During Covid lockdowns, Sharon Powell felt alone. She was caring for her father, 90, who was deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and looking after him had become increasingly difficult.
Social life in her community in Johnson Fold, Bolton, had been Powell’s escape from the pressure at home, but when Covid restrictions were introduced “everything was just gone”. She was depressed, anxious and having panic attacks “like a washing machine on full spin”.
Doctors had prescribed Powell pills for a host of ailments, mental and physical – “that much medication I’m surprised I don’t sound like a set of maracas when I walk”, she said. “But … having suffered with mental illness for the past 30 years I knew that this had got beyond where medication could help.
“Medication can only do so much when you’re stuck in four walls.”
That was when a nurse at her local surgery put Powell in touch with Trisha Goodwin, a social prescribing link worker at Bolton GP Federation. “Trisha mentioned about going on walks, and I was like, well, I love walking and if it’s a small group I don’t mind,” Powell said. She now credits Goodwin’’s suggestion with having helped saved her life.
In response to a dramatic increase in mental health referrals around the pandemic, Bolton GP Federation and the Woodland Trust worked together to create a programme of “tranquility walks”, focusing on woodland, water and relaxation as a space to deal with anxiety.
The group met at Barrow Bridge, a short walk from Powell’s home. Led by a Woodland Trust officer, they rambled through woodland on the Smithills estate, a site recently bought by the charity.
It was a place Powell already knew and would visit to think. “But since doing the tranquility walks the thinking time has taken on a whole new meaning because I’m taking notice of the sounds, the smells,” she said.
“The running water, because there’s a stream … and the birds’ song and the rustling of the leaves and the wind … it’s just nice to take time out. It’s lovely and it’s on my doorstep.”
Vicky Entwistle, who works at the estate and led walks, said groups would stop to listen to branches and leaves swaying, or to watch dappled light through the canopy, an experience many found transformative.
“It shows the importance of getting more nature to people’s doorsteps to help boost our health everyday, and the clear benefits of social prescribing with nature,” she said. Wildlife Trust is backing a petition to call on the government to enshrine in law a right to access to nature.
The fortnightly Smithills tranquility walks have continued for a year now, and members of the group have formed strong bonds, Powell says. But she goes out more, when health permits it. She has become an advocate for open spaces, volunteering at Smithills – and sharing a newfound passion for mycology with her granddaughters.
“I just forget everything when I’m out,” she said. “All my worries and stresses of home, stresses of family, and just lose track of time.”