Physical Activity

Did you know that keeping physically active can help to improve your mental health, as well as your physical health and fitness?

Physical Activity and Wellbeing

Oxfordshire Mind are offering a variety of virtual physcial wellbeing courses, for more information please contact:

Walking for Wellbeing

Walking for Wellbeing are offering virtual walks and two weekly face to face walks, Oxford City.

Face masks are optional on physical walks.

Book onto the Oxford City walk via:

Did you know that keeping physically active can help to improve your mental health, as well as your physical health and fitness? That’s why it’s so important to find a form of exercise or activity which works for you, and Oxfordshire Mind can help you with that. 

We provide free (or low cost) yoga classes, as well as football classes which are suitable for all abilities. We also work in partnership with local organisations to provide discounts and offers to help you keep physically active. 

Walking for Wellbeing

We have six active walking groups from locations across the Oxfordshire Mental Health Partnership and at Turning Point, and have recruited a team of 12 volunteer walk leaders. We are an accredited Walking for Health scheme and work closely with the city council health walks to signpost our walkers on to them. 

Virtual Walk Oxford

Welcome to our walk today.  I’m so glad you could make it.  Aren’t we so lucky with the weather? It’s a gorgeous, bright early Spring day, and the sky is a pale blue, like it’s been washed clean by all the rain we’ve been having recently. There’s a little bit of a chill in the air though, still, so make sure you pull up your scarf to cover your face.

Before we enter the college, let’s take a moment to admire the building. Look at that façade. It’s medieval, I think, which you can see if you look at the rows and rows of glass-paned windows that stretch away along the high street. The sunlight reflecting off the honey-coloured stone seems to make it glow.  

Meanwhile the bicycles whizz past behind us, heading over the bridge towards Cowley Road.  Wow. Look how many bags that lady has balanced on her handlebars. Surely that can’t be safe?  But she wobbles along quite contentedly, oblivious to the chaos she’s causing. As we watch, a man in a tweed jacket and a long, multi-coloured scarf rings his bell and overtakes her. Perhaps he’s a professor of some kind. I wonder what he teaches.

If you look to the right, you can see the imposing Magdalen College tower. Have you ever been to listen to the choir sing from the top of it on May morning? Imagine being one of those children, singing your heart out, looking down on all the people gathered in the street below. It must feel like being on top of the world.

Let’s go in to the college now, through a little wooden door. The porter — the staff member who sits in the college reception-  looks up from his newspaper, smiles, and nods his head at us as we enter. He’s a kindly-looking older man with grey hair and spectacles balanced on the end of his nose.   He’s proud of the place he works, and he guards it fiercely from any intruders. But it’s alright, he knows us, and he lets us in without any question.

We come out into a cobblestoned courtyard, at the centre of which stands fine old tree, bursting with pale pink blossom. A light breeze stirs its branches as we watch, shaking loose a few stray petals, which flutter like a miniature snowfall down onto the cobblestones below.

Isn’t blossom such a marvellous thing? It’s the promise that winter is finally over, that the good weather is finally on its way. Hope, that even if things feel bleak right now, it only gets better from here.

Now we cut across the courtyard, through a door, and come out into the cloister, a beautiful old courtyard with a shady covered walkway surrounding it on all four sides. Our footsteps echo as we pass each of the pointed archways, overlooking the bright green square of perfectly manicured lawn in the middle.  It feels like Hogwarts in here, and with good reason- scenes from Harry Potter were filmed on this very spot.  

If we step out into the little viewing space —  just here – and turn our heads, we can see the stone sculptures glaring down on us from above.  There, a face with a terrible upside-down grimace. There, a crowned head.  And there, a gargoyle. When they were first carved perhaps they might have been  quite terrifying, but it’s hard to take them seriously, now their features have been worn away by the long years. Some of them have lost noses, or ears.  Poor statues. It must be hard for them, not to be frightening any more.

Let’s duck out of the cloisters and wind our way along the little flower-lined path until we come to a set of big iron gates on the right.  We’ll go through these, out onto the water meadow, crossing a bridge over the River Cherwell as we do so. It’s flowing quickly at the moment, swollen from the winter rains. A couple of geese waddle down to the water and are swept downstream by the current. It looks like fun, like their own personal water ride.

We turn left and walk along the tree-shaded walkway that runs alongside the water meadow.  Every so often we pass an old tree stump carved into the shape of a chair or a throne.  Isn’t that cute? You could stop to sit on one, if you like.

Coming in the other direction is a young couple– students, by the look of them—walking hand in hand. One of them is wearing a jumper that says ‘Magdalen College Rowing’. They smile at us as we pass them. Like us, they seem to be making the most of this lovely day to get out and about in the fresh air.

There they are! The deer. They’ve stopped to pose for us, right in the middle of the field. See the stags with their big horns, standing guard over the rest of the herd. One is white, and one is black, and they’re both handsome as anything. Don’t they know it, though. You can see it in the way they hold their heads up proudly, as if to say ‘Look at me! Look at me!’.  Let’s leave them to it. They already have plenty of admiring fans.

Shall we turn off the main route to take in the Fellow’s Garden as well?  It will make our walk a little bit longer, but it’s worth it. We cross over the narrow wooden bridge and down some steps, and there in front of us is an absolute riot of colour. The daffodils are out in force right now, lining the path ahead of us. Although from a distance they just look like a solid wall of yellow, if you look closely, you will see they are actually several different colours—sunshiney gold, butter-coloured, pale cream with an orange centre.

Mixed in among them are rare snakeshead fritillaries- they’re out early this year! They’re the little purple ones that bend over in a big curve, like the flower was just too heavy for its stem. If you bend down, you can see the cool chequerboard pattern on their petals, which is perhaps where the ‘snakeshead’ part of the name comes from. It does look a little bit like scales. 

There are more daffodils round the corner, where the garden becomes a gentle sloping bank. We walk along it until we come out of the gate at the end of the path, which leads out into University Parks. We can’t get out that way, so we’ll have to turn around back the way we came, over the bridge, and come out again on to the main path.

Now for the final leg of the walk. Along this part of the path you get a great view of the tower across on the other side of the water meadow. The view is particularly lovely at this time of year, because the trees still haven’t got their leaves yet, and are bare apart from the clumps of mistletoe nestled in their branches. Some people call mistletoe a parasite, because it latches on to older, more sickly trees and lives off their nutrients. But I think it has a friendlier side, giving the aging tree a bit of its dignity back by hiding all its flaws and imperfections, and adding a much-needed splash of greenery to its bare branches even in the depths of winter.

So here we are, back at the college reception. That went so quickly! I hope you enjoyed our wander around one of Oxford’s most picturesque colleges. We are so lucky to live in a city that has so many hidden green spaces like this. You can hardly believe that the hustle and bustle of the city centre is so close by.

See you next week! Stay safe out there meanwhile, and please get in touch if you have any requests for where we should walk next.

Virtual Walk Africa

Thanks for joining me today on our sunrise walk through the South African savanna.  I know it was an early start for all of us- we’d have had to tumble out of our beds at about five o’clock this morning in order to get here on time. But this really is the best time to see all the beauty that this spectacular landscape has to offer; the beautiful scenery ,the breathtaking views—and, of course, the wildlife.

The thing about going out on a game walk like this is you just don’t know what you will find.  The animals keep to their own schedules, and they don’t really care that we’ve come all this way to see them. I can’t promise anything. But if we keep our eyes peeled and stay very, very quiet, we could just stumble across something magical.

So follow me into the bush now and let’s see what we can see. Stay close behind me and don’t stray away from the group.  Oh, and don’t worry about the lions. They’re sleeping at this time of day. Probably.

It’s still quite dark at the moment, which makes you all the more aware of the noises of the savanna around us. Sound travels across these open plains.  Let’s stop for a moment and take it all in. The twittering of the birds, the croaking of the frogs and toads, the rustling of creatures moving through the long grass– punctuated every so often by the occasional snort or roar or whimper, far off in the distance. Loudest of all are the insects. The chirping of the crickets and the buzz of the cicadas blends together into a pulsing, hypnotic melody, like a natural symphony. If you live here a while, you get used to falling asleep to that soothing refrain, the lullaby of the African bush.

What are these trees we’re passing now, you ask?  They’re acacias.  It’s foolish to reduce an entire continent to a single symbol, of course, but they’re the trees that you think of when you think of Africa, the ones you see silhouetted against the sunset in every photograph, with their majestic spreading branches. Watch out, though – they’ve got wicked thorns, as long as your finger, and they really hurt if you step on one. They have those to protect against the giraffes, which would greedily gobble up all their leaves if they could.   

Other ways that the acacias protect themselves against hungry grazers are even more ingenious. When their thorny defences are breached, the trees emit a chemical that makes their leaves taste bitter and forces the animal to move on. The incredible thing is, the tree then emits another chemical as an ‘alarm signal’, which is picked up by other trees downwind of the first tree. Those trees then do the same thing and make all their leaves taste bitter, too. So one tree saves all its neighbours. Isn’t that so cool? The things that nature comes up with, the clever strategies it adopts in order to survive.   

Stop! Can you hear that grunting, squealing noise? If we wait here just a second, I think we might see something. Just as I thought.  A warthog runs across our path, only a couple of metres ahead of us, followed by its little baby. And another, and another. And three- no, four- more! Seven little warthogs! It’s quite a family. Look how they run all in a line like that, with their tails pointed straight up in the air.  Something about warthogs is just so funny. You can’t help but smile at the sight of them.

The sun’s just starting to rise above the treeline now. Look at that. There is nothing like a South African sunrise.   The horizons are wider, the colours more vivid, somehow. The light blazes across the morning sky like a bushfire through dry grass, and the sun is ball of pure, fiery energy, radiating raw heat like a hot coal sizzling on the horizon.  

To really get the most out of a game walk, you have to stay aware of your surroundings at all times, and always be looking out for clues that the animals leave you. Like those prints on the ground in front of you- you would have walked right past them if I hadn’t pointed them out, wouldn’t you? Those were made by a rhino, and they’re pretty fresh. It looks like she came this way earlier this morning. Can’t you just picture her now, making her slow, lumbering way between the bushes, occasionally stopping to browse on some leaves?  She’s in no hurry, taking her time.   Perhaps we’ll catch up to her later on.

Oh, look- do you see that giraffe’s head popping up over the trees, munching on some leaves? Here, come and look where I’m pointing. Didn’t I tell you they loved the acacias?  Giraffes are such bizarre-looking animals, when you think about it. The Europeans called them camel-leopards when they first saw them, because they look a bit like a camel and have spots like a leopard. Imagine the shock of seeing something like that for the first time, when you had no idea it existed before. It must have been like coming face to face with a creature from another planet.

Soon we’re going to come out at a watering hole. Shh! There’s a good chance we’ll see something here, and we don’t want to disturb them.  If we position ourselves behind this bush here, we should get a good view while keeping out of sight.

We’re in luck! A herd of elephants have stopped on the opposite bank for a drink and a swim. Look at that little baby, running around its mother’s legs, splashing and squirting water everywhere with its trunk. It’s adorable. It’s such a privilege to see the animals like this, just being themselves in their natural environment, when they don’t even know we’re here.

Keep well away from the water’s edge as we make our way the other end of the water hole.   The hippos are the rulers here- see them there, half-submerged beneath the water, so you can just see their eyes and the tops of their heads?  Careful, now. They may look peaceful, lazing around in the shallows, barely moving apart from the occasional flick of their ear to swat away a fly. But don’t be fooled. Hippos are actually one of the most dangerous animals you can meet. Inside those huge mouths are some pretty deadly teeth, and they’ve got a temper to match them. Let’s move on quickly and keep our distance.  We wouldn’t want to provoke them.

We come across a herd of zebras browsing on the long grass as we make our way back to the lodge. Did you know that no two zebra patterns are the same, and you can tell individual animals apart by their stripes? It’s like the spirals on the tips of your fingers or the patterns on the iris of your eye.  Each one of us is so unique and so precious, when you think about it. One of them lifts its head up, lets out a snort of alarm, and then all of a sudden all of them are running away at once. Oh dear- we must have got too close.  But isn’t it fascinating to watch them move? Look at the way their stripes move and blend together as they gallop away.

Well, here we are, back at the lodge where you’ll be staying tonight. By now your stomach must be rumbling – we’ve been out for a couple of hours, and it’s definitely getting towards breakfast time. I heard that Chef Pascal is making pancakes. Go ahead and enjoy it– you’ve earned it. Hopefully see you back here next time, when we’ll be seeing more beautiful and wondrous sights together.

Stay safe out there meanwhile, and if you have any thoughts or feedback for us please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Virtual Walk Christ Church

Thank you for joining us today for our walk around Christ Church Meadows,  the tranquil green oasis right at the heart of Oxford.  Right now we’re standing outside the huge iron gates on St Aldates that lead into the meadows.  Behind us is one of the busiest streets in the entire city, crowded with buses and taxis and cyclists, but once we step through these gates,  we will suddenly be transported to a place where all the noise and chaos entirely fades away.   It’s like the portal to another world.

Perhaps that’s why this is the spot where so many fictional universes were born- from Wonderland to Narnia to Middle Earth.  Let’s hope we find a little of that enchantment today as we stroll through the landscape that inspired our best-loved stories.

After pausing to admire the immaculately landscaped memorial gardens, we ascend some steps and come out in the meadows proper, in front of the entrance to the college itself.  There are crowds of admiring tourists stopped in front of the ivy-covered facade, taking pictures.  You can hardly blame them, really. It is a stunning sight. As locals we can become a little jaded, I think, to the beauty of our city. We get used to seeing wondrous sights every day, and we struggle to understand the impulse that makes people travel across the world to see them. But I’d invite you to see this walk through the eyes of a tourist today, with the same sense of wonder and enjoyment, the same curiosity, as if it were all brand new.

Let’s go straight ahead, along the broad, straight path. There are people having picnics on the grass on either side. Look at them, leaning back on their elbows and laughing at something one of their companions has said, or else lying on top of their blankets with one hand over their eyes, basking in the sunshine. Everyone looks so relaxed and at ease.  I wonder what brings these little groups together? Are they families? Housemates? Friends?  It’s fun to imagine what conversations they might be having, what jokes they might be sharing, that are making them smile like that.

We come to the end of the path and make a right, along the winding path that runs along the banks of the River Cherwell. People are punting here- rather inexpertly, it has to be said. The air is full of laughter, shouting and the occasional shriek as somebody rams into another boat or nearly tips into the water.

The sounds of this chaos follow us as we continue along the Cherwell. There are lots of people out on the path today — walking their dogs, taking in the sights, or just out for an afternoon stroll. Everyone gives a friendly nod of their head and a smile as we pass. Oh, and there’s a jogger, puffing away as they weave in and out of the groups of people. Good for them.  What better way to motivate yourself than exercising in a beautiful location like this one?

Several cows are grazing in the meadow to our right.  They’re English Longhorn Cattle, the college’s special herd, and they’re the most pampered bovines you could possibly imagine. All they have to do all day is wander around some of the most picturesque fields in the entire country, grazing and looking pretty. Not a bad life. Each winter they even go away on their holidays to a local farm near Binsey.  Did you know cows have best friends? Well, they have members of their herd who they prefer to hang out with, and they get upset when they are separated from them. Who would have thought it? Even cows are more interesting than you might expect.

There’s a large felled tree trunk by the side of the path here, ideally placed to rest your tired legs. It’s been worn smooth by hundreds of passers-by stopping to sit on it over the years, and it seems almost rude not to take advantage. Let’s pause for a moment and just take it all in. If we turn around and sit the other way, with our backs to the path, we get a beautiful view of Oxford’s dreaming spires, with the water meadow spread out at their feet.  

See that splash of white and grey amidst the tall grass, right in front of us? A heron.  You might not have spotted her at first. She’s standing so very, very still. She might seem like she’s doing nothing, but really she’s concentrating with every fibre of her being, waiting for the moment when some little creature will stray across her path and she can pounce. We can all learn from the heron’s stillness and patience.  Sometimes standing still can be more productive than it seems.

It would be lovely to stay in this tranquil spot forever, but unfortunately at some point we’ll have to move on. Whenever you’re ready, let’s keep on following the river until the point where it flows into the Thames.  Here we have a choice- take the bridge to the left, to the college boathouses, or the main path round to the right, which takes us towards Folly Bridge, and to the turning back up to the college.

Shall we go right? Here the river spreads out in a glittering expanse, and the light reflecting off it dazzles our eyes.  The Thames. In Oxford, of course, we call it the Isis, and perhaps the name change is fitting, because it’s a gentler, kinder river here than the muddy, murky waterway it becomes in London– a river of cheerfully painted houseboats and ducks floating serenely on the current.

There’s always a gaggle of geese on this section of the path, and predictably they’re here now as well. They glare at us with their beady little eyes as they waddle out of the way, as if annoyed with us for invading their territory. Another couple of them honk loudly as they land on the water, like miniature jumbo jets touching down on a runway.

Now let’s turn down the broad path that’s coming up on our right, that cuts straight back up to the college where we started.  It’s a beautiful, shady walkway, lined with big, mature trees, and it’s a pleasant way to spend our last few minutes in the meadows.

Now here we are, back at the college. In a moment, we’ll duck out those big iron gates and go for an ice cream in the cafe across the street.  But let’s stop for a moment for a last lingering look at the beauty before us. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the walk. I certainly have. There is always something else to see, something new to discover, even in places you know like the back of your hand.

Virtual Walk Scottish Highlands

Welcome to our walk today, around the banks of a mysterious loch deep in the Scottish Highlands. You won’t have heard of this loch, and it doesn’t appear on any maps. It’s one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets.

To get here, you will have had to drive for a couple of hours from the nearest town, along winding mountain roads, until you came to a tiny little track that takes you over the pass and down into the glen. It’s easy to miss. Some people even swear that the turning disappears from time to time.

We are starting our walk in the village at the head of the valley, a tiny cluster of stone cottages, home to no more than a hundred people. From here you get a great view along the whole length of the loch with its backdrop of mountains. The loch’s waters are so deep and so still they appear almost black from a distance, and the surface is as smooth as a pane of glass, so that the peaks that surround it are reflected in a perfect mirror image.

That view is never the same from day to day or even hour to hour, but is always shifting and changing. You can watch the progression of the seasons in the changing colour of the vegetation on those hills– purple in August when the heather blooms, russet and gold in the autumn, and bright white in the winter when the entire valley is blanketed in snow.

Today it’s a bright, crisp autumn day, with only a few stray clouds chasing each other rapidly across the sky.  Let’s begin to stroll along the shore of the loch, which is littered with little grey pebbles that shift under our feet as we walk. You can pick up a few to skip across the surface of the water, if you like. It’s fun to watch how the ripples spread further and further out until they disappear into nothing. It’s not long before the loch returns to its customary stillness, as calm and unruffled as it had been before.

You’ll also notice a couple of pine trees along this part of the water’s edge, remnants of a time when forest still covered most of the highlands and wolves still roamed the land.  Their needles add a pleasant scent to the air. And look! There’s a red squirrel jumping from branch to branch. They’re a rare sight in the rest of the UK, where they’ve been replaced by the bigger, more aggressive greys, but here they frolic undisturbed, just as they have for centuries.

Otters also live in the loch’s clear, unpolluted waters, and this gently sloping section of the bank is one of their favourite spots. I saw a family of them, last time I came here– two adults and a whole litter of pups. They all peered at me with curious expressions in their bright little eyes before running away, slipping back into the water with a barely detectable splash.

Once we get around this bend here, we’ll be able to get a good view of the ruined castle on the island in the centre of the loch. Once upon a time, the lady of these lands, Agnes Drummond , single-handedly defended that castle against the English. Now, though, the castle’s walls can barely hold off the few stray goats that roam the island, picking at the overgrown grass, let alone an invading army.

There’s a tiny little wooden jetty sticking out on this bank of the loch, directly opposite the castle.  As we watch a little fishing boat draws up alongside, and a woman disembarks with a jaunty hop, giving us a friendly wave as she begins tying up the boat.  

Jennie MacDonald is quite the local character. She lives alone in that little stone cottage over there, a good couple of miles away from the rest of the village, and makes a living by ferrying tourists out to the castle in her boat. Today, as she does every day, she’s wearing wellies and an oversized jumper, and a slightly misshapen woolen cap pulled low over her short hair.  It looks suspiciously like it might have been knitted for her, and it must have been by someone special, because she rarely takes it off, even in the height of summer. Her family have lived on the banks of this loch for generations. She knows all the old stories, which her grandmother told to her when she was a girl.

Like the legend of the water-horse, the mythical beastie that supposedly haunts the loch. A water-horse will try to lure young people into the water where it will take them to its underwater lair and gobble them up. Jennie swears she saw the water horse once as a girl. Apparently she was walking on the banks of the loch at dusk and spotted a huge head rearing up out of the water, with great sharp teeth and flashing, fiery eyes. But then again, Jennie says a lot of things, always with the same mischievous grin and knowing twinkle in her eye, so you’re never quite certain whether she’s serious or just trying to pull your leg.

Let’s continue our circuit of the loch, and start making our way back towards the village along the opposite bank. Hear that? That roar? Red deer are roaming the slopes above us, and they must be close by. Look up! As we watch, a stag comes into view at the top of the ridge, and stands there for a moment, head raised proudly, horns silhouetted against the sky.

Weather changes quickly in the highlands, and even though it’s been a beautiful day up till now, all of a sudden dark clouds have rolled in, seemingly out of nowhere.  It’s lucky we’re nearly back at the village, because I’m certain I just felt a drop of rain on my hand. The houses have all switched their lights on, even though it’s still the middle of the afternoon, and they’re twinkling at us invitingly as we hurry along the final section of the path.

Here we are, back at the cottage where we were staying- and just in the nick of time, because the heavens are really starting to open now, and bitterly cold rain is coming down in sheets. Definitely a good moment to duck inside for a nice, warm cup of tea. I hope you’ve enjoyed our wander through this little-known, scenic glen today. Stay safe out there this week, and see you again soon for another walk!

Virtual Walk Surface of the Moon

Hello, walker. This is mission control. Today we have a very special journey to undertake. A walk on the surface of the moon. You have been specially selected for this mission, and I have absolute faith that you will complete it to the best of your ability.

You might feel very alone, shielded behind the protective bubble of your spacesuit helmet. But you have no reason to be afraid. You’ve already travelled so far, and endured so much, to arrive at this moment. The nailbiting countdown, the crushing g-force, the teeth-juddering ride through the earth’s atmosphere—all of that is behind you, and now you’re here, looking out on the ‘magnificent desolation’ which stretches out, vast and empty, beneath the feet of your landing module.

There is bleakness in that, yes, but also a stark beauty.  Up here, everything is simple.  It’s just you, your mission, and the silence of space.  And, me of course.  I will be with you every step of the way.

So whenever you’re ready, descend the ladder from the landing craft and begin your mission.  All it takes is one small step.

The first thing you will notice about walking on the moon is the gravity. The moon’s gravity is one sixth that of earth, which makes traversing its surface a little like walking on a trampoline. You’ll need to move in a slow bouncing gait, or small bunny hops, to avoid losing your balance.

The view before you is one of high contrast. The surface of the moon is brilliant gray, so bright that it’s almost white. You imagine that without the protection of your spacesuit helmet it would dazzle your eyes, like walking on a ski slope. The sky, on the other hand, is black, pure black, not even broken up by stars- you can’t see them when you’re walking on the moon, because of all the light reflecting back at you from the ground.

The surface under your feet is coated by a fine dust, like talcum powder, made up of little pebbles and pulverised rock that were crushed by meteor impacts centuries and centuries ago. You’ll take that back with you on your boots when you return to your spacecraft- concrete proof that this whole thing was not just a dream, and you did actually set foot on the moon.  

Here’s your objective: the flag planted by one of the Apollo missions, still standing after all these years. It can’t flutter, because there’s no breeze in space, but it’s held out to the side by a pole so that it can stand proud. The stars and stripes are still faintly visible, even though the fabric’s in tatters and the colours have faded due to sunlight and space radiation. It’s such a strange idea, if you think about it, planting a flag on the moon. Who’s going to see it, after all?  But there’s something oddly touching about the thought of that flag standing there all this time, unobserved , unnoticed, but still doing its job.

Here you can also see the footprints left by astronauts from those first moon missions. They’ve remained there undisturbed for over fifty years, because there’s no wind or rain to sweep them away.   Your footprints will also endure, long after your visit today has ended, silently bearing witness to everything you’ve achieved and the remarkable things you’ve seen.

Plant your probe at the base of the flag and wait while it takes its readings. This is a good moment to stop and take in the view of the earth, that beautiful blue-green marble, shrouded in swirls of cloud. Remarkable, isn’t it, that the place where you’ve lived and dreamed and laughed for all your life so far seems so small and far away? You can cover it up with your thumb. There’s a kind of peace, I think, in knowing you’ve left your entire life down there , 384 000 kilometres away. To forget about your responsibilities, your identity, and everything that you used to think was important- and just stand here in awe, contemplating the majesty of what’s right before your eyes.  

You may not be able to see them, but all those long miles away, your nearest and dearest are looking up at the sky and thinking of you.  Soon, very soon, you will be able to see them in person once more.  But you will have to be patient, just for a little while longer, until you are able to safely make the return journey and  touch back down on the earth’s surface once more.

And that’s it, the probe you’ve planted has gathered all the data we need. That’s all I needed you to do today. Come back in, explorer.  Your task is done. It’s time to go home.

Virtual Walk North Italy

Ciao, walkers! Thank you for joining me today for a picturesque early morning stroll through this hidden gem of a Northern Italian city. 

I can’t reveal the name of the place where we find ourselves today, because if it were widely known, it would surely become one of the most visited tourist destinations in all Italy. This city has everything: historical architecture, a rich and vibrant food culture, a picturesque setting in the foothills of the Apennine mountains. Yet somehow it’s managed to avoid being overwhelmed by crowds of visitors. That’s how the locals like it,  so let’s keep it to ourselves, and enjoy the fact that we are the only tourists here on this beautiful morning.  

The city perches atop a high hill, a spot chosen in medieval times for its commanding view of the countryside. Most of the original walls are still standing today, and it still is an impressive sight from a distance, the cluster of sandy-coloured buildings perched on their lofty vantage point, with the river winding in a big, lazy loop at their feet. 

We’re starting our walk in the centre of the old town.  The church bells are just beginning to toll as we stroll through the winding cobbled streets,  admiring the way the early morning sun strikes the sides of the buildings, and breathing in the smell of fresh bread wafting from the bakeries.

Our first stop, of course, must be to get our morning espresso in one of the little caffes or bars that line our route. A bell dings as we duck inside the little shop, which is already thronged with locals downing shots of hot, rich coffee on their feet. Take away coffee just isn’t a thing in Italy- instead you pop into your local espresso place on your way into work and drink it standing up. We push our way to the front of the crowd to make our order. What would you like? An espresso is traditional, but a cappuccino is also an option, and if you want to have one today I’d order it now. They’re very much considered a breakfast in and of themselves in Italy, you see, and you’re not supposed to drink them after 10am.  If you order it at dinner tonight, the waiter will give you a very funny look.  

Whatever you choose, let’s stop and soak up the atmosphere as we drink our coffee.  The tinkling of cups being stacked,  the hissing of jets of steam from the machine, the clatter of fresh beans being poured out,  it all combines with the hum of the chatter in the musical local dialect to create a sort of intensely Italian soundtrack.  You get a great view of the street through those huge, sparklingly clean windows, and there’s no better place to watch the world go by.  As we watch, a woman chugs by on a bright scarlet moped,  and an elegantly dressed man walks a poodle down the other side of the street  as if he were striding down a runway.

Suitably reinvigorated, we head back outside and continue our journey. Above our heads are rows and rows of little wrought iron balconies, decorated with brightly painted wooden shutters and windowboxes full of flowers.  Later in the day, the old grandmothers will be sitting out on those balconies, talking softly and watching the street below. 

We come out into the town square, where there is a large open-air market. This is where the locals do most of their shopping – why would you bother with a supermarket, when the produce here is so fresh and a fraction of the price? A sensory feast greets you as you wander around the covered stalls-  stacks of mushrooms, so fresh that the earth still clings to them; huge wheels of cheese cut open to reveal their beautiful, crumbling texture; haunches of prosciutto with their long strips of white fat and translucent, rosy flesh.  The tomatoes are so round and juicy that it’s almost impossible not to reach out and squeeze them, the basil so fragrant that it seems a crime not to bring your nose close and inhale deeply – but try not to, if you can, because the stallholders won’t thank you for touching their produce.

They’ll be happy to give you a taste of anything though, and talk with you for hours about the best way to prepare your purchase. You may be surprised to discover that the humble vegetable which you hold in your hand is the finest example of its kind in Italy, perhaps even the world– the stallholder knows, you see, he’s tested all of them. And do you know what? When you get it home and taste it, you might just decide that he was telling the truth.

The renaissance cathedral- known locally simply as il Duomo-  dominates the other end of the town square.  After the hustle and bustle of the market, let’s ascend the steps and duck inside for a bit of peace and quiet.  It’s restful to stroll through the cool, dim interior, faintly scented with incense, silent apart from the echoing of your footsteps on the stone floor.  Take a seat on one of the well-worn wooden pews and let your eye wander over all the beauty before you- the frescos, the statutes, the flickering candles. Eventually your eye will be drawn upward to the dome with its painting of the Last Judgement. Locals will swear that Michelangelo himself came up from Florence to paint that ceiling, although the art experts deny it. Whoever it was who created it, it’s an awe-inspiring sight – you could spend hours picking out all the tiny little figures, executed in exquisite detail above your head.

It’s probably time for lunch soon, but before we leave, we have one final stop to make.  Follow me across the cathedral to the little doorway next to the sign marked torre- ‘tower’. On the other side a spiral staircase winds upwards.  We start to climb, round and round and round again, until we start to feel a little dizzy, and you’re convinced we must have been going for at least an hour. By now your legs are aching and your breath is starting to come in sharp bursts, but keep going. Just a little bit further. I promise it’s worth it.

One last turn, and finally we come out onto the top of the tower. Once your eyes adjust to the sudden burst of sunlight, you can see why I brought you up here. Look at that view. The city is spread out beneath our feet, and beyond it the silvery glint of the river, the green rolling hills and the purple smudges of the mountains.  What better spot to finish our walk for the day?  Let’s pause here for a little while, just to take it all in, before we head back down the steps.

The bells are just starting to toll for midday as we reach the bottom of the tower, signalling the end of our walk. I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know this beautiful city with me this morning. Ci vediamo presto, walkers! See you next week. 

Virtual Walk North Oxford

Most days, weather permitting, I go out for my bike escape. It has become my personal healing ritual I must confess.

My route starts by the canal. Under the current circumstances I would normally avoid using the towpath because it is not wide enough as to keep more than 2 meters apart from other pedestrians; however, there are certain times of the day when it is practically deserted, and the quietness involves you along the reflection of the vegetation in the water.

And I let myself go with what I see and hear. A couple pleasantly rowing a canoe. Two friends singing together, sitting on each bank of the canal.

Soon I reach the Frenchay Road Bridge which announces, with its painted murals, the presence of The Trap Grounds wildlife site. A hidden gem. At this intersection I get off the bike and leave it behind for a while. And I just let my feet guide me intuitively into this place of labyrinthine intimacy.

The Swan Pond feels particularly quiet these days. Ethel and Ernest (the mute swan couple that inhabit it) must be very busy with their nesting work – I have managed to discern it within the reedbed, from the other side of the pond.

Walking in parallel to the Frog Lane, and turning left along the boardwalk, my gaze follows a cute family of ducks, a mum with nine chicks, in expedition across the algae.

After passing by the Frog Pond, just by the Dragonfly Pool, the robin and the goldfinch are the soloists of the finest choir.

My steps go through a new pathway every time. No matter how many times I visit this place, there’s always something new, someone new, to discover. Including my inner self, like a transitory cloud. Exactly like those clouds quietly sleeping in the Kingfisher Pool. In this hidden spot, I practice some active listening, going deep into a polyphonic chant by the chiffchaff, the dunnock and the wren.

Makes no sense to trace my steps back. Just follow them through another path that will nevertheless lead me back to where my bike awaits me. And I continue pedaling along the towpath for just some further meters to get the first diversion to the right hand, a shortcut leading to Aristotle Lane and Aristotle Bridge, directly to Port Meadow.

Just before reaching the gate, it’s worth to stop for a few seconds to contemplate the majestic and peaceful views from above, and between the old hawthorns by the stream. The bright green grass and the horses, tiny in the distance. This vastness confers me the sense of freedom and meditative calmness I look for. When I need it, here I find it.

I like to follow along the paved lane that goes in parallel to the wetland towards the Burgess Field gate. Just on that corner, the small plateau, a privileged spot for bird watching, peaceful panoramic, sunset salutations… From there, sometimes one can glimpse the heron and the swan walking together across the wetland.

The Burgess Field and its secrets. Admirable. This piece of land is a recovered landfill turned into a nature reserve, and for me it encapsulates the very meaning of ‘resilience’.

The bench at the entrance is an invitation, an invocation, for discovery. For connection. Because solitude and loneliness are not equivalent concepts.

Across this wavy land and its pathways of circumlocution, the intimacy and the wildness are just one. The biodiversity and its multiple expressions.

Across this wavy land carpeted in purple joy by the bugle.

Across this wavy land of goldfinches, chirping around, and birds of prey, looking down in relentless circles. Numerous families of wild rabbits are out for dinner and quickly they vanish amongst the bushes as soon as our presence gets closer.

Time to stop for a few seconds to admire the cherry trees in bloom; this is for sure one of my favourite hidden spots. Following day by day the whole transition from nudeness, whiteness to green exuberance brings to me one of the purest forms of joy.

This tends to be the landmark for the end of my route. My gaze is driven back to the wetland in Port Meadow. The sun is lower now. A flock of widgeons creates an unsettled dance against a backlight before alighting. And the horses, the horses will go on their way full of whispers, towards the North whilst I pedal my way back through Aristotle Bridge, feeling my breath full of calmness.

Virtual Walk Santorini

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring the Greek island of Santorini.

Kalimera, everyone. Welcome to Santorini, one of the most beautiful and unique of all the Greek islands. It’s famous everywhere for its dramatic coastline, rugged cliffs, and picturesque blue and white houses overlooking the Aegean sea. 

Santorini is in fact a giant volcanic caldera, filled in by the sea, as you will have seen as you sailed in on the ferry this morning. The volcanic cliffs would have surrounded you on all sides in an almost perfect circle, so that from the sky you imagine it would look like a giant eye, with its ring of jagged black rocks and its centre of sparkling blue.

Thousands of years ago, that volcano exploded in one of the largest volcanic events in recorded history, covering the sky in ash, and sending tsunamis the size of skyscrapers to swamp the shores of nearby Crete.  At the time these islands were home to a people known as the Minoans, who had developed a written language, rich artistic culture, and even indoor plumbing. Many people think this eruption was what caused that civilisation’s collapse. That’s probably where the legend of Atlantis comes from, and the idea of a highly advanced civilisation disappearing under the waves has exerted a powerful pull on the minds of artists and writers ever since.

Today, though, the volcano is dormant, and the island gives no hint of its turbulent past.  Even the sea is peaceful, as calm and smooth as a millpond in the shelter of its crater. We get some breathtaking views of it as we wobble along the clifftop roads in the bus from the main town of Thera to the village of Oia on the northern tip of the island. 

What is it about the sea around the Greek islands that makes you unable to tear your eyes away from it? The ancient Greek poet Homer called the Aegean Sea ‘wine-dark’, by which I think he meant that the water is so deep a blue that it’s almost purple, like how some people’s eyes are such an intense sapphire colour we call them violet.  Or perhaps he meant that just looking at it is intoxicating;  that something about the way the sunlight sparkles on the water, dazzling your eyes, goes to your head like wine. 

Finally the bus rumbles to a halt and we find ourselves at our destination. The village of Oia is a cluster of white walls perching precipitously on the cliff’s edge, like some strange colony of seabirds had landed here to roost. It’s the classic scene you think of when you think of when you think of a Greek island; whitewashed houses, stacked one on top of each other like a child’s lego set, punctuated by the occasional blue dome or spray of hot pink bougainvillea flowers. This view has been replicated on a thousand picture postcards, and yet somehow it never loses its charm. Oia is also famous for its windmills, which you can just see poking out at the top of the hillside there, turning gently in the breeze.

We wonder through the narrow streets, encountering churches, tavernas and pretty little shops selling postcards and fridge magnets and jewellery. Occasionally we run into other tourists – some of them with the glowing, sunkissed look that says they’ve been here a while, others like us with the wondering expressions of people who have just stepped off the boat or plane. All of them smile and nod at us as we pass. Finally we come out on the ruins of the Byzantine castle, a panorama point where we can stop to admire the deep blue of the sea and the sky spreading out in all directions in front of us.

A winding path leads away from this point, zigzagging down the slope to the little seaside port at the foot of the cliffs. It’s a pleasant stroll. A faintly fruity scent comes to us on the breeze from the vegetation that clings to the rocks- oleander, perhaps, or some sort of herb? The cliffs here are actually bright red, another legacy of the island’s volcanic past, and you can imagine that at sunset the whole thing must light up with a sudden blaze of fiery colour, like embers when you blow on them, or like cooling magma as it trickles down a slope.

Several little boats are bobbing gently up and down in the bay as we enter the port of Ammoudi. It’s a perfect crystalline cove, with dozens of quaint little tavernas lining the waterfront. People are sitting out on the wooden chairs, having a leisurely lunch, and we get a glimpse of what they’re eating as we walk past – roasted vegetables dripping with olive oil, baked cheese that crumbles on your tongue, fresh calamari straight from the sea. It all smells so good.  We’ll definitely have to come back here later on. But there’s somewhere we have to go first. How would you feel about finishing our walk with a little visit to the beach?

Let’s keep on following the coast road out of Ammoudi, through a few more houses, and over some rocks until we come out on a stretch of sand the same black colour as the cliffs above our head.  This is called Katharos beach, and what luck! we have it all to ourselves. Take your sandals off and feel the softness of the sand against your feet. Let it trickle between your toes.  Then let’s walk down to the water’s edge to paddle our feet in the cool, clear water. You might want to close your eyes for a moment, here, and take a deep breath, enjoying the warmth of the sunlight and the slight tickle of the gentle breeze on your face.  You can hear the sigh of the waves as they wash back and forth, back and forth, against the shore.  

There’s no rush- you can spend as long as you like here. There are hours of peace and tranquility to be found in simply walking up and down the shoreline with your feet in the sea, or getting out a towel and lying down on the sand.   I’ll leave you to it . See you back at Ammoudi for a late lunch- or an early dinner, depending on what time you manage to tear yourself away. Enjoy yourself , and I’ll also see next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk The Louvre after dark

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring the Louvre after dark.

Hello everyone! Bienvenue to our very special walk today, through the famous Musee du Louvre in Paris. We are very lucky, as museum management have put on a special late-night opening just for us, which will enable us to see all the beauty of the collections without the crowds of tourists that usually flock to the museum.

We are beginning our walk at one end of the beautiful park that borders the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries.   The last rays of the sun are an orange glow on the horizon and the rest of the gardens are plunged into a deep blue twilight as we stroll through the straight, tree-lined alleys, past statues and fountains.

It’s mid-April, and at this time of year, the Tuileries are full of flowers, from the bright formal displays in the flowerbeds to the delicate pink cherry blossom that hangs on the trees.  In the fading light their colours are dimmed, but their scent still hangs in the air, alongside the almost undetectable smell of the warm air rising from the ground after an unusually sunny spring day. You can hear the soft murmur of water playing in the fountains and the occasional twitter of birdsong, as well as the muted sounds of the city outside the park – the car engines and the sirens and occasional bursts of music.

Finally we reach the end of the garden and come out in the huge central courtyard of the Louvre.  This building was once the palace of the kings of France, and it’s a truly imposing sight, stretching around us on all three sides with its elegant French Renaissance facade. In the centre of the courtyard is the famous Louvre pyramid, a huge glass and metal structure, lit up with a warm yellow glow.  The first stars, which are just starting to flicker into life above our heads , seem somehow part of the illuminations, as if a giant hand had put up a string of celestial fairy lights to add to the display.

Let’s enter the building through the main entrance and go down to the basement ticket office.  We should spend a moment studying the little maps they give you, and make a decision about the things we definitely want to see.   The museum is such a massive place that you can’t possibly take it in in one visit- as well as the famous paintings by old masters, they have artefacts from most eras of history – African, Greek, Roman, Persian, Ancient Egyptian. You could probably spend weeks wondering through these galleries, lost in a strange parallel universe where the laws of time and space seem to twist and bend, where an hour can feel like ten minutes, and a day can feel like a month. Perhaps it’s a side effect of having pieces from so many different historical moments together in one space-  after all, in a museum you can travel a thousand years and traverse continents simply by stepping through a doorway or climbing a flight of stairs.

We can’t say we’ve been to the Louvre unless we’ve seen the Mona Lisa and all the other Italian paintings, so why don’t we make that the focus of our visit. We’ll have to go up some stairs and through a few other rooms on our way, but hopefully it shouldn’t take us too long.

This way. We pass through little rooms and long galleries, each one of them different. One moment it’s busts of sombre Roman politicians with serious expressions. The next, cases and cases of Greek vases with their lively orange and black patterns.  And another, sarcophagi and papyrus scrolls and statues of jackal-headed gods.   It’s silent apart from the sound of our footsteps. You’d think it would be unnerving to be alone in a museum after dark- apart from the occasional security guard, of course – but somehow it’s not. The rooms are lit with a soft, warm light, and it’s so peaceful and still. You can forget that there’s a whole bustling city outside.

Oh dear. I think we must have taken a wrong turn, somehow, because we definitely weren’t supposed to end up here.  I think these must be the Near Eastern galleries, where they have artefacts from ancient Iran, North Africa and the Levant. There’s something particularly awe- inspiring about the objects here – immense statues of bulls with heads of men; huge stone slabs carved with people hunting or riding chariots ; massive tablets crowded with writing in a script that only a handful of people nowadays can read.  The little cards next to the artefacts list strange combinations of syllables- Hammurabi, Sumer, Akkad, Ashurbanipal  – names of long-dead rulers, or of places that no longer exist. You can really feel the weight of history here, all the long years that separate us from the figures chiseled into the rock.

Let me just check the map again. Oh, I see what I was doing wrong. If I turn the map like this, I think… no, I’m certain. If we walk back through this room, and go up this staircase, just here, we’ll definitely be able to get where we need to go.

At the top of this staircase is a huge stone alcove, in the middle of which stands a colossal marble statue of a woman. Her robes billow about her as she steps forward, and immense wings unfurl from her shoulders, framing an empty space at the top of her neck.  This is one of the Louvre’s most famous sculptures, The Winged Victory of Samothrace. The statue’s head was lost at some point long ago, so that her features can only be guessed at, and her arms are also missing.  Like a lot of Greek sculpture that has come to us today in a damaged state, the statue’s incompleteness, the abruptness of the break in the flowing marble, almost seems to add to its beauty, drawing the eye back to it again and again with the eternal question: what if? Which just goes to show, things don’t have to be perfect to take your breath away.  

The Italian galleries are just here. If we turn left, and then left again, we should reach our destination. And there she is. The Mona Lisa.  She has a wall all to herself, and sits in a special bulletproof glass enclosure. It’s a privilege to have a chance to stand here and gaze at her for so long- normally this room is so crowded that you can only catch a glimpse of the painting over the heads of dozens of other people.  She’s smaller than you expect, but just as magnificent.  That smile is so expressive, somehow, that you think she might open her mouth and speak at any moment. You almost want to ask her what she makes of all this, and whether it’s all the attention lavished on a modest little painting like her that that she finds so amusing.

The only other person in the room with us is a guard, sitting on a chair in one corner of the room, eyes closed, head resting against her hand.   It has been a long shift, I’m sure. But she’s not as unaware as she seems, because when we step just a little too close to the barrier, she starts upright and gives us a very disapproving stare. Oh dear. I think it’s probably time to move on. Shall we see what the rest of this section has to offer?

We stroll along the long gallery where most of the Italian paintings are housed. All the big names are here- Da Vinci, Titian, Botticelli, Raphael- and every single piece is a masterwork. Angels and Madonnas and little baby Jesuses rub shoulders with Italian nobles in their stiff finery. Look how delicately their features are picked out, the beautiful interplay of yellow, almost sepia-toned light and pools of deep shadow like coffee spilled over the canvas.

We’ve been walking a while, and it feels like time for a break. There’s a bench in the middle of the room, here.  Let’s sit down for a moment and just appreciate the stillness and the quiet of the empty museum.  We’ve still got a little bit of time left, so I wonder if we shouldn’t split up now, and go and investigate any remaining exhibits we want to see on our own. I’ll leave you to peruse your map and make some decisions. Have fun- and see you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Central Park

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring Central Park in New York city.

Hello, everyone.  This week we’re visiting New York city’s Central Park, a green oasis nestling in the heart of Manhattan, a vital breathing space amidst the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle.

We’re starting on the park’s East Side,  at the entrance on East 72nd street.   It’s one of those days in early September where you can almost pretend that it’s still high summer. It’s sunny, but with just the tiniest hint of coolness in the air—as if to remind you that the weather will turn soon and you should make the most of this day.  The park is so busy that you think everyone else must have had the same thought. We pass joggers, people pushing prams and families speeding by on bikes that they’ve hired for the day, as we journey into the green heart of the park. A horse and carriage even trundles by, full of tourists snapping pictures.

After a little while, a wide set of steps opens out on our right, leading down to an open plaza paved with salmon-coloured tiles.  This is Bethesda Terrace.  You’ll probably recognise it—it appears in practically every film or TV show set in New York.  The enormous fountain in its centre, with its sculpture of an angel, is particularly famous. Unveiled in 1873 by the sculptor Emma Stebbins, this statue was actually the first publically commissioned major piece of art in the city of New York that was designed by a woman. You can take a seat on the fountain’s rim and trail your fingers through the water, if you like.  The angel looks down on you with her distant, serene expression, as if she’s following the way the water ripples and glistens as you move your hand.

Bethesda Terrace overlooks the central park lake, which is where we’ll continue our walk. There’s a lot of traffic on the lake today, with ducks vying for space with people on rented rowboats.  We’re not the only people enjoying the view- the benches that line the path are full of people. On one of them, an older gentleman sits, surrounded by a flock of pigeons which he feeds from a bag of seed in his hand.  He smiles down at them with the air of long familiarity, and you get the feeling this is something that he does fairly regularly, maybe even every day. I wonder why.  Perhaps he used to come to this bench, long ago, with someone special. Perhaps it’s simply an excuse to sit in the park for an hour or two, enjoying the fresh air.  Or perhaps the birds are his friends? Maybe he’s come up with a name and a story for all the regulars, keeping track of all their comings and goings over the years.

Coming up we get to a point where the lake narrows and it can be crossed by a footbridge, the famous Bow Bridge.  This is another much-filmed location, and you can see why, because if you stop here you get a beautiful view out over the lake, through the park and to the skyline beyond.  The buildings that line the West Side of the park are very distinctive. There’s the Dakota with its pointed gables, the Beresford with its octagonal corner towers, and the Eldorado and San Remo, both of which sport twin art deco spires. With all their turrets and elaborate ornamentation, I suppose they’re the closest thing to a modern fairytale castle- and with their exclusivity and hefty price tag, you have to be modern royalty to live there.  Celebrities as varied as John Lennon, Diana Ross, Groucho Marx and Jerry Seinfeld have all lived in apartments on the West Side of Central Park at one time or another. What a life that must be, waking up every morning and looking out to see Central Park spread out outside your window like your own personal front garden.  

The other side of the bridge comes out into the Ramble, a little area of natural woodland that forms the wildest part of Central Park. It’s a peaceful place, full of dappled sunlight and quiet, secret nooks and crannies. We wonder through its meandering paths, past a craggy landscape strewn with fallen branches and boulders and a thick carpet of last years’ leaves. You can hear a lot of birdsong, which is unsurprising as this area is home to over 230 species of birds and is popular spot with birdwatchers. All of a sudden there’s a flicker of movement and a fluttering of wings and something flits rapidly across our path. It’s gone before we have a chance to get a proper look.  That’s a shame. Was it something rare, or simply a common-or-garden sparrow? I guess we’ll never know.

Eventually we come out on the north eastern side of the Ramble and continue down the path until we come to a huge stone pillar engraved with -is that hieroglyphics? Your eyes do not deceive you; that’s a genuine ancient Egyptian obelisk here in the centre of New York. It’s the twin of one that stands on the Embankment in London, and was sold by the Egyptian government to the US back in the 19th century. There’s a time capsule buried under the obelisk which features an 1870 U.S. census, a Bible, a Webster’s Dictionary, the complete works of William Shakespeare, a guide to Egypt, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence …and also a mysterious box which no-one knows the contents of.

There’s a hotdog vendor, here, and the savoury smell of it is so tempting that we can’t help but go over and buy some.  It’s a New York institution, after all. The first bite is so good- the soft savoury sausage, slightly burnt onions and the little kick from the mustard- it’s the perfect thing to satisfy the appetite you’ve worked up during our gentle stroll. We wonder along, taking the odd bite as we go,  in search of a good spot to sit down and finish them. Suddenly our train of thought is interrupted by a loud shout : “Barney! Barney! Come back here!” and then before you know it a dog comes trotting up to us, trailing his lead. He’s a bright-eyed, inquisitive little fellow, with more than a touch of terrier about him, and seems very interested in the half of a hot dog you still hold in your hand. His eyes are so big and plaintive that you can’t resist giving him a little bite of it. You ruffle his floppy ears as he munches it contentedly. A few moments later a harried-looking owner runs up, out of breath and apologising profusely. “I hope he wasn’t bothering you!” she says. But you don’t mind. Even if you’re not a fan of dogs in general, you can’t help but be charmed by Barney.

Finally, here we are at the Great Lawn- a 55-acre grassy oval perfect for outdoor games and picnics. As the gate clicks shut behind us we spot a group of people in yoga leggings doing tai chi. There’s something very soothing about their slow, synchronised movements, and the identical expressions of concentration on each of their faces.  We pick our way through all the people sitting on the ground,  looking for a convenient spot to set ourselves down. This seems like a good place to stay for a while, soaking up the sun- perhaps we could read a book, or simply lie back and take in the clear, uninterrupted blue of the sky above our heads.  Shall we end our walk here for today?  I hope you enjoy your peaceful afternoon in the park- and see you back here next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk The Alhambra

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring the Alhambra palace.

Hello, walkers.  Today we are travelling to the Spanish city of Granada , to visit one of the most beautiful places in the country, if not the entirety of Europe; the Alhambra palace.

The Alhambra is a reminder of a time, centuries and centuries ago,  when this region was a part of the Muslim world.   In the 8th Century, much of Spain and Portugal was conquered by troops from North Africa, and for most of the Middle Ages, Muslims, Jewish people and Christians lived side by side,  creating an era of unprecedented flowering of learning and cultural fusion. Unfortunately, however, this wasn’t to last, and eventually the Christian kingdoms to the North began a slow pushback, taking back the country piece by piece. Finally, the area around Granada was the only remainder of Muslim Spain’s former glory. The Muslims called the Spain that they ruled Al-Andalus, which is why this region is still called Andalusia today.

It was here, sheltering from the heat among the palace’s airy halls, shady colonnades, and lush, sweet-smelling gardens, that the rulers of this last kingdom held their court.  Poets called the Alhambra ‘a pearl set in emeralds’, referring to the way it nestles amongst the olive green of the trees surrounding it, sprawling across the mountains overlooking Granada.  Back then it would have been whitewashed, so the description would have been fitting , but nowadays the buildings are their natural reddish colour which comes from the local clay from which they are made . That’s actually where the name Alhambra comes from- it derives from the Arabic for ‘the red fortress’

Let’s try to imagine some of the history that might have taken place here as we go through our tour today. We enter the complex through the Alcazar, the original fortress which was the oldest bit of the Alhambra, and make our way towards the entrance to the central part of the complex, where the palaces are. We hurry slightly to make sure we make the slot on our ticket. They’re very strict about the number of visitors they allow in to this section of the Alhambra at one time, and if we are late we could well miss our chance to see them.

Thankfully, we arrive with a couple of minutes to spare and are admitted to the palaces. The first place we enter is called the Court of the Myrtles, a courtyard dominated by a long rectangular pool of bright green water which contrasts sharply with the white marble surrounding it. If you peer into it, you can see goldfish swimming in those emerald waters, their brightly- coloured scales occasionally shimmering as they catch the light.

We duck inside the tower that dominates one end of the courtyard, walk through a couple of archways, and find ourselves in a huge hall, the Hall of the Ambassadors. This was the throne room, where the sultan received official visitors, and every bit of it is designed to leave visitors with a lasting impression of the might and wealth of the Nasrid dynasty. Practically every inch of the walls is decorated with calligraphy; poems in praise of god, verse extolling the virtues of the sultan, endless repetitions of the motto of the dynasty: ‘only God is victor’.  But the real highlight of this room is above our heads. Look up. The carved cedarwood ceiling with its intricate patterns, like starbursts or opening flowers, is a marvel of Andalusian artistic style.  Apparently, it represents the seven heavens of paradise with god’s throne in the middle. The latticework windows which line the walls on three sides of the room throw pinpricks of dazzling light over everything, adding to the heavenly effect. 

Imagine what it must have been like, to be received by the sultan in all his splendor here. I’m sure he would have projected a very stern persona– he would have had to, with his kingdom threatened on all sides by hostile forces, and perhaps undermined from the inside by rival claimants to the throne.  But maybe he would have been kind, in the end, listening to your plea or your message with grave attention and dispensing justice with a few short words to his advisors. Maybe you would have been given refreshment, or invited to rest, before heading on your way, and come away with the impression that you had been treated fairly, and the meeting that you might have been dreading hadn’t been so terrible after all.

We continue to stroll through shady corridors and courtyards, until we come to a particularly lovely viewpoint, known as a mirador. This one is called Daraxa’s mirador. It’s a little alcove with open air arches on all three sides, so you can stand in them and look out. Coloured tiles line the walls around the arches in gorgeous geometric patterns. Once you were able to look out over the city from this point, but a later building has been put up instead, blocking the view. Now the arches overlook a quiet green courtyard with a fountain softly playing in the centre. Still, as you stand here, it’s impossible not to imagine what the view might have been like. To picture how one of the ladies of the court might have come drifting in here, all those centuries ago, and stopped, one hand resting on the side of the archway, to admire the sight of the city spread out below. Perhaps she would have smiled, or simply closed her eyes and allowed the faint breath of breeze to tickle her face.

Our next stop is the Courtyard of the Lions, so called because of the fountain in the centre, which rests on the back of twelve carved lions, shooting jets of water out of their mouths. It was a wonder in its time, and there’s a poem carved into the base of the fountain praising its beauty and the ingenuity of its construction. A translation is printed in this leaflet that I have in my hand- I can read you a bit of it, if you like?

May The One who granted the imam Mohammed
with the beautiful idea to decorate his mansions be blessed.
For, are there not in this garden wonders
that God has made incomparable in their beauty,
and a sculpture of pearls with a transparent light,
the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?

Lovely, isn’t it? There’s something very special about hearing voices from the past describe their surroundings in their own words.

Finally we leave the main palace complex to come out onto the generalife, a smaller, quieter summer palace, set in acres of gardens. This is where the sultan went to get away from it all, and this is where the most beautiful part of the Alhambra grounds are.  There are still hours of quiet contemplation to be found in strolling through these gardens, full of shady green spots and fountains.  It is the hottest part of the day now, though, and the sun is beating down fiercely,  so perhaps we should stop  for a quick break in the shade and a cooling drink of water.  We’ll end the official part of our walk here, I think. After the break we can all wonder around on our own to have a look at the parts of the gardens that catch our attention the most. I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk this week- and see you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Under the sea

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring under the sea.

Welcome, everyone. Our walk this week will be taking us to somewhere that’s as challenging to explore as the depths of space, a location as little known to us as the surface of another planet.

I’m talking, of course, about the bottom of the sea.

Beneath the waves is another world–  there are vast deserts,  mountain ranges, strange creatures and underwater oases teeming with life. But most of us don’t even know it’s there.  The ocean floor is a hostile environment for us land-dwellers, not only because we cannot breathe down there, but also because of the intense pressure and lack of any sunlight to illuminate our way.  Previously it has not been possible for a single person to dive further down than 600 metres or so, but for this walk we have developed a pioneering new submarine and diving suit which will permit us to step out onto the very bottom of the sea, and sustain absolutely no damage whatsoever.

It gets darker and darker as the submarine sinks down into the depths. The sunlight can only penetrate a few hundred metres down, and below that initial sunlight zone, there are hundreds of metres of inky twilight. Finally the light disappears entirely, plunging the waters around the sub into deepest midnight black, and we find ourselves in the abyss. There’s something dreamlike about this descent-  it’s like falling through layers of thoughts and images and half-formed impressions into deep, blissful unconsciousness.

The submarine lands on the ocean floor, and we prepare ourselves to walk out. These suits only give us twenty minutes or so before we have to go back to the submarine, so we only have a brief, precious window to explore. The torches strapped to our heads illuminate the vast empty plain all around us. That’s not the only light down here though. Above our heads are thousands upon thousands of winking, glittery lights. They’re not stars but living creatures, and those glimmers of phosphorescence are the way they communicate.  The lights enable them to find each other in the darkness, whether they’re looking for a mate- or another animal to prey on. Imagine being one of those little organisms, swimming towards a light, not knowing whether you’re going to encounter a friend – or jaws snapping shut around you.

Perhaps a giant squid is even swimming about, somewhere high above us, its tentacles trailing as it moves silently through the water. When they say giant, they truly do mean it- their bodies alone can grow to five metres long, with its tentacles almost as long again. End to end, the biggest ones can be the size of six tall men stacked on top of each other.  In the olden days sailors used to tell tales of the Kraken, a mythical beastie that snared ships with its massive limbs and dragged them down into the depths, and it’s likely that those tales were inspired by remains of this real life sea-monster that washed up on shore.  Don’t worry, though- real squids are secretive, shy creatures, and it’s very unlikely it would come anywhere near us.

Our lights pick up something huge and looming on the side of our vision, making us jump. But it’s nothing to worry about. It’s just the jawbone of a whale, and it must have fallen down here years ago.  The huge skeleton stretches away into the darkness, the curved lines of its rib and its spine forming a sort of archway that you think you could almost walk through.

Just a little further on, we come across something that you might be surprised to see here- coral. You might think that corals are only found in shallow, tropical waters, but there are also certain varieties that live deep underwater. Just like in a tropical reef, there’s a huge variety of shapes, colours and sizes here– huge lattices sticking up like wafers lodged in an ice cream sundae, shorter, squatter corals that look like little piped rosettes of buttercream icing.  It’s beautiful and bizarre, a welcome oasis of life in an otherwise empty environment.

Finally we reach a point where the ground sharply drops away into even deeper waters.   We stand on the edge and peer curiously into the darkness. I wonder what’s down there?  In some parts of the ocean, there are trenches so deep that Mount Everest could fit in them and still have over a mile of water covering it.  We know a little about what happens in these huge underwater canyons – we know, for example, that life can survive even in those very depths, that there are species of sea cucumber and shrimps that can endure the huge pressure eight kilometres below the surface. But our knowledge is still very limited. Maybe at some point in the future, when technology is even more advanced, we’ll be able to walk down there and find out for ourselves.  Until then, we’ll just have to look down and imagine.

A timer beeps inside our diving helmets. That’s letting us know we’ve used up about half our time on the ocean floor, and we need to start coming back in. Let’s turn around and start making our way back to the submarine.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of this underwater world today- and see you next week for another walk.

Virtual Walk Blenheim Picnic

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring Blenheim Palace.

Hello walkers. Today we are back in Oxfordshire to visit the county’s most famous stately home; Blenheim Palace. Oxfordshire is hardly short of magnificent historical buildings, but Blenheim is definitely one of the grandest. Over its long history, it’s been a medieval hunting lodge, a ducal seat, an MI5 spy base and the family home of future prime ministers, but today it’s most famous as a tourist attraction– and an excellent spot for a picnic.

Blenheim is just a short distance out of Oxford, but as we hop off the bus and step through the gate into the grounds we feel a million miles away from the city. What a great way to just get away from it all for the afternoon.  It’s a glorious June day, and we have backpacks with us full of cucumber sandwiches, lemonade, and strawberries. Someone’s even brought a homemade sponge cake, nestled carefully in a tupperware, ready to be unveiled with a flourish at the end of the afternoon. Before we get stuck in, though, let’s go for a little stroll through the grounds to get our appetites going.

The palace is surrounded by acres of green space, and as we walk along the long drive up to the house we can’t help but admire how beautiful it is. Once upon a time this must have been open country, because this used to be the site of a royal hunting lodge–  the 12th -century king Henry II was said to have hidden his mistress Rosamund Clifford here in the middle of a labyrinth. But now the wilderness has been transformed into manicured parkland, full of wide green lawns and neat clumps of trees planted in just the right place to draw the eye restfully across the park’s softly undulating slopes.

Finally we reach the palace and walk round to the front to get a good look at the façade. Its immensity and the sheer numbers of pillars make it look more like an ancient temple than somebody’s home.  It is beautiful, though, with its warm sandy-coloured stone that seems to soak up the sunlight and radiate it back out again.

 If we turn around, we get a beautiful view out over the park and the lake, pooling like a discarded silken garment at the foot of the palace.  Really it’s two large pools, spanned at their narrowest point by a huge bridge.  A pair of swans are drifting serenely on its mirror-like surface, trailed by a troop of fluffy grey cygnets.  They are excellent parents– you can see it in the way they carefully shepherd their brood, stopping every so often to make sure they’re following, and swimming back to gently chivvy any stragglers along if they fall behind.

Behind the palace are the beautiful water terraces, modelled after the gardens at Versailles.   Fountains and large pools are surrounded by low hedges in spiral patterns. There’s a café here, and people are sitting out on the wrought iron chairs, sipping tea. Once upon a time the privilege of enjoying a moment of quiet contentment here was reserved for a privileged few, but nowadays it’s open to everyone. Surely it’s much better that way, that the beauty here is something shared rather than jealously guarded.

The River Glyme flows into the lake, and there’s a pleasant little winding trail along its banks that leads away from the back of the house. At the end of the path there is what is known as the Grand Cascade, a sort of miniature waterfall where the water tumbles over a fall of rocks. We lean against the railing and watch it for the moment, appreciating the soothing sound of the water rushing over the rocks and admiring the way it throws up little bits of spray that catch the light and turn rainbow-coloured.  

As we head back towards the palace, we have one last stop to make. The rose garden. We step through a trellis archway to find ourselves in a small circular garden packed full of flowers. All about us are blooms in a dizzying array of colours- sunny yellow, fuschia pink, warm coral and red so deep it’s almost purple. Close your eyes and breathe deep. Is there any smell more evocative of English summer than a rose? The scent is so heavy on the air here, you can almost taste it, like a piece of Turkish delight were melting on your tongue. Now our eyes are closed, we can also pick up a faint hum in the air from the bees as they go about pollinating all the flowers.  Let’s walk slowly in a full circuit of the garden, stopping occasionally to bring our noses close to the velvety-soft petals, before stepping out of the trellis archway again and continuing on our way.

We turn around and wander back along the path back the way we came. At last we find ourselves once more on the lawn in front of the palace. It’s finally time for our picnic. The palace and the gently sloping lawn provides a picturesque backdrop as we shake out our blankets and begin to unpack our containers full of food. I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk today – and see you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk from a Reader

In addition to Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team weekly ‘virtual walk’, this week we also have a contribution from one of the readers of the Walking for Wellbeing newsletter. They will be taking us all around Banbury.

Walking has become an important part of our day since lockdown has restricted contact with family and friends.  It gives us routine and a focus which is important for our mental health.   Being early birds means we rarely see other people and can maintain social distancing.

Living in Cherwell Heights gives us easy access to stunning countryside and we have found ourselves exploring further afield.  One of our favourite walks is to cross the country park at Bankside (opposite Chatsworth Drive). The paths lead down to the canal which is a beautiful walk in itself, although can get busy. If you take the footpath immediately opposite the canal bridge and head towards the motorway you will find yourself among some stunning scenery. The path eventually bears to the right and follows the River Cherwell.  This morning we encountered a deer which headed straight towards us. The river can be crossed by a wooden footbridge; the footpath then takes you under the motorway. Bearing left, walk alongside the motorway and you may encounter a pair of lapwings who are nesting in the field. Straight ahead is a railway bridge and once across this you can follow the footpath which leads to the Jurassic Way. This route takes you along the railway line and eventually to Twyford. A return journey via the canal is a very pleasant walk too. 

The Ridgeway

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire.

Welcome, everyone. This week we’re going on a scenic ramble along one of the most well-known walks in Oxfordshire– the ancient Ridgeway, known as Britain’s oldest road. For thousands of years this track has cut its way across the chalk downs of Southern England, part of a longer trade route linking the Dorset Coast to the Wash in Norfolk.

We’ll be visiting three of the most famous landmarks in the Oxfordshire section of the Ridgeway,  all of which stand within a few miles of each other: Wayland’s Smithy, Uffington Castle and the Uffington White Horse.

We start in the White Horse Car Park and begin to make our way along the ancient track. It’s a landscape of ancient standing stones and rolling grassy hills, like something out of a fantasy novel. You can imagine hobbits ambling along the road here, munching on cheese sandwiches, or a dragon sheltering behind the nearest hill, waiting for prey.   

It’s a blustery day today, even though it’s July, and the wind is stirring the long grass and meadow flowers that line the path.  As we walk, there’s an irresistible sense of going back in time. How many people have trodden this path before us? It would have looked much the same through all the long centuries.  We could accidentally go back a thousand years, and perhaps we wouldn’t notice, until some medieval farmers came walking the other way and pointed and stared at the strange garb we were wearing. 

You can spot a solitary kestrel flying overhead, hanging suspended in the air, scanning the ground for the slightest flicker of movement that would signal some sort of small creature for it to pounce on.  

Finally we come to Waylands smithy, an ancient barrow grave site, where over 15 ancient skeletons were found buried. It’s a mound surrounded by several standing stones, guarding an opening like the mouth of some great beast.The place gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon mythological figure Wayland, who was said to have had a forge here, but the actual structure is much earlier even than that, dating from around 3500 BC.  It’s a quiet, secluded spot, set in a grove of trees, and you can see how the Anglo-Saxons might have thought it a magical place, when they found it. 

We turn around and double back towards Uffington. Sheep are grazing in the green fields by the side of the path. The lambs are nearly grown now, having spent the spring growing plump and healthy at their mothers’ sides. The ewes regard us curiously, chewing peacefully on long tufts of grass.

Soon the path starts to climb, up towards Uffington Castle. It is not in fact a castle, but an ancient hill fort, sitting on top of the highest point in Oxfordshire. It’s a huge enclosure, 220 metres by 160 metres, surrounded by earthen ramparts. Once upon a time, this fort must have dominated the surrounding countryside, a sign of the local ruler’s power and prestige, but now all that remains is the bare outline of what was once here.  

The famous Uffington White Horse is just to the north of the castle ramparts. It is possibly the oldest oldest chalk-cut hill figure in Britain, perhaps over 3,000 years old. It’s actually better to view it from a distance- up close here you can only see a bit of the head. But if you view it from the valley below, the flowing lines are cut so cleverly that the horse seems to gallop across the hill. You can see why it’s become an emblem of this part of the world, giving its name to the Vale of White Horse.

As we stand here the sun comes out briefly, shining down on the grass  and the exposed white chalk of the White Horse.   For a second the world is transformed, lit up by the shaft of gold that breaks through the gap in the clouds. This seems a good point to end our stroll for the day. See you next week for another walk!

Pyramids of Giza

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are visiting one of the wonders of the ancient world: the Pyramids of Giza.

Welcome, everyone. Today we’re going to visit the only surviving wonder of the ancient world- the pyramids of Giza. These monumental tombs have stood on this spot for over four thousand years, an enduring legacy of the ancient pharaohs and their desire to be immortalised forever after their deaths. 

Giza is actually a suburb of the bustling city of Cairo, so although most photos make it look like the pyramids are slap-bang in the middle of the desert, the edge of the city is actually not so far away. We pull up in our taxi and are immediately struck by the immensity of these enormous structures. No pictures prepare you for quite how impressive they are. They seem to be at once a part of the desert and a stark imposition on the natural environment, like someone had taken a knife to a set of sand dunes and shaved them down until they were perfectly even on all sides.

We wander through the complex. It’s huge. As well as the three main pyramids, housing the tombs of the Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, there are smaller pyramids for queens, temples and two cemeteries housing other important figures, like royal sons and government officials. At first, the whole thing is rather overwhelming – all around, there are crowds of tourists, people selling souvenirs or food or offering camel rides around the complex. But after a while, you settle into the rhythm of the place, and the hustle and bustle becomes comforting. 

Even though it’s the morning and the heat of the day is nowhere near its peak, it’s still swelteringly hot. The sun is rising above the city behind us, its bright orb breaking out above the heat haze and smoke of the city. The position of the sun is no coincidence. The pyramids are situated on the west bank of the Nile,  because in Ancient Egypt the side of the Nile where the sun set was thought to be proper for the tombs of the dead. 

Our wanderings bring us to the bottom of the Great Pyramid, the tallest of the three main pyramids. Just looking up at it gives you a slightly dizzy sensation.  Close to, you can see how the sides of the pyramids are not smooth, as they seem from a distance, but made up of lots of stacked blocks of stone,  almost like steps, so you think if you wanted to you could climb up right to the very peak.  I wouldn’t do that though- climbing the pyramids is strictly forbidden. It’s important we respect these ancient monuments and ensure they are preserved so that future generations can appreciate them. It’s even best not to get too close- when we approach, reaching a hand out towards the one of the blocks, a nearby guard gives us a stony glare, signalling that it’s time for us to move on.

Around another corner of the pyramid is the entrance into the tomb, set a few metres up . We climb up to look inside, peering down into the long dark tunnel going down deep into the depths of the pyramids. You can pay to go inside, to follow the small, cramped passageway down into where the pharaoh was originally laid to rest.  You have to be pretty dedicated to go down all the steps and squeeze through the narrow, claustrophobic gaps, though, and it’s certainly not for everyone. I don’t know if everyone in the group would be prepared to do that, so maybe let’s save it for another time. 

Around a ten-minute walk away from the Great Pyramid we find the other landmark that Giza is famous for – the Great Sphinx. It’s an image that all of us are familiar with – the body of a lion with the head of a pharaoh, staring enigmatically into the distance. The years have not been kind to it, wearing away at its body and its face and removing its nose. At one point it was even buried in sand up to its neck. What has that weather-beaten face seen as it gazed out over Cairo all these long centuries? Greek kings and Roman generals, Ottoman troops and Napoleon himself have all tried to claim this spot. They are all gone now, but the sphinx still remains, and the statue’s solemn features keep their secrets. 

We’ve been wandering around for a couple of hours now and the heat is starting to get to us.  We stop to buy a wedge of watermelon from a street vendor and eat it in one of the very few patches of shade we can find. It’s sweet and cooling, and just what we need after all our walking around.

It’s getting to the hottest part of the day now- time to return indoors and wait it out.  Hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of this fascinating slice of ancient history today- and see you next week for another walk!

Machu Picchu

Welcome, everyone. Today we’re visiting one of the most breathtakingly beautiful tourist destinations in the world; the ruins of the Inca city of Machu Picchu.

The Inca empire is a fascinating part of world history.  Despite not using an alphabetic writing system or wheeled vehicles, it brought together a vast area stretching along much of the Andes and comprising parts of modern Argentina, Chile, Ecaudor, Bolivia and Colombia.  Machu Picchu is a testament to this ingenuity and ambition. The purpose of the site is still debated, but most people think it was some sort of royal estate for the Sapa Inca or emperor.  

Built nearly 600 years ago, this city in the clouds nestles on a small plateau between two lofty peaks, almost as if it were hanging suspended in between them. High up in the Andes, it’s so remote and inaccessible that the Spanish colonisers never found it and destroyed it like they did with many other Inca sites.  

This early in the morning, the ruins are shrouded in a fine damp mist, giving an extra air of mystery to the site. It’s quiet, apart from the roar of the Urubamba river in the valley below, which circles the plateau in a big loop on three sides.  It’s a lush, green spot. On the margins of the city, you can see how the jungle that once covered the entirety of the site wants to creep back in. Colourful flowers and plants with huge, vibrantly green leaves crowd together like troops lined up for a battle, waiting for the signal to charge. 

We begin to wonder around the complex, up stone steps and along streets, past rows of neat, carefully constructed stone buildings. See how perfectly each block fits together? The Inca built their structures by carefully shaping each stone so they exactly matched up with all the stones around them, removing the need for mortar. This made them more resistant to the earthquakes that often rock these lands.

Other tourists are not the only thing you might encounter as you wander around these ruins.  We turn a corner and come across a llama, which leaves off cropping the grass and lifts its head to give us a curious stare.  Dozens of them wander freely throughout Machu Picchu. They’re probably the only living creatures that make a permanent home here, these days.  It’s a beautiful animal, with its long, slender neck and its big, dark eyes.  Its fleece is so soft and fluffy it’s hard to resist the temptation to go over and bury your head in it.  It doesn’t seem to be scared of us at all- probably it’s seen enough visitors come and go to know that we pose it no threat.  After a moment it simply returns to its meal, confident that we will be on our way soon enough.

We climb some steps and come out on a small platform, open on three sides, giving a panoramic view of the mountains surrounding it. In the centre is a strange-looking stone, with an irregular-shaped base, cut into tiers, and a smaller rectangle sticking up out of it at the top. This is the Intihuatana stone. Inti was the name of the main Inca deity, the sun god, and the name loosely translates as ‘place to tie up the sun’.   According to some people, the Inca believed that this stone tethered the sun in the sky, keeping it to its yearly course, although really Intihuatana’s true purpose is a mystery. It certainly aligns with the sun’s position on the winter solstice and can be used as a sort of sundial. Given the importance of the sun in Inca religion, this makes it likely that the stone had some sort of religious meaning to it. There’s something uniquely awe-inspiring about this spot, with its backdrop of lofty mountains stretching up into the sky.

At the other end of the complex there is a steep, pointed peak- the one you often see in the backdrop of pictures of Machu Picchu. We walk over and peer up at it. This is called huayna picchu, and it’s possible to hike right to the top to get a view out over the ruins.  It’s a little bit of a workout, but it’s well worth it for the view.  Shall we try it? We begin to work our way up, along a twisting, winding path, up into the clouds.  There’s no guard rail in places, so we have to keep our eyes firmly on the path ahead of us to avoid gazing down into the dizzying drop to the valley below. 

As we reach the peak, the clouds clear, and we have a stunning view out over the entirety of the ruins. We’re on top of the world, here.  It’s exhilarating, feeling the cool air on our cheeks and a slight breeze ruffling our hair.  I’ll leave you here for a moment of quiet contemplation. Let’s end our walk there for this week- and see you next week for another walk. 

Great Wall of China

Hello everyone.  Today we are following in the footsteps of Emperors and taking a tour of the Great Wall of China, that truly enormous man-made wonder that represents one of the most impressive architectural feats in human history. Contrary to rumour, it’s not especially visible from space – although you can spot it with the naked eye if you know where to look- but it’s certainly monumental,  at nearly 9000 kilometres long.


Disclaimer: Francesca is not actually currently in China. This picture is from a previous holiday!

First built over two thousand years ago, successive generations of emperors extended and strengthened this mighty fortification to signal to the world the strength and power of their domains. Really it’s a series of walls, joining up with the mountains that form a natural barrier around the heart of China.  It snakes across thousands of miles of countryside, over lofty mountains, through desert and across grassy plains. There are parts of it that few people even visit any more.  Miles away from the nearest city, these long-forgotten sections are overrun with vegetation, slowly crumbling back into the stone they were made from. You can hike along these magnificent ruins, perhaps reflecting as you do so on how even the most impressive and awe-inspiring things have a journey; a beginning, a peak, and an inevitable end. 

Right now, though, we’re not being quite so adventurous. The section we are visiting today is Badaling,  the closest and most easily accessible from Beijing. Fully restored, it’s the part that most people visit, and if you have any relatives with pictures of them at the Great Wall on their mantelpiece, they were probably taken here.   It’s also usually the most crowded part of the wall, sometimes so packed with tourists that it’s impossible to take a photo without getting at least five other people in shot. However, we are visiting in January, which is the off season, so we should have the wall almost to ourselves, as long as we’re prepared to deal with the winter weather. 

It’s a bright but icy early morning when we board the coach that will take us from central Beijing to the wall. Our hands are being kept warm by paper bags of mini pork buns, bought from a nearby street vendor as a snack for the journey. A little waft of savoury-smelling steam escapes from them, freezing in the cold air, whenever we open the bag to pop one into our mouth. We board the bus and make the two hour or so trip out to the wall,  gazing out the window, watching the city turn into countryside or else snoozing to make up for the early start. 

We get off the bus and walk up to the plaza in front of the wall.  We gaze up in awe at the top of the wall, which is still rather high above us.  There is a cable car to take us up there,  but we are here to walk, so let’s follow where everyone else from the coach is going and take the ramp.

We come out on the walkway on top of the wall and take a moment to gaze along it. The wall stretches off into the distance, winding over the mountains, up and down and up and down, like a giant skipping rope. The trees are all bare now, their branches thin lines inked against the sky, like strokes from a calligrapher’s pen. The mountains are shades of brown and grey, those muted tones replacing the bright green of summer,  like a bird taking on a drabber winter plumage at this time of year. 

This high up, it’s cheek-bitingly chilly. It’s one of those bright winter days where the sky is a completely clear, cloudless blue; not the bright, vibrant cobalt of summer, but a paler, washed-out shade, like fine silk that has sat in the sun for too long. The sunlight sears your eyes without providing any warmth, and our breaths are puffs of ice in the freezing air.

We amble slowly along the rampart, stopping every often to peer out through one of the gaps that provide a look out point for miles around. It’s hard not imagine yourself as a soldier, walking this route all those years ago, your eye always on the horizon, vigilant for signs of movement.  We duck inside one of the watchtowers,  one of the rare points of shelter in the exposed length of the wall. It’s easy to imagine our solider taking a brief moment of refuge here on a similarly chilly winter’s morning; removing their helmet, grabbing a quick bite of food, and holding their hands out over a brazier to warm them before braving the elements once more. 

Nowadays, the wall is not patrolled by soldiers, but visitors armed with nothing more sinister than cameras. Even on a day like today, a few hardy souls can be found determinedly snapping photos.  We are stopped as we pass one young American family and asked if we could take a picture of them, which we happily do. It’s a great photo—wide grins, shoulders drawn back proudly, and when we show it to the parent who handed us their phone, they smile broadly and thank us, clearly satisfied with the result. Perhaps we have been a part of creating a lasting memory for those people today, an image that will sit in pride of place in their living room for years to come, long after the children have grown and gone away to start lives of their own.  

Finally it’s time to turn around and make our way back to where we’ve started, so we’re there on time to catch the coach back to the city. I hope you’ve had a good time today, and your face isn’t too numb from all that time spent out in the cold. See you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Big Ben

With thanks to a reader who provided the inspiration!

Welcome, everyone. Today we are travelling not only in space but in time,  which is appropriate as we are visiting one of the most famous timepieces in the world- the Big Ben Clock tower. 

Normally it’s relatively easy to visit Big Ben – any UK resident can write to their MP to request a free tour– but it’s a bit of a challenge these days, because the tower’s been closed for refurbishment since August 2017, and the work isn’t due to be completed until at least 2021.  So let’s jump forward in time, just a couple of years, to a day where the clock tower is open again.

It’s a typical grey, drizzly London morning as we begin our tour. You go through security in Portcullis House- the more modern building opposite the Houses of Parliament, then you’re escorted through a tunnel underneath the road to get in to the main building. It all feels very grand and important, like you’re some sort of visiting dignitary, although I’m sure that soon wears off if you have to do this sort of thing every day. 

This national icon is accessed through an unassuming little door marked simply ‘clock tower’- though, as our guide Joan informs us, the tower is now officially known as ‘The Elizabeth Tower’ following the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012.  Joan is a cheerful lady who clearly loves her job- she’s full of enthusiasm and random bits of trivia about the inner workings of 19th-century clock mechanisms . ‘As you know, the tower was completed in 1859, following designs by Augustus Pugin ’,  she tells us brightly, apparently not the slightest bit out of breath, as we puff our way up the first flights of the 334 steps we will have to climb to the top of the tower. I suppose she must do these tours several times a day, so the stairs seem hardly to bother her.

It’s not a moment too soon when we come to the first stop in our tour-  the “prison room” where they used to put MPs who misbehaved. Joan tells us a story about someone who was locked up in there, back in the day, for refusing to swear an oath on the Bible- although we’re too busy catching our breath to listen very closely. Then we proceed up several more flights of steps to our next stop: the clock faces. There are four of them, one for each side. As we follow Joan into the narrow space behind one of them, the light falling through their 312 panes of white glass casts a pearly glow. The black and white contrast between the glass and the wrought iron frame it sits in is very beautiful; the whole effect is like an enormous full moon trapped behind finely sculpted bars. 

Then we go to see the original Victorian clock mechanism. It bristles with old fashioned cogs and wheels, like spines along the back of some prehistoric creature.  You’ll notice the shiny discs of metal sitting on the pendulum. ‘Those are old copper pennies,’ Joan tells us. ‘They can be used to regulate the speed of the clock. If you add a penny, it speeds up the clock, and if you take one away, it slows it down’.  We stop here a moment, listening to the slow, steady ‘tick, tick’ of the mechanism, regular as a heartbeat.  Then Joan waves us onwards, on to the final part of the tour. 

Finally we reach the top of the tower, coming out onto the belfry.  And there, behind a wire cage, is Big Ben itself. Strictly that name applies to the 13-and-a-half-tonne bell, the one that you hear chiming at the start of the evening news. It’s completely still and motionless now, but the hour is not long away, and in a few moments we should hear that distinctive sound up close. Let’s put on the ear mufflers they’ve provided us with, and wait. 

First we hear the tinkling chimes that announce every quarter of the hour. Then the first ‘bong’ of the big bell hits, making the floor beneath us shake.  Why do we need a sound to announce the passing of the hours? Maybe it’s like how, in the olden days,  someone used to go around every hour announcing ‘All’s well’. Perhaps we as humans need loud reassurance at regular intervals that the world is still here, we are still here, and things are going to continue as normal.  When Big Ben’s chimes fell silent, it made some people nervous, thinking it was somehow symbolic, that this tradition coming to a brief halt would mean we lost something of what we were. But the fact is, things don’t have to continue as they always have for things to turn out ok. 

The belfry has some gaps in it that are open to the elements, and we walk over to one of them to get a view of London. The world we are looking out on now is very different from the one that existed before the clock tower fell silent, but it’s still very much there. The familiar vista of cranes and church spires and skyscrapers is shrouded as usual in drizzly mist,  the red buses are still whooshing over the nearby bridge,  and beneath us the Thames continues to wend its sluggish way towards the sea.  

Joan is starting to smile particularly pointedly and edge her way towards the top of the steps. I think we’ve come to the end of our tour now. It’s time for us to start making our way back down to ground level.  I hope this has been an educational and interesting view of one of our most famous national monuments.  See you next week for another walk!

Caribbean Island

Hello everyone. Today we’re getting away from it all with a peaceful beachside walk on a little-known island in the Caribbean.

Of course, just saying that we’re visiting the Caribbean doesn’t tell you much –it is a huge region, with a real mix of landscapes and diverse cultural influences – African, Indian, French, Spanish, British and Dutch. There’s a huge difference between Cuba and Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad, Barbados and Puerto Rico. But I’m afraid I can’t be too specific about where exactly it is we are heading today, because this tiny island is a very well-kept secret. Suffice it to say that the open ocean is a little over that way, Jamaica is a little further over that way, and, as with most places in the region, if you keep heading south for long enough, you’ll run into South America.

The only way to arrive at the island is by boat from the nearest port. We can see it as we approach; a bright green hump in the distance, like the back of some strange whale. The boat speeds towards our destination, ancient engine chugging away as it cuts its way through the water. The sea is so clear here you can see all the way down to the bottom. We watch the sand and pebbles of the sea floor pass by through that turquoise-coloured lens. There are fish here, too. We must be able to spot hundreds of them as we negotiate the reef that surrounds the island, in all the colours of the rainbow, darting about and winking in the sunlight.

And there, look! A huge turtle is swimming alongside our boat, lazily keeping pace with a few slow strokes of its flippers.  What a life. Imagine spending all day cruising these warm, tropical waters, without a care in the world. I think we could all learn a lot from the turtle. She’s in no hurry, has no place to be, but moves through her element with grace and ease, just letting the current take her where it will.

Finally we draw up on the jetty by the beach and hop off the boat. From the moment our feet touch the sand, which has the same colour and texture as caster sugar, a deep peace settles over us. For many of us, this scene- white sand in a gentle curve, turquoise water on one side, a lush tangle of palm trees on the other –  is what we think of when we think of a ‘happy place’.  The island is a perfect little world in miniature. You could walk around the whole of it in an afternoon; a pleasant stroll along miles of nearly uninhabited beach.  

Unlike many other places, this island was never really settled by anyone. At one point it was used as a stash for stolen goods by pirates, and every so often someone unearths an ancient rum bottle – empty, of course- buried in the sand along the shoreline.  There are even persistent rumours that a captain buried his ill-gotten gains somewhere on the island– something that is probably more inspired by the movies, or the local tourism industry, than by actual fact.  But it doesn’t stop people venturing into the thickly forested interior every year, armed with metal detectors and hopeful expressions. Who knows? Maybe one day they will get lucky, and unearth a chest full of gold dubloons, glittering in the tropical sunlight. 

Nowadays, the island is still largely uninhabited, apart from a couple of small resorts that cater to visitors who are really looking to get away from it all. It’s to one of these resorts we’re heading now. There will be a sun lounger there, and some sort of iced fruit juice to parch our thirst after our journey.  We’re in no hurry to get there, though. The sun is warm on our skin, and the waves lap softly against the shoreline, dragging a soft foam like soap suds along in their wake. We remove our shoes and follow the wiggly line of wet sand the water leaves behind, stopping every so often to dig our feet in a little and feel it ooze between our bare toes.

A gentle breeze brings a faint fruity smell from inland. The coconut trees bend in stately curves over the beach, the enormous tassels of their leaves nearly touching the ground. There’s a flash of bright colour, and some sort of parakeet flies out from the treeline, letting out a loud, raucous caw. The sound is happy, somehow, as if it were crying out with sheer joy to feel the air beneath its wings.

We scramble over a little barrier of rocks at the end of the beach, and there it is; the tranquil cove that is our final destination.  The hotel is just a cluster of little wooden cottages scattered along the beachfront, with a few sun loungers and big parasols in front of them.  Hear that? That’s right. Nothing. There’s barely any noise here. Just the sound of the waves and the insects and the sighing of the breeze through the trees. How rare is that, nowadays, to be somewhere where you can’t hear the sound of cars or airplanes or crowds of people rushing around their daily lives?  This is where we’ll stop for the afternoon. Hope you’ve enjoyed our walk today- and see you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk South of France

Hello, walkers. Welcome to our walk today in the sunny south of France: Provence, the region of Mediterranean sunshine, picturesque stone farmhouses and fields full of swaying lavender. For a few weeks during high summer, the countryside is transformed into a sea of purple, drawing visitors to the region from miles around.  It’s this glorious floral display that we will be visiting today, hoping to spend a little time unwinding in the perfumed air. 

We are starting our walk in a sleepy hilltop village, set on a rocky outcrop high above the surrounding fields.  This is typical Provence; little alleyways lined by pretty stone buildings, balconies and shuttered windows overlooking the street.   It’s early afternoon, just past lunchtime, and as we wander through the village, the cafes are taking in their signs and closing their doors, shutting up for the post-lunch siesta. 

It really is a beautiful spot. There’s something special about the light here; you can see how this region has inspired so many famous artists. It was in this part of France that Vincent Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works, the scenes of wheatfields and cafes and The Starry night.   

There is a sign leading out from the centre of the village saying ‘lavender walk’. We follow the trail, which takes us down steps and through narrow alleys out of the centre of town. We keep going along the winding path down from the hill, until the land flattens out into the plain. And here we are, standing on the edge of one of these famous fields. The lavender stretches out before us in neat rows, bright purple as far as the eye can see. We walk along the line of soil between two rows of bushes, towards the little stone farmhouse on the other side of the field.

The sun is slowly slipping past its zenith now, and it is that still, quiet point of the day in the Mediterranean where the entire world seems to doze.   The hazy sunlight lies over everything like a blanket, and the thrum of the insects is like the land snoring quietly in its sleep. They are the only things stirring in all of this. The bees, dozens and dozens of them, are steadily doing the rounds of each flower, as if they were scared to offend one of them by leaving them out, while the butterflies flit from place to place in flashes of red or white. 

You’re not supposed to pick the flowers – this is the farmer’s crop, after all- but it’s impossible to resist reaching out and running your hands through the bushes as you walk past, perhaps crushing a sprig or two between your fingers. The sharp, herbal scent clings to your skin when you raise them to your nose afterwards. How would you describe what lavender smells like, do you think, to somebody who’d never experienced it before?  If the smell of a rose is warm and luxurious, like running your hands over deep red velvet, I would say lavender smells crisp and clean, like a cool breeze fluttering through fine linen curtains.  But perhaps that’s not very helpful.  Maybe you would have to resort to describing the things that the scent has become associated with; the insides of drawers and cotton bedsheets and the kind of soap grandmothers keep tucked away the corner of the bathroom for when guests come. 

Lavender is not the only flower you can see here. Sunflowers are also growing on the margins of the field, their bright yellow heads bobbing up sheepishly above the sea of purple, like tall children relegated to the back of the class photo. Do you know what they’re called in French? Tournesols. Isn’t that a beautiful word? It’s even prettier when you know it comes from ‘turn’ and ‘sun’- describing the way the flowers rotate throughout the day to make sure their faces are always bathed in sunlight. 

Sunflowers were one of Van Gogh’s favourite subjects to paint- he came back to it over and over again, and there’s even a portrait by another artist where he is shown painting sunflowers.  Perhaps Van Gogh was walking by a similar field to this one when the inspiration first struck him. There wasn’t a lot of sunshine in that artist’s life, so even if it’s not true, it’s nice to imagine him spending a happy afternoon in the company of these cheerful flowers. But of course, as with many things about Van Gogh’s life, it’s likely we’ll never know. 

We reach the farmhouse at the end of the field. Here there is a small gift shop, where the family who own this farm sell all sorts of products. We step inside, into the blessed cool of the stone building. The woman behind the counter- wearing a rather stylish apron embroidered with a lavender design—looks up from her book and smiles broadly at us as we enter. She introduces herself as the farmer, Sylvie, who runs the farm alongside her parents, before giving us a brief tour of her wares- bunches of lavender, lavender bags, lavender soap , cushion covers and tea towels embroidered with little purple flowers. 

There’s even a freezer full of lavender ice cream, which she gives us each a taste of. It’s a sweet, intense burst of that floral fragrance we’ve been inhaling all this time, like a little bit of summer breeze melting on your tongue. Perhaps it’s the heat, or perhaps it’s the friendly way it has been offered to us, but it suddenly seems rude not to buy a full scoop of it. It is traditional, after all. 

Suitably refreshed, and perhaps laden with a couple of themed purchases pressed upon us by the clever saleswoman Sylvie, we begin our walk back up to the village.  Soon the sun will begin to sink towards the horizon, and the village will start to wake from its midday slumber. There will be new things to explore then, as the cafes and shops unbar their shutters and open up for the evening. But there should be time for a brief rest in the shade indoors before then.  See you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Ecuador

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’. This week we have a very special walk from a volunteer, Ewan, who usually writes our regular wildlife of the week feature in the Walking for Wellbeing newsletter. He has shared with us his once-in-a-lifetime trip to the cloud forests of Ecuador to fulfil his dream of seeing the rare harpy eagle.

It has been a lifelong ambition of mine to see a Harpy Eagle and I finally achieved it with an unforgettable trek through a Cloud Forest in Ecuador. Here is my recounting of the experience which, although arduous, was spiritually uplifting in so many ways.

We disembarked the 4×4 at an inconsequential looking gap, no more than two metres wide, in the edge of the forest. It looked so innocuous, a small, wet, leafy opening to a narrow trail disappearing into the dim green light of the forest’s wet interior. If only I had known what was in store. Once in the forest the humidity and fecundity of the forest floor enveloped us in a warm and earthy aroma and the light diffused through a million leaves, faded to a half light of shade and mystery.

The vegetation is so dense and prolific in the forest that for most of the time you can really only see a few metres around and in front of you. Many creatures here do not ever properly see the full light of day and huge butterflies, dark as the rotting leaves on the forest floor or ethereal with transparent wings, flit along at knee height amongst the hanging leaves of a myriad plants, specialists in this nether world of deep vegetative litter and green gloom.

Small birds of bewildering variety, usually tapaculos, antbirds, antwrens and manakins skulk in the dark green depths of the forest. Tiny and seemingly invisible, they made strange unfamiliar calls as I wiped sweat from my eyes. It can make a grown man cry trying to differentiate the outline of a tiny bird that looks just like the thousands of leaves around it. Sometimes I managed to see the bird but often was left in frustration at my apparent ineptness.

The trail, needless to say, was never really level. I either found myself climbing perilous muddy banks, ten, twenty and thirty feet high with minimal footholds, or descending similar vertical banks; dropping, twisting, turning, ducking under tree trunks and around fallen branches, wading through streams, slip sliding and sinking in cloying mud. It went on and on and would last for two hours all in wellingtons.

Sweat poured from my body. The humidity and still air contrived to stick every item of clothing to my skin. I had made sure I wore a long sleeved shirt today to keep off the mosquitos but it was soon sodden with sweat. After thirty minutes I called a halt as I badly needed water to replenish my body’s depleted reserves. We stood and drank from bottles for ten minutes and then off we went again along yet more of this natural roller coaster, looping up and down, slithering along the narrow trail through the forest. I dared not ask Gabo or Pedro, my guides, how long we had been walking —  for fear, on learning the time remaining until we reached our destination, it would be too disheartening. I was struggling. Although for my age I am supremely fit, I was now entering into uncharted realms of physical endurance. However there was not a chance I was going to give in.

At my request we made another stop to drink yet more water and then on we went. I had no idea where we were but trusted Gabo and especially Pedro who knew the forest intimately. Despite the trials and tribulations I suffered, there is something truly romantic about wandering this wilderness,  looking at plants growing naturally that I normally only see in hothouses or garden centres at home. Here I was in the most natural hothouse of all.

Finally, after another long spell of arduous walking,  we went up a slight rise and came to a small open natural viewpoint looking out through the forest. There, some hundred metres beyond, was a fully grown young Harpy Eagle sat on its eyrie in the largest tree I have ever seen.

A lifetime of dreaming had become reality.

Virtual Walk Cape Town

Hello, everyone. Today we’re visiting the very southern tip of Africa for a walk along a beach near Cape Town. This part of the world is home to some of the most dramatic and beautiful stretches of coastline on earth. It’s also fantastically rich in wildlife, thanks to the meeting of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the cooler waters of the Atlantic.  As we walk along the beach here, we could encounter all sorts of animals, and we will be finishing our stroll with a visit to a colony of creatures who you might not have expected to see in South Africa. 

As we step out onto the sand, it’s hard not to feel small. The mountains come right up to the sea, here at the Cape, the land crumpling into deep, shadowy folds which hide secret gorges and waterfalls too high for any human to reach.  Clouds catch against their flat, stony tops, shrouding them in grey mist and bringing with them the rain that turns their slopes green. 

If you went up into those highlands, you would find a dazzling array of native flowers, almost alien-looking with the strangeness of their shapes and brightness of their colours. This is known as the fynbos, and most of these species are found nowhere else on earth. Parts of these plants have been used by local people for centuries-  if you’ve ever enjoyed rooibos tea, this is where it comes from – but there are simply too many different species of bush to know the properties of them all. The source of some miracle drug could be hidden away in some remote crevice, right above our heads, and we’d simply never know.

Equally impressive is the expanse of ocean that greets us when we tear our eyes away from the mountains.  The blustery spit of sand  on which we’re walking is only a narrow oasis between the high peaks and the endless blue. You feel as if you are at the end of the earth, here, and in a sense you are; from here to the ice floes of Antarctica there is nothing but miles and miles of open water. You can almost taste a breath of polar air on the buffeting wind, which rushes at you with all the energy of something that has rolled across all that vast emptiness without anything to stand in its way. 

“You feel as if you are at the end of the earth…from here to the ice floes of Antarctica there is nothing but miles and miles of open water.”

This is not the meek, tame sea that gently caresses the coast in more tropical climes. The water here rolls and thunders against the sand with an almighty smack, like someone slapping their hand down on the table to demand your attention. The first European sailors to round the Cape called it the Cape of Storms to describe how rough these waters were. Later, though, they changed their mind, and called it the Cape of Good Hope instead, which I think reflects how with time you come to appreciate the wild beauty of the southern ocean. 

Today you can see families with wetsuits and body boards riding the waves all the way into shore, the shrieking of children’s laughter just about audible over the roar of the breakers. It’s such a human thing, to make something fun out of something just a little bit terrifying. When you brave the surf, it is inevitable that at some point a wave will knock you off your board, holding you down and churning you round and round underwater. For a breathless moment you will not be able to see or think or know which way is up. You can only surrender to the unstoppable force that has you in its grasp, waiting for the moment it will have done with you. You have to trust that soon the world will right itself, your head will break the surface, and you will be able to draw in lungfuls of sweet clean air.

And yet somehow that moment of sheer terror is part of the fun of it. See! That little boy there has just been dunked by a wave, and come up coughing and spluttering for breath. He blinks dazedly, shakes his head like a wet dog, and then grins from ear to ear. Watch him grab hold of his board again and push it back out to where the waves are starting to break, completely undaunted by the experience. 

If you look further out to sea, you can spot several furry brown shapes sunning themselves on a nearby rock. Seals are common in these waters- you can even spot their inquisitive little heads popping up out of the water in Cape Town Harbour. They’re some distance away, but you could almost swear that they’re following us with their big soulful eyes, so like a puppy’s. As we watch, one of them slides silently into the water, disappearing beneath the waves with a barely visible ripple.

We can’t see them from here, because the waters are too shallow, but you can often spot whales out to sea. If we were standing on the clifftop over there, we might possibly spot an enormous tail breaking the surface of the water, creating its own temporary waterfall as the seawater runs off it. 

Finally we reach the end of the beach, where we’ll be able to spot the colony of that unusual creature I mentioned.  Look- there’s one now. The little bird is making its way along the sand with a slow, waddling gait, as if it were more used to swimming than making its way over land. It has black flippers and a white bib, like it’s wearing a dinner jacket. That’s right – it’s a penguin!  We think of them as a cold climate bird, but actually there are several colonies of them along the Southern African coast. If we walk up these steps here, we can get a view of the whole colony of them, spread out across the rocks. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, and they make a real racket, calling out to each other with their distinctive cry that sounds like a donkey’s bray. I wonder what they’re saying.  Are they greeting their friends who are returning to the colony, expressing delight that they have come home safely from the open sea? Swapping notes on what the fishing has been like? Demanding that other penguins get out of their way as they waddle back to their favourite spot on the rocks? Impossible to say. 

They’re not the only creatures here. A little face peers out of a gap in the rocks and sniffs the air, whiskers quivering. It belongs to a small furry animal called a dassie which likes to make its home next to the penguins.  They look like some sort of oversized guinea pig, but in fact their closest living relative is the elephant.  Aren’t they cute? There’s something about them that reminds you of a teddy bear. 

I think that’s all we’ve got time for today. I’ll leave you here for as long as you want to look at the penguins and the dassies and take pictures if you like. See you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Himalayas

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are visiting the roof of the world; the Himalayas.

Hello everyone. Today we are travelling to the very roof of the world; the Himalayas.  For many people, this is a sacred place, as is shown by the monasteries and other holy sites that dot its high valleys. Others are drawn to the region that contains the highest mountains on earth simply for the challenge it represents – just to say they have stood here where few other people have ventured. Whichever tendency you lean towards , this landscape of rocky precipices and lofty mountaintops is certainly a very special place, inspiring awe and wonder like nowhere else on the planet. So let’s go on a pilgrimage of sorts together, and see if we can find a little peace and clarity in the rarefied mountain air. 

Our trail starts from a little Nepali village in the valley floor.  The high peaks rear above our heads as we adjust the straps of our daypacks and take in the scene. Himalaya comes from the Sanskrit meaning ‘abode of snow’, and you can see why- all of the peaks around us are held fast in a deep layer of ice. Don’t worry, we’re not attempting to scale any of those,  but are making our way up to a monastery high up in the pass there,  which will give us some fantastic views both of the peaks and of the valley where we’re standing now.

We’re accompanied by two local guides, Nima, a local woman who has been navigating these highlands for years, and Pemba, Nima’s young nephew. It’s Pemba’s first official guiding trip, and he’s very excited, already pointing out landmarks and telling stories about them, even though we haven’t left the village. Nima grumbles and rolls her eyes at his enthusiasm, but you can see she’s secretly proud of him- occasionally you’ll catch her smiling fondly at him when she’s certain he’s not looking.

We begin our walk. The village is only a few dwellings, a shop,  a primary school and the local ‘tea house’ where we’ve been staying for the night.  We remember that place fondly- particularly the excellent dinner and breakfast.  Nepali food is hearty and nourishing, as it needs to be –and the heaping plates of chow mein noodles,  dal bhat (lentil soup with rice), and momos (fried dumplings filled with delicious spiced filling), are still fresh in our mind. Not to mention, of course,  the many, many steaming cups of sweet black tea to fortify us before a long day of strenuous trekking.

It looks like we are going to be delayed a little as we leave the village, though, as up ahead you can spot the Himalayan equivalent of a traffic jam- a stray yak wandering across our path.  If you’ve never seen one before, a yak is like a cow that someone has thrown a massive shaggy blanket over. Its fur reaches all the way down to its hooves, and it almost looks like it could sweep the ground behind it as it walked. It has enormous horns which curve out on either side of its face and its own little mountain peak in the middle of its shoulders. As it turns its head towards us, a little bit of its long fur falls between its eyes like a floppy fringe, giving it the look of a singer from a boyband. Here in Nepal, almost everything is produced by yaks – their wool is used to make clothing, temples are lit by yak butter lamps, and there’s even such a thing as tea made with yak butter. So be sure to show them the proper respect when you see one. After a moment it turns and lumbers away again, with a soft tinkling sound from the bell around its neck, and we can continue on our way.

The trail is lined by long ropes which hold dozens and dozens of pieces of cloth, fluttering in the breeze. These are prayer flags. Printed with mantras and depictions of sacred animals, it is believed that when the wind blows through them, it spreads goodwill and compassion out into the world. You will see hundreds of these brightly-coloured cloths as we make our way through the mountains. As we pass each one, spare a thought for the kind person who tied them up there, for no other reason than to put a little more goodness into the world. 

Soon we start to climb upwards. The lower slopes of the mountains are thickly forested, bringing with them a fresh scent of pine. All sorts of fascinating wildlife shelters in the deep needle-strewn shadows. The red panda is native to this part of the world, and perhaps, if we’re very, very lucky, we’ll catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of our eye, and turn around just in time spot a flash of bright red stripy tail disappearing deeper into the trees.

We hear the sound of rushing water long before we reach the point where the ground suddenly falls away into a wide gorge over a river. The only way across is the narrow, wobbly rope bridge. We stop and stare at it apprehensively, but Nima and Pemba carry on walking, completely unconcerned. I suppose there’s nothing else for it but to follow them.  After you, then. The bridge sways alarmingly from side to side as we walk along it. Though it’s perhaps better to keep your eyes firmly fixed on the other side, it’s impossible not to look down to the white water flowing over the rocks below. Some of the greatest rivers in the world have their sources in these mountains, and perhaps this torrent joins up with a hundred other streams and flows into the Ganges or the Brahmaputra. If we dropped a stone in there, it could be carried all the way out to the vast delta in the Bay of Bengal. What a journey that would be. Finally our grasping hands reach the end of the rope and our feet find firm ground on the other side.  Phew. Made it. Our guides have already raced on ahead- we’d better jog a little to catch up with them.

We keep on trekking for quite some time, climbing higher and higher until we break through the treeline. The upper parts of the Himalayas are a lunar landscape of bare rock, bleakly beautiful in its way, but it’s hard to concentrate on anything but the climb as we ascend the final steep slope up to the top of the pass.  Conversation falls away as our calves begin to ache and our breath comes in short, sharp bursts. The only sound is Pemba humming softly to himself, lost in his own private world.  There’s something cleansing about this level of intense exertion. All your present worries, future plans and past memories seem to melt away, and there’s nothing but you and the path ahead of you. 

“All your present worries, future plans and past memories seem to melt away, and there’s nothing but you and the path ahead of you.”

Finally here we are at our destination. The monastery perches precariously on its rocky outcrop, at the highest point of the pass. It’s a simple building, decorated only by more long lines of prayer flags and brightly painted borders around the doorways.   From inside the monastery you can hear the chime of bells and the slow rhythmic drone of the monks chanting inside. Turn around and look back the way you came.  This is what has made it all worth your while- the valley spread out before your feet, the sunlight reflecting off the snow-capped peaks, and the soaring feeling, like you are flying without your feet having left the ground.  I don’t think anything else can top this, quite literally, so it seems a good place to end our walk this week. See you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Cotswolds

Hello, everyone.  Today we are visiting the countryside for a stroll through the breathtakingly picturesque Cotswolds.

It’s a bright day in early September. We stand at the crest of a hill, looking out on a typical Cotswold view;a wide panorama of rolling green pastureland studded with sheep and crisscrossed with hedgerows. The chequerboard of green and gold is overlaid with a second chequerboard of deep shadow and bright golden sunlight, constantly shifting and changing as the clouds chase each other across the sky.  Though it’s early, some leaves are just beginning to turn, just on the edges of some of the trees, adding a golden halo to their lush green. 

It’s dreamy and peaceful. If you breathe deep, you’ll take in a deep lungful of country air, refreshingly free from car fumes and smoke.

We set off down the footpath which carries us across the gently undulating land; over stiles, along lush meadows where the dew wets our boots as we walk through the long grass; through freshly ploughed fields, littered with huge clods of earth which turn your ankle if you step on them.  Sometimes it ducks into clumps of woodland, the leaves forming a tunnel of dappled green and gold light, before bringing us out again into the wide open space of a field. 

“It’s dreamy and peaceful. If you breathe deep, you’ll take in a deep lungful of country air, refreshingly free from car fumes and smoke.”

Butterflies dart across our path, and the sun peeps in and out of the clouds, blazing forth every so often to touch everything with gold. The only sounds are the tweeting of the birds and the occasional whir of some piece of farm machinery.  At this time of year, the hedgerows are full to bursting with berries.  There are blackberries in every shade from green to red to purple, reddish-orange rosehips, and sloe berries of the deepest indigo, so eyepoppingly blue you think they can’t possibly be natural. If you know your stuff, the natural world offers you an incredible treasure trove at this time of year. 

At one point the path follows a little stream, perhaps one of the many little rivulets that feed into the Thames or the Severn. The pleasant sound of it trickling over the rocks accompanies our walk for a long time. At one point, we pass a cottage called ‘The Old Mill’, where once upon a time a water mill must have turned these crystal clear waters. 

Often we’ll come across an ancient oak tree, a natural pillar holding up a majestic spreading crown. Oak trees are a wonderful thing. They are an ecosystem all of their own, with 326 species dependent on them for survival.  Caterpillars feed on their flowers and leafbuds, birds and insects make their nests in holes in their trunk, fungi and invertebrates thrive in their leaf litter, and foxes, badgers and squirrels feed on their acorns when they drop to the ground in the autumn.  A single tree could live to 700 years, with some particularly ancient specimens reaching 1000. A mature one like that one we see over there has probably stood for at least a century. Imagine all the life it has sustained in that time, the myriad of other stories that it has influenced to a greater or lesser extent. We’re all a bit like the oak, in that way.  We sustain and nourish so many others whose lives we touch, just by our existence. 

The spire poking out through the next copse of trees announces we’re nearly at the village that is our final destination. It’s only a very small place , really just a cluster of cottages, a green with a war memorial and a church.  All of the buildings are made from the same distinctive Cotswold Stone, which lends them a pleasing uniformity.  The cottages are pristine, planted with tall stalks of hollyhock, lavender and poppies, their window frames painted similar shades of pale olive green.  We stop and take in the notice board, glancing at the adverts for the local zumba class and the parish jumble sale. You can’t help but smile at the picture they paint of life here in the village, the uniqueness and closeness of this community. 

Here on the green is where we’ll stop and have a little picnic before catching a bus back home.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk today- see you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Taj Mahal

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’, this week the team are visiting the magnificent mausoleum that is the Taj Mahal.

If money were no object, what would you do to show you cared about someone else? What if you were an emperor in 17th-century India, with the wealth of half a subcontinent at your disposal? When Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, died, he built her a tomb of such stunning beauty and magnificence that it became one of the wonders of the world. I am talking, of course, about the Taj Mahal.  It is this magnificent mausoleum that we are visiting today, hoping to see if the reality measures up to the legends.

Cars aren’t allowed within 500 metres of the Taj Mahal to prevent the monument being damaged by pollution. So to get to the gate of the complex, you either have to walk or find alternative means of transport.  We hop into a rickshaw, and the driver speeds off at a surprisingly fast pace, though still one that allows us to take a leisurely look at our surroundings as we pass. Actually, it’s good to arrive at this in a slightly old-fashioned way. It feels like we’re slipping back in time, somehow. We are visiting at sunrise, the best time to see the monument before the heat of the day kicks in, and the first flush of dawn is just starting to appear behind the rooftops. A couple of monkeys run alongside us for a while. They look at us curiously, as if trying to judge whether we have food to give them, before dropping away again when they realise we don’t. 

Finally the rickshaw driver drops us off at the ticket office, and we pay and go in. The first sight you see when you enter the complex is the huge main gate. In contrast to the white marble of the mausoleum, the gate is red sandstone bordered with white. It is decorated with calligraphy which reads “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”   We pass through the gate- which is almost the length of a tunnel, before coming out into our first view of the Taj Mahal. 

The Taj Mahal sits at the end of a long garden, with a pool running down the middle and two long walkways on either side. It’s dotted along its length with immaculately trimmed trees.  The overwhelming impression is one of symmetry and balance- each object has its perfect mirror. The Taj Mahal itself is reflected in the polished surface of the pool, a perfect double of the white marble vision in front of us. 

Everyone knows what the Taj Mahal looks like, but it’s different when you see it in person, somehow.  The huge onion-shaped dome- a glistening curved shape like an earthbound moon, or, if you’re feeling particularly fanciful, a giant teardrop- perches on top a series of stacked archways.  It’s complex and yet somehow beautifully compact, like a finely worked jewel box.  Four minarets stand at a slight remove from the main building, as if wanting to show the body of the dead empress the proper respect.

The white marble takes on different colours depending on the time of day… Now, at sunrise, it’s lit with a soft pink flush, as if a candle flame were softly flickering within the dome.”

The white marble takes on different colours depending on the time of day. At sunset it is set aflame by orange and yellow. At midday the building blazes bright white, throwing back the sunlight almost blindingly into the eye of the beholder.  At night it seems practically translucent, the moonlight shining through it and lighting it with a cool, silvery glow. Now, at sunrise, it’s lit with a soft pink flush, as if a candle flame were softly flickering within the dome it.

You might be tempted to stop and take all the photos you possibly can, but hold your horses for a moment. Everyone stops here, but there are some even better views further on, and ones that aren’t going to be quite as crowded.

We walk through the garden, which was designed to represent a kind of paradise on earth. Once upon a time it would have been overflowing with roses, daffodils and fruit trees, but even though the layout has been simplified a bit now, it is still a glorious walk. A waft of jasmine comes to us on the breeze as we stroll down the walkway, and a bright green parakeet flies above our heads.

Finally we stop at the reflecting pool halfway between the gate and the entrance.  In front of this is the famous bench where many pictures of celebrities visiting the Taj Mahal were taken. It’s also a great spot for us to stop and take our own photos.   Many people have the same idea; families who have press-ganged a passerby into taking their portrait; couples taking selfies, holding the camera out in front of their face, their arms around each other, smiling broadly. Everybody looks so delighted to be here. Lots of people even seem to have dressed up for the occasion, seemingly to make sure the photos from this once in a lifetime trip are as perfect as they can possibly be.

Now we approach the Taj Mahal itself. Close to, you can see that the marble is not in fact uniformly white, but is inlaid with colourful stones arranged in beautiful geometric patterns. Over 28 different types of precious and semi-precious stones were used, sourced from all over India and beyond. The marble came from Rajasthan, the jasper from Punjab, jade from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka and carnelian from Arabia.   It is said that over a thousand elephants were used to transport the building materials for the Taj Mahal, and over 22,000 people were involved in its construction. 

We step inside, into the silence and stillness of the tomb. There, behind a marble screen, lie the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, side by side. We stop a moment to pay our respects before stepping once more out into the bright morning sunlight.

This seems like a good point to end our walk. Feel free to stroll around the gardens some more and experiment with taking pictures of the Taj Mahal from all different angles. See you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk Borneo

Hello, everyone. Today we’re visiting a stretch of undisturbed rainforest deep in the heart of Borneo. The Danum valley nature reserve is 438 square kilometres of pristine lowland forest habitat, almost untouched by human settlement. It’s home to such rare and fast-disappearing species as the Bornean pygmy elephant, the clouded leopard, the sunbear, and of course, the orangutan. It is this national icon that we are hoping to see today.  Although there are sanctuaries dotted all over Borneo which provide guaranteed sightings of the sick and injured animals they are trying to rehabilitate, there is nothing to compare to the experience of seeing one of these magnificent apes in the wild. The Danum valley is one of the last places on earth you can do that. 

Trying to track down an orangutan in acres and acres of dense forest cover will not be easy, though, and obviously there’s a good chance we will be disappointed. Orangutans are rare and getting rarer, and are understandably shy of humans. Still, Sarah, our guide, is hopeful; she’s been tracking animals in these forests for twenty years, and if anyone is going to be able to find one, it would be her.  

The trail opens out in front of us, warm and damp like the throat of some enormous beast. The first thing you notice is the relentless humidity. It’s stifling in here. From the air you’d see clouds of water vapour rising from the treetops as the forest gently steams in the tropical heat. Down here, it’s as if the canopy above our heads were made of a thick layer of cotton wool , trapping the air and preventing any breath of breeze from stirring. 

The smell is earthy, of leaf rot and overripe fruit. If you ever catch a whiff of something a bit more pungent- a distinct smell like rotting flesh- we could be near a rafflesia plant. Also known by the charming name of ‘corpse flower’, these are the some of the biggest individual flowers on earth, with some measuring over a metre in diameter.  We’d have to be very lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you see it) to see one, though, as they only flower for a couple of days a year.

Sarah goes ahead, occasionally hacking at a stray branch with her parang (Bornean machete). The thick, pillar-like trunks of the trees stretch up 70 metres into the sky, festooned with vines and surrounded by a thick layer of undergrowth. The forest is a living thing: it breathes, pulses with sap, grows and moves. That’s right, moves.  Forests are not static, it’s just that their timeframes are a little slower than ours. The trees grow and reproduce, jostle for space and sunlight, all in slow motion. If you place your hand on the bark of the nearest tree, you almost think you could feel a heartbeat.

“The forest is a living thing: it breathes, pulses with sap, grows and moves…If you place your hand on the bark of the nearest tree, you almost think you could feel a heartbeat.”

In all this exuberant vegetation, it’s actually very hard to spot the creatures you are looking for. They’ve evolved to conceal themselves among the deep wells of shadow and dappled patches of sunlight of their forest home. But you can hear them all around you. The cacophony of sound that follows us speaks to the teeming mass of life that crawls, slithers, flies or swings through every square inch of this forest. There’s the low background hiss of the insects , the twittering of hundreds of different kinds of birds, and the fluid, almost flute-like call of the gibbons, signalling to other troops as they move through the treetops.

A flash of colour, and an enormous bird lands on a branch a bare couple of metres ahead of us. It’s a rhinoceros hornbill.  It has a bright orange curve, like a horn, sticking out of its forehead, which is where it gets its name. To me, it looks almost like an enormous quiff, or a giant mohawk, giving the bird a very stylish look. Sarah tells us that the protuberance helps its call to carry across the forest; the distinctive hak hak for females and hok hok for males . Sometimes, you’ll hear them calling to each other. Rhinoceros hornbills mate for life, and perhaps the calls are a way of renewing their bond, even when they are separated. 

All of a sudden Sarah holds up her hand and points to spot in the canopy a few metres away, holding a finger over her lips. A flash of orange fur catches the sunlight. Is that? Yes, I think it is.  A moment later an orangutan swings into view. Not just one orangutan, actually. As it begins to climb down a nearby treetrunk, you notice a second small head peering out from behind its shoulder. It’s a mother, carrying its small child on its back. She stops in one of the higher branches, right over our head, and settles down to pick some fruit and slowly eat it.  We’re so close. We can see her big, intelligent eyes, and her expressive face, so like a human’s. Indeed, the very name orangutan comes from the Malay for ‘person of the forest’, because the relationship between us and this magnificent ape is so evident. The moment stretches out as we stand there, watching her. Not one of us thinks of reaching for our camera; the moment is too precious, somehow, to spoil by trying to capture it.  Eventually she swings slowly away, continuing her exploration of the treetops, and we all smile at each other, delighted by the experience we have just shared. 

We’re on a high from this encounter all the way back to the rainforest lodge where we began our walk.  I’m so glad we got a chance to see one of these rare creatures in their natural habitat. See you next week for another walk! 

Virtual Walk Namib Desert

Hello everyone. Today we are going to be travelling to the Namib desert in Southern Africa, one of the oldest deserts on earth.  This dry, dusty corner of the world is a truly fascinating place, sounding like it comes straight out of science fiction. The local people call it the ‘vast place’, miles and miles of barren, baking wasteland that present a formidable challenge to any living being that dares to enter. Pressed up against an equally inhospitable shoreline, so treacherous that it’s known as the Skeleton Coast, from space it looks like a giant rust stain gnawing at the edge of Africa.  It’s a Martian landscape of towering sand dunes, littered with the bones of long-ago shipwrecks and torn by howling winds. 

At first glance, it might not sound like the most appealing place to go for our walk, and yet improbably enough the Namib has a booming tourist industry.  Every year thousands of intrepid adventurers make the journey out here, and hopefully once we have a chance to look around you’ll come to see why.  The Namib has a surreal and otherworldly majesty unlike anywhere else on earth, one that brings you face to face with the fragility and beauty of life on our planet. 

We are in the Sossusvlei region of Namibia, home to some of the most photogenic dunes in the desert.  We enter the park at sunrise, and as we drive up to the start of our trail in a 4X4, we are treated to the sight of a group of ostriches running in the distance, their long-legged forms silhouetted against the landscape of sand dunes.

And what a landscape it is.  You assume that all deserts look the same –rows and rows of yellow sand, piled high, stretching out endlessly like waves in some sort of fossilised ocean – and that there’s not really much to see in all that uniform emptiness.  But the Namib will teach you to see things a little differently. The dunes here are not the tawny colour of the Sahara, but a rich, rusty orange, fading sometimes to pink or red and speckled with grains of gold.  The view is never the same from hour to hour or day to day as the light shifts and catches different parts of the dunes, creating complex patterns of light and shade and even subtly shifting their colours. Their very bareness is their beauty, and any interruption to that would look wrong, somehow.

You assume all deserts look the same- rows and rows of yellow sand, piled high, stretching out endlessly like waves in some sort of fossilised ocean…but the Namib will teach you to see things a little differently.”

We hop out of the 4X4 and begin to follow a path skirting the edge of several of these enormous mountains of sand.  Some of the dunes here are over three hundred metres high, the height of the Eiffel tower.  We stop at the base of the tallest. It’s the dune known as ‘Big Daddy’, and at 325 metres high, should provide us with a good early morning workout.  Take off your shoes before we start to climb- your trainers will only get filled up with sand – and step onto the dune barefoot. The ground sinks and shifts beneath our feet and the wind grabs at our hair as we make the long climb up the first ridge, following its sinuous curve along the top of the dune. 

Although things might feel very impermanent, up here in all the blowing sand, actually these dunes are ancient; at the bottom, the sand probably hasn’t shifted for millions of years. The Namib is possibly as much as eighty million years old, and it’s truly incredible to think we are walking in scenery that hasn’t changed much since the time of the dinosaurs. There’s a type of plant we might come across here which is a kind of living fossil, found nowhere else on earth, formed of two long leaves that keep on growing throughout its lifespan. 

After the first long ridge of the dune, there’s a brief downhill interval before the final climb. This seems like a good moment to stop to catch our breath. Make sure you take a good swig from your water bottle when we do.   

Some sort of small insect scuttles across our path as we pause here. Maybe it’s one of the famous Namib fog beetles. These ingenious creatures make use of one of the few sources of moisture in the desert; the fogs that roll in from the Atlantic Ocean every morning. They have special ridges on their backs that enable them to capture and condense the water vapour in the air. At dawn they stand on a ridge of sand, wings extended, stealing life-giving droplets of water from the mist. 

We set off again, up the final ridge to the top of the dune. From here you get a good view out over Deadvlei or ‘Dead Marsh’. Once upon a time a fertile oasis, it is now a dried-up clay pan of salt-crusted sand.  It’s one of the park’s main attractions in and of itself, and we will be making our way down there ourselves in a moment.

After all that time and effort climbing up the dune, it only takes a few minutes to come down it. It’s impossible not to run or slide down the slope, an experience part exhilarating, part terrifying. The sand makes a roaring noise as we descend, always on the point of losing control completely and falling flat on our faces. 

Now we find ourselves in Deadvlei. The ground here is the off-white of bleached bones, a stark contrast to the vivid orange of the dunes surrounding us.  Thousands of cracks spread out in every direction along the ground, and the landscape is peppered by the blackened outlines of dead acacia trees, remnants from a time when this land was lush and fertile.  This strange and eerie landscape is one of the most photographed locations on the continent, and you can see why- you’re unlikely to see anything like it anywhere else on earth. It’s still early, but the land is already shimmering and waving in the heat, adding to the dreamlike quality of this already bizarre landscape.

Feel free to wander around and take as many pictures as you like before we make our way back to the 4X4.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk today. See you next week for another walk!

Virtual Walk New England

(For an added visual for your virtual walk, you can see the webcams I talk about here: https://www.tripsavvy.com/fall-foliage-web-cams-1598728)

Hello everyone.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved autumn.  I don’t know why.  There’s something very special for me about this season of crisp, chilly mornings, changing colours and migrating wildlife. There are so many associations I have with it:  the smell of new schoolbooks, warming my hands on steaming cups of tea, pulling my biggest, cosiest jumpers out of their summer storage. It’s a time of transitions and new beginnings, where things are never quite the same each time you look at them. So this week I thought we’d visit somewhere where we can appreciate the changing of the season to the fullest – the forests of New England. 

The autumn colours in New England are famous the world over, drawing crowds of tourists each year. ‘Leaf-peeping’ as it is rather charmingly called, is a serious business; there are online maps tracking the latest hotspots of leaf colour and webcams where you can see for yourself what the scenery is like in a particular area before you commit yourself to a road trip.  Trust that I have consulted all of these sources today before taking you to our destination; a sleepy corner of New Hampshire where the woods are currently set alight with colour. Come with me on a very special walk that will sample all that autumn has to offer- though, given that we are in the States, I suppose we must call it fall

We are starting our journey in a picturesque little village on the shores of a lake. We take one last look back at the white clapboard church, nestling in its thick blanket of forest, as we stroll out of town.   We have come just at the right moment to see these woods in their full glory. Hickory and dogwood, maple and sumac, sassafras and red oak; each of them add their own unique colour to the patchwork of blazing yellows, reds and oranges. You could stand here for a long while simply finding names for all the different shades you can see-  cinnamon, ochre, gold, bronze, copper, deep purplish crimson- but there is so much more to admire further along the path, so I suppose we must keep moving.

“What is it about the sunlight at this time of year? There’s always just the tiniest touch of gold to it, as if it were ever so slightly sepia-toned. “

We’re following the path that weaves through the woods along the lakeshore. It’s sunny, but bitingly cold today- even though our chins are buried deep into our scarves, the crisp autumn air is already beginning to turn our cheeks rosy. What is it about the sunlight at this time of year? There’s always just the tiniest touch of gold to it, as if it were ever so slightly sepia-toned. Maybe that’s why autumn always feels so nostalgic, as if you’re walking through a memory even while you’re living it. 

Up ahead is one of the famous covered bridges that are scattered through the countryside in New England. It looks like a barn on stilts, cutting across a torrent that flows into the lake. The wooden planks creak beneath our feet as we walk through it, mixing with the burbling of the water under the bridge. 

Over the bridge, we find ourselves in the forest proper.  The path stretches away in front of us, bathed in golden light. The sun filtering through the leaves makes them seem almost translucent, like tiny panes of stained glass. There’s a sudden gust of wind, and a few leaves are shaken loose from the branches, drifting down slowly towards the forest floor. One lands on the crown of your head. You pick it up, holding it up to the light. It’s a maple, star-shaped, yellow at the centre, deepening to darker orange at the tips. You pause for a moment to admire the fine network of veins that criss-cross its delicate skin, before slipping it into the pocket of your coat as a souvenir for later.

There are drifts of similar leaves littering the side of the trail, looking so tempting in their pillowy piles of orange and gold. Do you remember how, when you were a child, you used to kick through piles of leaves? You would start slow, at first, but soon you’d find yourself sprinting, leaves flying all around you, scattering like sparks from a bonfire. Finally you’d come to a halt, a little breathless but still giggling from the sheer silliness of it all. But at some point in the growing-up process it became unacceptable to show such unadulterated joy in public, and so for most of us it’s been years since we dared to do it.  Well, I’m not telling what to do or anything, but the rest of the group’s backs are all turned, and we’re walking far enough behind that no one would ever see. I’ll leave it up to you. 

Squirrels are everywhere as we continue our stroll, running up and down tree trunks, racing along the branches, darting around their roots. They’re gathering food to store for the winter, and occasionally you’ll see one of them carrying an acorn or some other nut in its mouth.  They look so proud of their discoveries that it’s impossible not to smile when you see one.

Several times, we look up to spot v-shaped flocks of geese flying overhead. Do you know what the proper word for a group of geese in flight is? A skein. Doesn’t that sound lovely? A skein of geese.  A ball of wool is also a skein, and perhaps that’s where the word comes from, from the way the geese string out and then clump back together again, always joined together as if by an invisible thread.

Finally the path loops back round into town. We’ll finish our walk in the local coffee shop, The Witch’s Brew, so called because of a local legend about a coven of witches who used to live in the area. It doesn’t feel particularly spooky though, with its gaily painted sign, stack of pumpkins outside the door, and little silvery bell which tinkles as we enter. A nice hot cup of coffee and one of their maple scones will be just the thing after coming in from the cold. I hope you’ve enjoyed our walk this week- and see you next week for another walk.

Virtual Walk Angel Falls

Hello everyone. 

Imagine the scene. You are a pilot, flying your little propeller plane over the dense South American jungle. It is the 1930s, and like most explorers in this time, you are hoping to get rich. You have heard fabulous rumours of gold ore in this remote part of southern Venezuela, and you have taken this flight to check it out. All of a sudden, an enormous pink cliff looms up out of the sea of emerald green. Cascading down it is a ribbon of water nearly 1000 metres long, taller and grander than any waterfall you have seen in your life. You have unknowingly stumbled across a natural wonder that few other human beings have been privileged to encounter. Does the sight of such heartstopping beauty momentarily jolt you out of your greed for gold? Or have you simply found a different kind of treasure to claim for your own?

Image source: Paulo Capiotti
https://www.flickr.com/photos/capiotti/7088669753/sizes/o/in/set-72157627378840726/
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

This is the story of how Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, got its name. Although it had been known to local people for years and visited by Spanish conquistadors, it came to international prominence when bush pilot Jimmy Angel crash-landed his plane at the top of the falls in 1937. After accidentally stumbling across it on a gold-finding mission, he returned several years later, hoping to make a name for himself by being the first person to land on top of it. Instead his plane became swamped in the mud, forcing him and his passengers to hike for eleven days to make it back to human habitation. Despite this, he still succeeded in getting the falls named in his honour.  There have been suggestions that it should be renamed with the indigenous term Kerapakupai Merú, meaning ‘waterfall of the deepest place’, although this has yet to come to pass.  Whatever you call it, visiting this spectacular place is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I hope you’ll enjoy journeying there with me today.

Just getting to Angel Falls is an adventure all of itself. It is located in the Canaima national park, an area of untamed wilderness the size of Belgium. This region, with its distinctive table-top mountains, known as tepuis, and its high plateaus littered with natural columns of sandstone, has inspired all sorts of adventure stories. Most recently a fictionalised version was featured in the movie Up. There are no roads here; you have to fly, boat and hike if you want to get to the falls.  We paddle slowly up the river to the start of the hiking trail, peering around curiously at the jungle on either side. Jaguars prowl that dark green tangle of trees; boa constrictors slither along the forest floor; brightly coloured birds flit from branch to branch. Even from here we can hear the growl of the howler monkeys as they set up their morning chorus.

The canoe comes to a halt on the riverbank and we set out through the forest, along the short walk to the base of the falls.  The warm, dark dampness of the forest closes in on us as we begin to hike. It’s not such a long walk, really, but it feels like longer, thanks to the stuffy atmosphere and the fact that we’re always walking uphill.  The plants with their huge, strange-shaped leaves cast bizarre shadows, so you’re never quite sure whether there’s some sort of creature waiting for you just around the corner.

Finally the forest clears, and we come out to a spectacular view. In front of us looms Auyán-tepui, the mountain which holds the falls. The wall of rock climbs up to a dizzying height, disappearing into a thick veil of cloud hundreds of metres above our heads. Angel’s plane rested up there for over thirty years before being removed to a museum. Imagine it rusting up there all that time, being overgrown by vines and carpeted with moss, slowly being reclaimed by the natural world it tried to conquer. 

The water falls in a steady stream down this cliff face. The falls are so high that it dissolves into mist long before it hits the ground, drifting slowly downwards like a gentle rain. Hundreds of miniature rainbows are formed as the sun strikes the water vapour. Then the water hits the rocks at the base of the falls and trickles down the mountainside until it reaches the pool that we’re standing in front of right now. 

There’s nothing like the sound of rushing water to ease a troubled mind. Whether it’s the slow trickle of a mountain stream, the roar of a set of white-water rapids, or the long inhale and exhale of the ocean, it never fails to soothe. As we stand here, our ears are filled by the rushing of hundreds of gallons of water, drowning out all other sounds. It’s as if it’s telling us not to focus on any of the stuff that we might have left behind in the outside world; but just be here, right now, in this present moment.  Instinctively, we let out a long, slow exhale. 

“There’s nothing like the sound of rushing water to ease a troubled mind… Instinctively, we let out a long, slow exhale.” 

It’s possible to swim in this pool- a party of tourists who have got here before us have already dived in. I don’t know if you’ve brought your swimming costume with you or not- but let’s at least take off our shoes, roll up our trousers, and dip our feet into the water. Fresh from the mountains, the water is surprisingly cold, but still feels like heaven on our tired feet after our long hike.

After all the effort to get here, there’s no rush to leave. We’ll eat our lunch here, and hike back to our camp later in the afternoon.  Enjoy spending time in this beautiful, secret place – and see you next week for another walk!


For any questions about referrals or where we’re coming next, get in touch with Francesca Moll, Oxfordshire Mind’s Walking for Wellbeing Facilitator.

Free yoga sessions

We’re really pleased to have teamed up with Yoga Quota to offer people the opportunity to take part in FREE yoga sessions at their beautiful studio in Oxford city centre. Yoga Quota offer high-quality yoga sessions with trained teachers.

You don’t have to be an experienced yogi to come along, all are welcome. If you’d like to apply for some free sessions, then please fill in this form.

Oxfordshire Mind have free memberships to Amy’s Online Yoga Club for anyone who is experiencing difficulties with their mental health. The free membership provides:

👥Unlimited live online classes from the comfort of home
👥Access to library of past classes
👥Online community group for motivation and chat

To apply for a free membership please email physicalactivity@oxfordshiremind.org.uk

Discounted kickboxing

We have also recently joined forces with Oxfordshire Kickboxing Club, who have very kindly offered discounted sessions to anyone using Oxfordshire Mind’s services.

Oxfordshire Kickboxing Club recognise that kickboxing and exercise can be a fantastic way to improve wellbeing, and so would like to make their sessions more accessible to anyone who is struggling with their mental health. Their evening classes are suitable for all abilities, so you don’t need any previous experience. Kickboxing can be a great way to get fit, meet new people and learn new skills too.

If you would like to apply for discounted sessions at Oxfordshire Kickboxing Club, please fill in their referral form.

Contact the Physical Activity Team

For more information and access to these services, please get in touch with the Oxfordshire Mind Physical Activity team. You can call us on 01865 263742, or drop us an email and we’ll be in touch.

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