“The woods are lovely dark and deep”. So goes the poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Robert Frost, and what better words to sum up our exploration of the best places to go forest bathing in London?
Originating in Japan, shinrin-yoku is the practice of absorbing the forest’s atmosphere as a natural way to reduce stress, boost your mental health and even strengthen your immune system.
But while everyone loves a traipse through the trees, what takes a casual walk in the woods to the spiritual heights of forest bathing?
In a word, mindfulness. And in more words, our blog. So read on as we take you through the steps of shinrin-yoku and show you some great places to go forest bathing in London.
How do you forest bathe?
To feel the full effects of forest bathing, the secret is to slow down and become fully aware of your surroundings.
Start with some slow, steady breathwork – in through the nose, out through the mouth – to help you fully relax and awaken to your senses. Then close your eyes and follow these steps:
– Touch: notice how the air touches your skin. Is everything still and warm, or is there a cool breeze causing your follicles to rise? Notice the sensation.
– Smell: take in a deep breath and make a note of the scents that are in the air – do you recognise any? Are you reminded of anything?
– Taste: purse your lips as if sucking a straw and draw in some air. Notice how it tastes as it crosses your tongue and goes down into your body.
– Listen: take in all the sounds of nature, noting the ones that are close by and further away. The chirping of birds, the rustling of leaves… what can you hear?
– Imagine: picture yourself with roots growing down from your body into the earth below. Channel your attention to follow them down into the ground – what do they encounter as they push ever deeper?
– Feel: place your hands on your chest and breathe into your heart space. Gently turn around and see which direction your heart tells you to face. What’s the feeling like?
– See: pause for a moment – or for however long until you’re ready, then gradually open your eyes to let the world slowly come into focus. What becomes clear first? Do you notice anything new?
Now that you’ve opened up your senses, you might choose to take a slow walk or just sit for a while and enjoy where you are. Whatever you decide, take the opportunity to bathe in the beauty of the natural world around you.
So… ready for the real thing? Then let’s take a look at some of the best places to go forest bathing in London.
Sydenham Hill Wood & Dulwich Wood
These two adjacent areas of woodland make up the largest surviving tract of the Great North Wood that once stretched from Croydon to Camberwell, before Croydon and Camberwell ever existed. Today this local nature reserve covers ten hectares and is a site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation.
The uneven pathways keep cyclists at bay (in fact, they’re banned), which guarantees a slow pace and zero pinging of bells. In earlier times, trains ran through on the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway, ferrying visitors to the relocated Crystal Palace on a route from Brixton via stations at Lordship Lane. Remains of that Victorian heritage can be found in the ruins of the Sydenham Folly – a garden feature that was built in the grounds of a large house that used to occupy the site.
Getting here is enough with, the the 176, 185, 197 and P4 buses stopping on the South Circular Road at the nearby Honiman Museum (also well worth a visit), or the 356 and 363 stopping on Sydenham Hill at Crescent Wood Walk.
The lungs of London sit aloft at the highest point of the capital, with vast areas of meadow and woodland to explore, and views over the treetops towards the BT Tower and other city landmarks. The area is supremely accessible, with Hampstead Heath Overground station just a couple of minutes’ walk from the southernmost entrance, and the 210 bus running up the western side on Spaniards Road, then along the northern edge on Hampstead Lane past Kenwood House.
Head into the trees, and you’ll find plenty of pathways to follow before ducking off into the foliage and immersing yourself in the woods away from the walkers and cyclists. You can truly lose yourself here in the two forests, North Wood and Ken Wood, in an area of Special Scientific Interest that covers a gigantic 16.6 hectares.
On your walk to and from your forest bathe, you can take in the ponds – some for swimming, some for ducks – and also engage in another favourite (if less spiritual) local pastime: aspirational property spotting across the waters.
You might associate Richmond more with the River Thames, herds of deer and the warm motivational joy of Ted Lasso. But Richmond Park, aside from being the largest of London’s Royal Park, is also an important site for ancient trees, particularly ancient oaks.
Whether Henry VIII or any of the other royals cruised over from nearby Hampton Court to admire the forest is lost in the annals of time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a royally soothing ritual. And the woodland areas are growing here after Sir David Attenborough planted an oak tree at the new Platinum Jubilee Woodland in March 2023 – a four-acre forest larger than two football pitches.
Despite being so massive, Richmond Park manages to be not very near to any station. Norbiton is nearest at 12 minute’s walk to the southern tip, or to enter from the northern side, it’s 17 minutes from North Sheen. If you want to include Richmond’s lively town centre in your visit – and why wouldn’t you? – the station is about 25 minutes walk.
Sitting at the cafe at the top of Shooters Hill is a real treat. Not only for a coffee-and-cake moment, but also for the massive views of Kent that open up as the meadow falls away beneath you.
A favourite among South-East Londoners but almost known to the rest of the city’s urbanites, is Oxleas Woods. About 1.5 miles south of Woolwich, the forest is part of the 50-mile Green Chain Walk, which goes all the way from Thamesmead to Nunhead, passing Eltham Palace, The Thames Barrier, Severndroog Castle and Crystal Palace Park along its route.
Oxleas Woods is really easy to get to, with the B5 bus stopping at Oxleas Meadow at the foot of the forest. And if you’re coming from the top, the 89, 244 and 486 all stop just a few minutes walk away on Shooters Hill.
Saving the largest for last, Epping Forest spans 2,400 hectares in a vast sweep along the borders of London, Essex and Hertfordshire. Despite its location, the forest is owned and managed by the City of London.
Home to 50 distinct areas of woodland, 50,000 ancient pollard trees, and over 100 lakes and ponds, it’s safe to say that every visit here will be different from the last.
Epping Forest has multiple tube stations on the Central Line to get off and explore from. There are seven along the Essex stretch (Chigwell, Roding Valley, Buckhurst Hill, Loughton, Debden, Theydon Bois and Epping), while the London elements of Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and Hollow Pond are close to both Wanstead and Leytonstone stations. Further stretches are an easy walk from the Overground line at Wood Street and Chingford.
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