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!
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 email@example.com
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.