A walking and writing wellbeing project celebrating the biodiversity of West Dorset
by Kevan Manwaring
As a writer I have long been inspired by the natural world. Since a boy, when I walked my beloved Welsh border collie every day among the magnificent oak trees of a nearby park, I have found solace in nature. Long before the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, became a wellbeing trend, I felt the tangible benefits of being amongst trees. It was in nature I could hear myself think and connect with my core self, my ‘roots’—and it was there, in the fields and spinneys on the edge of town, I began as a writer. Like the so-called ‘peasant poet’, John Clare—who was a formative inspiration to me, growing up in Northamptonshire—‘I found the poems in the fields, / And only wrote them down.’ On my walks—which developed into hiking many of the long-distance trails of Britain as an adult—I would habitually take my notebook, and write down poems, reflections, and ideas for stories.
And so it felt like a natural fit to devise a project that would draw upon these passions of mine: walking, writing, and the Great Outdoors. I moved to Bridport in early Spring 2022 (prompted by securing tenure as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth, combined with wanting to live somewhere with an arty, green-minded and thriving community, healthy high street, and stunning surrounding countryside) and set to exploring the local area. I only feel I truly know somewhere by walking it. This process had begun by walking the Wessex Ridgeway from Marlborough (near my home prior to moving to Dorset up on the Marlborough Downs) to Lyme Regis in 2021. Walking across Dorset I fell in love with it. Over the following year new friends introduced me to some of the delightful walks in the area, and I started to formulate an idea for a series of ‘mindful rambles’. This led to ‘Green Words’—a walking and writing wellbeing project that took place in the Bridport area throughout Spring 2023. The aim was to lead short inspiring walks to encourage those who would not normally go for a nature walk to learn to appreciate the biodiversity on their doorstep and at the same time improve their health and wellbeing. The walks would cover a variety of terrain appealing to a range of abilities from those with limited mobility to the confident walker. Guided creative writing workshops (also free, thanks to securing a small grant from the Dorset Community Foundation) were held in Bridport’s Literary and Scientific Institute following each walk. Over 10 weekly sessions ‘green words’ would be nurtured and honed, leading to an anthology featuring contributions of poems and prose inspired by the beautiful countryside of West Dorset. The walks included shorter, low-level ones (Coneygar Hill; Asker Meadows; Allington Hill; West Bay) to ones further afield (Bridehead; Eype Down; Colmer’s Hill; Kingcombe Meadows; Langdon Woods and Golden Cap). We were blessed with good weather, and only one had to be cancelled due to strong winds and heavy rain (Eggardon Hill).
I am a great believer in the power of nature to heal, inspire, and encourage resilience. As the historian G.M. Trevelyan once said, ‘I have the two best doctors—my left leg and my right.’ Feedback from participants confirmed the efficacy of the combination of walks and writing workshops: ‘Opened up a whole new world for me.’ (Jan) ‘It’s brought about a big shift in me.’ (Katy) ‘I’ve really enjoyed the walks, the mindful aspect.’ (Sally) ‘It’s been a joy to rediscover my pleasure in walking.’ (Jill) ‘Walking outside sensing all that nature is with awe and wonderment, prompting an inner joy of finding words for writing.’ (Hugh) And the various writing activities have gently encouraged participants to try new forms. One participant, Valerie, observed: ‘Haven’t written poetry before.’ I baked cakes for the first couple of sessions and this inspired participants to take turns to bring in their own, which proved very popular and effective, as one participant noted: ‘Cakes are an important writing tool!’ The social benefits of the group were equally important—the ambience on both the walks and workshops was always good-humoured and supportive. The participants bonded, and have agreed to continue under their own steam, with a little guidance from me on how to run a writing workshop. I am also planning an eco-themed book club, Green Reads, which is due to start in September in Bridport. In this way, the green words can keep growing.