Berry-au-Bac to Brienne-le-Château

Discovering that there’s more to Champagne than fizz

152kms – 8 days

Champagne…it calls to mind the finer things in life, elegance, sophistication. Walking through this world famous wine region, I realised it exhibits many of the characteristics of it’s bubbly namesake. But moving at a slower pace, at times well off the beaten track (or the Route Touristique de Champagne as it’s known), allowed me to see that it’s home to much more than grand crus and cuvées. Beyond the vineyards it’s a land of jaw dropping cathedrals, industrious villages, fascinating history, and unfathomably straight Roman roads.

Vineyards surrounding the village of Verzenay

Sometimes when you cross a border from one country to another you notice an instant change – you’re in a new place, things are different there. As I crossed into a new administrative department, Marne, it was as though I’d entered a new world. The villages of Cormincy and Hermonville, with buildings made of golden stone and prize worthy window boxes, were reminiscent of the picture perfect Cotswolds. And they felt just as bourgeois.

Picture perfect Hermonville

Traces of the region’s wine industry were everywhere. It didn’t seem possible for so many champagne houses to line the streets of a small village. They could be easily spotted – wrought iron signs hung over their doors illustrating the picking and pressing of grapes, and old barrels enjoying a second life as flower pots were positioned on street corners like signposts. Occasionally you just needed to follow your nose, the waft of champagne taking you straight to the cellar door!

A wrought iron sign outside a champagne house in Pouillon

Nestled in between the grand cru vines (think the best of the best when it comes to champagne producing grapes) of the village of Saint-Thierry is the Monastèrie des Bénédictines. It’s a world of simplicity and quietness, not too dissimilar to the small independent champagne houses I’d been walking past. And it’s home to cheerful nuns who ensured I was well fed and well rested in their stunning home. That their abbey is surrounded by vineyards owned by world famous champagne houses neither excites nor phases them. It’s just champagne, and in this neck of the woods it’s nothing particularly special.

The enormous door to the Monastère des Bénédictines in Saint-Thierry
The monastery’s former coach house, now used as accommodation for pilgrims

Arriving into a city on foot is a fairly underwhelming experience. The novelty of eating a lunch that isn’t a baguette with cheese, and of parking up in a cafe to people watch and pretend you’re a regular tourist is crushed by the reality of sprawling suburbs and grotty dumping grounds. My journey into Reims, following the Canal de l’Aisne à Marne, was no different. But there was a kind of charm to Reims’ industrial dark side…or maybe those wafts of champagne had gone to my head.

Seeing the charming side of the Canal de l’Aisne à Marne

I’ve become a pilgrim creature of habit – on arrival in a city my first port of call is the cathedral. Reaching the cathedral is a mini-celebration in its own right, marking the end of a stage of the Via Francigena and of a gruelling few days’ walking. They are a place to stop and reflect on how far I’ve come, to sit still and cool down, and to get my pilgrim’s passport stamped.

The stunning facade of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims

Before I ventured inside Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims I sat opposite its gothic facade for some time, gazing in wonder. Hundreds of figures adorn its twin towers, which soar 80 metres into the sky. You can’t help but wonder, “How did they build that?”, a question you ask yourself again when you venture inside. What hits you first is the cool air. And then you gaze up, and along the 140 odd metres of the nave, and imagine that this must be what it feels like to be swallowed by an enormous whale. And then your eye catches the stunning stained glass windows, both the traditional rose windows and those designed by Marc Chagall in the 1970s. History books could be written about the cathedral – its been rebuilt countless times after fires and war damage, it was the site of 33 coronations of French kings, and it was the location of Franco-German reconciliation after World War II. Certain man made structures have an ability to stop you in your tracks and to take your breath away. This is one of them.

The jaw dropping inside of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims
Stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall

A heatwave was sweeping across Europe, so a rest day was in order. And what better way to dodge the soaring temperatures than to head underground into the cellars of one of the world’s most famous champagne houses, Veuve Clicquot. Their cellars, or crayéres, which started life as chalk quarries, stretch for 24kms underneath Reims. In those tunnels I expected to be told how champagne is made, but I didn’t expect to be so engaged and inspired by the history of Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the widow (veuve means widow) turned businesswoman who was known as the “Grande Dame of Champagne”. Her strength of character and tenacity were remarkable, and her innovative spirit quite staggering. She created the first vintage champagne when others believed it couldn’t be done, invented the riddling table which continues to be used in production today, and created the first rosé champagne using a method that’s been employed by countless competitors. The next time you have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot don’t be too quick to thrown away the metal casing that holds the cork in place. On it you’ll see the one and only portrait of Barbe, a woman who did so much more than just make champagne.

Inside Veuve Clicquot’s champagne cellars, or crayéres, which started life as chalk quarries
A step for every year that Veuve Clicquot has produced vintage champagne
Of course I had to do a champagne tasting…I thoroughly recommend the Veuve Clicquot 2008 La Grand Dame Vintage!

Sadly my time underground came to an end, and I was forced back into the 40 degree heat. Air conditioned cafes serving ice cream and cold Orangina, cavernous churches that seemed to be immune to the heat, and the refrigerated sections of supermarkets were the only places to keep cool. When my body temperature had regulated slightly I strolled around Reims’ streets, falling for its Parisian air. Its wide boulevards are lined with grand apartment blocks that display a patchwork of shutters and wrought iron balconies, and statues and fountains take centre stage in its squares. It has some beautiful Art Deco architecture too, owing to the fact that much of the city was destroyed during World War I (much like the towns I walked through in the Somme). Such as the Bibliothéque Carnegie de Reims, a library built in 1927 with money donated by the American-Scottish businessman Andrew Carnegie to replace the city’s libraries which were destroyed during the war.

Grand apartments line the boulevards of Reims
A colourful street in Reims

With the heatwave showing no signs of easing up, and with an itch to get moving again, waking up at dawn became the order of the day (not that it was possible to get much sleep in the heat!). Leaving the city behind, my early starts opened a window on the industrious side of life in Champagne. Drinking a glass of fizz may be a leisurely affair that’s full of glitz and razzmatazz, but the process of making it is more humble and authentic, and requires a constant hive of activity. As I walked I saw machines that looked like Transformers ploughing up and down the vines, lights twinkling in the morning light. Vans whizzed along the white chalk roads that cut through the otherwise green landscape, stopping every once in a while to check the grapes are growing as they should.

Wine growers at work at the break of dawn

My own path through the vineyards was like a champagne walk of fame…on my right the vines of Moët & Chandon, and on my left those of Bollinger, Taittinger, Pommery and Mumm. I felt somewhat starstruck by grapes, and wasn’t sure if the heat had finally gotten to me!

The champagne walk of fame
Early starts have some advantages, like this amazing dawn view outside Trépail

I soon found myself back on the canal towpath which could only mean one thing, that I was approaching another city – Châlons-en-Champagne. The administrative heart of the region, it had quite a different feel to Reims. What it lacked in Parisian chic it made up for in medieval timber frame houses, which have sprouted up in all manner of different angles yet somehow stay standing. Their ground floors are home to boutiques and boulangeries, and innumerable artisanal chocolatiers. It made for a good place to stock up on supplies before the next phase of my walk – a Roman road with no shops and next to no villages.

Early mornings walking along the Canal latéral à la Marne
Timber frame houses that line the streets of Châlons-en-Champagne

Roman roads…they really are straight. Unfathomably straight. 54kms of straight. After the heat came the storm, and my days walking south in a straight line were wet and dreary. The chalk roads seemed to turn into ice, and I found myself slipping and sliding with every few steps. On either side of me there were wheat fields, recently harvested and looking bare. My brain had been trained to scan the horizon for a church, the sign of life in an otherwise uninhabited world. But the only things breaking the horizon were huge wind turbines.

The lack of features in this largely flat landscape sent me into a sort of delirious, hallucinatory state. When I passed deserted agricultural buildings I would imagine them into beautiful farmhouses that I would run as B&Bs. I talked to myself in Spanish as though I was reciting a GCSE oral exam, imagined myself en route to Rome in the film Gladiator, and played out conversations with family and friends. I was brought back to reality by the whistles of birds of prey flying over head, by red squirrels that would dart across the path, and by deer that would dance through the fields in a display that never failed to stop me in my tracks.

Gloomy skies over the Roman road that runs between Châlons-en-Champagne and Brienne-le-Château
Having lunch in an out of place bus stop, the only shelter from the rain for 27kms!

With no shops, bars, or hotels in this area, pilgrims are entirely reliant on the hospitality of strangers who open up their homes and provide board and lodging for the night. I stayed with two wonderful families, without whom walking this stretch of the trail wouldn’t be possible. They welcomed me like a long lost daughter, and both had a way of making me feel like I was in my own home. They understand a pilgrim’s basic needs – shelter, rest, food and water. But they provided so much more, and I am eternally grateful to them both.

As if to symbolise a light at the end of the tunnel, on my last day walking the Roman road the sun was shining. The landscape looked entirely different, or maybe I just had a different mindset now that the end was in sight. Twists and turns started to appear in the road, and church steeples were visible on the horizon. I have a long way to go before I get to Rome, but I felt some sort of small victory…I had survived the Roman road.

Sunshine on the Roman road

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind, You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site.

Arras to Berry-au-Bac

Walking in the footsteps of war

173kms – 7 days

If my first week walking through France was characterised by sleepy farming villages, my second was characterised by history. I passed through towns and cities with their origins in the Iron Age and Roman periods. Places that, given their geographic location, have been the scene of battles for thousands of years. Yet it’s the battles of World War I, and their scars, that draw most visitors to this part of France.

The unassuming city of Arras, the historic centre of the Artois region, was the perfect place to recuperate after a busy few weeks on the road. But it’s a challenge to avoid clocking up extra kilometres when your rest day is in a city that’s so charming and interesting.

Baroque gabled houses on Arras’ Grand’Place

Arras has a decidedly Flemish feel to it, a stark contrast to the rustic French villages that I’ve been walked through to date. Baroque gabled houses line the enormous Grand’Place and Place des Héroes, squares where people drink goblets of beer and devour bowls of frites. But there’s more to the city than it’s similarities with Brussels – the gothic Hôtel de Ville and Belfry, the Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, the 18th century town house that was home to Maximilian Robespierre, extravagant Parisian style mansions, and Art Deco apartments.

Arras’ Hôtel de Ville and Belfry on Place des Héroes
Inside Arras’ Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, rebuilt after the First World War
The colourful Parisian style Hôtel de Guînes

Arras has a unique architectural mix, which tells the story of its long and turbulent past. Being only 10 kilometres from the Front Line during World War I much of the city has destroyed, in fact 80% of it had to be rebuilt. Yet efforts were made to preserve each building’s architectural heritage so that the city’s history wasn’t lost.

On the outskirts of Arras I passed a museum and memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, a military unit made up largely of experienced miners who brought a strategic advantage to the Allied war effort in 1916. Arras sits on top of a labyrinth of underground tunnels, dating from Roman times and used throughout history to mine chalk and store grain. The New Zealand Tunnelling Company expanded the tunnels, taking them closer to the Front Line and enabling 24,000 soldiers to launch a surprise attack on the German forces in the 1917 Battle of Arras.

A memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company at Wellington Quarry

As I continued my journey south into the Somme, reminders of World War I were everywhere I turned. I had, somewhat naively, imagined huge out of town cemeteries and memorials that necessitate a dedicated visit by car. But I discovered that these cemeteries and memorials, both large and small, are scattered throughout the landscape – at the side of a busy road in the middle of a town, annexed to a village cemetery in the shadow of a local church, in the middle of a wheat field. And the war can also be seen in buildings that have been scarred by shrapnel, or partially rebuilt in styles and materials inconsistent with those of their origins. In this part of France no corner escaped the war. And it felt important that my journey, slow and on foot, enabled me to realise that.

The grave of an unknown soldier in Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery

But then there are the huge out of town cemeteries and memorials, with never ending fields of crosses that are the resting places of an incomprehensible number of soldiers. Every reminder of the war causes you to stop and to contemplate. But places such as Rancourt, with its German, French and Commonwealth war cemeteries that together hold over 20,000 soldiers, completely stop you in your tracks.

Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery
Sapignies German War Cemetery
Rancourt French War Cemetery

I spent a morning in Péronne at the fantastic Museum of the Great War, an outstanding quadralingual (English, French, German, Dutch) museum that revealed sombre facts and interesting insights. As I walked through the exhibition halls, looking at the outdated and impractical uniforms that many soldiers fought and died in, and reading about the battles that resulted in gains of mere metres and losses of millions of lives, I couldn’t help but be dumbfounded by it all.

Symbolic poppies are visible throughout the Somme

France had so far been sleepy and quiet, with little more than tractors and the occasional cyclist crossing my path. But the further I walked into the Somme, the more it seemed to come alive. Pavements and town squares were lined with people dining al fresco and enjoying cold glasses of wine. As I walked down the street people shouted “Bonne Francigena” to me or stopped me to suggest that I visit a particularly beautiful church en route. One lady even gave me a round of applause when I told her I was walking from London all the way to Rome!

And there were more pilgrims on the road too, people from different places travelling at different speeds, and for different reasons. Some you pass like ships in the night – pilgrims on bikes travel much faster than those on foot, but that doesn’t stop you from having an evening of laughter where English, French, Italian, and Spanish are spoken in an effort for everyone to understand and be understood.

Wheat fields continue to dominate the landscape
Cooling off in the shade of a church

Walking cross country can sound incredibly romantic and exciting, but the reality can often be quite different. And this area of France comes with its own special challenges. Towns and villages are few and far between, and those with facilities seem to be even more cruelly distanced. If there’s no room at the inn, you find yourself walking a further 8 kilometres to the next available bed. Food can be surprisingly tricky to get your hands on, as shops and boulangeries can never be relied on to be open (or still in business!). Water fountains are non-existent, making the cemetery tap the life source for passing pilgrims. And the inside of churches provide the only shade and opportunity to cool down.

But the lack of pilgrimage infrastructure also makes life somewhat interesting. In the last week I’ve stayed in a hotel, a youth hostel, on a farm, in a caravan, in a safari tent, on a mattress on the floor of an old school, and in a 17th century house that’s opened up by the eccentrically wonderful Madame Marie-Agnes to pilgrims as a home stay. The scenery in this part of France may, at times, be unchanging, but the weird and wonderful places where I lay my head each evening never fail to keep me on my toes.

Early mornings walking along Canal de Saint-Quentin

Canals and forests began to break up the never ending wheat fields, adding flashes of green to an otherwise blue and gold landscape. Hills seemed to be getting bigger, and more frequent. But some shorter days meant I could spend afternoons relaxing whilst watching carp fishing enthusiasts at work, and swim in some of the lakes that dot this area.

A steep and sweaty climb of 100 vertical metres brought me to the capital of the department of Aisne, Laon. It wasn’t just the journey there that took my breath away – this fortified hilltop city is simply stunning, and the views from its ramparts of the plains below make every step of the climb worthwhile. Laon’s medieval architecture, including its cavernous Cathédrale Notre-Dame, have been wonderfully preserved. Every street tells the story of hundreds of years, yet the tunnels that run below the city tell tales dating back to the Roman times. Everything about the city was charming, tranquil, and low key. And I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more people soaking it all up (or why I’d never heard of Laon before).

The stunning Cathédrale Norte-Dame in Laon
View of the Aisne countryside from Laon’s ramparts
Laon’s medieval streets, lined with boutiques and artisan bakeries

What goes up must come down, and it was with a heavy heart that I descended into the forest surrounding Laon, and continued my journey. But my mood soon lifted. The golden wheat fields were starting to give way to something green, something that brought an orderly geometry to the landscape. I was entering a legendary wine growing region, and was excited to taste its wares. I was walking into the heart of Champagne.

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind. You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site.

What’s in the bag?

With only a day to go before I set off on my walk to Rome, one of the questions I’ve been asked the most in the run up to D-Day is…what are you taking with you?

Packing for a long weekend away, let alone a three and a half month adventure, is challenging enough. But when everything you pack is going to be carried on your back, the ruthlessness in you comes out.

When it comes to packing, we all know that the more space you have the more things you pack. So my first, and most important, consideration was which backpack to take. I’ve used Lowe Alpine backpacks in the past when trekking in Nepal, and have always found them to be fantastic. So I opted for the Lowe Alpine AirZone Pro+ 33:40, a 33 litre backpack that can expand to 40 litres if necessary. It has a fully adjustable, breathable, back support system, plus tons of pockets and gizmos to ensure I can access extra layers or blister plasters with ease. With some help from a public vote on Instagram, she’s been christened Bonnie the Backpack.

Bonnie the Backpack, who will be with me every step of the way to Rome

Bonnie was very kindly bought for me by my wonderful friends at Estancia Los Potreros, a horse riding and working cattle ranch in Argentina where I worked for a number of months earlier this year. Their support for my walk to Rome has been both impassioned and unwavering, and I can’t thank them enough.

With my backpack sorted, my next big consideration…what should I put in it? Well, that’s proved to be something of a science, and most definitely an exercise in practicality and restraint. I’ve had a stab at packing a number of times only to realise (after picking Bonnie up and seeing how heavy she is!) that I need to start again, with more ruthlessness. Clothes that have been laid out ready to be packed have instead been folded up and put back in their drawers. If it’s not lightweight, durable, practical, and, most importantly, necessary, it’s not going in.

Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about my walk has been disproportionately interested in the contents of my backpack, perhaps because they can’t imagine what three and a half months of your life, packed into a small space, looks like! So for those of you who have been interested in the particulars, here’s what it’s come down to…

Things I’ll walk in:

Extra layers:

  • A linen shirt, for protection from the sun
  • A jumper, kindly donated by Sweaty Betty
  • A thin insulated gillet
  • A raincoat
  • A pair of waterproof trousers

Things for the evenings and rest days:

  • A pair of lightweight baggy trousers
  • A Mind t-shirt
  • A lightweight jersey dress
  • A pair of flip flops
  • A pair of pyjamas

Other bits and bobs:

  • A Buff, kindly donated by the travel agent Far and Ride, who specialise in horse riding holidays
  • A lightweight scarf to cover my shoulders when visiting churches en route
  • A pair of walking poles
  • A pair of sunglasses
  • A sun hat
  • A bikini for soaking in the hot springs I’ll pass en route
  • A travel towel
  • A silk sleeping bag liner
  • A 1.5 litre water bladder and a 1 litre water bottle, plus an emergency collapsible 500ml water bottle
  • A head torch
  • A Swiss Army Knife
  • Gaffer tape (which can be used for so many things, from repairing clothes to holding a smashed iPhone together!)
  • Some basic toiletries, kindly donated by Lush and Neal’s Yard Remedies
  • Sunscreen
  • A bottle of travel wash
  • A first aid kit (including plenty of Compeed)
  • An iPad
  • An iPhone
  • A power bank
  • Charging cables and adapters
  • A notebook and pen
  • A French phrase book
  • My passport!

My Buff, kindly donated by Far and Ride

I have allowed myself one luxury item, though. A number of years ago I was travelling in Nepal and was given something called a mani stone by a Tibetan refugee, a small stone inscribed with the Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum”. This mantra has a number of different meanings, all of which resonate with me, but it’s also a prayer for protection for travellers. When trekking in Nepal you see piles of mani stones lining the mountain paths, placed their as offerings to the gods for the protection of all who pass them. A few years ago I actually gave that mani stone to a friend who spends a lot of his life on the road in countries far from home. So on a return trip to Nepal I acquired a new mani stone, and, call me superstitious, but I take it with me whenever I embark on a long journey. And this time around it’ll be coming with me all the way to Rome.

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive to fill my bag with rocks, but this mani stone from Nepal will be accompanying me to Rome

So that’s it…my worldly possessions for the next three and a half months. When written down it sounds like a lot, but I promise you that it’s actually very little. Isn’t it amazing, though, how little we need in life. I think that’s where much of the appeal of this walk lies for me, in stripping things back to the very basics and living simply. Like a pilgrim from the Middle Ages…except with an iPhone, high tech walking shoes, and a lifetime’s supply of blister plasters!

My bag is packed, my shoes are waiting by the door…tomorrow it’s time to start walking to Rome.

Mental health first aid

It would be hard to argue that we aren’t better off for having trained first aiders in our midst – people who, whether it’s in the workplace or on the street, can step in and help when someone has collapsed or broken their arm. But as much as we need first aiders for our physical health, we also need mental health first aiders. What do we mean, though, when we talk about mental health first aid?

Well, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s first aid but instead of focussing on the Heimlich manoeuvre and the recovery position it’s focussed on identifying and responding to mental health problems. In the grand scheme of things it’s a relatively new phenomenon, despite the fact that there’s long been a need for mental health first aiders. However, it’s only in recent years that the potential to have people in the workplace and in the street, people like you and me, who can help those experiencing a mental health problem has been realised.

The materials provided on Mental Health First Aid England’s courses are incredibly comprehensive, and a great resource to refer back to from time to time

Mental Health First Aid England is an organisation that’s been delivering mental health first aid courses in the UK since 2009. It’s part of a global movement, active in 25 or so countries, that has trained over 3 million people in how to look after their own and others’ mental wellbeing. Mental Health First Aid England’s goal is to train one in every ten people as a mental health first aider, and they work alongside organisations such as St John Ambulance (who provide traditional first aid courses) to achieve that goal.

I took one of Mental Health First Aid England’s two day courses last month, a course that was focussed on adult mental health. They have a number of other courses though, of varying duration, which are tailored to the mental health needs of, for example, children, students, employees, and people working in the armed forces. My course was taught by Christina, a former mental health nurse who grew up caring for her schizophrenic mother and bipolar father. Christina brought not only a wealth of personal experience to the course, but also a huge amount of passion to normalise society’s attitudes and behaviours towards mental health through education. And that’s what I’ve always encountered when I’ve delved into the world of mental health – people who are passionate about making a difference, both to people’s lives and to the status quo.

My mental health first aid course wasn’t just interesting and informative, it challenged the way I view things and forced me to think hard about some uncomfortable subjects which it’s sometimes easier to avoid. It didn’t always make for easy listening, but it was a privilege to hear the stories of people who talk openly about their mental health in the hope that it helps others to better understand, and support, them. And it was hugely empowering. Since finishing my course I’ve felt better equipped to talk to friends about their anxiety, to support someone with an eating disorder, and to help a friend who told me they were having suicidal thoughts. It’s often a case of knowing what to say and how to say it, or which direction to point people in for professional help, and my first aid course taught me all of those things.

Mental Health First Aid England’s five step “ALGEE” approach to assessing and assisting someone with a mental health problem

Is there a mental health first aider in your midst? Maybe one of your friends has done a course, or someone in your family? Does your workplace have any mental health first aiders, and if so, do you know who they are? Why not take a moment to look them up, and make sure everyone in the office knows about them. Because someone will need their support at some stage, and that someone may be you. Or maybe your workplace is one of the four in every five organisations that doesn’t have a trained mental health first aider. In which case, maybe it’s a good time to put yourself forward and ask if you can go on a mental health first aid course. It won’t just change your attitudes towards and your understanding of mental health, it’s very likely that it will change someone else’s life.

Four legged friends

We might laugh about cafes where, whilst sipping on Earl Grey, you can pet a cat, snuggle with a hedgehog, or spend quality time with sheep. But animal therapy…it’s genuinely a thing.

The special bond between humans and animals dates as far back as prehistoric times, when the dog is thought to have first been domesticated. For millennia animals have been trained for working purposes, but there has long been more to our relationship with animals than mere functionality. The practice of keeping animals as pets has, up to the present day, been a part of nearly every culture and society throughout the world. As though it’s something that goes to the very core of our being.

On the receiving end of some unconditional love from Ghillie, one of the nine dogs I had the pleasure of living with earlier this year

When it comes to connection, animals are some of our best teachers. They have an ability to bring us out of our shells, and have been thought to positively influence our relationships with other humans. Animals also provide us with a huge source of comfort and companionship, and can have a profoundly relaxing and calming influence on our daily lives. For these reasons they have been thought to reduce anxiety and stress, and to help people living with, amongst other things, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and loneliness to live mentally healthier lives. Countless animals, whether working as official support animals or otherwise, have changed the lives of their human companions, even saved them.

Growing up I had two dogs and I spent much of my spare time riding horses at a local stables. Our dogs sadly passed away, and new chapters of my life took me to university and a job in London so horse riding became a thing of the past. I don’t think I fully appreciated what my four legged friends did for my mental health at the time, but I certainly missed them and their impact on my life when they were no longer a part of it. When I struggled with my mental health a few years ago I found myself reflecting on the time I spent with dogs and horses as a child, and wondered whether I was in need of a bit of animal therapy.

Exploring the bluebell woods of the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate with Olive

Sadly my life in a garden-less flat in London isn’t particularly conducive to owning a dog, so I had to seek out the next best thing. From time to time I would borrow my sister’s dog Olive, and take her for walks that would not only clear my head but also provide me with the kind of unconditional love and lack of judgement that I craved. A day spent with Olive was never a bad day, and I owe her much more than the long walks and dog treats that I gave her. Although she did get some rather luxurious dog shampoo out of it too.

l hadn’t sat on a horse for the best part of 17 years, and wondered if it was possible to gain anything except fear and apprehension from getting back in the saddle. I nervously booked myself onto a ride at the start of 2017, which could’ve gone one of two ways. But being around horses again instantly brought me a sense of calm, and an unspoken connection and understanding that can be hard to find in our daily lives.

Connecting with horses and with nature whilst working at Estancia Los Potreros, Argentina

Horses are now a huge part of my life, and have taken me to some incredible places. I’ve ridden them through the Welsh hills, raced them across the Mongolian steppe, had jaw dropping game sightings from horseback in South Africa, and most recently been immensely privileged to spend four months working with them at Estancia Los Potreros in Argentina. They’ve brought smiles to my face, and caused tears of joy to run from my eyes as I’ve galloped into the wind leaving behind the things that are weighing me down. They’ve known when I’m sad or when I’m heartbroken, and when I need them to just be there. They’ve taught me to listen to them, to trust their judgement, and to know when to listen to myself and to trust my own. And they’ve allowed me to get outdoors, to breathe in lungfuls of fresh country air, and to meet new friends from all over the world. I’m indebted to every single one of them all.

Whether it’s horses or dogs, cats or birds, hedgehogs or sheep, there are easy ways that you can incorporate animals into your life. If you don’t own a dog or cat, why not ask around and see if friends or family, or maybe even someone in your neighbourhood, needs help with theirs. Why not sit in the garden and admire the birds, or head to your local park or nature reserve. City and country farms are also a great place to spend time with animals and to connect with nature. Or you could sit in a cafe and stroke a cat, hedgehog or sheep while you drink a cup of Earl Grey.

Actor, one of the horses at Estanica Los Potreros, with whom I developed a special bond

Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental health. It’s interesting how people start to fidget and look uncomfortable when they hear those words, like they’re something to be scared of. No one wants to be associated with them, with their negative connotations which are weighed down by judgement and prejudice. It’s better to look away, to avoid the conversation, than to talk about mental health.

The reality is that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. Some of us have good mental health, and some of us have poor mental health. And many of us have a mixture of both, depending on what’s happening in our worlds at a given moment in time. So why are we so scared of something that we all have? Perhaps it’s because it’s something that, for many years, we haven’t really talked about and therefore don’t properly understand.

This week it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. So it’s the perfect opportunity for each of us to check in with our own mental health and that of our family, friends and colleagues, and to learn a bit more about mental health so that we can all get to a place where we understand it better.

Why not take a few minutes this week to ask yourself what your mental health looks like – is it good, or is it poor? And if you don’t like the way it looks, what can you do to change it?

Knowing where to start can be overwhelming, but there are countless resources that are available online which give advice and guidance on everything from stress to sleeping problems. You could also spend this week following a new Instagram account to get some ideas on how to better look after your mental health. Some of my favourites are MindMental Health Foundation and Time to Change, but there are many more – find one that has the right tone and content for you.

Instagram accounts, like that of the mental health charity Mind (@mindcharity), can be a great source of information and advice

You could also watch some of the programmes being screened by the BBC this week as part of their Mental Health Season, programmes which help us to realise that its normal to experience poor mental health and to better understand what its like living with a mental health problem.

But nothing beats talking. Maybe this is the week that you start a conversation with your friends, family or colleagues about your own and their mental health. You might realise that you’re not alone in the struggles you face, and that the people you thought may be quick to judge you are actually there to lend you their ear and to share their own experiences. Starting a conversation might end up with you getting the support that you need, or giving that support to someone who has needed it for far longer than anyone realised. We should be having these conversations 52 weeks of the year, but we’re not. If there was ever a time to start having them, it’s this week.

Speaking about mental health and mental health awareness in Libreria bookshop, London

A few years ago I was struggling with my mental health, and I started my own conversation with some of my friends. It wasn’t easy, but it was a first step in the right direction. And I never dreamed that that first step would lead me to where I am now. I spent last week and will also be spending this week standing at the front of a room of people, some of whom I know and some I don’t, talking about mental health and mental health awareness.

What the last few years have taught me is that talking about mental health is contagious – when one person opens up, so does everyone else. And that although that first conversation may be difficult, and you may try to talk yourself out of it for fear of being judged and ridiculed, subsequent conversations are always much easier.

So start that first conversation, open yourself up and be open to others. And together we can make the words “mental health” nothing to be scared of.