The Japanese have a concept called shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates to a forest bath.
It might sound unusual, but swimming in the woods is all about immersing yourself in nature and making the most of its therapeutic benefits – trying to focus on the present, avoiding distractions, and in general, live a sensory experience when you are in the forest.
It’s an ancient practice in the Land of the Rising Sun, and people there were doing it long before the term was coined in the 1980s by the country’s agriculture ministry.
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With the post-Christmas blues in full swing, I decided to see if the therapeutic benefits of forest baths would work for me and headed to Hamsterley Forest in County Durham.
Hamsterley is over an hour from my house, but I chose it because it has a dedicated wellness hiking trail.
Forestry England, which manages the area, began testing wellness trails across the country last April and claims to use the principles of shinrin-yoku.
Currently there are only four in England, but two are in the North East. The other is in Chopwell Woods, near Rowlands Gill, but one section is closed after damage to overhead power lines by Storm Arwen.
Having been isolated with a nasty bout of Covid, I couldn’t wait to get some fresh air. The further I got from the A1, I noticed more and more cars with a blanket of snow on their hoods, and I was thankful that I had wrapped myself up in the warmth.
Arriving at Hamsterley Forest it was not immediately clear where to find the Wellness Trail. There were signs for regular trails – I eventually found the wellness one by looking at signs outside the park office. Only to find out it wasn’t a new trail at all – it was the Bedburn Valley Walk.
With Forestry England always announcing ‘new’ wellness trails on their website, I expected a little more than some signs on an existing walkway.
However, if ‘shinrin-yoku’ did work, the environment would be enough to improve the mood, and I would recover quickly.
The 2.5-mile Bedburn Valley Walk is a loop from the main Hamsterley parking lot, which is also a starting point for other (longer) hiking routes and 33 miles of cycle paths – most of which were found in the parking lot were on mountain bikes.
This begins with a meander through the forest before taking a steep incline for about five minutes. From the start of the trail the sound of running water was constant, whether it came from the river below or from the small waterfalls that flowed on either side of the trail.
Occasionally birds mingled in it too, or I heard a laugh or an elated “cry” from a mountain biker in the distance.
At the climax of the walk, looking out over the valley, it started snowing again and stopping to take in the view of a brilliant blue sky while feeling the flakes land on my face as a mental highlight, as well as an a geographical.
As much as I hate to admit it, the signs along the promenade got me thinking and encouraged me to do things I wouldn’t normally do.
There were eight in total, reminding me of things like taking a deep breath, making a mental list of things I was grateful for, and taking a break and being in the moment.
Despite my previous doubts about adding signs to an already existing trail, I had noticed a change in mood by the time I returned to the parking lot. I felt lighter and refreshed, stopping to notice more of the sun shining through the trees or to feel the crunch of the thin layer of snow underfoot. Whether it’s the signs or just the surroundings, I don’t know. Maybe it was a bit of both.
But with the stress coming from all kinds of new angles over the past couple of years, since the whispers of the coronavirus snowballed into a seemingly endless scream, sometimes a plank in a forest telling you how to enjoy your surroundings and keeping yourself away from stress, uncertainty, illness, worry, anxiety and depression, no matter what part of your life it is from, is not the worst thing imaginable.
It looked like another version right there.
Is it worth going for the walk itself? Hard to say. If you live nearby, of course you do. Hamsterley Forest is beautiful and I’m glad I went – it looks gorgeous in the snow, and will be back when there are more daylight hours for a longer walk or mountain bike.
And it is achievable if you have a moderate level of fitness. While not too difficult, my heart rate was between 130 and 150 bpm for much of the walk after the initial steep climb.
Did I need a two hour round trip to disconnect and de-stress? Absolutely not. If that’s what you’re looking for, maybe take some aspect of shinrin-yoku – focusing on your senses, being in the moment – and apply them to a favorite location near you. You can see it in a new light.
Hamsterley Forest – useful things to know
Hamsterley Forest is about an hour from Newcastle by car and 36 minutes from Durham. The nearest large city is Bishop Auckland, a 17-minute drive away.
Walking shoes are useful for trail running but not essential. It gets pretty muddy in the middle of the trail below, but I do well with a set of old scruffy sneakers.
Car parking costs Â£ 6 for the day or Â£ 2 for less than an hour. But you will probably want to stay longer.
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