Discovering Forest Bathing in Yorkshire

If visitors to Thorp Perrow go down to the woods today , they’ll probably find Faith Douglas hugging a tree and getting back to nature. Sally Clifford reports. Pictures by James Hardisty.

.Forest bathing at Thorp Perrow in Bedale, Pictured Faith Douglas, curator of the Victorian Arboretum at Thorp Perrow. Faith, lives and breathes her work and is a true advocate of the power of trees for both our mental health and well-being
.Forest bathing at Thorp Perrow in Bedale, Pictured Faith Douglas, curator of the Victorian Arboretum at Thorp Perrow. Faith, lives and breathes her work and is a true advocate of the power of trees for both our mental health and well-being

There’s a slight apprehension about venturing into the woods. Perhaps this unease and wariness have been instilled in us from childhood through the fate of characters in Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and The Gruffalo – stories with a dark and mysterious setting. Away from the world of make-believe, it is natural for us to feel out of our comfort zone in unfamiliar surroundings. We experience different emotions, anxiety and wariness, but it shouldn’t necessarily instil fear – nor should a trip to the woods, if you know what is good for you.

Faith Douglas is a true advocate of the power of trees for both our mental health and well-being. Faith literally lives and breathes her work – the home she shares with two of her four children is set amidst within the beautiful landscape of Thorp Perrow in Bedale, North Yorkshire, which is her workspace as part-time curator of the Victorian arboretum.

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It is through this role that Faith is passing on the many health benefits exploring this natural environment can bring.

Pictured Faith, smelling the flowers on a witch hazel with in arboretum.

The former nurse worked in mental health and trained in mindfulness as a technique to look after her own well-being. “I used to walk in the woods after a shift,” says Faith, who was eager to explore more about the benefits it brought her.

Her passion for nature prompted her to retrain in horticulture. She began working for the charity Horticap, delivering horticulture therapy to adults with a range of learning disabilities.

In 2012, Faith created an education garden within the arboretum with a group from Help for Heroes’ Phoenix House recovery centre, at Catterick Garrison, and was offered the role as garden projects leader in 2013.

Her motto is for us all to “connect in nature”. The walks she runs at Thorp Perrow, Dalby Forest and Swinton Park Hotel and Spa are very much based on this mindset, whether focusing on digitally detoxing – stepping away from social media and technology for a short while – strolling in silence or taking our shoes off to feel the earth literally beneath our feet.

Faith Douglas, curator of the Victorian Arboretum at Thorp Perrow. Faith, lives and breathes her work and is a true advocate of the power of trees for both our mental health and well-being

Barefoot walking is natural in some other cultures, as Faith explains. “In our culture we deem it to be a bit weird, but your whole body changes having skin contact with the ground. It lowers your blood pressure, your heart rate and you get a natural energetic boost. It is a really mindful activity.

“The benefits are brilliant, other cultures have found that people report less back problems, less neck problems and they walk completely differently. They have less lower body problems.

“The health benefits are absolutely fantastic and it’s great fun. You don’t have to be a child to kick your shoes and socks off – it’s just a great thing to do.”

Barefoot walking will be among the mindfulness activities Faith that is offering alongside bushcraft and survival expert Paul Holden Ridgeway, as part of the Op Spartan weekender from March 25 to 27 in Richmond. Op Spartan was founded by Stephen Burns MC to support veteran and uniformed services.

Faith, amongst some of the large conifers within the Arboretum.

A night walk that Faith is planning in November will showcase the arboretum in a different light. “The idea is that at that time during the evening the light levels are such that night vision kicks in. All the leaves will have dropped from the trees. There are really dark skies here – you look up and you can see the silhouette, you can see this backbone, this skeleton and it is completely different looking at trees,” she says.

Forest bathing is another way of engaging people with the natural environment – something Faith discovered through her mindfulness and reiki practice. It is a technique practised by different cultures all over the world.

She says some countries have designated woodlands and forests for relaxation and connecting with nature. Trees naturally give off phytoncides, or wood essential oils, she says. When inhaled, she claims they have been scientifically proven to have a beneficial impact on our nervous systems. Being in a wooded area can reduce stress levels and generally improve our quality of life.

Faith began practising forest bathing seven years ago, but noticed more people were keen to tap into its benefits following the pandemic.

Faith, feeling the texture of the bark on a Ash tree

“After the pandemic people responded to it by going outside, going out in their gardens, going for walks,” she says.

“We spend our lives with blinkers on, but people were recognising how they felt good and it made me realise people were looking at alternative ways to make them feel good. We were outside and that is where forest bathing comes into its own because it is mindfulness in nature.”

To feel the benefits of nature we need to do it “mindfully”, according to Faith. “Mindfulness is the latest buzz word and thankfully people everywhere seem to be aware of it and its uses in everyday life,” she says.

Embracing the true benefits of nature involves switching off from everything else, being fully aware of the environment you are walking in and not just passing through.

“This is where Forest Bathing UK can help. Through various guided activities and exercises, everyone can benefit from becoming more mindful in a natural environment,” says Faith.

“Connecting in nature can help everyone not only connect with nature but also connect with themselves and others.

Faith, resting on a Silver Birch.

“People often find that once they become more aware of their surroundings, they become happier and more rounded as individuals, relationships strengthened, goals achieved and hurdles overcome.”

Such is Faith’s knowledge and expertise around the benefits of being among trees that she has written a book. The Nature Remedy, published by HarperCollins, came out during the pandemic. It focuses on forest bathing, along with other beneficial aspects that nature can bring to our health and wellbeing.

“There is so much more about nature which has a positive effect on us as human beings. It starts with the earth and sky. It really does come back to basics, the planet we inhabit down to the food we eat, the medicines we take, the animals we live alongside as well as trees, plants and flowers. I talk about mushrooms, moss, the oceans, the weather and the seasons because they have an effect on us as well,” adds Faith.

But she admits writing a book took her out of her comfort zone. “It wasn’t easy because I spend my life away from a computer and a laptop,” she says, referring to the two years it took from vision to fruition.

The book, along with Faith’s walks and her

wider work in horticulture, are tools for encouraging others to experience and practise those techniques to manage their own mental health and well-being.

She is also involved in a new feature at this year’s Harrogate Spring Flower Show in April and in 2016 received the Silver Gilt Award for her Healthy Roots garden designed around the therapeutic benefits of nature at the Harrogate Autumn Flower Festival.

“It is a way of life for me and it’s really important that I walk my walk and talk my talk – I wouldn’t feel authentic if I didn’t,” she says.

“I know it helps people, from the science I know it helps people and it is so easy. I like to think that nature should be, it’s free to everybody. We are an animal that occurs naturally on this planet, the air we breathe is from nature. Magic really does happen when you go into nature.”

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