You’d have thought that, living alone for a year in a medium-sized town without access to powered transport, I would have explored every corner of greenspace within a five kilometre radius of where I live.
Not even close. This week, by opening my eyes and following my nose, I discovered pockets of unexplored nearby nature less than 1,500 metres from home.
There are two memorial benches here, dug into the sandy, salty soil among the steadfast pine trees. Better yet: someone has thrown a wooden rope swing over the lowest branches, still four metres overhead. We swing in the silence and I know that this discovery will become a part of my day-to-day.
Finding unexpected adventure in the millionaire’s jungle ravine
Yesterday I took a wrong turn, taking a right when all historical data indicates I should have carried straight on along the sea front. But the arctic wind was blowing at my back and I didn’t want to become one of those I saw on the return journey, walking into the gale with face masks pulled down to protect themselves from the spitting sand.
So I took a right turn, into what felt like a ravine, with sheer loamy walls underpinned by pines. The concrete path flowed gently upstream with Victorian ironwork overhead and rough cut steps laddering up to the hidden turrets of expensive villas.
The footpath coasted left and I could see two young mothers pushing prams down towards me—towards the wind-backed ocean. But I didn’t want to leave the pines yet and the canyon continued invitingly ahead, a quiet, ancient, grass-dried river, promising overgrown adventure and restoration.
As I walked on, the ravine closed in, the pedestrian pathways disappeared up beyond the canopy, the grassy floor gave way to thistle and thorn. Rhododendrons greedily clutched at scraps of sunlight. Black bin bags had been thrown down from on high and stood at the side of the path, waiting for collection. A supermarket shopping trolley sank into a thin layer of mud, a long way from home. The path—I think it was still a path—twisted over and around roots and stumps, leading me on into the darkening underworld.
Somehow, against all odds, I had found something that made me feel something. Senses on stalks. In the silence, I could hear my heart in my chest and my blood in my ears. The secret ravine had me gripped by the seat of my being.
I didn’t bring a phone on this walk so I can’t show you any photographs. And I’m glad. Not only because my smartphone can get in the way of my connection with nature, but also because, ducking under the out-thrust bough of a denuded beech, I realised that photography would be an invasion of privacy.
I was not alone. For here, at the butt-end of the ravine, overlooked by the views from million pound properties, was a clutch of six forgotten tents. I stood still, breath short, straining my senses for signs of strangers. Who lives in a place like this? But the camp was silent. Its occupants, presumably, out on business.
As I moved through the camp, the tents became more ambitious until I reached the premium pitches at the back of the canyon, where the goat track was finally choked out by thorny scrub.
Here, two large tents faced each other, guy ropes pulling the canvas taut against the branches of overgrown rhododendron. A table was folded out between them and two tarpaulins stretched over as a canopy to protect the patio space from rain. A bicycle was locked up against a pole of a tree. I could smell the tang of human sweat and the faintest memory of a campfire.
I thought about leaving my card, but had none to leave. Perhaps they’ll see my bootprints and wonder who dropped by. Perhaps they had been watching me all along, assessing friend or foe.
I tried to bushwhack my way past the tents, through to the ruins of Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, longing for escape from the ‘slow dissolution’ of England, ‘Land of Counterpane’. But, scrambling up the mud side walls, I was stopped short by a chain link fence and a line of garden sheds.
I slipped back down into the shelter of the ravine and retraced my steps, back through the undergrowth, past the shopping trolleys and the tents. The path widened and opened. I could hear the burbling of a water main, squirrels leapt from under my feet. A mother and her daughter pushed their bikes over the iron wrought bridge as I passed beneath.
How connection with nature beats time in nature for happiness and wellbeing
Earlier this year, Miles Richardson and a team from the University of Derby published a paper suggesting that the restorative benefits of nature come from ‘moments, not minutes’.
The study found that how long we spend in nature wasn’t sufficient to explain significant increases in our happiness and sense of living a worthwhile life or reductions in our feelings of ‘illbeing’—depression and anxiety.
According to Richardson, what really counts is how connected we feel to nature and whether or not we actually notice the natural environment around us. This noticing happens through ‘simple actions’: relaxing in a garden, watching bees and butterflies, smelling flowers, listening to birdsong, collecting shells or pebbles, drawing, painting or photographing a beautiful plant—or perhaps celebrating a new moon by climbing the clifftops.
I have been very lucky this week to enjoy a few of these moments, from swinging among the pines to beating through the ravine undergrowth. I find it immensely encouraging that we don’t all have to be like Henry David Thoreau, who couldn’t be content without at least ‘four hours a day … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements’.
So when we’re out in nature this weekend, let’s all—pause—sit—notice—the green life growing around us.
How to notice nature: use this calming sensory meditation
A great way of noticing nature that I use is the classic 5-4-3-2-1 sensory meditation. Find a comfortable spot, ideally surrounded by nature, but allow whatever your environment allows.
Notice 5 things you can see.
Notice 4 things you can feel.
Notice 3 things you can hear.
Notice 2 things you can smell.
Notice 1 thing you can taste.
This meditation can take five minutes; it can take five hours. Completely up to you. Let me know how you get on!
Thanks to L.H. for the starry nighttime ramble along the clifftops.
I grew up in a swathe through beech forests so it’s no wonder that I find the pines, redwoods, sequoias, cedars and cypresses of the south coast alluring.
Today, Bournemouth is famed for its vigorous tree culture — famous enough in 1948 for poet laureate John Betjeman to take the piss out of the modernising town clerk who longs to build blocks of flats over the town’s clifftop pine woods:
I walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine
In resin-scented air like strong Greek wine
And dream of cliffs of flats along those heights,
Floodlit at night with green electric lights.
My view from the eighth floor of one of those ‘cliffs of flats’ is dominated by city and canopy, a testament to a centuries-old commitment to greening and salubrious landscaped woodland.
But it could all have been so different.
From heath to health
Two hundred years ago, Bournemouth was at the arse-end of what Thomas Hardy imagined as ‘the Great Heath’ and described as follows in Return of the Native:
A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!
At that time, stretching right away from Christchurch to Poole was a vast, desolate heath, covering an area of probably twenty square miles.
Meanwhile, at some point before 1875, a contemporary writer nailed Boscombe as ‘a scene of indescribable desolation’.
The turning point for the blasted land came in 1809, when, out of nowhere, a pub appeared. Where there is booze, retired army officers shall not be far behind and Lewis Tregonwell and family became the first official residents of the budding hamlet in 1812.
Latching on to far-fetched rumours that ‘pine-scented air’ was beneficial for popular nineteenth century maladies like tuberculosis, Tregonwell and Sir George Ivison Tapps, the owner of the pub, conspired to cover the heath with hundreds of pine trees, all the way down to the seashore.
Over the ensuing decades, these two wily entrepreneurs somehow transformed Hardy’s inhospitable heath into a miracle pine health spa.
But what’s almost more remarkable about this story is that those rumours about the health properties of pine were bang on the money.
Pine trees vs cancer
The scent of pine trees comes from its resin and specifically from two isomers of pinene. If you’ve ever used turpentine: it’s the same chemicals and the same woody smell. (Enjoy responsibly.)
Pinenes are a type of chemical called phytoncides. You might recognise the -cide ending there. Yep: pinenes kill stuff. It’s the pine tree’s all-natural antimicrobial killer defence spray.
And it works on us too.
Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has been investigating the effects of phytoncides on the human body since the early 2000s.
In one, frankly astonishing, 2009 study, Li invited 12 men to come and stay with him for three nights at an ‘urban’ hotel. If that sounds dodgy, wait until you hear what happened next: every night, he pumped vapour from the pinene-rich oil of Hinoki cypress trees into their bedrooms.
At the end of the study, the poor men showed a significant increase in the activity of their natural killer immune cells (this is good: these cells kill cancer) and a significant reduction in noradrenalin (AKA norepinephrine), which usually increases when we’re stressed or in immediate danger.
They also reported feeling less fatigued compared to a control hotel stay that lacked the vaporous phytoncide air.
And so back to Bournemouth, where the tradition of ‘taking the tree air’ continues with the council’s healthsome Tree Trail. (Betjeman’s town clerk was fired, I hope.)
Untold riches — of Redwoods, Cedars and Cypresses
The trail is heralded as ‘a two hour circular walk through Lower, Central and Upper Gardens’, but so far I’ve spent over four hours and have only rather shakily identified half of the 14 mapped trees.
I could spend two hours alone at the foot of Bournemouth’s Dawn Redwoods, a species once believed to be extinct, forgotten for five million years, rediscovered in its native China during the Second World War, and now lording it over the social distancing picnickers and parkour traceurs of the Upper Gardens.
Or I could cosy up for an afternoon with the Blue Atlas Cedars, re-seeded from the mountains of North Africa and now almost shyly gathering around the Hedgehog Kiosk, as if waiting to be invited for ices.
I must find time enough too, far from their Mississippi swamplands, for the Bald Cypress, those of the tree knees, whose canopy has that fibrous quality of ferns writ large, leaves that are hardly there, yet diffuse the sun into soothing colour.
And this walk of almost infinite discovery scoots over the single greenway of Bournemouth’s central gardens. The verdant chines — of which Betjeman’s Branksome is but one — are a tree trail tale for another day.
Thanks to A.T. for discovering and then sharing the Bournemouth Tree Trail with me!
There’s nothing like a public sauna for meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. The health benefits are well documented, but the real value of a sauna is in the friendships you make, however brief.
Saunas are too small for private conversations. None of us can help eavesdropping and I’ve not met anyone yet who minded.
Jack caught my attention with the conversation he was having with his pal. They sat down heavily on the wooden slats of the sauna in my local leisure centre.
Jack’s friend put his feet up and asked: ‘What’s your business name gonna be?’
Great, I think, I love hearing about people’s mad business plans.
‘What do you mean?’ Jack replied.
‘I thought you were going to pretend you had a business,’ his mate says. ‘But you said you needed to make up a name.’
Pretend? Make up?
‘Nah,’ Jack says. ‘I’m gonna tell her it was my grandad’s business.’
‘Oh, and you inherited?’
‘Yeah. So if she asks any difficult questions, it doesn’t matter when I don’t know the details.’
Her? She? Inherited? Difficult questions?
‘Like, if she asks what kind of car I drive,’ Jack continues, ‘I’ll just say an Audi S4 and tell her my grandad’s the one who was into cars.’
That seals it: these guys are clearly planning some kind of fraud or, at the very least, catfishing on Tinder.
I interrupt: ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
Jack looks up from the floor, a bit sheepish. ‘It’s a new E4 dating show.’
‘What, really? I thought you were catfishing!’
Jack laughs. ‘Nah. This girl has to choose between four millionaires – except one of the millionaires isn’t a millionaire.’
‘And that’s you?’
‘How could you tell?’ Jack and his mate laugh. ‘I haven’t got a clue what millionaires do. I’m more of a Lidl kinda guy.’
The woman sweating beside me joins in: ‘Oh, I love reality shows!’ she says. ‘How did you get it?’
‘They just messaged me on Insta,’ Jack says.
‘Is there a prize?’
Jack scratches his head. ‘I guess the prize is her,’ he says. ‘The producers can’t tell me much, but they say she’s a ten.’
I’m not sure I like the general drift of this show. ‘What’s her prize, then?’
‘What do you mean!’ Jack says indignantly, before laughing at himself. ‘Her prize is all the swanky dates us four take her on, I suppose.’
‘You’re not paying, though, are you?’
‘No – that’d give the game away straight up. Cheeky Nandos, love?’
The woman on my left laughs with unpolished delight. ‘Or maybe it’s like Love Island and she gets a cash prize as well.’
‘I applied to Love Island this year, actually,’ Jack says. ‘Got down to the final round.’
‘Amazing!’ the woman says. ‘Are you gonna apply again?’
‘Definitely. Next year I’ll have this E4 show on my CV and I’ll be able to say I conned a girl into thinking I was a millionaire – hopefully.’
(This story was, of course, first written up as part of my daily diary.)
Instead of slogging across the M4 corridor from London to Bristol, I took a one day flying-cycle across three counties from Bournemouth to Midford.
If I needed any reminder of why Britain is the most beautiful country to traverse, then I got it. I haven’t always thought this way about our shores, always wanting to be elsewhere and ideally elsewhen. But what better place is there than right here? Continue reading Biking Bournemouth-Bristol
Robert Louis Stevenson’s former residence is a glum affair, not least because it was completely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.
The day I visit is blue skies and October sunshine, but Skerryvore is cast in a shiver. Pines loom over the miserable ruins, given time to grow and overgrow since the bombsite was turned memorial garden 60 years ago.
RLS’s time in Dorset was not unhappy, but still plagued by ill health. I walk the stone path that steps through the house, foundations laid bare. Past the kitchen, down the hall, to the study and the drawing room. With their backs to the road, two graffiti-scarred wooden benches sit either side of what would have been his back door. You can imagine RLS writing at his desk in the bay window, looking out to the ceaseless sea.
On one of the benches a dishevelled man rolls a cigarette, between sips of a can beside him. He sits as he’d sit in his living room at home and sticks to his work while I kneel and read the stone inscribed to RLS’s memory. It tells me that the house, Skerryvore, was named after the tallest lighthouse in Scotland, built by the writer’s uncle.
A man-sized stone replica of the lighthouse stands as an appropriately nautical memorial for the man who wrote that ‘the proudest moments of my life have been passed in the stern-sheets of a boat’.
RLS only spent three summers at Skerryvore, but still found time to write both The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped. He never felt the chill of an October here, wintering more salubriously in the Alps, and after that hattrick of summers he left for good, freed from the shackles of Europe by the death of his father. RLS’s doctor urged a climate more suited to his health, and he did not hesitate.
I walk forty paces around RLS’s garden, pulling my shirt collar up as I do. I peer through the thick pines, across the scar of Alum Chine to a haphazard cliff garden on the slopes opposite. The smell is heavy damp. I know why he flew south for winter. I finish my short circuit and return to the lighthouse memorial. The dishevelled man is still rolling his tobacco.
The other bench is dedicated to another Scot, a Glaswegian. Perhaps he wished to be remembered alongside his countryman, believing he’d found a kindred spirit in the sutherlands. But with what alacrity RLS moved on, following those stern-sheets for Colorado, Hawaii and the South Seas.
Seven years after leaving Dorset, RLS died pulling the cork from a bottle of wine at his estate on Western Samoa – not exactly as he wished, but satisfactorily enough.
I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse – ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution.