has yet arrived to restart it.
Further north, in my home patch, the same timeless feel pervades Hailes Abbey, with, above it, a monument marking Thomas Cromwell’s seat, from which it is said he watched the Abbey burn almost 500 years ago. From here you can walk a couple of miles along the Cotswold Way to Winchcombe.
Spring is a wonderful time to explore smaller towns and villages, many of which are the subject of poems and stories. For me, each name conjures a memory: a village cricket match in April snow at Guiting Power; my childhood love of Bibury, with its row of ancient cottages, river, watermill and trout farm. The trout leaping for dancing mayflies in the spring.
Today, an April treat is a long run or walk to listen to yellowhammers and skylarks along the Cotswolds’ western edge, from Winchcombe to Broadway. Here twisted elephant-bark beech trees mark the boundaries and the distant Malverns rise from the vale.
Andy Beer, whose book, Every Day Nature: How Noticing Nature Can Quietly Change Your Life, is out on 2 April (Pavilion Books, £12.99)
Marooned on holy island: Lindisfarne
A few miles off the Northumberland coast, close to Berwick-upon-Tweed and the border with Scotland, lies the mystical island of Lindisfarne. Just getting there is an adventure, as you are sometimes in a race against the incoming tide. For one of the great joys of being on Lindisfarne is that when the three-mile-long causeway closes (for around 10 hours a day) no one can get on or off.
Tourists and pilgrims head to the medieval priory ruins or Lindisfarne Castle, but it’s the island’s expansive beauty, tranquillity and coastal walks that draw me here. When the tide starts coming in and the daytrippers scuttle back to the mainland, I stay on and pretend that I’m a local.
I first visited five years ago, on a cold winter’s eve, but I resolved to return and have done three times since.
In spring (May is best) the island is quieter than in crowded high summer, the wildflowers are beginning to burst into colour – look out for golden marsh-marigolds, lilac lady’s smock and pale blue forget-me-nots. Seabirds reel about in the sky, and you’ll hear the song of tiny meadow pipits and long-tailed pied wagtails.
This is the time when I, too, like to shake off my hibernal self and walk, in glorious solitude, past the harbour and castle, up the east coast path to Emmanuel Head, and then turn west to the wild, windy three-mile strip of sand that is North Shore.
If I set out before the causeway opens – the route via the castle up to the North Shore is along higher ground and not affected by the tides – I have this perfect walk to myself. Along the way, it’s a joy to meander down into the coves and beaches.
Coves Haven beach, which sits just past Sandham Bay, is my favourite place to pause for a sandwich or sip from my flask of tea.
At this time of year, I’m buoyed by the air that is less bite and more caress, the sun, surprisingly strong when it’s out, the swaying of the marram grass, the ghostly cry of the seals and the eider ducks – which sound as though you’ve just told them a filthy joke.
Fair weather or not, Lindisfarne is very special, a place I go to dive into peace and listen deeply to nature, alive in the salty, sea air.
Jini Reddy, whose new book, Wanderland, is out on 30 April (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
‘My whole being relaxes’: Rathlin Island, Co Antrim
My first visit to Rathlin Island was a birthday celebration. I had turned 14, it was early spring, and this wild initiation deeply affected the way I experienced the natural world. Watching the web of life resurge in spring on Rathlin is a rare and unique awakening. Catching the ferry from Ballycastle, you land on an island that is hardly changed by time. Our world is spinning, seemingly uncontrollably, but on arriving somewhere like Rathlin Island, the uncoiling is instant. The reconnection with nature and ourselves, the unburdening, is hard to avoid here.
The island, shaped like a sycamore seed, lies off the north-east coast of Northern Ireland. Its rugged cliffs are home to the largest sea bird colony in the north of the island of Ireland, and of course, this was why I first begged to go. I longed to see the spring abundance, the birds arriving from sea to breed. Thousands of beating wings. Heart-splitting symphonic sound. The West Light Seabird Observatory, managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is where you go to view the clamouring. Fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and gannets congregate in spring, and in early summer puffins join the colony. The cascading movement of birds and waves draws out all the cumbersome weight of the world.
My whole being relaxes on Rathlin. The east of the island smells of salted dry wood, like an old ship hauled up on to horseshoe-shaped Church Bay. The community shop and little museum are crammed with wonderful island remnants.
Looking out to sea from Church Bay, you might see the surface perforated by surging seals. From the surrounding meadows and farmland, you might hear the bubbling of lapwings, mewing buzzards, the nightly winnowing of a snipe. In Kebble nature reserve in the west of the island you can, in spring, spot the unusual pyramidal bugle, one of the rarest wildflowers in the British Isles. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you may see a sprite of light: a golden, blue-eyed Irish hare, the will-o-the-wisp of the island. This heady wild wonderland is magnetic: if you visit once, it will reel you back in.
Dara McAnulty, 15, author of Diary of a Young Naturalist, out 5 June (Little Toller, £16)
England’s loneliest hike: Dengie peninsula, Essex
Bradwell-on-Sea on the Dengie peninsula is my favourite place in spring: it’s 27 miles from my home, 43 minutes via country lanes in full blossom to this 30 acres of shell beach awash with ghosts and calm – plus we can take the dog.
I feel the past the moment we arrive. The seventh-century chapel, St Peter-on-the-Wall, overlooks the cockleshell dunes where late-pagan Britons were converted to Christianity. The occasional Thames barge floats by like a ghost ship.
Everything here seems slow. Oystercatchers beat in noisy circles, two at a time. Wind turbines fan hedgerows and fields of corn. I’m cautious around the beach edges. I’ve seen adders here: spring, when they wake from hibernation, is the best time to see them (but it’s rare so don’t let that put you off). They’re beautiful, and slide through wild crops of edible purslane like liquid silver falling down a plughole.
We look for fossils, pick the first shoots of samphire, and take afternoon swims. It’s about warm enough for the hardy from April – just. Mostly, if we’re feeling lazy, we just sit, drink coffee and watch the Blackwater ebb and flood.
Sometimes we walk. The best spring walk is southward, along the seawall to Burnham-on-Crouch. That 14 miles is the loneliest hike in England – you’re unlikely to see a soul, just nesting terns, flowering white sea kale and mewing buzzards.
Stephen Neale, author of The England Coast Path (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
Tides and treasure hunts: Dee estuary, Merseyside
Four times a year – in spring, summer, autumn and winter – I come with my family for a day of walking the banks of the Dee. Fifteen miles from my home town of Liverpool, the Dee is a river border between Wales and the Wirral peninsula, and the small towns and beaches on its banks give it the feel of a secret island.
Spring has a particular magic. We’ll walk along the sandstone prom in the village of Parkgate, buy an ice-cream from Nicholls and eat it on a bench watching the ever-changing estuary. This was once an embarkation point for Ireland but, by the mid-1800s, as the estuary silted up, Parkgate’s maritime days were over. Today it’s the salt marshes that make Parkgate a special place: it’s a breeding ground for skylarks, redshanks and egrets, and a hunting ground for peregrines and marsh harriers. Time it right and you might witness a rare visit from the tide as it swallows up the marsh and overlaps the promenade wall. As the seawater flushes out water voles, shrews and harvest mice, in come the kestrels, merlins and sparrowhawks as marsh reverts to sea.
Further along the coast is Thurstaston beach, a haunt of mine since childhood. A site of special scientific interest for its constantly eroding cliffs, Thurstaston is a strange landscape, a churning and collapsing place where my 14-year-old daughter and I hunt for precious stones: quartz and granite treasure glittering in the sunlight, occasionally a fossil, transported here from Scotland and the Lake District by ice-age glaciers.
At West Kirby we walk at low tide across the sands to Hilbre Island, an archipelago cut off from the mainland for four hours out of every 12. Check the BBC tide tables before setting out, and keep to the recommended route across the sand. Good boots or wellies are essential.
It takes an hour to reach Hilbre via smaller isles Little Eye and Middle Eye – and it’s vital to start your return three hours before high tide. In April, I have seen sandwich terns, Manx shearwaters and dunlins here. Sometimes there are fulmars and Arctic skuas. The old lifeboat station ruins are a good place for watching grey seals.
Above all, from anywhere along the Dee, watch and wait for sunset’s spectacular displays of changing light.
Jeff Young, whose latest book, Ghost Town, A Liverpool Shadowplay, is out now (Little Toller, £16)
‘Spring is not gentle here’: Treshnish Isles, Hebrides
I grew up in tropical Papua New Guinea, where there were only two seasons: the dry season and the monsoon. When I arrived in Scotland as a teenager I was mesmerised by its four seasons, especially spring, which navigates that precarious space between darkness and light – a faerie child creeping out from beneath the dark skirts of winter.
Spring has drawn me again and again to Lunga, one of the small islands and skerries that make up the Treshnish Isles, west of Mull and part of the Inner Hebrides. A site of special scientific interest, it is home to huge colonies of puffins (best seen from mid-April), razorbills, fulmars and shags, and is an important breeding area for grey seals.
Spring is not gentle here; new life is profuse but so is danger. The hares come out boxing, thousands of guillemots cling to sheer rock and cry a deafening “arrr, arrr”, and the puffins, which have come in off the Atlantic to lay their eggs in rabbit burrows, welcome humans, whose presence keeps away the skuas and gulls.
The weather is mercurial. Even landing is precarious. There is no beach – the boat sidles up to a profusion of boulders washed smooth by the Atlantic, and you jump across the divide, but the smell of gorse, camomile and salt as you climb the steep path to the plateau clears away the dregs of winter. From here you might spot minke whales, porpoises, basking sharks and sea eagles, and when the boat returns two hours later, it will seem too soon.
I base myself on Mull, in Tobermory, with its seafront cottages in spring-like shades of primrose, rose campion and bluebell. From here, boat trips by Staffa Tours (check if still running: 07831 885985) run to both Lunga and nearby Staffa. On my first visit 15 years ago, a thick veil of mist covered the sea as we headed out towards Lunga, and when it finally lifted we found a great basking shark travelling alongside us.
Kirstin Zhang, winner of Stanford’s New Travel Writer of the Year 2020 award
Strictly for the birds: Avalon Marshes, Somerset
For a spring weekend seeking out some of Britain’s rarest breeding birds, Somerset’s Avalon Marshes are pretty hard to beat. Over the past 30 years, these former peat diggings have been transformed from unsightly holes in the ground into one of Britain’s top birding spots. It’s a linked series of nature reserves, and each has a mixture of open water and reedbeds. They are all crossed by a disused railway line giving easy access to viewpoints and hides. And for a break from the wildlife, Glastonbury, Wells, Cheddar Gorge and the charming village of Wedmore are all within easy reach.
When I moved here with my young family just over a decade ago, many of the birds I now see regularly were either absent or very rare. Since then, climate change and habitat creation have allowed several species from continental Europe to colonise these marshes. They include little, great white and now cattle egrets – the birds we usually only see perched on the backs of big African mammals in wildlife documentaries.
Great white egrets – the tallest member of their family – are easy to spot at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve, in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, and at the nearby Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Catcott Lows, also a regular site for cattle egrets.
At this time of year, I always try to get out before breakfast to catch the end of the dawn chorus. This is also the best time to hear one of our most elusive birds, the bittern, whose loud, booming call sounds like someone blowing across the top of a milk bottle. I don’t see bitterns very often, but on fine spring days they sometimes fly up from their reedbed hideaways – looking, as one young visitor suggested, like a “toasted heron”.
Birds of prey include buzzards, sparrowhawks and marsh harriers, which float low over the reeds, occasionally rising high into the sky to display. From late April, hobbies chase flying insects, while the reedbeds and adjacent vegetation are home to chiffchaffs, blackcaps, whitethroats, and several warbler species.
Other migrant visitors such as swallows, sand martins and swifts catch flying insects over the open water, and one of my favourite birds – the great crested grebe – performs its famous courtship display, the male and female rising up in the water to wave weed at one another in a bizarre gesture of affection.
On sunny spring days, hairy dragonflies and orange-tip butterflies are on the wing, and there is always a slim chance that you might stumble across an otter. And wherever I go, I look out for that unmistakable flash of blue as a kingfisher whizzes by.
For me, on a fine spring day there’s simply no better place to be than on the marshes.
Stephen Moss, whose latest book, The Accidental Countryside, is out now (Guardian Faber, £16.99). He also leads tours for Somerset Birdwatching Holidays
A great swoosh of green: Dwyryd valley, Gwyneth
I have been to the Dwyryd valley many times: it’s a magical place for me, a great swoosh of everything that’s green and great about north Wales. And spring is absolutely the best time to go – be it early in the season, when the verges are sprung with primroses and crocuses, and the cries of new lambs fill the air, or a little later, when the hawthorns turn the hedgerows white and the woods are overflowing with bluebells.
My first encounter with this beautiful vale was a stay on a campsite near the quaint village of Maentwrog, as part of a trip to interview land artist David Nash, who is based up in Blaenau Ffestiniog – Mordor to Maentwrog’s Shire.
For several mornings, as I walked up to see David in his chapel workshop, the day dawning choral all about me, golden sun made the fresh-sprung grass and bronze-purple stones of the field walls shine. It was here, in 1978, that David set his wonderful work of land art, Wooden Boulder, in motion.
The huge rough-hewn sphere of heartwood fell into a stream when he was trying to move it to the chapel and slowly – buoyed, bounced and buffeted by hectic stream spate and lazy summer drift – meandered its way to the saltmarsh maze of the Dwyryd’s estuary.
Another springtime, drawn by memories of train songs and half-glimpsed smoke, I set off north up the valley, zigzagged my way up steepening slopes in clouds of pollen and heather fug, and emerged on a fir-tree’d ridge.
I found a path that led to a small sturdy cottage, in front of which curved a set of narrow-gauge railway tracks. There, I found a tiny platform. A painted sign read Coed y Bleiddiau (Wood of the Wolves). Hearing a distant huff and chuff, I saw a red locomotive approaching. I held out an arm and was overjoyed to see the train slow. It drew up before me, a steaming crimson and copper wonder.
I climbed aboard and the train began to trundle down to Porthmadog – ghosting above the Dwyryd river through ancient woodland and cuttings spangled with late snowdrops and daffodils. Over stone embankments, viaducts and bridges, past gardens strung with immaculate washing, through level crossings manned by fellows who wave, it slowly descended towards the bright estuary flats, Wooden Boulder and the Irish Sea. Coed y Bleiddiau has been my Ffestiniog outpost ever since.
The Ffestiniog Railway usually runs to Coed y Bleiddiau twice daily from the end of March to the beginning of November (though it was suspended until further notice this week).
Dan Richards, author of travel memoir Outpost, out in paperback on 2 April (Canongate, £9.99)
Pack for all weathers: Cornwall
There is a knack to packing for a trip to Cornwall in springtime: take everything. Some days you will be lucky, greeted by bright skies that make it impossible not to run headfirst into the waves. On others, the rain will so blur the landscape that it is hard to hold on to any discrete shape of the coast beneath it. This changeability is a large part of why I love England’s southernmost county at this time of year.
Lelant, the village where my mother and grandmother grew up, is on the quiet north coast of West Penwith, the region of Cornwall towards Land’s End. Lelant’s beach, Porthkidney Sands, occupies the same yawning bay as St Ives. Unlike St Ives, though, it has no car parks, cafes, or rows of toilets lined up before the sea like so many nervous swimmers. Instead you are met with an endless empty beach, where sandpipers hop in and out of the foam left by departing waves.
Virginia Woolf called it “vast & melancholy”, but since I was a child, it has been on this beach that I have felt most free. We’ll often stride out west along the coastal path from Lelant to Zennor, stopping briefly in St Ives to visit the bronze abstract figures in Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden, prettily framed by blossoming trees. Zennor is a village set atop a wild stretch of granite cliffs, which erupts with lavender-coloured spikes of squill and pink tufts of thrift in spring.
Zennor’s church, St Senara, is home to the “Mermaid Chair”, a 600-year-old pew with a mermaid combing her hair carved into its side. There’s a famous folktale attached to this pew, telling how a young man followed a mermaid over the cliffs and never returned.
Lamorna Ash, whose first book, Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town is out on 2 April (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
Big skies and salty air: Suffolk coast
The rich coastal landscape of Suffolk has inspired scores of composers, artists and writers, not least Benjamin Britten and the German writer WG Sebald, whose Rings of Saturn takes readers on a pilgrimage deep into the human soul. My own quest to understand why so many of us embark on pilgrimages began here, one April, as I set Sebald’s book down and turned my gaze out to sea.
With big skies and salty air, and hedgerows bursting with blossom and birdsong, spring here offers a tonic for mind and body; it feels like you can step out of time into a simpler world. I love to amble along the footpath by the River Blyth – starting from Walberswick. With marsh harriers circling overhead, waders calling and the song of larks ascending, your heart lifts.
In the opposite direction is a circular trail along wooden causeways through marshes where, by May, reed warblers will be busy building nests and cuckoos calling to their mates as they have done since time immemorial. For a fee of £1, the Walberswick ferry, a traditional rowing boat, will take you across the river to Southwold, and back to the 21st century.
Another favourite in spring, a little further up the coast, is the walk from Pakefield into Lowestoft, whose promenade and beach offer plenty of space. Inland, the 12 acres of formal gardens at Somerleyton Hall (check that it is open first) present lots of ideas for spring planting. It is one of the finest gardens in East Anglia, with areas from a walled garden to an arboretum. The rhododendron walk is amazing in May.
Victoria Preston, author of We Are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves, out on 9 April (£14.99, Hurst)
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