100 Things To Do In The Forest

Magic fairytale forest with fireflies lights and mysterious road

Whether you’ve always been an outdoorsy type, or the confines of the recent pandemic has led you to embrace new al fresco activities, there has never been a better time to connect with nature. For starters, it’s now proven to have positive effects on your mental wellbeing. We say now because it’s a relatively new concept. Professor Miles Richardson who led a recent study undertaken by the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group revealed that in 2001 there wasn’t a single research paper on ‘nature connectedness’ but that over the past decade, research in this area has blossomed due to the focus on the mental health crisis. Indeed, their study over four years has found that simply ‘noticing nature’ significantly improves quality of life. Similarly, Japanese studies have reported that just by looking at plants you can alter the electrical activity (pumping) of the heart, reduce pulse rate, muscle tension and blood pressure as well as boosting your mood.

It’s no coincidence that the activity known as Forest Bathing originated in Japan. Also known as Shinrin-Yoku, it was developed in 1982 as part of a national health programme designed to reduce the population’s stress levels. A practice that aims to open the senses to the forest surroundings, it teaches participants to inhale the forest air, listen to the sounds around them, feel the breeze on their skin and take a moment to connect with their environment. Gaining traction in the western world over the past couple of years, you can easily go forest bathing of your own accord or if you could sign up to some Forest Therapy where you will be assigned a guide to help get you in the swing of things.

Shirley Gleeson set up the Forest Therapy Institute last year which is an international training organisation for Certified Forest Bathing Guides and Forest Therapy Practitioners. “It’s a ten-day intensive course with a six-month mentored practice. Guides are trained choosing the best forest trails in terms of restorative elements (natural soundscape, flowing water, rich in biodiversity, wide variety of tree types etc) and also trained in designing sensory nature-based invitations to deepen your relationship with nature, enhance vitality and reduce stress levels,” explains Shirley.

You can find a list of certified guides and practitioners on their website but it’s becoming more commonplace than you might think so don’t be surprised to see it pop up on a spa menu. At Armathwaite Hall Hotel and Spa in the Lake District, they’ve recently introduced a two-hour immersive Forest Therapy session. “We were running a forest bathing package without a guide which was proving popular, but we felt participants were missing an important element and with a specialist, it’s a much more fulfilling experience in helping participants connect more fully with nature,” explains owner Carolyn Graves. Led through the hotel’s 400 acres, the experience ends with a tea ritual in the woodland gazebo. Bliss.

If you go down to the woods today

While the idea is to immerse yourself in the outdoors without technology or distractions, there are some apps that provide some virtual hand holding. Go Jauntly, a walking app, has a new function called Nature Notes that encourages users to record three things they’ve noticed in nature every day. Birdsong, the smell of wild flowers, an unusually shaped tree – it all counts. And if you’re getting more inquisitive by the day, there are also apps like Chrirp! that helps to identify birdsong and Plant Snap where you can upload a picture of a plant that’s caught your eye and it will report back with its vital statistics. Nature Finder is another good shout as it contains maps, events and listings of over 2000 nature reserves in the UK.

There are even festivals dedicated to the forest – Timber, held at Feanedock, a woodland site on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border is far more than tree hugging and combines music, workshops, dance, gong baths, forest bathing and campfire stories for a nature-immersive experience like no other. And while it’s been postponed until next July, they are encouraging people to submit 60 second soundbites of the forest around them to create a soundmap that brings together tones and textures from the world’s woodlands. An ongoing project, it’s possibly the most relaxing thing you’ll hear if you’re stuck inside.

On The To-do List

Another excellent resource is forest educator Jennifer Davis’ book, 100 Things To Do In A Forest, out in August. Suitable for solo explorers or families, it does what it says on the tin and throws up original and unusual ideas of how you can spend your time outdoors. “We live in a world where we’ve become so accustomed to having goals, intentions or ticking off items on to-do lists. This book makes several suggestions for gentle activities that you can do to enable the process of letting go and just doing not very much,” says Jennifer.

Forest bathing is just one of her suggestions. Others include Nature Framing, Pond Dwelling, Urban Cooking, Fish Tickling, Green Exercise, Insect Management and Dadirri – another ancient method of reflection that utilises nature. “It’s an aboriginal practice in which people employ stillness, deep listening and a willingness to look within,” explains Jennifer. “It is far more self-focused than forest bathing which is about taking in everything around you and heightening the senses. It’s about becoming part of the natural world, rather than an observer of it. Many people find that they are uncomfortable with the level of inner-reflection that dadirri indicates as again, it’s the opposite of our fast-paced solutions-focussed society but by practising it you will become more tuned in to the energy of the world around you.”

Not all of Jennifer’s suggestions might resonate with you but even if you simply use some of them as a starting point you might notice you start to feel better in mind, body and soul. You might also subconsciously start to switch your habits. “Several years ago I read some research that said that people who spend regular time in a particular outdoor space are more likely to become environmental advocates for that space when it is threatened. I loved the idea that just being in the woods would naturally turn you into an eco-warrior and that it really was as simple as just going to the same green space regularly,” she says.

Does exercising outside count?

According to these latest studies, it’s what you notice when you’re outside that counts and will impact how you feel rather than how long you’re in the open air although the University of Exeter has found that 120 minutes a week in nature is the sweet spot. A bootcamp in the park won’t cut it though. You’ll still get the endorphins and fresh air, but your focus will naturally be elsewhere – “it’s more a form of green exercise than forest bathing,” explains Shirley. It’s also proven that the more you do your chosen activity – eg go for a walk in the woods, the more benefits so choose something that you can do almost every day rather than a once a week, weather-dependant activity.

How you’ll know if it’s working

Feeling calmer, more positive and less anxious are all wellbeing benefits that are said to come from spending time in nature. Carolyn Graves also flags up that it has been shown to accelerate recovery from illness while Jennifer says that alongside rosy cheeks and a feeling of cheerfulness, people report better sleep and is often one of the first things they notice. Then there’s the desire to share the good vibes. “If you find yourself asking other people to join you on your next woodland exploit, you’re probably reaping the rewards and subconsciously hoping to share that joy with others,” she points out.

Regardless of whether you remain working from home or the busier pace of life is returning, if there’s one thing you take from this slow-moving start to the year, make it an affiliation with the outdoors. Once you’ve found that natural high, you’ll be hooked.

Timewasters Inc

3d model of an hour glass icon with a nearly complete ring around it in pink on blue background

Apparently Shakespeare banged out Macbeth, King Lear and Anthony and Cleopatra during a bubonic plague lockdown. Well bully for him. Since I self-isolated, I’ve managed a few cursory paragraphs of the book I’d apparently been waiting for this opportunity not to write, a couple of short articles and made a feeble, unsatisfactory attempt at finishing Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light on Audible for God’s sake!

Is it just me or has this pandemic radically shortened our attention spans? I’d like to blame the news, but I have imposed a black-out, because it made me too angry.  I’d blame box-set bingeing if I could find anything I liked enough to devote more than about 30 minutes to. And what about the menopause and mental health?  Candidly, I had made inroads into both of those afflictions in one way or another before this whole thing began, and I’ll still have them when it ends. So I guess I’m going to have to go with the trite: unprecedented times.

In light of the aforementioned, I have developed a range of displacement and time wasting activities, so honed that they would surely qualify as an art form. And so my fellow time fritterers and challenged attention spanners, I present them to you, in the hope that they might reinforce VH’s sentiment that we are all in this together. I should add that that management and I take no responsibility for you damaging yourselves or your furniture in any way.

  1. Hair cutting. Number one on the list of top time wasters:  A hairdresser would tell you not to, but unless you are trying to cut yourself an entirely new style, or a plumb line straight fringe, I say go ahead. There’s serious satisfaction to be had from snipping away at irritating layers and split ends. Make sure your scissors are sharp. On short hair or fringes, take a piece and pull upwards above your scalp and then snip down into it, rather than straight across. Pull long hair in towards your nose, chin or chest before you snip and constantly check each side as you go, measuring against where the other side falls. Position a hand mirror if you can so that you can see the back view too.   Snip gradually. Or you could do what I did last week during my brief 10 minute yoga session, keep your scissors close and chop away at the ends as your hair falls over your head towards your feet. Very satisfying.
  2. Oiling. Not the car, you. A friend who sailed around the world endorses the use of any form of domestic oil before or after a shower to keep things in good order. Try it. It’s inexpensive – I like Olive or Almond but you can as she says use literally anything – canola anyone? Don’t forget nails and hair, both benefit from an oiling up before showering or bathing. You can of course go the whole hog with your hair and crack an egg on the top and massage in (or whisk it up beforehand for less dramatic effect). It works.
  3. Makeup kit clearance. Top displacement therapy. I don’t wear much makeup, but I have recently discovered that much of what I do possess is ancient. Surely you too have a few dried mascara brushes, hollowed out blushers and crumbling lipsticks to attend to? The key is their appearance and their smell. If your mascara pongs then chuck it out immediately, if your eyeshadows are crumbly like old Christmas cake icing then do the same. Wash your brushes, sponges and that makeup bag in warm water with a drop of washing up liquid. If you’ve got stuff you have never used then try it out (see 15 minute attention span) but be prepared to jettison.  Just because Beyonce can wear gold eye shimmer, doesn’t mean you can.
  4. Un-Kondo. I’ve read the book. I’ve sorted through and given away. And I regret it bitterly. Nostalgia is sometimes the thing that ‘gives me joy’ . This has led to my buying back items I’ve given to charity shops and lamenting the things that have already been sold by the time I’ve rushed there. If you have passionately loved something, but haven’t worn it in years , now’s the moment to  get it out again and flaunt it (who’s going to see you in those sequinned hot pants?) or pack it up and store it – under the bed, in the garden shed (damp proof box naturally) or if you are fortunate in ‘the spare’ wardrobe. Do not under any circumstances waste time by putting it into your ‘charity bag’. That’s for things that you never want to see again, either because they bring back bad memories, or they don’t fit. These are, I believe, the only reasons for you to cleanse yourself of your clothes. Now and in the future.
  5. Exercise Ambush. I used to be a manic exerciser. These days not so much, in fact these days often not at all. To keep myself somewhat fit I’ve had to develop a kind of exercise via stealth approach. This means that I spring exercise upon myself when I least expect it: star jumps whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, toe touching and sit ups whilst waiting for the washing machine to finish, I’ll often seize my weights whilst on hold via speakerphone, something I seem to do endlessly these days. My neighbour does the same thing with his daughter, suddenly breaking into a jog or sit ups with her, making a competition out of it. What I’m saying here is that if exercise has become a chore (and I know that for some people it’s still the saving grace it used to be for me) then you need to go full Cato. If you don’t know who Cato is, then watching the Pink Panther movies starring Peter Sellars and Herbert Tsangtse Kwouk, will most certainly be a valuable waste of your time.
  6. Housework. Don’t do it. Kidding, sort of. When the world is falling apart do we really need to care about the dust and debris of everyday living? Far better to develop one particular time wasting mania, on the basis that doing one thing is better (marginally) than doing nothing. My own current fascination is for taps and how best to shine them. Next week it might be for wooden floors and how to clean them. This is what the internet is for people – my taps will never go grubby again. I’m adding that to my CV.
  7. Children’s TV shows. The stuff of your youth, not your youth’s youth. Think back to what you loved and look it up on what my gran calls ‘The YouTube’. This is also a valuable displacement activity, the satisfaction for which is not to be underestimated – I’ve been humming the theme tune to Flambards for weeks and Pogles’ Wood- well, I want to move there. Speaking of which…
  8. Property porn.  Both you and I know that we are not going anywhere, well certainly not for the foreseeable. But why let that stop us?  Think of the place you most fantasise about living, plug it into a property portal and pore over the delicious results. There are still lots of houses out there to fritter away time salivating over. I know this because I check daily. Sometimes twice daily…..

The Strength Of Weak Ties

Paper people holding hands on light background. Unity concept

There’s a scene in either a David Lodge or a Malcolm Bradbury novel, in which a couple are in the bathroom drawing up their guest list for a party, when the husband turns to his wife and asks, in weariness and desperation: “Who do we know who we don’t know?” Despite my confusion about which particular novel and which particular author — and with apologies to both of them — I’ve thought of that scene very precisely every time I’ve tried to draw up a list for a party over the 35-odd years since I read whichever novel by whichever author. In a very different way, it has been in my mind over the past few months; but now it feels as if it has a particular resonance.

This is not because I’m wearying of my friends or thirsting for fresh blood. Far from it: I draw immense comfort from the many ways my friendships are interwoven in the very fabric of my life. But this fabric is woven from other threads too, although they are looser ones; these are the people whom, in a manner of speaking, I don’t know. And what I have grown to appreciate is how very important they are. This is scarcely original: it is the theory of “weak ties”, a term that I feel does little to convey how important these connections are.

Of course, in some instances, it is appropriate enough. For me, a weak tie adequately describes that loose link I have with people with whom I might do no more than exchange pleasantries: the Ocado delivery-van driver (and yes, I do know I’m a middle-class cliché) or the person I see regularly sitting outside the café that I pass on the way to the corner shop or chemist. Neither could be said to be a relationship, but both form part of the network of importantly inconsequential communications that make me feel like a human in the world, rather than a mere isolated individual.

But there are deeper connections in my life that would still be categorised as weak ties, and which to me feel anything but. The daily chats I have with David, my postman, the weekly sessions of putting the world to rights with Rex the fishmonger, are not mere niceties, but the establishing of real relationships. And I know that the accepted benefit of these so-called weak ties is generally held to be that when we talk to those outside our close circle, we receive different “information” and thus broaden our experience of the world, but to me it seems increasingly clear that what these exchanges give us is a different sense of ourselves.

With friends we reveal what we think of as our true selves: we show our vulnerability and we voice our deeper concerns. And this is wonderful, but it is also emotionally taxing, although I am also willing to believe that it may be more of a feature of female friendships. But when we chat with people we wouldn’t think to ring when there’s a crisis at two in the morning, we are, in a sense, our better selves. Or certainly, our idealised selves: there is something gloriously uplifting about chatting with people one wouldn’t moan to. It shakes us out of our patterns and habits, and allows us to inhabit a cheery personality that isn’t false or assumed, but springs spontaneously. It’s as if, in these condensed exchanges, we don’t have time to be burdened with the heavy complexity of life, and can enjoy the lightness of social interaction.

At its heart, of course, it’s also about community. I’d go mad if I lived in an actual village, but we all need a bit of village life. And chatting with those we come across because of where we live, or what our daily or weekly activities are, gives us that and, even better, gives us the pure upside of it, without — and it’s the Londoner in me talking, perhaps — the claustrophobia.

I have always found those casual conversations and gentle banter with those who feature significantly in my life but are not emotionally entangled in it a source of joy. But I have grown to realise how essential they are in letting us feel connected to an often elusive sense of optimism about life in general. In the seemingly superficial exchanges, we perhaps express our deepest belief in a shared humanity. And we have a laugh too. There’s a strong case to be made for weak ties.

Kate Spade’s Death Is A Lesson In The Price Of Illusion

yellow handbag

I was standing in the immigration queue at JFK when the news of Kate Spade’s suicide flashed on the TV screens in the hall there. It was all the more shocking because, even if you don’t believe in that ultimately empty trope about having it all, Spade, one of the fashion industry’s more discreet, more down-to-earth individuals, really did seem to have a lot: husband (and business partner) she’d been married to for 24 years, a longed-for child, one business empire already behind her- she cashed out approximately $94 million from Kate Spade- and a nascent label, Frances Valentine, named for her daughter, which she launched in 2015.

At 55 she seemed in her prime.

They’re quite brutal about news delivery in the US. It’s infotainment red in tooth and claw. Snatches of the suicide note she left to her 13 year old daughter Frances Beatrix Spade (“This has nothing to do with you. Don’t feel guilty. Ask your dad”), footage of her body being carried out of the Manhattan apartment block where the Spades lived, complete with selfie-snapping onlookers….all in ad-friendly bite sizes.

Waiting for the passport stamp, I looked up an interview I did with Kate in 2003, parsing it for any clues of the darkness to come. Ghost seeking.

When we met she was delightfully upbeat and strikingly approachable, although for someone who was cheerleading the world into its first steps towards wearing colour after a decade of monochrome, she wore an awful lot of black. When I asked her the question that all women asked (how to incorporate colour into your life), she sweetly suggested a big coloured ring. “Because for a lot of people, colour’s quite scary. You have to take it slowly.” Was this some kind of prophetic metaphor?

Flashbacks to Alexander McQueen’s suicide- in 2010 he too hanged himself – and L’Wren Scott’s suicide in 2014 are inevitable. What about John Galliano’s crazy apparently alchohol-fuelled and self-destructive anti-semitic rant in 2011? Or Claude Montana’s tormented and tormenting relationship with his wife and muse Wallis Franken Montana, which ended when she killed herself in 1996 – a scandal from which his reputation never recovered. And who can forget the tragic early death of fashion stylist Isabella Blow in 2007 after suffering from depression for years and becoming concerned about her career waning?

The journalist Michael Gross famously described the fashion industry as a place filled with beautiful people and ugly deeds. By their private and often suppressed nature, it’s impossible to say whether depression and despair are any more rife in fashion than in other industries. One of the desperately sad aspects to emerge from this latest tragedy was Kate’s sister Reta Saffo saying that the designer’s death was not unexpected and that the pressure of having a famous brand may have both caused her bipolar disorder and also stopped her from getting treatment. “We’d get so close to packing her bags, but in the end, the ‘image’ of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out,” she told the Kansas City Star.

Yes, the pressures of fashion are immense and public – but that’s also true if you’re a surgeon, a politician or a single parent holding down three jobs. It’s also true that the relentless fixation on surface means there’s an inherent unwillingness to grapple with deeper truths.

The disconnect between being a glazed style plate and the messy reality of being human, add to the weight, sometimes to an unbearable degree. Maintaining a glaze of perfection at all times becomes as much as part of the job as anything else.

Let’s not forget the self-reinvention that is one of fashion’s immutable rules for career advancement. Whether it’s enhancing one’s early childhood to make it seem more aristocratic (a favourite among older-school designers) or emphasising gritty episodes to flesh out a street-cred image, designers especially, often feel they need a dramatic back-story to attract interest and many end up feeling trapped by the contradictions.

André Leon Talley, the cape-wearing, larger than life eminence who for decades abseiled the heights of Mount Fashion as an editor-at-large on American Vogue, last month railed to The New York Times about the way fashion doesn’t care for its people.

Reaction to his comments were mixed, but he certainly encapsulated a tension that whilst not unique in fashion, can be toxic: that of needing to look glossy, successful (read rich) and connected, even when you’re lonely and isolated in a hotel room on peripatetic schedule that would defeat most nomads.

For the most eloquent disquisition on isolation and superficiality, read Joan Juliet Buck’s recent autobiography. Buck, once a mink-and-Cartier-swathed editor-in-chief on French Vogue (and also Von Ackermann’s one time boss – the two did not get on), was eventually “let go” amidst rumours of a number of personal problems. Buck is notably hazy on the details but searingly lucid on how in-thrall she was to the outward trappings of a successful fashion career. The title of her book, The Price of Illusion, says it all.

Interestingly, it has been mooted that Spade may have had financial worries. The same was said of L’Wren Scott, a state of affairs which if true, would have been all the more worrying to Scott whose brand was all about expensive aspiration.

But even rooting a label in a Gothic sensibility, as Lee McQueen did, is no inoculation against external expectations. Those death-obsessed, poetically dark shows of his might have been cathartic, but in the end he still yielded to the demands of being McQueen.

Kate Spade’s business and persona were predicated on a sunny, upbeat quintessentially American interpretation of chic. As the tributes on social media and the floral offerings laid outside the 200-plus Kate Spade stores across the world suggest, her playful but ultimately pragmatic aesthetic touched millions of women. Her death, however, is a reminder that outward glamour is, by definition, a chimera. We should all, in an age of endless self-branding, be wary of the price of illusion.

Natural Ways To Brighter Eyes

close up pink flower

You’ve probably noticed that D.I.Y beauty – whizzing up ingredients to make your own cosmetics – has become a bit of a trend. Well, with all respect to the millennials who are all over #Instagram with their home-made beauty treats, we’ve been doing it since we were teenagers ourselves. Here’s what we’ve always known: making your own beauty treats is fun. (Especially if you do it with a friend/child/goddaughter.) It’s easy. And because these little beauty treats are packed with lashings of botanical ingredients, they can  can be super-effective. Read More…

Audrey Hepburn

audrey hepburn

Audrey Hepburn

Born in 1929, Audrey Hepburn, actress and humanitarian, would have been 86 this year and no doubt would have been as graceful, elegant and relevant as she was in her short life.

Her health story begins during the war years and ends when Audrey died, from a very rare form of cancer, in 1993, aged 63. This article is a respectful examination of her life in health, as researched via numerous biographies.

Audrey Hepburn and General health

The war left some lingering effects on Audrey, such as disheartening memories and ongoing health problems that would include anaemia and respiratory problems. She is said too, to have suffered with anxiety and stress.

Audrey Hepburn and Weight issues

Growing up during the war in Nazi occupied Holland, Audrey and her family had suffered extreme food shortages. She had experienced near starvation, and witnessed worse, and had never forgotten it. She said that “I actually got angry with it for being so difficult to come by and tasting so awful. I decided to master food; I told myself I didn’t need it.” She said that she ‘resented’ food. For most of her adult life she weight around 100lb (approx 7st) and at 5ft 7in was painfully thin. Read More…