If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure for a big surprise…” The cheerful voices carry through the arboretum as a young family walk hand in hand. Their singing is hushed, as though the towering trees are sacred, like the arches of a cathedral. The ‘big’ surprise isn’t ground-breaking though – numerous studies have shown that forest bathing, the practice of being and breathing in the air around trees, reduces stress and increases our ‘happy hormone’, oxytocin.
In his recent study, Urban Mind, Dr Andrea Mechelli of King’s College London discovered that those who experienced a single exposure to nature during their day showed an increase in their mental wellbeing that lasted for over seven hours. After working abroad for several years, I’m yearning to swap skyscraper shadows for the comforting shade of trees and experience the effects for myself.
An information board welcomes me to Blackwater Arboretum in New Forest National Park, Hampshire – my first step towards reconnecting with the forest I once called home. It displays words from wellness writer, Katrina Mayer: ‘Time spent amongst trees is never wasted time.’ I know she’s right. Arboretums – a term first used by Victorian botanist John Claudius Loudon – are botanical gardens devoted to growing trees either for conservation or research. Though the name came later, the process of collecting and caring for trees has a long history that stretches back centuries.
Blackwater was originally an oak crop planted in 1850, before the first arboretum plantings were initiated in 1960 by the New Forest’s deputy surveyor Arthur Cadman. In the decades since, it has been carefully maintained and regenerated. Blackwater Arboretum and the adjacent Tall Trees Trail are home to both native and exotic trees, including some of the tallest and oldest redwood and Douglas firs in Britain. It’s managed by Forestry England, which cares for around 20 percent of the country’s woodlands, and forestryengland.uk is a great resource for finding local woodland to explore. A second board maps out the half-mile sensory walking trail, encouraging me to touch, smell and listen to the sounds of the forest.
Never one to ignore a well-placed sign, I breathe in the crisp air, inhaling deep earthy smells of soil, bark and damp moss. There’s a good reason the air feels fresher out here. Trees breathe in pesky pollutants and replace them with oxygen, purifying our atmosphere. Over the course of one year, one acre of trees can absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide released by a car driven 26,000 miles – that’s further than driving once around the earth! Evergreens like pine and conifers also release pungent essential oils called phytoncides, shown to stimulate the activity of our virus-fighting cells, strengthening the immune system.
Fallen leaves crunch beneath my wellies, like cornflakes underfoot, as I venture beneath a canopy of trees from across the globe, from a Canadian red oak to an Australian snow gum and European silver firs. Each of the 114 species is labelled with its name and country of origin to guide visitors around the arboretum.
Through dappled sunlight the forest becomes a natural fashion show. Trees of all kinds model this season’s autumn/winter colours: warm reds, spiced oranges and burnt yellows. As I rest on one of several shaded benches, I’m taken back to the watercolour landscapes of a Beatrix Potter story book, half expecting to stumble across woodland creatures in waistcoats and bonnets. From the branches overhead comes the high-pitched ‘zeee’ of a goldcrest. Small black boards dotted around the arboretum are inscribed with inspiring quotes from writers such as William Wordsworth and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like an Easter egg hunt, it becomes a game to spot the next delicately painted board tucked between low tree branches.
More sensory boards offer facts about the plants, encouraging interaction with the environment. Inspired, I search for conifer cones beneath fallen leaves, running my fingers across their scaly surface. I learn that the cones house tiny winged seeds, waiting for an opportune moment to open so that the breeze can carry them to the perfect place to grow. Today, the track is mostly deserted.
With the New Forest spread across 219 square miles – an area almost the size of the city of Chicago – there’s no shortage of walking routes. The only other person I come across is a woman in well-trodden wellies with a mud-splattered Labrador bouncing at her heels. She smiles. “He loves it here, all the smells and sounds, he thinks Christmas came early.” Dog walking is a popular past-time at the arboretum.
Rosetta Plowright is joint-owner of the Forest Side Guesthouse in the local village of Lyndhurst. Once her guests are settled in, Rosetta and her Goldendoodle, Archie, love to spend a peaceful afternoon in Blackwater. “It’s one of my favourite places,” she says. “We live in such a fast-paced world nowadays, so for me, it’s really important to step back and reconnect with nature.”
Rosetta has created a walking map of Blackwater, the Tall Trees Trail and nearby Bolderwood Arboretum for her guests. “They love it,” she says. “Everyone is surprised – they pull into a busy car park and think they’re going to see a lot of people, but you just don’t. You can really lose yourself here, it wraps itself around you and it’s a beautiful, peaceful place to be.”
Exploring further, I spot oversized sculptures of acorns and fir cones. These sculptures, by local artist Richard Austin, are part of a conservation project, ‘Our Past, Our Future’, designed to restore woodland and inspire new generations to care for the forest. Today, I’m in no doubt that the restorative effects of my walk will linger. My shoulders feel looser, my mind clearer. No distractions; no phone signal, no noisy café or gift shop. Just me, myself and nature. Here among the trees, I feel like I’ve come home, in more ways than one.
Planning a visit? For more information on the New Forest and Blackwater Arboretum visit thenewforest.co.uk.
Why being outside is good for you
Feel the changes to your physical and mental wellbeing as you explore outdoors…
- A walk among trees has been shown to reduce blood pressure as well as the stressrelated hormones cortisol and adrenaline. The colour green relaxes our nervous system, encouraging steadier breathing and helping us to detox pollutants from our lungs.
- Soil microbes are home to friendly bacteria – breathing them in stimulates the immune system and boosts our mood.
- Trees are nature’s air purifier, taking in harmful pollutants including carbon-dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ammonia and sulphur dioxide, leaving us to breathe easier.
- Studies show that spending time in nature can boost our problem-solving ability and creativity by up to 50 percent.
Inspiring arboretums to visit
Enjoy gorgeous woodlands across the UK with our top picks. Please check their websites before visiting in case there are any Covid-19 restrictions in place.
Discover trees from China, Japan, North America, Chile, and Europe. Admission price also includes entry to the Bird of Prey & Mammal Centre – kids will love the daily displays.
Set against a picturesque backdrop of one of England’s oldest university cities, this arboretum hosts regular wellness events, including yoga and meditation.
A place of reflection featuring 30,000 trees and over 300 poignant memorials, many dedicated to lives lost in the armed forces.
Take a journey through the canopy on a 300m-long walkway – Westonbirt is home to 2,500 tree species, including some of the rarest and most endangered on the planet.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 30. Featured image by Unsplash/Richard Loader.