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.