I‘m standing on a grassy slope, looking over the three-mile-long curve of Rhossili Bay, on the south-western tip of the Gower peninsula in Wales. Alongside eight others, I’m taken through a breathing exercise. It is rhythmic: we take one big breath in, slowly exhale, then repeat. We’re told to focus on the present, just the things around us, and my gaze settles on the timber carcass of Helvetia, shipwrecked in 1887, which protrudes from the wet sand on the beach below. Next, we close our eyes, shifting our attention to only what we can hear. We’re asked to identify the different noises, and I find myself relaxing as I unpick them: there is the wind and, further away, the sea’s waves.
It’s mid-April and I’ve joined Mind Over Mountains, a charity using outdoor experiences to support people’s mental health. Set up in 2018 by friends Alex Staniforth, 26, and Chris Spray, 49, who met at a village fete in Cheshire, events range from “walk and talks” – which is what I’m on – to weekend residentials. These are hosted in places of natural beauty, with other locations including the Peak District, the Lake District and the Brecon Beacons. Routes are guided, graded from “easy” to “challenging” (today’s is “moderate”), with participants being shown mindfulness techniques, given the opportunity to share their stories, and offered support from trained counselors.
At the start of today’s event, we form a small huddle, where boundaries are set: this is a judgement-free space where we can share our experiences, but there is no pressure, nor are there any expectations. I am here, I tell them, because I’ve found hiking hugely beneficial for my own mental health these past few years. The pandemic ushered volatility into my life, as it did for many. But nature has been a balm: going for a walk among some greenery or by water generally makes me feel a bit better about things.
After the first breathing exercise, we set out on the circular seven-mile route, which is guided, pausing at the tip of the peninsula, from where we can see the tidal island of Worm’s Head, so called for its serpent-like shape ( “wyrm” being an Old English term for “dragon”). I haven’t combined mindfulness exercises with walking before, but they work well, instilling a sense of calm and togetherness among the group.
About an hour in, we descend a steep slope – which involves some scrambling – onto Fall Bay, where I speak to Spray, who leads today’s mindfulness exercises. “When you’re walking next to somebody unencumbered by their life outside, it’s almost like a special bubble,” he says, as we look towards the north Devon coast and Lundy island on the horizon. “People can just reconnect, get a sense of peace, and start to flow… the power of Mind Over Mountains is getting a bunch of strangers together, all realising that when we didn’t get a handbook about how to live, we’re doing the best we can, and none of us is broken.”
When I call Staniforth at his home in Kendal, Cumbria, he explains how the outdoors has helped him manage his mental health since his first fell walk as a teenager in the Lake District. Entire his life, he has experienced anxiety, panic attacks, depression and, at one point, bulimia. “When you’re out in nature it allows you to put things into perspective,” he says. “Green space and nature have been scientifically shown to improve mood [and] to decrease stress and anxiety. We saw that during lockdown when everyone went walking while all this chaos was going on – nature had that calming effect. It’s very grounding and takes us away from our problems for a short while.” Of the impact of Mind Over Mountains, he says: “I’ve seen people suddenly find a sense of acceptance, a sense of belonging, where they realise they’re not on their own.”
We reach the beacon of Rhossili Down, where Spray spots a skylark hovering above the heather, and I speak to Daphne Clifton, another team member. “We do need each other, as humans,” she says, as we walk side by side. “Hearing each other’s stories is fascinating. You start to realise connections again, and how we connect as humanity … Don’t underestimate the power of the natural world around you.” I agree, noting how the lockdown restrictions of the past two years deprived many of us of the mental health benefits that come with socializing in person. Being in nature today, with other people, has made me happier.
After walking along the beach, past the shipwreck of Helvetia, we do one final exercise, where we turn to look at the Pembrokeshire coast in the distance and imagine our future intentions, while acknowledging life’s uncertainties. “That really helped me see that I just need to focus on the ground right in front of me,” one participant says when we debrief on Zoom a few days later, where we are offered further support with trained counselors. “That means just keep climbing, one step in front of the other, and keep going. The theme, from everybody’s stories, was that the future – whether it was professional or work or family or personal – was not what we expected it to be. And, actually, that’s OK.”
What I get most out of my time with Mind Over Mountains is not that walking in nature is a quick fix for mental-health issues, because I don’t think one exists – and the team stresses that this is not about trying to “fix “Anyone. But it is a fulfilling experience. I leave reminded of the sheer joy nature brings to my life, and how much comfort I find in talking and listening to others. That, and I’ve got a couple more breathing exercises to add to my repertoire.
Walk and Talks from £39weekend retreats from £195, bursaries available, mindovermountains.org.uk