It’s late afternoon on Kington rec, the pretty riverside cricket ground of the Herefordshire market town close to the Welsh border. I’m strutting around under the watchful gaze of guide Ali Allen, as she shouts instructions. “Roll from heel to toe, loosen the shoulders, swing those arms, plant the poles … good!”
I may feel like I’m in a Monty Python ministry of silly walks sketch, but my introductory Nordic walking session is, apparently, going well, and after a couple of hours I’m starting to master the basics.
“Nordic walking is much more than just walking with poles,” says Ali, “It’s a workout for the whole body. Done correctly it uses 90% of your muscles, builds core strength, improves cardio performance, burns nearly the same calories as running, helps arthritic joints and posture – there are so many benefits.”
Started in the 1930s by the Finnish cross-country skiing team as a way to keep fit in summer, its popularity as a recreational sport has grown in Europe since the 1980sMore than 10 million people practise it globally and since its arrival in the UK in the early 2000s interest has grown. British Nordic Walking (BNW) estimates there are about 40,000 participants (up 20% in the last five years) and saw interest increase after the first lockdown.
“It’s not as common as it is in Europe, but more people of different ages are taking it up – especially since the pandemic,” says Ali who trained with BNW.
Our session covers 10 key steps, from properly extending arms back and pushing forward, to rotating the ribcage away from the leading leg. You move much faster than on an average walk and I feel lazy upper body muscles ping into action. While picking up the technique isn’t too difficult, mastering it takes about three months.
Ali, a former nurse who lived for years in the US, also uses the method to help clients with posture issues and injuries. “It helps people walk more upright and can be useful for rehabilitation.”
Besides private and group lessons, Ali runs Nordic walking weekends (Covid rules permitting), from the timber-framed B&B above her shop, The Walking Hub, on Kington’s High Street. I’m here between lockdowns, and the package, which includes two nights’ accommodation, an introductory lesson and a walk in the countryside putting new-founds skills to the test, will be available again from mid-May. Stays can be tailored to suit, with longer guided walks and dinner an option, too.
Kington makes for a pretty base. I wander up to the church, passing galleries and independent shops. The town lies on the Offa’s Dyke long-distance trail, a 177-mile route between Sedbury Cliffs near Chepstow and Prestatyn on the Welsh coast, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in July. Once a thriving wool-trade town on a drover’s route, there’s a network of paths to be explored close by. It’s about 15 miles from Hay-on-Wye, but much quieter, and even holds its own walking festival in September (scheduled for 16-19 this year).
The B&B, which dates from the 1700s, is reached by going through the shop – an Aladdin’s cave of eco-walking gear and accessories. All wood-beamed and wonky floored, there are two comfortable rooms and a cosy lounge, and breakfasts are healthy organic pancake and fruit stacks or homemade granola and yoghurt.
After our rec training session I join Ali for vegetarian chilli and chats about her love of the area and the outdoors. The next morning, we rise before dawn, taking breakfast with us, and climb to Hergest Ridge on the outskirts of town. At its highest point, marked by a distinctive cluster of monkey puzzle trees, we stop and take in the views and sip coffee as the sun comes up. The early-morning light reveals the silhouettes of hills and mountains – to the west, the tops of Radnor and the Brecon Beacons, to the east the rolling countryside towards Hay. There’s no one else about.
My Nordic walking skills need a little refresh, but soon I’m powering along – the poles helping with ascents and descents, too. Ali keeps an eye on my technique, sporadically giving instructions and encouragement. For pockets of time the moves feel natural – and then I lose the alternate foot to arm coordination and have to start again.
We cross briefly over the border into Wales and follow the Offa’s Dyke trail into the village of Gladestry before heading back into the hills and valleys, the views constantly impressive. I feel the muscles in my arms kick in, an opening across the chest and a sense of strength and power I’ve not experienced on a “normal” hike.
Ali shares local knowledge and folklore, including the tale of 15th-century Black Vaughan, whose spirit plagued the area around the manor house of Hergest Court. A black dog – upon which Conan Doyle based The Hound of the Baskervilles – reportedly haunts the house. The house is now owned by the Banks family, who also own the (unghost troubled) Hergest Croft Gardens, another delightful string to Kington’s bow. The 28 hectares (70 acres) have more than 5,000 rare trees and shrubs – and we wander woodlands with streams and waterfalls.
The Royal Oak pub in Kington hits the spot with a decent Sunday lunch offering: I have spinach filo pie, though others dive in to the carvery. Then, my route home takes me past the black-and-white towns and villages of Leominster and Pembridge. It’s such a picturesque spot, but attracts fewer visitors than other quintessentially English honeypots in busier counties and I’m keen to return to see more.
A few weeks after my trip and I’m the owner of a new pair of lightweight carbon poles. I take them out in my local park, feeling a bit self-conscious, but when I get the moves right I notice my body power up and forget about what anyone might think.
There’s definitely more to it than just walking with poles.