Perspectives Landscape Design

A life more local

Prior to the pandemic, Partner Oliver Smith gave little thought to his mental health, but prompted by nature and the environment as the focus for mental health awareness week, he pauses to question the pivotal role that ‘nature’ and ‘home’ have actually played in maintaining his positive and unperturbed approach to life.

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Week is Nature and the environment. Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation describes that during the long months of the pandemic, ‘millions turned to nature…. …It was as if we were re-discovering at our most fragile point our fundamental human need to connect with nature’.

I tend to just think about my physical health. Since 2019 my Achilles heel has literally become my Achilles heel. It hurts. It impedes my movement and it frustrates me every day. It’s visible to others; there is nowhere to hide (at least there wasn’t until we all retreated into the world of Zoom and Teams). But my mind? If I’m honest, I not sure I think about my mental health as much as I should.

By nature, I don’t crave a calendar crammed with social activity and endless plans, things to do and places to be. By nature, I like to have a few things to look forward to, alongside a healthy dose of nothing planned; time to breathe and see which direction the wind blows. It’s a simple aspiration, but one that seems frustratingly difficult to achieve in our busy modern lives.

I anticipated 2020 would probably be similar to 2019 – a year full of memories, but precious little time to pause. Looking back, and thinking about the link between nature and mental health, a few things caught my eye in our calendar that never transpired: Mull, Devon, Yorkshire, France.

I’m not an extravagant person. My Yorkshire and Scottish roots are perhaps occasionally evident but in these times of greater social and environmental awareness, a part of me looks at these holiday plans and wonders of their impact; good and bad. I am also acutely aware that they’re a luxury. These are not holidays of 5* accommodation or first-class travel, but they are holidays that provide our family with the luxury of time together, and time in nature. This was to be our third trip to the Isle of Mull, and the disappointment of the inevitable postponement to 2022 somehow lingered more. Mull is not a big island, there aren’t endless attractions or towns, it is not new to us and yet it rewards every moment spent there. There is no Wi-Fi, in fact, there is barely a phone signal in some places, with the nearest village shop a meandering 25-minute drive away (in reality, closer to 45 minutes with the stop and start progress to spot a seal, a stag or an eagle). It rains, on occasion, and the midges are not to be underestimated. I can think of few places that recharge my mind quite so thoroughly. It’s not for everyone, but I suspect it is for more people than they might first think.

Connecting with nature clearly plays a huge part in my mental health. But I have never really paused to think about it, never given thought to talk to others about it and, until now, I’ve certainly never written about it. And yet, it’s obvious. I love being outdoors, I love being immersed in a landscape and I love engaging with nature. Perhaps being lucky enough growing up with this opportunity and interest was enough to keep me ticking over. Then along comes a pandemic, travel restrictions and #staylocal. Then what?

If asked how I compare life in Oxford to my childhood home in Yorkshire, my default response will invariably be that ‘I miss the hills’. Oxford is a stunning city, and an early summer morning walk amongst the “Dreaming Spires” is one to savour, but… it’s pretty flat and, well, a bit boring? It is a city of contrasts, with immaculate college quads and gardens offering little to those outside the gates looking in, but get to know it and there are parks and a river for all to enjoy, and swathes of countryside fingers that reach inwards almost to the middle of the city. Before the pandemic, I was perhaps guilty of a thirst for large, expansive landscapes and nature, aware of the local green spaces but never truly appreciative.

Exploring Bagley Woods; 5 minutes walk from the Oxford Studio but a world away from everything
Nature and wildlife in the heart of the city; the iconic Port Meadow in Oxford

We are lucky to have access to such an array of places to interact with nature, though it has taken unprecedented global events for many to pause and appreciate these seemingly inconsequential spaces. Our renewed interest and need to interact with nature on a local level has highlighted how important it is, not only to protect what exists but to create more. From grey to green, the opportunities are all around us.

During the past year, we have explored every inch of what was previously a forgotten nature reserve, we have circumnavigated and crisscrossed the nearby woods and ‘hills’ through wind, rain, snow and sunshine and we have kayaked into the heart of Oxford many times, wowed of the pearlescent flash of the local Kingfisher and forever frustrated by the elusive otters. Looking back at my phone and camera from the past year, the overwhelming majority of photos document our time as a family in nature. We still haven’t managed to track down an actual unicorn, and dragons remain hidden just out of sight, but we’ve witnessed the emerging bluebell carpets, climbed trees, paddled in the river, built dens and ‘ice-skated’ on the wafer-thin sheets that covered the flood meadows. We did most of these things before the pandemic, but they were squeezed in between endless other places to be and people to see. We didn’t always make the time for nature to be as prominent in our lives as we’d like. I think we will now, and I hope we can share it with others.

Seeing the city from a different perspective, exploring the meandering waterways around Magdalen College

Grab an OS map of your local area. Pack a picnic. Explore. Breath. Pause. There are some amazing landscapes on your doorstep you never knew existed.