Shinrin-yoku(forest bathing) – a short trip to a forest where you walk and relax while breathing in essential oils released by the trees – has long been practiced by the Japanese. Recent studies of the physiological and psychological effects of shirin-yoku have revealed that it can lower blood pressure, pulse rate and concentrations of stress hormones. There’s even a claim that it can reduce cancer tumours by raising Natural Killer cell activity, although that rings hollow in my ears as I already have incurable cancer.
Long before these studies I indulged in this practice, roaming through the woods at the bottom of my grand-dad’s garden, pretending to be a fox with purple-coloured gloves. I never did get poisoned by the foxgloves but I’ve always known a walk in the woods calms me.
As I’m too weak to go to the gym now I’ve taken to walking most days. I’m lucky enough to live a few doors down from the Parkland Walk, a disused railway running between Finsbury Park and Highgate, lording it over the rooftops and back gardens of Islington and Haringey. It’s the London equivalent of New York City’s Highline. Once you’ve negotiated recalcitrant dogs, buggies, runners and cyclists, and been terrified by the mischievous woodland-dwelling spriggan peeking out from one of the old railway arches, you emerge at Highgate Station. A five-minute walk will get you into Queen’s Wood, one of Haringey’s four ancient woodlands.
I’m not deterred by the rumours of the existence of a plague pit full of bones from victims of the 1665 Great Plague. Instead I’m rather intrigued by the Witches Coven, a ring of thirteen oaks circling a clearing, which is still used by modern-day witches. The wood has not been intensively managed, unlike its neighbour Highgate Wood, and supports a surprising diversity of flora such as Goldilocks buttercup, wood anemones, wood sorrel, yellow pimpernel and square-stemmed St John’s wort, as well as a rare colony of lady fern. The bird life is fairly diverse too. Some are quite shy birds like tree creepers; others, like the thrush and blackbird, shout loudly from the treetops. Through the summer you can hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker.
The paths are soft with oak leaves, one of the dominant species of the woodland along with hornbeam. There’s also hawthorn, hazel, rowan, holly field maple and cherry, as well as the rare wild service tree. The wood is most peaceful on a weekday when there are relatively few people; some days I encounter just one solitary dog walker. Aside from the trees I like the steepness of the walks in Queen’s Wood. It’s deeply cut by gullies from the meltwater of the Anglian ice sheet and gives me a proper work out which compensates me from the loss of my gym membership.
Whether shinrin-yoku lives up to its claims, it certainly works for me – whether it’s the peace, exercise or inhaling woody scents.