Seven great British night walks

So there I am, standing on the cliff tops, a salty breeze playing with my hair, the gentle splosh of waves the only noise intruding on a scene of peace and tranquillity. I'm on a stretch of Welsh coastline that is phenomenally popular with tourists, and yet I'm the only person around. Furthermore, I can pretty much guarantee that I'll have the place all to myself for as long as I like.

What's my trick? Well, such exclusive use of a treasured beauty spot can be achieved in two ways. Either you arrive naked waving a samurai sword while vociferously asserting your belief that aliens have replaced the prime minister with a doppelganger and are now running the country. Or – and this is my preferred option – you get there on a night walk.

Securing sole rights to lovely bits of town and countryside is, of course, just one of the many joys of night walking. There's also the velvety soft touch of the night air on your cheeks, the almost total absence of background hum and, up above, the friendly guiding presence of moon and stars. Unless, of course, you happen to choose a cloudy night, as I appear to have done as I head out of St David's, Britain's smallest city (population 1,800) and a place so far to the south-west of Wales that it's a wonder the sea hasn't yet reclaimed it.

At first, at least, the lack of help from the sky is immaterial since I have streetlights to illumine my way. This is just as well, because I find navigating urban streets with an OS map much trickier than guiding myself along rural footpaths and bridleways. Furthermore, I've made the schoolboy error of bringing an ordinary 1:50,000 map with me, rather than the more detailed larger-scale map I recommend for hikes after dark (Essential kit, below). Happily, the locals are friendly, and a chip-eating couple soon point me towards a path where a signpost urges me to sample the delights of St Non's chapel. I'm on my way.

The chapel ruins, in their nocturnal incarnation, take on a dark, brooding intensity, with a whiff of mystery about them – even the fact that the walls are guarded on all sides by a herd of cows does little to diminish the aura. I swoosh the dozy animals gently away, pass through a kissing gate and amble around the very place where, tradition has it, St Non gave birth to St David 1,500 years ago. Rather her than me, I must say. Perched up above the cliff tops, it must have made for a very breezy delivery room. She couldn't even count on a supply of healing water from the nearby holy well, since that seems to have been dug at a much later date.

It's appropriate that the chapel comes right at the start of my route, because there is something unmistakably spiritual about night walking. The quiet that descends is fundamentally different from any silence one might be lucky enough to experience during the daytime. The banal, too, can often be rendered beautiful. I've been on a hill above the M25 and watched, transfixed, as lorries thundered past below like a never-ending string of Christmas tree lights. Strolling here along the Pembrokeshire coast path, high above unseen sea, and with just the sky for company, I defy even the most parochial of minds not to dwell for a moment or two on the larger questions of life.

One of which, of course, is whether tumbling off a cliff is the best way of spending one's last few seconds, so I make sure to go carefully where the path nears the edge.

Descending steeply into the minute, unpopulated harbour at Porthclais – our old friend tradition has it that St David was baptised here – I'm plunged into a completely different world. The lime kilns beneath my feet once smoked at incredible temperatures, turning limestone, fresh off the boats, into quicklime ready to be spread on the local fields in time for the next sowing. Tonight, a century after the kilns were last lit, the only boats in the inlet are tiny craft that bob about happily under the protection of the cliffs. There are some picnic tables here, so I take a few moments to sit down and quaff some tea before hitting the road.

And I do mean the road. As a general rule, most hikers, amblers, ramblers and anyone else who wanders about for pleasure avoid roads wherever possible. They are, after all, the domain of cars, cyclists and myriad other moving objects that are unpleasant to collide with. However, I have no compunction about reclaiming some of Britain's minor roads for walkers after dark when the drivers and cyclists are tucked up in bed. Many of these thoroughfares will have begun life centuries ago as footpaths and drovers' roads, so their repossession by those on two feet is merely a way of returning them to their original use. Indeed, on the roads around St David's, the process has already taken place. On my entire walk I encounter five people but only two cars.

Being smooth and – relative to paths – quite wide, back roads have the advantage that you can walk along them without looking at the ground beneath your feet too much or referring to a map every 100 metres. Breezing up a hill between fields, I turn my head torch off – noticing for the first time that the clouds have parted to reveal a scattering of stars – and fill my lungs with cool dark air.

A question I am often asked about night walks is whether I get lost a lot. As an experienced walker and map reader, I tend to chuckle to myself and declare that it's not an affliction I suffer from. Even tonight, when I have equipped myself with a somewhat inadequate map, I'm confident of finding my way around without mishap. The fact that I have also somehow conspired to leave my compass behind complicates matters further, of course, since it's an especially useful item in the dark when the general absence of recognisable landmarks can make it easy to get disorientated. I do know how to find the north star, Polaris, but for most of the walk it is hidden behind clouds. It's just as well, really, that I can always fall back on my innate sense of direction.

It was when the sea was in the wrong place that I first realised something was up. I had left the road at a group of farm buildings to walk along a footpath that should have taken me to a small bay called Maen Bachau. The first few gates and stiles felt right, and even when the path petered out and I found myself on what appeared to be a large common, I remained largely unconcerned. It was when I turned to where the sea should have been, and found that I was facing away from it, that the alarm bells at last went off.

I'm afraid I'm not very good at being lost. I don't panic, I just get very stubborn. The more lost I am, the greater my ability to make my surroundings fit wherever I think I am on the map, despite any indications to the contrary. In this case, however, several million tonnes of the Irish Sea had appeared in completely the wrong place – evidence of a cartographical blunder on my part that even I couldn't ignore. I could do nothing else but admit defeat and retrace my steps back to the farm, whose name did at least appear on my map. Once returned, everything became clear. A signpost I had missed the first time sent me off at a very different angle from the one I had pursued. Much relieved, I trundled off down a wide track and through a gate. Ten minutes later I was completely lost again.

Happily, such incidents should be avoidable if you take a proper map and compass and are, perhaps, rather less blase about your route than I was on this occasion. Then you can relax and enjoy the thrillingly deviant feel that night walking gives you – after all, this is not really the way you are meant to experience the great outdoors at all.

I admit, however, that as a result of my two bouts of lostness, I was beginning to feel a little weary as I re-entered St David's at the end of my loop around the peninsula. Fortunately, there were two more treats in store to keep me from sleepwalking home. The ruins of the city's bishops' palace – beautifully illuminated and as silent as its stones – were breathtaking. Next door, across an unimaginably ancient cobblestone bridge, the mighty cathedral dozed. I crept across its graveyard. It was well lit up and really not scary at all. But it still sent a chill up my spine.

Ten top tips

• The routes on these pages are NOT fully illuminated, tarmacked, handrailed at all risky spots, patrolled by first-aiders or sheltered from wind, rain, sleet or snow. You're on your own here. If the conditions aren't right, or you're in any doubt about your ability to complete the course, find something else to do

• If you can, choose to head out on a brightly moonlit night without too much cloud cover

• Give yourself more time to cover the route than you would in daylight, to allow for extra minutes spent pondering over maps/directions

• Go with at least one other person if at all possible. If you twist an ankle, at least there'll be someone to lean on

• Use a head torch rather than a handheld device – it frees your hands for other tasks, such as map reading or tea swilling. Using a wind-up version saves you having to fumble about with spare batteries in the dark

• Always take a map and compass, even if you think you know the way. Things can and do look surprisingly different in the dark

• Use your ears to help you find your way around – the woodland stream on your map may not be visible but you may well be able to hear it

• Use your torch as sparingly as possible and let your eyes adjust to the dark

• Wear light-coloured clothing (and, if you can bear it, something fluorescent) so you can be seen by any stray nocturnal drivers

• If you have walking boots, wear them. To avoid stumbling on rough ground, pick up your feet a little more than normal.

Essential kit

• Map - large scale, ie 1:25,000 (such as the Ordnance Survey Explorer maps). In the dark, that extra bit of detail makes a big difference

• Compass

• Whistle - if you do get into bother, this is a good way of attracting attention

• Head torch - preferably wind-up

• Snacks and drink - it's unlikely you'll be able to stock up on either on your way round, and it's surprising how peckish and thirsty you can become even at night. In winter, think soup.

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