Arboretums: Find sweet solace among the trees
There are times when we all need to cast off the stresses of modern life, and autumn is the perfect season for a restorative walk in the woods, writes Jo Jukes
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 e ects for myself. An information board welcomes me to Blackwater Arboretum in New Forest National Park (thenewforest.co.uk), 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 o er 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 (forestsideguesthouse.com) in the local village of Lyndhurst. Once her guests are
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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 e ects 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. For more information on the New Forest and Blackwater Arboretum visit thenewforest.co.uk
The New Forest is a riot of colour come autumn. Below: Jo admires a beautiful Grey Birch at Blackwater Arboretum.
Inspiring quotes are nestled in the undergrowth at Blackwater –finding them becomes something of a game.
Coming across another soul in the expansive New Forest is rare, but not always unwelcome.