Everyone seem to agree that exercise is good for our mental health. It’s also suggested, based on studies matching groups of indoor exercisers and those who undertake exercise outdoors, that so-called “green exercise” (physical activities that take place in gardens, parks or natural wild spaces) is more beneficial than working out in a gym or your own living room. Green exercise is still the topic of on-going reasearch (http://www.greenexercise.org/), but there’s enough evidence already for Mind and a number of NHS Trusts to already be promoting outdoor activities as especially beneficial.
My psychiatrist certainly subscribes to this view. I told him how much I felt I had benefitted from being out on the cliff-tops and beaches on a recent trip to Wales, and he encouraged me to think of ways that I could get a “nature fix” back home in London. It’s fairly obvious that this is much more of a challenge that in a beautiful rural area like Pembrokeshire, but I’ve been looking for ways of building regular contact with the outdoors into my recovery from this latest episode. On days when I really couldn’t manage much of anything, I made sure to at least walk a lap of one of my borough’s local parks. On very bad days, and when first adjusting to some very sedative new medication, I would just sit on the grass for a while watching the birds and the ducks, and the many dogs being walked.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been getting stronger and venturing much further afield. I’m still not up to running or jogging, which I used to do regularly, but walking is something I definitely can do. Just before I became unwell, I had taken out membership to Kew Gardens, so that’s an easy win. With one change of bus I can get from my own street to Victoria Gate, and visiting on my own means that I actually get to look at some of the quieter spots, not just the bits that children like such as the Palm Houses and the Treetops Walk. Last time I went, I was able to spend time in the Bonsai House, the Secluded Garden and the new Australian landscape. Feeling inspired by my visit, I decided to go one better than just strolling in the Royal Botanic Gardens, and walked back to Ealing. I was surprised to find that it was only about three miles; psychologically, it seems further, but it’s really not very far away at all.
Last week I took a trip down to Morden Hall Park. This was much more complex to get to, involving a bus, two tubes, and a tram, but it was worth it. The Hall sits in an area of parkland and formal gardens developed around branches of the River Wandle, which flow through the Rose Garden under stone and wrought iron bridges, and over weirs. Children were making the most of the half-term sunshine by paddling, messing about with shrimping nets, and screaming as wet dogs threatened to shake excess river water onto them. I walked through the park and out onto part of the Wandle Trail, a 14 mile route I’d never even heard of, which follows the river up from Croydon to where it joins the Thames at Wandsworth. The trail was well signposted and brought me into an area of willows and bullrushes from which I could not see a single building and could hear nothing but the breeze in the foliage and a great deal of birdsong. The sun was hot, and for a few minutes it really felt like being out in the country. I walked out past the vaguely hippie collection of shops and restaurants that make up Merton Abbey Mills, onto Merton High Street and back to Wimbledon to catch the tube home.
Yesterday, I felt ready for a longer walk. I had previously enjoyed running along a part of the Capital Ring Walk, and I thought it would be interesting to walk a different section. I picked Section 7 (Richmond Bridge to Osterley Lock) on grounds of accessibility and because watching Julia Bradbury on TV recently had made me keen to do some walking near canals. The route starts out following the north bank of the Thames alongside the Old Deer Park as far Richmond Lock, then crosses to the south bank as the river curves up through old Isleworth. I resisted the temptation to stop at the waterside pubs, and walked on to the beautiful grounds of Syon Park, which has that very traditional parkland feel of an 18th century landscape painting. On the other side of the park, the route joins the Grand Union Canal at Brentford, where the wharves have been transformed into luxury flats and mooring facilities for visiting boats. All along the GUC are markers showing the distance to Braunston, which is where the canal bifurcates into the Stratford Canal and the Leicester arm of the GUC. These days, the canal is entirely the preserve of walkers, cyclists, water birds, and people who live or holiday on the many narrowboats. My favourite sight of the day was a pair of canal-dwelling cats, sitting on the roof of their boat enjoying the sunshine. Once I reached Osterley Lock, I decided to push on a little further, because I always enjoy seeing the flight of seven locks at Hanwell, so all in all (including getting to and from the rout to public transport) I walked approaching 6 miles.
I enjoyed this walk so much that I am seriously thinking of seeing how much of the Capital Ring I can walk before I return to the office. There are 15 sections, so I’ve got my work cut out! But I can’t think of a more pleasant way to get my green exercise.