Shinrin-yoku - the Japanese art of forest bathing in the Peak District

Soaking in nature at Trentabank Reservoir, Macclesfield Forest

Soaking in nature at Trentabank Reservoir, Macclesfield Forest - Credit: Archant

Helen Moat reveals the best local spots to discover the stress-relieving and mood-enhancing benefits of immersing yourself in nature.

Dappled light and shade by a woodland path

Dappled light and shade by a woodland path - Credit: Archant

The Japanese seek out forests to restore their well-being and inner peace: Nijinomatsubara on Karatsu Bay, a 360-year-old pine forest known as the ‘Black Pine Forest of One Million Trees’; the great Bamboo Forest near Kyoto and Aokigahara, the ‘Sea of trees’ with its dense growth and porous lava floor eerily absorbing sound – or they may just walk to a wooded glen in a city park.

The term ‘forest bathing’ originated in Japan in the 1980s. Despite its curious name, it doesn’t involve dipping in a forest stream or sun-bathing in a clearing. It’s simply about going into the woods and soaking up the atmosphere. By the early 1990s, the Japanese government was so convinced of the healing properties of forest bathing, it became part of their national health programme. While forest bathing may sound airy-fairy, an eminent Japanese scientist has found clear evidence that spending time in forests has real benefits: it boosts mood, energy levels and immunity, reduces anxiety and depression, improves sleep and lowers blood pressure. Scientifically, trees release phytoncides – chemicals that lower stress and even enhance the activity of cancer-reducing cells.

Now, shinrin-yoku has spread from the islands of Japan to the shores of North America and across to Europe and is slowly gaining popularity on our own island. You can go on a course led by an accredited forest-bathing guide, starting the day with forest meditation and finishing with a tree-celebrating tea ceremony– or you can simply find a local woodland and immerse yourself in nature while engaging all the senses. Breathe in the woodland smells – from the musty scent of oak to the sharp fragrance of pine and the aroma of herb in the undergrowth. Tune into birdsong, the hum of insects and rustle of leaf. Feel the rough texture of bark beneath your fingertips or the raised veins of a fresh broadleaf. Wander with no particular goal and stop to observe how the shafts of light fall like daggers between trees, or industrious ants as they route-march over the forest floor.

Across the Peak District, woods clothe the slopes beneath moorland escarpments and fill the dales. The Peak District National Park and its fringes boast some of the loveliest woodlands in Britain, where forest bathing can be experienced in all its glory. Everyone has their favourite woodland where they return to time and time again. Here are some of mine.

Swiss Cottage in the woods at Chatsworth

Swiss Cottage in the woods at Chatsworth - Credit: Archant

Lea and Bow Wood

The ancient woodland of Lea Wood rises above Cromford Canal. Wild daffodils and bluebells burst into flower through April and May while heather and bilberry thrive on the upper slopes in summer. You might hear the tap, tap of a lesser spotted woodpecker or a flash of black-and-white from a pied flycatcher. Across the road at Lea Bridge, Bow Wood is a delight in spring: wood anemone thrives under the oak and birch, while the clearings dazzle with blocks of blue-purple from the spread of bluebells. Come summer the bluebells are replaced by rampant fern, but the views across to Cromford along the ridge path are always superb whatever the time of year.

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Stand Wood at Chatsworth

Walking into Stand Wood is a bit like walking into a Grimm’s tale, with its romantic medieval Hunting Tower, fairy-tale Swiss Cottage, forest reservoirs and woodland gardens. Head through the dell to the aqueduct that thrusts out from the vegetation. Water drops 80 feet from the conduit to feed the lake and fountain at Chatsworth House and in hard winters the water freezes to form sculpted icicles that trail off the end. On the hillside, Chatsworth’s extended pleasure gardens, with their meandering paths, were planted by Paxton with ash and birch, cherry and chestnut, spruce and sycamore as well as rowan, holly and yew. On the edge of the forest, you’ll find the Emperor and Swiss lakes. In this tranquil place, you might just spot a grey heron frozen on the water’s edge.

Manners Wood, Bakewell

Part of the Haddon estate, the woodland, planted by the Manners family, has been here for centuries. It stretches across the hillside from Rowsley to Bakewell, a working forest made up of deciduous trees and conifers. Scots pines, larch and spruce stand side by side with ash and oak. In autumn, the woodland floor and tree bases are bursting with fungi with odd names: the rubbery ‘jelly ears’ on elder; ‘dead men’s fingers’, their blackened digits rising menacingly from the mulched earth; creamy ‘candle snuff’ with its charred-black base, and ‘dryad’s saddle’ protruding from logs like broken dinner plates. This is a place to meander and stop along the concessionary path to take in the smells of the woods and the textures of bark, seed, root and weed. Hogweed seeds have a wonderful aromatic flavour akin to cardamom while wood sorrel has a fresh lemony tang.

Yarncliff Wood at Padley Gorge

At Yarncliff Wood above Nether Padley near Grindleford, oak and birch sprinkled with alder crowd the slopes on either side of Burbage Brook in Padley Gorge. Autumn mists gather in this moist place of mossed stone and twisted, lichen-covered oak, taking on a haunted, primeval appearance. In winter, the gnarled and bony fingers of the leafless oaks reach for the light. Come spring, the brook spills and spirals its way through the gorge, and the woodland floor is splashed with bluebells. This is a place to write poetry or capture the gnarled forms of the ancient oaks with charcoal – or just sit and listen to the song of the pied flycatcher, wood warbler and hawfinch.

Macclesfield Forest

This is a working forest, largely made up of fragrant-fresh pine and a scattering of native broadleaves. The forest surrounds four reservoirs, including Trentabank where the largest heronry in the Peak District is found. To see the birds lording it over the forest from their twiggy thrones it’s best to visit between February and July when the herons lay their eggs and raise their young. Pause and observe the cormorants, mallards and great crested grebes on the reservoir, or linger in the higher reaches of the forest at dusk for sightings of red deer, badgers or pipistrelle bats.

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