Last week, the Royal Hospital Chelsea looked more like an HS2 construction site than a center of horticultural excellence as hundreds of landscape architects and gardeners compete to build their creations in time for this year's Chelsea Flower Show, which will be officially opened tomorrow by the Queen.
But in the midst of all the high fish coats, boots with steel hoods, forklifts and cranes, there were bags of peace and oasis of peace that were already taking shape.
What catches the eye most is perhaps a tree house that hangs above an old stump of chestnut, just off the main street of the show grounds.
Dressed in stag oak and nestled in twisted branches of hazel, it looks like a super sized bird's nest. It is both impressive sculptural and a place where you want to immediately climb in to play hide and seek. Under the tree house hangs a swing made of a ball rope, inviting over thickets, thick with ferns and huge leaves of gunnera.
Spirits lifted: Laughing Kate helps Adam White and Andree Davies create their Back To Nature Garden
The dreamlike tree house and swing are the centerpiece of the Royal Horticultural Society's Back To Nature Garden – co-designed by the Duchess of Cambridge.
Landscape architects Adam White and Andree Davies are the two professional co-designers, and they invited The Mail on Sunday for an exclusive preview prior to the grand opening.
White says that during the planning phase at the end of last year, the duchess would bring a scrapbook full of photos, photos and ideas to every meeting.
Their shared goal: to make the link between nature and health, both mentally and physically.
A STORY FOR NATURAL FAULTS
The Duchess, Davies and White had come across a book, Last Child In The Woods, by Richard Louv, quite independently.
In it, Louv suggests that some of the most troubling trends in childhood, such as the increase in obesity, attention disorders and depression, were related to not spending enough time outside.
He gives the & # 39; state & # 39; even a name: natural deficiency, which reflects the emerging evidence that the health of young people in urban areas is much worse than that of people growing up in rural areas.
The duchess takes in with Andree while the garden is planted for the Chelsea show
And so the Duchess, mother of Prince George, five, Princess Charlotte, four and Prince Louis, wanted her garden to be a playground where children could escape – but also a room for adults. She was, she says, also inspired by bathing in the forest, the Japanese habit of walking slowly and thoughtfully in the forest – & # 39; bathing & # 39; in its peace and beauty to recharge the body's batteries.
This is not just a new name for tree hugging – although, as I discovered later, tree hugging can be part of it.
Studies even show that blood pressure, heart rate, mood and even the immune system can all be improved by spending some quiet time in wooded areas.
Yes, in Japan, where the number of heart diseases is among the lowest in the world, forest baths or shinrin-yoku, is an essential part of their national health program.
An earlier photo of The Duchess of Cambridge with Andree Davies (C) and Adam White (L), by Davies White Landscape Architect, about plans for her & # 39; Back To Nature & # 39; garden
& # 39; The Duchess suggested this & # 39 ;, White says. & # 39; The challenge was to create an immersive experience, so that visitors get the feeling of being in the middle of a forest, so that everyone gets their own little nature fix. & # 39; And they certainly achieved it.
In addition to the tree house and swing there is a stream where children can play Pooh sticks and a large hollow trunk – from a fallen tree on the Queen's estate at Sandringham in Norfolk – where they can crawl in for a moment of peace.
The garden will contain a wide variety of trees, including what Davies describes as & # 39; incredible food & # 39 ;, such as walnuts, apples and pears and scots pine, the only true native pines in the UK. & # 39; The dry cones can be used as kindling for fire, which is ideal if you are exploring nature, building caves and a campfire, & # 39; she adds.
There is also enough for adults to admire, not least the richness of planting and the beautiful hornbeam trees that give the garden a jungle-like atmosphere. Can something as simple as a walk among the trees really have a direct impact on your health?
Pictured: Previous picture of Kate with Andree Davies (C) and Adam White (L), by Davies White Landscape Architect, about plans for her & # 39; Back To Nature & # 39; garden
Davies says: & # 39; If you are a stressed office worker, and you spend five or ten minutes of your day walking in nature, working slower, looking at things in detail and feeling that outside atmosphere in the woods – it brings your heart rate down. & # 39;
And what about hugging trees? & # 39; I always hug trees & # 39 ;, she laughs.
TREE HUGGER RISE
The practice of forest swimming has moved to the west in recent years. Stubborn teenage pop star Justin Bieber and lover of all things alternative health care Gwyneth Paltrow were early adopters.
And now the establishment – not just the duchess – is embracing it.
Both the Forestry Commission and the RSPB charity offer forest bathing sessions on their lands, while health retreats and spas with versions popping up all over Britain.
I signed up for a session at Armathwaite Hall, a spa hotel on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake in North Cumbria.
And so I found myself lying on a carpet of snowdrops – and felt a little bit a bit, because my instructor, yoga teacher Rebecca Shepherd, instructed me to breathe in & # 39; and the word & # 39; to whisper ham & # 39; When I gave her a questioning look, wondering if the rasping sound I was making, she says: & yes, that's right. It's just like Darth Vader. & # 39; She explains: & # 39; The whole thing about bathing in the forest is that you go into the forest and keep your mouth shut.
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The oasis that fights stress in city dwellers
Living in urban sprawl can be stressful.
The Green Switch garden, designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara, who created 13 earlier gardens for Chelsea, wants to help city dwellers escape into an oasis of tranquility.
Here people can switch from the chaos in the city to a natural peace, thanks to the open-style Azumaya (garden house).
The two-storey glass structure has an upper tea room, a lower parking space (with motor parked) and a glass shower room for swimming outside surrounded by trees.
A family-friendly space to heal emotions
The Family Monsters Garden celebrates imperfections in life and shows that great things can grow through adversity.
A joint venture between the Family Action charity, which supports families with social isolation, and landscape architect Alistair Bayford, the garden of birch, hazel and black pine trees, is a place where families can open themselves to fears.
Alistair says: & # 39; The trees illustrate the journey of growth – and how families grow and recover from setbacks. & # 39;
A sensory garden for motor neurons disease
The & # 39; High Maintenance Garden & # 39; For patients with degenerative brain disease, motor neuron disease serves as an inspirational metaphor.
It represents the limitations that people feel when their mind and senses are still active, but their body is in physical decline.
So while they can enjoy the sensory elements of the garden, the living garden slowly slides back to nature, overtaken by roses and jasmine and with trees climbing through the roof.
Herb garden that helps relieve headache
The Kampo no Niha garden is inspired by Kampo, a traditional form of Japanese herbal medicine dating from the 7th century.
The plants in the garden grow in the Hokkaido region and are all used in Kampo medicines.
The buds of the Magnolia Kobus help to reduce fever and the roots of the Paeonia lactiflora can relieve headaches.
& # 39; You absorb the color green, you listen to the birdsong, you smell the natural scents and you take nature – which is amazing.
& # 39; Instead of staring at our phones or a computer screen, you really look around. & # 39;
I spend some time researching the moss on a fallen branch, to see how many different shades of green it contains, the texture and how it feels under my fingers.
When I no longer thought of the fact that I caressed a tree branch, I was indeed overwhelmed by a feeling of calmness.
The key, I have discovered, is not to take yourself too seriously. If you get the hang of it, it really works.
TREES CAN IMMUNE HEALTH … AND STRENGTHEN THE HEART
Research from Nippon Medical School in Tokyo suggests that forest pathways can have a direct effect on the immune system, especially our natural killer or NK cells, which protect us against viruses and tumor formation.
Patients saw a significant boost in their NK cell activity in the week following a forest visit, with positive effects that continued a month later.
In a separate study, by experts from the Japanese University of Chiba, the levels of stress hormone cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate in volunteers were measured during a day in the city, with the tests repeated during a 30-minute visit to the forest.
All health measures improved during the time spent among the trees. But why?
Professor Miles Richardson, professor at the University of Derby, has done research on forest swimming.
He says: & # 39; Our systems are more attuned to the natural world in which we have evolved than the beeps, clicks and lights of contemporary life. & # 39;
In short, he says, it comes down to evolution. We have only surrounded a few centuries in built-up environments, surrounded by brick, glass and asphalt, but spent many millennia among the trees.
Another fascinating theory is about organic compounds called phytoncides. They push trees into the air to protect themselves against parasites and diseases. There are indications that phytoncides can really benefit humans.
Experts from the University of Helsinki have shown that the rapid increase in allergies, asthma and other chronic inflammatory diseases in recent decades has been caused by the death of plants and the loss of animal lives. This reduces human exposure to useful microbes that are essential for a healthy immune system.
They also found that allergies among young people decreased significantly if they lived close to green.
A SOFT WAY TO FACILITATE TRAUMA
It is not only physical health that can stimulate bathing in the forest, but also mental health – and the NHS is increasingly interested in the link between nature and mental health.
Psychiatrist Tim Kendal, National Clinical Director of the NHS for mental health, says: & There is a growing body of evidence that it is an advantage to be in a natural environment, whether it is a sculpted version of nature or a more wild version. & # 39;
After the Chelsea Flower Show, much of the Back To Nature garden will be uprooted and replanted at an NHS Mental Health Trust, where it is hoped that patients will enjoy the benefits of the trees.
Andrew Kingston is the manager of the repair service for Camden & Islington NHS, and his psychiatric hospital was the recipient of last year's Chelsea garden after the show. Many of his patients are elderly, with conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder. He says: & # 39; Tending to the garden gives them a focus. There is no doubt that most people who bathe in the forest feel that it is improving their health. & # 39;
Caro, 69, a retired teacher, joins a forest bathing group in Highgate Woods, North London once a month. Caro told me that she came to the group after her house was broken into last year and a man had stolen some of her jewelry.
She says: & # 39; I was traumatized. But this was just so relaxing. I thought, well – these are jewels, these things in nature. That feeling of trauma just faded away. & # 39;
She describes the sessions as & # 39; magic & # 39; – a word that Prof Richardson also uses when describing a Japanese study from 2017, suggesting that just brushing a little wood could lower your blood pressure.
& # 39; It's science, not magic. But it feels magical, right? & # 39;
It certainly does. The father-in-law of the Duchess of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales, was once mocked because he was a tree hugger.
But it turns out that if we all spent a little more time hugging trees, we would be healthier and happier.
- The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from 21 to 25 May at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Tickets, which cost from £ 75, are still available at rhs.org.uk.
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