Park up your scepticism and pack away any preconceptions. Whatever your view of forest bathing, there is an increasingly compelling body of scientific research that demonstrates its value. More importantly, there’s a profoundly relaxing and spiritually uplifting new forest bathing and meditation retreat called Full Moon and Fabulous at Ockendon Manor. It’s zen, luxury, self-care and overindulgence all rolled into one which are just some of the reasons that when I got the opportunity to join a small (but perfectly formed) group of women on this retreat, I jumped to it.
For those that don’t know Ockenden Manor, it is a unique piece of Sussex in its own right. An Elizabethan manor that was the home of the well-known Burrell family who made their money in the iron industry, during WWII it housed Canadian troops and is now one of three Historic Sussex Hotels.
And it’s beautiful. Set down a quiet, narrow lane in the pretty village of Cuckfield, it is surrounded by serenity itself with the South Downs in the distance, oak beams a plenty, sweeping lawns, and a quiet dignity. And whilst the old part of the manor oozes charm, there also happens to be a state of the art and thoroughly modern spa facility which oozes calm!
Forest bathing with a touch of luxury
The retreat, which runs once a month until October to coincide with the full moon, includes two nights bed, breakfast and dinner, lunch, yoga, meditation (including a nighttime Polestar meditation on the spa roof terrace), a massage, an Isopod flotation experience, use of the pool and spa facilities and a gift set of oils. And those were some of the other reasons I found myself here.
I arrived frazzled and with more mental baggage than is healthy and an “urgent to-do list” that I hadn’t managed to complete before I set off nagging me at the fringes of my mind. But the minute you step through the doors of the spa and into the cool, you are met with the soft smell of aroma oils and an enveloping sense of calm.
Helena Skoog, our guide for the retreat, explained later that it takes at least 30 minutes to “fully arrive” somewhere. That was easy to believe as my mind strayed back to my to-do list as I checked in. But the bedrooms in the spa are spacious with doors that open straight onto the slightly exotic roof terrace, with views across the Sussex countryside. Breathing in, I almost immediately felt a slight shift. A tiny movement towards relaxation. It was subtle but it was a start.
A bit of a wobble
With a fruit smoothie and a small gift of lavender in hand, our newly acquainted group laid claim to a mat each and kicked off with a yoga session. If, like me, you’ve let your yoga (or any kind of exercise) lapse, this was a gentle reminder of how good it feels to start to stretch and let go of some of life’s tensions. This was Qi Gong yoga which involved a fair amount of floppy arms and wobbling. As it happens, I am very good at wobbling so it felt like a good start. I’ll spare you the photos.
Feeling thoroughly stretched, there was just time for a quick dip in the pool before dinner. OK, I wasn’t fully relaxed yet but three delicious courses and some fantastic Sussex sparkling wine later and I was certainly well on my way. Ockenden has a superb menu that includes lots of Sussex produce.
Wood, fire, earth, metal and water
Ockenden Spa uses Elemental Herbology which is a collection of five essential oils based around wood, fire, earth, metal and water. This was very much an underlying theme of the retreat and the next morning saw us embracing the elements of wood, earth, and water. After an early morning yoga session on the lawns (there is something wonderful about yoga under the careful eye of a large birch tree and its woodpecker) our next stop was a short walk to New England Wood. This is a 25 acres area of broadleaf wood that includes hazel, beech, ash and sweet chestnut with a gently running stream.
Helena, our guide, has a unique gift when it comes to forest bathing. Calling us to halt before we entered the woods, we focussed on our breathing and she asked us to attribute our biggest worries to any small item that we could find to hand and then give them to her for safekeeping. There is something immensely powerful about sitting quietly in amongst the Ragwort, assessing your worries and realising that they’re really not very consequential at all.
Enter a magic kingdom
You can take what you want from forest bathing. Although Helena led us through a guided meditation, I confess I might have squeezed in a quick 40 winks lying under the magnificent canopy of trees. But connecting with the four corners of the compass, touching bark, feeling soil between your fingers, and dipping your toes into a gentle stream is incredibly restorative stuff. When it was time to immerge from the woods, I could feel energy refilling my veins where exhaustion had been and a sort of peace circling my mind where anxiety had previously lingered.
Much of the pre-existing research into forest bathing was carried out in Japan and forest bathing (or ‘Shinrin-yoku’) has been socially prescribed on the Japanese NHS for decades for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, mental health issues and physical complaints such as high blood pressure. However, in 2019 The Forest Bathing Institute in partnership with researchers from the University of Derby carried out the first scientific research study of forest bathing in the UK. As the lead researcher, Dr Kirsten McEwan, explains, the results should cause us all to sit up and take notice,
“… the findings evidence significant improvements in mood, nature connection, rumination, compassion and pro-environmental attitudes. The study … also produced improvements in heart rate variability in 57% of the study participants and reduced anxiety by 29% … It demonstrated wellbeing benefits similar in magnitude to an established UK wellbeing intervention (Compassionate Mind Training), revealing its promise as a therapeutic intervention for improving wellbeing and cardiovascular health in the UK.”
As something that is easy, accessible and painless, I’m happy with that. But what’s more, Helena explained that you can feel the benefits of forest bathing for up to 30 days after a session.
Serious relaxation requires serious eating, so lunch on the lawn set us all up nicely for an afternoon of massage and spa. My full body, one-hour treatment is possibly one of the best massages I have ever had and I followed it up with a trip to the steam room, a walk in the rainforest shower, a whirl in the hot tub and a dip in the pool. There was no mistaking it now, I felt completely relaxed and restored.
But our relaxation wasn’t over, and after another fabulous three-course dinner, we headed to the spa roof terrace for a Polestar full moon meditation. With the aid of some celestial chimes, we cut a mental path to the galaxy and soaked up the very special atmosphere of a warm summer night under the stars.
When Helena asked us whether we wanted our worries back (those that we had assigned to an object before our forest bathing), we were all happy to burn them instead in a fire pit down on the lawn.
Our retreat was almost at an end but there was still time for a flotation tank treatment in the morning as well as another yoga session and breakfast. I loved the flotation tank although it is a little weird shutting yourself in a pod and floating in saline water but it did incredible things for my skin! Just time for a quick explore of Cuckfield village before heading back to the real world.
So, I say it again, pack up any scepticism. The Ockenden Manor Full Moon and Fabulous retreat does what it says on the tin. It is fabulous and leaves you feeling fabulous, and I cannot wait until the next full moon when I can go forest bathing again. Although if Helena reads this, she will tell me off and remind me that it is possible to forest bath anywhere and at any time. All you need is a tree after all!
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You can find out more about what’s on at Ockenden and book here: https://www.hshotels.co.uk/ockenden-manor/offers