In a forest clearing in Leicestershire, two friends are reconnecting the community with the healing power of the great outdoors
When did you last stop and take a moment just to gather your thoughts? Not even gather your thoughts, really, but pause for a while to feel present in the world. For friends and Better Outdoors co-founders, Karen Shephard and Becca Hargrave, mindful moments are essential to our personal and collective wellbeing, especially if you can cultivate these moments away from the stress of city life.
“This whole project stems back to our own joint experience of being outdoors, and the way it’s supported our own mental health, both when we were younger and now as adults,” Karen explains to us, when we visit the Better Outdoors den, a cosy canvas-covered hidey-hole, nestled in a forest clearing in Burrough Woods, south of Leicester.
Karen is a warmhearted soul, softly spoken but quietly self-assured – as is Becca, who’s also the giggly one of the pair, with an infectious smile. They both have dark red hair and you realise pretty quickly that they’re the kind of friends who can seemingly read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences. They have both worked in social care for most of their careers, primarily with children and their families. Better Outdoors came about when they realised that the parents of young children are often as comforted by some time spent in the open air as their kids are.
“We muttered about doing something for adults for a year or two before we actually got around to setting things up,” Karen continues, “we developed the name, set up a Facebook page and then decided to finally do it in June 2020, during the first lockdown. We’re not businesspeople so it was quite a big, scary thing. I just said to Becca, ‘right, I’m going to do it, let’s see what happens’.” Today, the initiative offers forest therapy and forest bathing to anyone and everyone who’s in need of a mental breather; from busy mothers who try to take one morning a week out from the family, to burnt-out professionals, to young people in need of support or an escape.
What exactly is forest bathing, you might well ask? “It’s about taking some time to really be present in the forest, connecting with your immediate environment and exploring it in a mindful way,” Karen explains. “It originated in Japan in the 1980s because there were really high levels of stress in the urban population. The authorities started encouraging people to spend time in forests and researched the effects. It turns out that forest bathing lowers levels of stress hormone, lowers blood pressure, heart rate, makes you sleep better, improves your creativity and focus – a gazillion things.”
When we visit Better Outdoors, we join a forest bathing session with a small group of regular attendees, and it’s an undeniably tranquil experience; exploring the colours, textures, sounds and smells of the forest, and then coming together in a circle to discuss your thoughts and feelings in a safe space. A sense of calm gently washes over you, somehow. The constant stream of everyday work and life distractions fade away in the circle, which of course is entirely the point.
“Recently, we had a very high-powered, professional women come on a forest therapy walk with her personal assistant,” says Becca. “The assistant suggested it because she thought this lady might like it. She lives with chronic pain, isn’t very mobile and has tried everything to help. She had the most emotional experience with us; she said ‘if you’d told me that I’d have been talking to a tree or feeling like this, I’d have ignored you.’ But, all those things lying heavy on her shoulders just disappeared. Now, she comes back regularly and she’s been spreading the word and drawing other people in – it’s brilliant.”
Alongside forest bathing, Better Outdoors also runs a number of craft workshops and family-focused activities too, including fire-striking, whereby children get the chance to start a small, contained fire on a tin tray and keep it burning, before getting to toast some marshmallows together. It’s designed to give parents some quality time with their kids, encourage a sense of family collaboration and achievement, and to offer a bit of fire safety education, too.
Better Outdoors is currently a part-time project for Karen and Becca, but turning this into a full-time endeavour is the long-term goal, as well as having some land to call their own and build a permanent home. Currently, they are using public land in Burrough Woods with the permission of the Woodland Trust, but this also means they have to spend hours putting up and then pulling down their campsite every weekend. “To have a site of our own would give us much more stability,” says Karen, “We’d love to be able to host more activities and support more people.”
After the forest bathing walk, we sit down together with a cup of tomato soup warmed on the camp’s open fire, and ask Karen and Becca the key question: Why should a Way of Life resident either donate to or get involved with Better Outdoors? “The most important thing I’ve realised this year is that even a small, really tiny enterprise like us can make a difference,” Becca says, taking a sip from her cup. “We make a difference one-by-one, a person at a time, and to those people that difference means a lot. You don’t have to rush into something and try and do huge things overnight. Little differences are still big differences to someone.”
Karen finishes the duo’s thoughts: “Whoever you are and whatever you’re doing, there’s a huge value to leaving the stresses of modern life behind for a few hours. It allows you to relax, clear your head and reset; perhaps because you’re working on a craft and you get into a flow state with your hands, it might be to get away from the kids for a little while, or it might be so your kids can have some freedom with you in a natural space. Being out here encourages connection, creativity – a whole mixture of healthy things. It’ll do you good, without you even noticing.”
Sign us up, we’re in.