Richard Hollingum on the joy of a good walk…
A number of years ago I went through a particularly difficult period, a result of work-related stress, a feeling of continually running to catch up, the conveyor belt forever getting faster and narrower and all the while attempts being made to knock me off. If I fell off, I knew that I would have to get back on and have further to go. But to go where?
One day, I jumped.
Now, don’t get carried away, I was stressed and I suppose I was depressed but not in any clinical way. I had certain physical characteristics of stress but fortunately I only descended into a dark brown study at the worst of times. By jumping off, I stopped everything: work, interaction with the outside world, and, to a certain extent with the inside world as well. For the first few days I did very little other than sleep.
Then, it was suggested that why did I not go for a walk? I am fortunate to live in a very lovely part of the county in a small village surrounded by fields. I can be out of the house and crossing a field in a matter of minutes.
On this particular day, I wandered, rather aimlessly, along a main footpath, and then turned off to climb a little higher along the edge of another field. At the crest of this little rise stood an oak tree. Probably not as old as we might like to think, given the age they can reach, but still impressive and made more so given its situation atop this rising land.
It was June. I stopped under the tree and looked out across the crop which ran gently away down the slope towards the stream. The sun was regularly interrupted by frisky clouds and the light across the top of the barley changed all the time. I stood, I looked and I started to breathe. Not that I had been holding my breath all the way there you understand, but I became aware of my breathing, that it was slowing down, that it was alright to take longer and deeper breaths.
I sat down.
Now my eyes were level with the top of the crop and I watched the barley sway to the beat of the wind, the long strands emphasising the back and forth motion. The sky was a deep blue, the crop a golden brown; the silence broken only by a skylark and a sigh that escaped from somewhere deep inside.
The awareness of the value of the countryside, or just being out in the open air, is increasing. In the last ten years or so there has been study after study looking at green-space and mental health, the value of exercise outside the gym and the use of the bucolic environment in alleviating symptoms.
In November 2016 the Chief Executive of Natural England, James Cross, speaking at a conference about mental health, dementia and the natural environment, said that with the rise in both these conditions in the UK, the cost of treatment is also going to rise and therefore new models for care needed to be examined. Building on the NHS view of developing wider individual and community engagement by promoting ‘social prescribing’, Natural England, along with other agencies are looking at ways of increasing the beneficial impact of the natural environment on people with mental health issues.
In 2014 the British Journal of Sports Medicine published research that showed that walking in the countryside (or ‘in Nature’ as one commentator referred to it) causes electrochemical changes in the brain leading to positive emotional mindsets. There is, of course, no suggestion that this is a quick cure, but there is a certain amount of common sense wrapped up in scientific proof – because we do not believe anything unless it has been scientifically proven.
However, the benefits of being outside and taking part in ‘green exercise’ is now widely accepted. The Countryside Recreation Network research into such benefits came up with nine recommendations, including that the health sector should consider ‘the contribution that green exercise makes to public wellbeing and saving money for the NHS’ and that Social Services should ‘acknowledge that green exercise has clear mental health benefits’.
The things that the countryside gives you include space, open air, and silence. Well, not silence but different sounds, sounds from nature and sounds from man but not the constant hum of people around you, the various voices from televisions, the blasts and the bangs from screens and the perpetual soundtrack through your headphones. Shutting out the aural intrusion of the outside world by creating your own only increases the volume.
Get out into the countryside – a field, a wood, open heath.
The sounds in our heads will be loud at first. We want to communicate. We want to use the mobile to talk, to message, to listen to music. Turn it off. Just half an hour without it will not bring the world to a halt.
What can you hear?
The wind blowing; some leaves on a tree rustling.
A blackbird nearby shouts because you might be a threat. Smile at him.
A car travels along the road on the far side of the field; it doesn’t bother you so don’t be bothered by it.
Close your eyes.
Continue to listen.
More than the rustling leaves; branches are creaking.
The wind drops.
A pigeon flaps off from a nearby bush, the wings, as if in need of oil, squeaking as it passes overhead.
An aeroplane passes across the distant horizon.
As you walk, keep listening.
As well as the open countryside, woodland holds a special magic for people and is often a place for retreat and reflection. Take a walk in the woods in Northamptonshire – Salcey, Fermyn, Fineshade to name but three – and you can quickly see and feel the appeal of them as safe sanctuary, somewhere to go to reflect, recover and revive.
Choose your wood and your time of visit carefully if you are looking for quiet reflection and you will be rewarded with an experience that will massage your senses.
On a recent walk in such a place I was struck by the mixture of being out in the open yet enclosed, enfolded almost. On a sunny day the light does wonderful things, sending shafts down through the gaps in the canopy, illuminating the green lichen on the bark, forming pools of yellow on the floor and highlighting clouds of insects dancing in the air.
Forest Bathing is fast becoming the must-have outdoor therapy in the West, a sort of guided mindfulness training involving trees. I have to admit that trees are inspiring, living things, something to look up to (literally) and to rely on, and in their presence one can feel at once enthralled and safe.
I also have to admit that I would be very wary of buying into essentially a walk in the woods with added reflection moments because it was part of some ‘health package’ at a health resort or spa. When done properly and in the right way, shinrin-yoku is, apparently, very beneficial. So beneficial in fact that the Japanese have introduced it as part of a national health programme, but this is in a country that is even more crowded than ours and with a workforce even more stressed than ours.
However, take the principles, save your pounds and head for the trees. A wander in the woods is a great way to absorb the sights, the sounds, the smells, to feel grounded.
For some, it is a great place to sit and meditate, for others, just to walk slowly. Do we need forest therapists? For some, there is a need to have a catalyst, a person to nudge, to suggest. This might be a health worker, a therapist – or even a concerned partner. “Why don’t you go for a walk?”
I did. And I still do.