“It’s like dipping into a warm bath,” says Alastair Campbell of the television format that documents his freezing hillside adventures in snow-blanketed Yorkshire.
The former Downing Street communications director is one of the latest set of public figures who are taking viewers on intimate hikes around some of the North’s most beautiful landscapes in the BBC’s Winter Walks.
The four-part series sees familiar faces talk candidly about thoughts, emotions and lost loved ones while out for a crisp stroll on different routes across Yorkshire and Cumbria.
It begins on Monday night with Amanda Owen, who shares what life is really like living and working as the ‘Yorkshire Shepherdess’, while exploring familiar territory in Wensleydale and Raydale.
Campbell, who is also an author and broadcaster, discusses his experiences of mental health issues during the second episode while walking across the snow-covered hills of Ribblesdale around Settle.
The series later joins the Reverend Kate Bottley, who reflects on her faith, while the quiet and stillness of Nihal Arthanayake’s walk in Cumbria gives him a fresh perspective on work and relationships in the final episode.
Along the way, they meet the characters who are familiar with the local terrain as the guest presenters also uncover secret histories, breathtaking views and unwind in the gentle sounds of nature.
Campbell was born in Keighley but left aged 11 after his father, a vet, was injured in an accident with an animal.
His love of nature is evidenced by his “tree of the day” updates on Twitter and with his partner, Fiona, he frequently walks on Hampstead Heath in north London, where he lives, and recently visited Germany’s Black Forest.
“I’m very fortunate in my life and that I can pick and choose what I do,” he says. “I don’t really have to do much that I don’t want to do. I get all sorts of TV offers, from the ridiculous ones like I’m A Celebrity... and Strictly to serious documentaries and presenting. And the truth is I say no to most of them.
"For me, it’s always going to be something that I’m either going to find very interesting and challenging or it’s something that I just think is going to be nice and different and hopefully have some sort of impact on people.”
The solitude of presenting Winter Walks – each guest host documents their hike with a selfie stick and a 360-degree camera – was a draw for Campbell.
“It’s amazing how quickly you get into the norm of just talking to yourself and it’s almost like interviewing yourself – you’re asking questions in your head and then you’re verbalizing the answers. I do find I opened up with myself much more than I thought it would, to be honest.”
The effect becomes apparent as Campbell speaks about grieving for various family members and stops on a bench to deliver a poem – presenters performing verse is a recurring feature of the programme – that his late mother had written by hand, discovered after her death.
He has lost two brothers, Graeme and Donald, in addition to his parents, and friends who have died include former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and political consultant Philip Gould.
In the episode, he speaks about how being in nature helps him to make sense of grief. Mortality is a theme which presenters ponder at various points through the series.
He adds: “When I was asked if I wanted to do Good Morning Britain, and I couldn’t 100 per cent decide whether it was for me or not, I obviously took the views of my kids and Fiona, my partner, but then I actually wrote down all the people who were close to me who are dead and I went through and thought, what would they say? I do imagine these conversations with the dead.
“And I just think it’s amazing that, my mum, I’d never heard her say that before – but there it was. When she died, she left this pack of papers and there it was, that poem was in there.”
During the episode, Campbell walks 5.3 miles between Scaleber Force and Catrigg Force via Settle, enjoying along the way a visit from a robin, the brilliance of the Dales’ stone walls, vast scenery and the rejuvenating physical activity itself.
In recent years, he has campaigned to raise awareness of mental health issues – he once had psychosis and has faced depression throughout his adult life – and hopes that anyone watching will appreciate the benefits of getting out into nature to their wellbeing.
He recently spoke to a doctor who has started to recommend long walks for depression and anxiety before offering them medication, he says.
“For a lot of people, that might be the thing they need,” says Campbell. “It might be the thing that brings them out themselves, to maybe talk to someone else. I always feel that when I’m out walking, my mind clears.
“It sometimes ends up more cluttered because you’re thinking things through but generally my mind clears and that’s a very therapeutic thing.”
Owen, meanwhile, enjoys a hike over the fells between Bainbridge and Semer Water, Bottley goes from Jervaulx Abbey to Middleham Castle, the ruined fortress that was a childhood home of Richard III, and Arthanayake wanders from Arnside Pier to Jenny Brown’s Point.
The Yorkshire Shepherdess tells viewers: “As a shepherd and a hill farmer you do not set out on a walk for no reason – so this is a bit of an adventure, really.”
Owen, a mother-of-nine, continues: “It feels just a bit strange because I’m on my own. There’s nobody nipping at my heels, there’s nobody asking questions. That’s not to say that I don’t like being out and about with the family and the children – of course that’s great – but the old analogy, a dog being like its owner, is true. Because sheep dogs can’t switch off. They just want to work, their minds are buzzing. That’s how I feel.
“So many different things coming at you from so many directions. A bit of headspace is good for everyone.”
Taking ancient routes first made by the Romans, Owen meets fellow sheep farmers and exchanges notes on their shared occupation.
Speaking of her determination not to feel bad for her day off work, she recites the poem Freedom by Olive Runner.
Traversing the dramatic Yorkshire landscape, she says: “It really highlights that you are very temporary – just a custodian for a little while before somebody else takes over.”
The first episode of Winter Walks is on BBC Four, from 7.30pm on Monday.