The Japanese phenomenon of Forest Bathing has spread across the globe, with thousands now aware of the health benefits of spending time peacefully in nature. For those of us with a tendency to hurry everywhere it can be hard to just stay still, so going Forest Bathing with someone who knows what they are doing is the best way to learn.
Local company, Dorset Forest Bathing, runs events in various places in Wiltshire and Dorset, one of which is a nature reserve, the Devenish, in the Woodford Valley near Salisbury.
The Devenish is 56 acres of woodland and meadows in the beautiful Woodford Valley just north of Salisbury. It is owned by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, donated by the previous owners of the land, the Devenish family. This area was once typical Wiltshire chalkland, until the creation of parkland for Little Durnford Manor in the 1700s. An avenue of beech trees was planted and later on the woodland area was expanded for pheasant shooting.
On sloping chalkland, there is a mixture of types of woodland, with both deciduous and coniferous trees. Coppicing in some parts has allowed the light to reach the ground, meaning that some areas are filled with undergrowth while other areas just have soft loamy, rotting, leaf-covered soil. There is a huge variety of birds, insects and fungi in the woods, and the chalk meadows are filled with orchids and butterflies.
They include fragrant orchid, clustered bellflower, harebell, common rock rose and devil’s-bit scabious, which provide nectar for butterflies such as the chalkhill blue and marbled white. Birds in the area include the garden warbler, blackcap and great spotted woodpecker, and buzzards can be seen wheeling majestically overhead.
We met Lindsey from Dorset Forest Bathing in the Devenish car park on a grey Sunday morning and after introductions, set off through the woods. Once we had climbed the steep steps to the top of the hill and paused to catch our breath, we did the first ‘exercise’. This involved holding something from the forest floor and focusing on it, to take our minds off their normal internal narrative and transition into just being in the forest.
For the next two hours we wandered through the woodlands, occasionally chatting, but also in silence, listening to the sounds of the forest.
When we did talk, it was of the wildlife around us; the sound of a woodpecker, the droplets of water decorating cobwebs, snail shells that looked like they were made of wood, how the rain sounded like the wind or the waves on the sea. It was very soothing to just focus on our immediate, natural surroundings.
Lindsey, having always worked in conservation, knew the names of much of the flora and fauna we encountered and we would get down to ground level to examine some aptly named 'dead mans fingers' fungus, prod a huge bracket fungus just to see how hard it felt, or examine a pile of empty shells wondering what had caused this snails' graveyard.
Other exercises included going off at intervals to sit quietly on our own, being given an approximate time to reconvene - if we missed it then a soft whistle from Lindsey would get us back to the group.
One of these exercises was to just sit with a plant, in any way we wanted. I chose to sit under a huge beech tree listening to the rain above me, and found myself examining the forest floor; picking up fallen beech nuts, stroking the soft inner and spiky outer shell, entirely lost in it until I was distracted by a squirrel who was scuttling along branches nearby.
I realised I had been so still that he hadn't viewed me as any sort of threat, so different to my normal walks into woods when wildlife normally flees as humans approach.
A final exercise was to go off on our own, lie down and stare up at the tree canopy. It was too wet to lie back fully but I found the perfect tree to lean back on. I sat on my waterproof mat and leant back. I was protected from the rain and just sat there examining the different colours of green where the leaves overlapped, noticing the holes and veins in each leaf, watching the water drip down the trunks near me. I found myself almost drifting off, it was hypnotic and very soothing.
After this and feeling very peaceful, we left the woods and emerged into the meadow at the top of the hill, being greeted by far-reaching views over the valley. Traditional Japanese Forest Bathing culminates with a tea ceremony to mark the end of the process, to reflect on the time under the trees and to transition back to normality.
We sat on a wooden bench and drank peppermint tea, our hands wrapped around the warmth of the beautiful hand-made ceramic cups. We talked about what we had seen and then made our way back down the hill, knee deep through a field of orchids and butterflies, before we arrived back where we had started out and it was time to head for home.
I found the whole experience to be really rewarding. My eyes and ears had become far more attuned to my surroundings than a normal walk in the woods could ever achieve. I was comfortably tired afterwards, feeling very relaxed, peaceful and ready for a nap.
Forest Bathing with a guide is something I would recommend - I doubt I would have been able to achieve the same just by heading off into the woods on my own.
If this sounds a little unusual, I can only suggest that you keep an open mind and try it for yourself. There are numerous scientific studies which prove how forest bathing can improve both physical and mental health with a multitude of long-term benefits (article coming soon), so I would encourage everyone to give it a go and see for yourself.
Dorset Forest Bathing takes place at a number of different sites in Dorset and Wiltshire, all of which can be booked online.
VISITING THE WOODFORD VALLEY AND THE DEVENISH
How to get to the Devenish
Postcode: SP4 6AJ
Public Transport: Catch the 201 from Amesbury or Salisbury. The journey takes about 15 minutes. Find timetable >>
Parking: If you are driving, there is a small car park on your right on Beech Walk as you drive from Salisbury. If you are cycling, it is an easy 4 mile ride on cycle paths and quiet roads.
When is the Devenish open?
The woodlands are open daily, all year round.
How much does it cost to visit The Devenish?
The site is free to visit and there are no charges for parking either.
Are there any facilities at the Devenish?
There are no facilities here other than a car park.
Which is the nearest town to The Devenish and Woodford Valley?
Salisbury is the nearest town. See our Salisbury City Guide for details on how to get to Salisbury, locally owned accommodation, restaurants and shops, further places to visit and things to do.