It’s been a while since we went for a wander through the ancient woodland within Heartwood Forest. I recently came across the term ‘forest bathing’ and like the sound of it. Apparently it’s a new idea from Japan –‘Shinrin yoku.’ Although it’s a familiar concept and I’m sure the hippies must have come up with it originally.

It involves switching off our minds and phones and walking among trees, taking slow deep breaths and absorbing the soft green light of the canopy of leaves, touching the bark, or lying down on the soil and feeling the Earth’s slow pulse.

My husband is more concerned with the practicalities of reading the map so I let him lead, while I consciously slow down my thoughts, relax my mind and experience being alive through my senses. I tune in, and can hear birdsong and the crunch of twigs underfoot. The fine meadow grass is scattered with amethyst-toned bluebells.

The air is so fresh, my lungs are humming, my nose is clear and my skin feels dewy. I feel as if I’m an inherent part of this woodland. When I think back to growing up in an inner city, going to the park with the family was always a delight, but nature there clearly doesn’t exist on such a grand scale. Here, nature is wild, the land is vast and I can feel my smallness; here the land is not a cultivated garden or park set up for my pleasure and there is no background noise, no rumble of an aeroplane overhead or distant purr of cars.

We emerge from the woodland a bit lost. I like the feeling, and smile to myself. My husband has a serious expression and stops to look at the map more intently. I stand there enjoying the rich smell of honeysuckle; it’s sweet and surprisingly intense. The trees arch over us, their leaves provide shelter, casting soft emerald green hues. Eventually, we come to an opening and a field of rapeseed radiates bright yellow across the landscape. We walk up to a kissing gate, kiss, then set off along the bridleway to have a look at the newly planted forest.

I continue to keep my breaths deep and take in the purity of the air. We walk on and suddenly a group of small birds appear fluttering about then perching on some nearby branches; excited by their beauty, I observe their exotically-coloured feathers in deep shades of yellow and red, my husband thinks they must be finches. I later discover that we’d witnessed “a charm of goldfinches’ on the move from Southern Europe!

Apparently there has been a general reduction in tree planting by successive governments so I’m thinking about joining ‘Trees for Cities’. It’s the only UK charity that concentrates on planting urban trees to create greener cities. In March they planted their millionth tree just outside St Thomas’s Hospital near the houses of Parliament!

Considering that around almost 80 per cent of us are now living within or in close proximity to urban communities, I feel that it’s the cities that need our attention. I remember opening my front door onto a city morning, the air being quite fresh but always laced with fumes from car engines. I’m fascinated to learn about ‘urban biodiversity’ and recent trends such as ‘living walls’ and ‘green roofs’.

As we’re all aware, trees are purifiers, releasing oxygen and soaking up the city’s pollution and noise levels thereby contributing to city dwellers sense of wellbeing. Trees create an aesthetic value providing a variety of forms, colours and shapes. For me, it’s precisely in the middle of a housing estate or on hospital grounds where trees can make areas more attractive places in which to live and work.

On our way out of Heartwood, we chat with a Woodland Trust representative about what a pleasure and privilege it is to go for a stroll in this forest; we learn that there are currently over 900 planning applications to build on this ancient woodland and feel quite shocked by that. As we leave we congratulate the charity on the completion of their ten-year project of planting 600,000 trees here. Such a colossal achievement!

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city.