Acquapendente to La Storta

Walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and edging in on Rome

180 kms – 8 days

I’d been walking in Lazio for less than two days, and the rolling, golden hills of Tuscany already felt like a lifetime ago. Lazio was lush and green, the slopes of its once-upon-a-time volcanoes covered in dense forest. The tourists of Tuscany where nowhere to be seen, and were replaced with farmers on aged tractors. Farmers not unlike my ancestors, who hailed from this corner of Italy. Over the coming days I would stray from the Via Francigena and venture to their hometowns, walking the paths they once used to walk. My entire journey through Italy has felt like a sort of homecoming. But my real homecoming was here, in Lazio.

Olives ready to be picked

My first detour took me through clouds and farmers’ fields as I climbed high and crossed in to Umbria, heading in the direction of a small town called Castel Viscardo where my late Nonna, Dina, was born. Cars stopped me as I walked, their drivers puzzled by my presence. They asking where I was going, and if I’d lost the path of the Via Francigena. They asked if I wanted a ride, but when I explained why I was walking to Castel Viscardo they understood. They nodded, shouted “Complmenti!” and drove off into the rain.

Arriving in Castel Viscardo, Nonna’s birthplace

I last visited Castel Viscardo in 2016 with Nonna, when we were holidaying in the area and decided to take an afternoon drive and a trip down memory lane. This time around I spent some time visiting the church where she was baptised, and the Commune (town hall) to explain that I had walked from London and was after a stamp for my pilgrim’s passport.

Castel Viscardo is a very typical Italian town

Heading back towards the Via Francigena I snaked through dense forests where gun shots filled the air. It was hunting season, and every man in Lazio seemed to be on the look out for cinghiale, wild boar. Italians take their hunting seriously, dressed head to toe in camouflage and some also driving camouflage trucks. Showing off the fruits of your labour is taken pretty seriously too. I was sat in a bar in a small town, refuelling on pastries before walking the rest of the day’s kilometres, when a man parked up outside. Everyone in the bar flocked to the street as he pulled dead animals from his boot and passenger seat, proudly displaying them on the tarmac.

Walking past farms in this part of the world can be a hazardous business. Sheep and property are guarded by Maremmani, Maremma sheepdogs. I remember some years ago visiting my Mum’s uncle, Serafino, and thinking that his big, white, oversized Retriever was adorable. But the working Maremmani are far from friendly. I’ve been chased and barked at when my path skirted the land they are protecting. But my heart was well and truly in my mouth when, spotting a pack of seven Maremmani in the distance, one raced after me and followed me down the road, barking and snapping at the air around my ankles. A passing Fiat Multipla, of all things, came to my rescue, tooting it’s horn and giving the dog something else to bark at.

Lago Di Bolsena

Taking a steep and muddy path through the trees, I got my first glimpse of Lago di Bolsena. Its glistening water and familiar outline brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been coming to the lake since I was a babe in arms, and have many happy memories of times spent there from my childhood through to a holiday earlier this summer. It is, for me, a place that feels like home. And it felt utterly surreal to know that I had walked there from my other home in the UK.

Lago di Bolsena is the largest volcanic lake in Europe and reaches depths of over 150 metres. It’s two islands, Isola Bisentina and Isola Martana, have been inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, have passed through the hands of royalty, noble families, and popes, and are now privately owned.

The view from Bolsena’s castle
A quiet street in Bolsena’s old town

Although I’ve been coming to the lake my whole life, I’m not particularly familiar with its northern shore. The Via Francigena took me to the town of Bolsena, which is famous for a miracle that occurred in the 13th century. I wandered around Bolsena’s churches, explored the nooks and crannies of its old town, and took in the lake views from its imposing castle. And I sat on the lake shore, too cold to take a dip but warm enough to eat a gelato, and looked across to the town of Capodimonte which I escape to every summer.

Sunset on Lago di Bolsena

I set off on another detour from the Via Francigena, towards the place my Mum, Luciana, and my late Nonno, Marino, were born. I cut across farms and wandered down dirt tracks. During WWII Nonna was walking this route with one of her brothers, Dario. They were fired at by a British plane, but neither of them were harmed. However their father, who heard the gunfire from their family farm, had an anxious wait to see if they would both return home.

In the middle of nowhere an old lady appeared, surrounded by a harem of dogs. She told me that I was going the wrong way, and directed me towards a path that cut between some olive groves. I took her advice and went off on my way, but sadly after a few hundred metres the path was totally overgrown – I’m not sure she had walked it in recent years.

Eventually I arrived in the town of Bagnoregio, where my Mum was born. I visited the Cattedrale dei Santi Nicola, Donato e Bonaventura, when Nonna and Nonna were married and my Mum baptised.

Inside Bagnoregio’s Cattedrale dei Santi Nicola, Donato e Bonaventura
Stunning Civita di Bagnoregio

A short walk outside the town is one of Italy’s truly remarkable sights, a place that I’m fortunate to have a personal connection to as its where Nonno was born. Civita di Bagnoregio is an island village, seemingly stranded in the Calanchi Valley and accessible only by footbridge. Once connected to neighbouring Bagnoregio by land, earthquakes and erosion have led to its current isolation. But there is an upside to isolation, as a visit to the village has the feel of going back in time.

I’ve visited this special place many times, but I’ve never stayed the night. It was one of the biggest treats of my walk to Rome to have the place to myself after the day trippers had gone, to wander the streets and for it to be so quiet that I could hear a woodpecker working away on a tree in the valley below, and to see a sky full of stars when the village turned in for the night.

Civita di Bagnoregio’s San Donato church, where Nonno was baptised
All is quiet after the day tripper have gone

Crossing the footbridge back to the mainland, I meandered along country roads back to the Via Francigena. Farmers were busy picking grapes, and there was a smell of wine in the air. In the distance I could see the hilltop town of Montefiascone, famous for once being the summer residence of popes and for its Est! Est!! Est!!! wine.

Montefiascone’s Basilica Santa Margherita, looking out over the volcanic hills

The dome of Basilica Santa Margherita, one of the largest in Italy, dominates the town’s skyline. Nonna never set foot in the Basilica her whole life, being somewhat afraid of how it towers over you when standing at street level. In recent years she expressed an interest in visiting it, but we didn’t manage to take her before she passed away. So on arriving in Montefiascone I headed straight for the Basilica, and took a moment to enjoy it’s beautiful frescoes and huge dome for Nonna.

The dome of Basilica Santa Margherita

Being so close to Rome, there is a temptation to wish the time and kilometres away. There is an eagerness to get there now. And there is the temptation to see the final stretch as a chore, something that just needs to get done. But my days walking through Lazio have been full of adventure.

The historic city of Viterbo was full of medieval houses and bell towers, and its surrounding countryside dotted with hot springs that helped to soothe my aching bones. I felt like Indiana Jones as I walked through the Cava di Sant’Antonio, an Etruscan road carved out of volcanic tuff, with walls rising up to 10 metres high. The forest floors were covered in a blanket of lilac cyclamen, and I stumbled upon countless people searching for porcini mushrooms.

Viterbo’s old town
Visiting the hot springs outside Viterbo
Walking through the Cava di Sant’Antonio

I walked through endless olive groves, flourishing in the black, volcanic, sandy soil. For days I got lost meandering through huge plantations of hazelnut trees. Squirrel like I collected fallen hazelnuts and walnuts from the ground, and munched on them as I continued my journey south.

A Roman road leads the way through olive groves
Hazelnuts!
Harvest time

With less than 100 kilometres to go, the Via Francigena still had some gems up its sleeves. The towns of Capranica and Sutri, perched high on volcanic tuffs, were full of narrow, cobbled streets and weatherworn doors, lavish churches and busy piazzas, a Roman amphitheatre, and cave churches and tombs.

A quiet street in Capranica
Sutri’s Roman amphitheatre
One of Sutri’s busy piazzas

Rome is now within spitting distance. Less than 20 kilometres away. Tomorrow I will walk into the Eternal City, and the Basilica di San Pietro and the Coliseum will tower over me. I don’t know how I will feel. No doubt I’ll be a mixed bag of emotions – elated to have arrived in Rome, in disbelief that I walked every step of the way from London, and saddened that my journey is over. But today I feel excited. Tremendously excited.

Throughout Lazio cyclamen create a lilac blanket on the forest floors

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. Last week I featured in the Metro’s “Strong Women” column. You can read the article, and my thoughts on mental health awareness, here. If you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.

Avenza to Acquapendente

A journey through the heart of Tuscany

295kms – 15 days

Refreshed and revived after my jaunt to the Ligurian coast, I spent two weeks walking my way through the heart of Tuscany. My days were full of stunning cities and jaw dropping hill top towns, delicious regional cuisine, plenty of up and down, and, at times, hoards of tourists. Tuscany really is as beautiful as everybody says. But for me the gems were to be found in the lesser known places, where the locals still outnumber the tourists and where daily life isn’t disturbed by coach loads of day trippers. This “real” Tuscany is where the region’s beauty really lies.

Making my way south from Tuscany’s quiet northern frontier, I snaked through hills that were sandwiched between the Apuan Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. The mountains were topped with white peaks that could have been mistaken for snow, but it was, in fact, marble.

The marble facade of Massa’s Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Francesco

Since the days of Ancient Rome, Carrara marble has been used in countless sculptures and buildings around the world. It’s been carved into Rome’s Pantheon and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, Michelangelo’s David, London’s Marble Arch, Washington D.C.’s Peace Monument, and Abu Dhabi’s Sheik Zayed Mosque. The quarries that I walked past have produced more marble than anywhere else in the world.

Marble was on show everywhere in Massa, especially on the Municipio (town hall) building

I passed huge blocks of white marble, sitting in factory forecourts like giant icebergs, ready to be shipped to their new homes in far away lands. But the Italians have also kept plenty of marble for themselves. In the towns of Avenza and Massa everything from cathedrals to park benches, statues to staircases, glistened a brilliant white.

The colourful and arty streets of Pietrasanta

This corner of Tuscany doesn’t just produce fine marble, it also has a long tradition of producing world class artists, particularly sculptors. For centuries the town of Pietrasanta has been a magnet attracting artists from all over the world, earning it the nickname “Little Athens”. Michelangelo came here to learn from the local artisans and to select the finest marble for his sculptures. And more recently the Colombian artist Fernando Botero and the late Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj have called Pietrasanta home.

Today Pietrasanta is an open air art gallery, with streets lined with permanent and temporary sculpture exhibitions that are sandwiched between traditional churches, palazzos, and bell towers. Countless studios and foundaries also dot the town, and are where artisanal trades continue to be passed down from generation to generation.

One of the many sculptures lining Pietrasanta’s streets

I walked through bamboo forests and climbed to the top of steep hills before following the River Serchio towards the walled city of Lucca. I’ve been wanting to visit Lucca for the best part of 10 years, and the Via Francigena took me right into the heart of the city.

With origins that date back to the Etruscans, Lucca oozes history, style, and tourists. It’s perfectly preserved medieval walls keep the bulk of the city’s traffic out, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to meander the tiny streets and alleyways. Traffic jams are, however, commonplace. And it’s all down to the shops which are ridiculously beautiful, the delicatessens which lure you in with their wafts of fresh truffle, and the gelaterias which are irresistibly enticing.

Bicycle traffic on one of Lucca’s streets
One of Lucca’s many gelaterias pulling in quite a crowd

Lucca’s piazzas were some of my favourite to date, lined with the stunning marble facades of Cattedrale di San Martino and San Michele in Foro, the townhouse where the great opera composer Giacomo Puccini was born, and countless bars housing weary tourists.

The intricate facade of Cattedrale di San Marino
San Michele in Foro

I spent my birthday walking in rain and thunder storms of biblical proportions. The soft red soil of the forest tracks that I slipped and slid along gathered on the soles of my boots, adding inches to my height. As the rain continued to come down, I took shelter in every village bar I could using my birthday as an excuse to indulge in pastry after pastry. And, after deciding to power on through the storm and arriving at my destination, Aperol Spritz after Aperol Spritz.

A misty morning in San Miniato
Dewy spiderwebs in the morning light

Mist and cloud swirled its way around the hilltop town of San Miniato, and hundreds of dewy spiderwebs lined my path through the Tuscan hills, twinkling in the morning light. I walked through olive groves and vineyards, and in the distance I got my first glimpse of the infamous skyline of San Gimignano’s medieval towers.

The medieval towers of San Gimignano

San Gimignano is an immaculately preserved hilltop town, with 14 of its 70 medieval towers still rising into the sky. By day it’s flooded with day trippers, whose accents drown out everything that is Italian about the town. By night it returns to its Italian roots, its piazzas gently humming with life and its streets a place where locals and tourists take a leisurely passeggiata. But my favourite time of day in San Gimignano was the early morning, when its streets were so quiet that you could say “Buongiorno” to every local that you passed.

Long days walking were rewarded with plates full of mouthwatering food. Linguine with tartufo (truffle), pappardelle with cinghiale (wild boar), the local pici pasta (which is like a thick spaghetti) with cacio e pepe (sheep’s cheese and pepper), pizza topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella, strong and tangy pecorino cheese and stale focaccia drizzled with olive oil. And, of course, plenty of gelato. I was getting tempted to keep walking beyond Rome so that I could keep eating. There surely can’t be a better country in which your daily activity requires you to hoover up calories.

Sunrise over a Tuscan vineyard

I started to pass through parts of Tuscany that were unfamiliar, parts which don’t steal the spotlight. Colle di Val d’Elsa took me by surprise with its beautiful medieval old town, with streets lined with world famous crystal glass workshops. And the seemingly fairytale setting of Monteriggioni, a tiny village surrounded by medieval walls and sitting high on a hill, was yet another delight.

The picturesque walled village of Monteriggioni

The place that totally stole my heart, though, was Siena. Within a few minutes of walking through the city’s gates it had claimed the title of my favourite city on the Via Francigena. Maybe even my favourite city in Italy. Sure, it has its fair share of tourists, but unlike much of Tuscany it still feels real. Siena has soul, a distinctly Italian soul.

A bird’s eye view of Siena

Siena is rich in history and tradition, architecture and art. Its iconic main square, Il Campo, overlooked by the Torre del Mangia, is the beating heart of the city, drawing people to it like a magnet at all times of the day and night. It’s the location of the annual Palio horse races, where the city’s 17 contrade, or wards, battle it out for the pride and the glory.

The Torre del Mangia, which rises above Siena’s Il Campo
Flags of Siena’s contrade fly proudly in the street

The streets are beautiful, tracing the rise and fall of the city’s hills, and are full of character, charm, and flags and plaques to remind you which contrada you are passing through. The Duomo di Siena is a masterpiece, it’s black and white marble stripes a patriotic nod to the colours of the city’s flag. The mosaics that line its floor are utterly remarkable, and only on display during the summer months. They took over 40 artists more than two centuries to complete, and are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And the pilgrim hall in the beautiful Santa Maria della Scala, where I would’ve been welcomed had I been a pilgrim in the Middle Ages, was equally as breathtaking.

The facade of the Duomo di Siena
Inside the Duomo di Siena
The pilgrim hall in Santa María della Scala

I reluctantly put on my walking boots and left Siena, hopeful that I would return to spend more time there in the future. My spirits were soon lifted, though, by the scenery and authentic towns of the Val d’Orcia, which stretches south from Siena towards Lazio. The landscape is truly breathtaking, and it’s easy to see why it’s been chosen as the location for countless films, including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. This is quintessential Tuscany.

There’s something about the way the light falls here, something truly magical. There is depth and detail, light and shadow. My mornings walking through this part of Italy were my favourite since leaving London. Every climb to the top of a hill seemed to take me to a place of beauty, with a foreground of vines and olive groves set against a background of Tuscany’s iconic cypress trees and lone farmhouses.

An early morning in the Val d’Orcia
Tuscany’s iconic cypress trees

I passed through utterly stunning towns and villages, none of which I’d ever heard of before and all of which lacked the hoards of tourists that I’d encountered further north. San Quirico d’Orcia had charming streets and a quirky sculpture park, and Buonconvento’s old town was like a place where time stood still.

A quiet street in San Quirico d’Orcia
An old townhouse in San Quirico d’Orcia

Vignoni Alto was little more than a hamlet, but it offered the most stunning views across the Val d’Orcia. And the hot springs of Bagno Vignoni, renowned for their therapeutic properties since Etruscan and Roman times, couldn’t have been more picturesque.

The view from Vignoni Alto
The 16th century bathhouse in Bagno Vignoni
Bagno Vignoni’s hot springs cascading down the valley wall

Tuscany is characterised by its hilltop towns, so it was fitting that a long day of climbing up and up, and further up and up, took me to my last stopping point before I entered Lazio.

Lazio, the home of Rome. Which meant that I was getting close. With somewhere in the region of 2,000 kilometres behind me and around 200 kilometres to go, a very surreal feeling was starting to sink in.

Leaving Tuscany and entering Lazio

As I crossed in to Lazio things started to feel familiar. The place names on road signs, the crumbling facades of buildings. The gritty reality of a world that isn’t picture perfect Tuscany. I’ve been coming to northern Lazio my whole life, as it’s where my Mum and her parents hail from. So although I was excited to be within spitting distance of Rome, I was just as excited to be walking through the land of my ancestors. And in the coming days I was to go on my own personal pilgrimage, away from the Via Francigena, to the places where they were born, where they were baptised and married, where they lived and worked the land. It was going to be an emotional journey, and I could feel the emotions starting to build.

A mural of a farmer, the lifestyle of my Italian ancestors, in Acquapendente

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. Thank you.

Pavia to the Mediterranean

Castellos and culinary delights en route to Tuscany

310kms – 12 days

Leaving the Vercelli rice fields and their mosquitos behind, I continued south through the fertile plains of the Po Valley, an area of approximately 46,000 kilometres that stretches from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea. From Lombardy I crossed into Emilia Romagna, nicknamed the “bread basket” of Italy and regarded by many as its gastronomic heart. Parma ham, Parmesan, and balsamic vinegar all hail from this region. And as I worked my way from one medieval town to the next, my reward at the end of each day came in a plate of delicious regional cuisine. It was the perfect way to refuel before crossing the Apennine Mountains and entering Tuscany.

A misty morning at Villa Litta in the town of Orio Litta

Medieval castellos dotted the landscape of fields growing tomatoes, corn, and everything in between. Some were crumbling and derelict, home only to squatting pigeons and swallows. And others were immaculately preserved and enjoying a second life as a museum. One had even been reincarnated as a law firm, quite unlike the law firm that I worked in once upon a time. But they all had something in common – they were huge, and surrounded by sprawling gardens.

A derelict castello that has seen better days

I walked my way to the River Po, which marks a huge milestone in a pilgrim’s journey to Rome. It’s a big deal because it involves trading two feet for another form of transport, a speedboat. For several decades Danilo Parisi, a legend of the Via Francigena, has recreated the role played by medieval ferrymen by helping pilgrims cross from one side to the River Po to the other. Danilo is larger than life, full of stories and jokes, and a guardian of the Via Francigena’s history. And he, of course, had the biggest pilgrim’s passport stamp that I’ve seen. I would put money on it being bigger than the one the Vatican will use for my final stamp when I arrive in Rome.

An early morning crossing the River Po
The ferryman Danilo Parisi stamping my pilgrim’s passport

Piacenza, which is overshadowed by Bologna and Parma as far as Emilia Romagna’s cities are concerned, made a colourful pit stop en route to the Apennine Mountains. Its piazzas were dominated by medieval palazzos, and a food and wine festival showcasing the region’s finest. Its churches had huge facades, octagonal towers, and quiet cloisters. And its streets were busy with fruit and vegetable sellers, classy boutiques, and stylish Italians who could’ve all been dressed by Piacenza local Giorgio Armani.

The facade of Piacenza’s Duomo
Fruit and vegetables for sale in Piacenza
The octagonal tower of Piacenza’s Basilica di Sant’Antonino

Days of torrential rain made for tough walking. Stepping stones that are normally straightforward became something more like an extreme sport. I hid out in village bars and drank cups of thick Italian hot chocolate, and took shelter in roadside shrines to eat my paninis stuffed with locally produced provolone piccante.

My route was dominated by towns beginning with “F” – Fiorenzuola d’Arda, Fidenza, Fornovo di Taro. Each had a local church with a pilgrim house, or ostello, in an unrivalled town centre location. I shared these ostellos with other pilgrims from all over the world, travelling on foot and by bike, each with a different starting point but most heading in the direction of Rome. And my room always seemed to be directly under the church bell tower, which ensured I was up early and hitting the road south.

The Municipo (town hall) in Fiorenzuola d’Arda
A Via Francigena mural in Medesano
A delicatessen selling locally produced Parmesan

Leaving the agricultural plains of the Po Valley behind I started my ascent into the Apennine Mountains, a range that stretches roughly 1,200 kilometres along the length of Peninsular Italy. The misty mornings and hazy sunlight gave the landscape the look and feel of a fine art painting. The mountain tracks were quiet, save for the odd peacock that crept up on me, and the villages full of old nonnos (grandfathers) and nonnas (grandmothers) sweeping their patios and tending to their window boxes.

Hazy morning sunshine in the Apennine Mountains

A rocky path took me up and down, up and down, through forests and tiny mountain communities, until I reached the quirky village of Cassio. I rewarded myself with a pizza topped with aged Parma ham and Parmesan, two of the region’s superstar produce, and enjoyed the mountain views from the comfort of a hammock.

An upcycled plastic bottle in Cassio

I went higher into the mountains, to the top of Monte Marino (989m) which was of special significance to me as my nonno was called Marino. From the summit of Monte Valoria (1,229m) the mountains stretched out to the north and the south, and I posed for a photo with three Italians who couldn’t quite believe they had met an English lady who had walked all the way from London.

At the summit of Monte Marino
Sweeping views from the summit of Monte Valoria

The road led me to the Cisa Pass (1,041m), where I marvelled at stained glass windows and sporting memorabilia from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and A.C. Milan sharing wall space inside the Madonna della Guardia chapel.

The view from the Cisa Pass
Reaching the gateway to Tuscany

Crossing the Cisa Pass I entered the Italy of everyone’s dreams, Tuscany. I would spend the next few weeks walking through this region that draws tourists from around the world, a land that I’m not particularly familiar with given that my Mum is hugely proud to hail from neighbouring Lazio. I was excited to visit Lucca and Siena, and the world famous Tuscan hilltop towns in between. But I was just as eager to discover the Tuscany that everyone else forgets about, the historic territory of Lunigiana which covers much of the region’s mountainous north. And what treasures I found there.

The stunning town of Pontremoli

Pontremoli, a stunning little town with a history dating back to 1,000 BC, is nestled in a fork in the River Magra and overlooked by its medieval castle. Its streets are lined with arty boutiques, wood panelled grocery stores, and bars that could be mistaken for churches thanks to their beautiful ceiling frescoes.

By day I sat in bars and watched people flow in and out of the town’s piazzas. And by night I sampled testaroli, a flat baked pasta that’s served with pesto. Not only is testaroli unique to Pontremoli but it is widely thought to be the first type of pasta, dating back to the Etruscan civilisation.

The colourful streets of Pontremoli
One of Pontremoli’s beautiful bars
The Baroque interior of Pontremoli’s Duomo

As I journeyed further south in to Tuscany I discovered countless other gems, some of which caught me by surprise having not noticed them on the map. This was the Tuscany that you don’t hear about – tiny hamlets with no tourists, distant colourful towns perched precariously on hilltops, and the dramatic outline of the Apuan Alps.

The tiny hamlet of Virgoletta
Virgoletta’s somewhat dated electrical repair shop
The hilltop town of Bibola
A misty morning in the shadow of the Apuan Alps

Walking through a dusty pine forest, the air started to feel fresh. I turned a corner, and there on the horizon was the Mediterranean Sea. It caught me off guard, and brought tears to my eyes and an enormous smile to my face. I had walked to the Mediterranean Sea! It edged closer and closer as the day went on, going from a distant horizon to the water lapping around my tired ankles.

Reaching the Mediterranean Sea

For years I’ve been saying that I want to visit the Ligurian coast. And there it was, just a stone’s throw away from where I stood. So I walked to a train station, which I would return to in a few days’ time to continue my journey to Rome. I headed a stop or two north, marvelling at how quickly I covered the distance that I’d spent much of the day walking.

I’d been warned about the crowds in Cinque Terre, a UNESCO world heritage site that is undoubtedly beautiful and deserving of the millions of people that flock to it each year. After spending weeks in quiet towns and sleepy villages, I wasn’t ready to be surrounded by tourists. So I made my way to a place that I’d come across by chance when reading an article online. A place that’s managed to escape mass tourism and retain its authenticity. And it ended up being one of my favourite places of anywhere in the world.

Tellaro is a picture perfect village in the Golfo dei Poeti (the “Gulf of Poets”), so-called because it used to be the stomping ground of Lord Byron, P.B. Shelley and countless other literary greats. Colourful houses tumble down the forest covered hills, sinking into the crystal clear azures of the Mediterranean Sea.

Jaw dropping Tellaro
The crystal clear waters of the Golfo dei Poeti

I swam in the irresistible water, indulged in multiple gelatos and delicious seafood, and strolled around the warren like streets in search of references to the giant octopus that, legend has it, once saved the town from pirates by climbing out of the water and raising the alarm by ringing the church bell. And I enjoyed a front row seat at some world class Mediterranean sunsets.

Tellaro’s warren like streets
An octopus door handle, a nod to the village’s legend that an octopus saved it from pirates
Boats stored in one of Tellaro’s cobbled alleyways
Aquatic street art

I think I could’ve stayed in Tellaro forever, living in a colourful house with even more colourful shutters that open out on to the sea. But my feet were getting itchy and the pilgrimage trail was calling. And after a short train ride I was back where I had left off, and I was once again walking my way to Rome.

Sunset in the Golfo dei Poeti

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. Thank you.

Guest Blog: The long and lonely road to owning your power by Sara Kassem

Please allow me to introduce my wonderful friend Sara Kassem, who has so very kindly written this guest blog for you all. Its thought provoking, rallying, empowering, and it’s something that many of us, myself included, need to hear.

Sara is a Clinical Therapist and Registered Social Worker in Toronto, Canada. She has a deep reverence and respect for the healing process, and believes the only way to do it justice is by really seeing it, in all its complex glory. She believes we shouldn’t hate or reject our darkness, but take a deep breath and walk into it with our flashlights in hand. We can’t heal a wound if we don’t look at it. We can’t mend an injury we don’t understand. And we can’t just close our eyes and pretend it’s not there. We can’t “good vibes” ourselves out of it. In this spirit, Sara’s goal is to help us hold hands and walk with courage through everything the human experience has to offer.

Over to Sara…

Like Saf, I believe I have a responsiblity to let people know they aren’t alone in facing challenges in life. Because sometimes it can feel like we’re the only ones struggling. Especially in the age of glossy social media, it can seem like everyone else has their shit together but us. We think, “No one else is this lost,” and we fall into a dark hole of isolation and loneliness. 

There’s nothing wrong with darkness, there’s not even anything wrong with hopelessness. And it doesn’t need more shame and judgment. It simply needs illumination, and a light shone on it.  When things go dark we must not hate the darkness, but find a light to turn on and say, “What have we got here?”

I met Saf in a dream-like time of both of our lives, living the beach life in a magical surfing town on the coast of Nicaragua in 2013. We have both since gone on to other journeys. Both happy and painful, short and long. But the greatest, scariest, loneliest, most fulfilling journey any of us will ever go on is the journey to really owning our power.

Owning our power means looking at what we’ve been through, naming the impact, witnessing the pain and taking a stand against the patterns we keep repeating that no longer serve us. It means saying “No” to being treated as an afterthought. It means saying “Yes” to the power of our own voice and hearts. 

Owning our power is critical now, more than ever. I had a client say to me in my therapy practice yesterday, “This is why I chose you as my therapist. Because you’re bold.” And I had the same thought I’ve had many times recently, “We don’t have time!” We don’t have time to not be bold and to play small. We don’t have time to be meek. We don’t have one more minute for one more morsel of unused potential.  

Not to be the wild, doomsday lady but have you looked at the world lately? We have children in cages. Daily murder sprees. Poisoned water. Missing and murdered indigenous women as a trend. Genocide of indigenous people in general. Naked and blatant White supremacy. Innocent Black folks being shot with impunity. Plastics falling from the sky in snow. Continued rape and violence against women. Sea animals full of party balloons and straws. People dying because they can’t afford medication. This list isn’t even exhaustive. We’ve also got a pathological blend of “every man for himself” and lethal apathy.

I read the most badass quote from Greta Thundberg, the 16 year old climate activist, who said,

“Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. And then I want you to act.”

And honestly girl, SAME! I wouldn’t say I want people to panic, but I do want to stress that now is the time to act. Hope and inspiration will not help the world. Healing ourselves so we can give the parts of ourselves that will genuinely help this hurting world is what we must do. 

I sit in empathy with my clients at the beginning of my journey with them, but you better believe that if I get even a whiff that you are ready to level up, I’m calling you off the bench! You better believe that if you have even a molecule of extra light that you are holding back because you’ve been conditioned to please, conform, be small, not make waves, I want to make it crystal clear that we need you! And we don’t have time to not have you!

But making this walk to your power is both scary and unappealing. One of the reasons is that it will disrupt the shit out of your comfortable life. You will lose people you once loved dearly. You will question everything you’ve ever known about everything. You will be in incredible pain. Often. You will upset people. You will shock people. You will appal people. They will accuse you of being extreme. “Isn’t this a bit dramatic?” they might ask you.

We are tribal animals. There’s nothing we love more than the status quo. Both personal and societal. In caveman days, sticking together meant staying alive. We still have these urges and concerns: “Stay together! It’s safe here where you stay quiet and in-line with the group!” So as we are about to embark on our journey to our power, the tribal part of us kicks in. And our voices to ourselves kick in. The Minimizer says, “This thing you stood your ground on isn’t even that important. Saying nothing would have been better. It’s embarrassing that you care,” and then the Catastrophizer says, “This will end in disaster! Do the easier thing.” And then the Fear will say, “Why are you doing this? It’s not worth it!” But it will be worth it. And you can thank those voices for trying to keep you safe, and then politely tell them that you’re doing it anyway.

It will be so, so hard but it will be worth it. Because you will start to understand that your voice has meaning, regardless of how it’s received. You will start to learn that you matter, independent of people’s judgements. You will start to hear your body erupt in cheers when you say “No” to something that compromises you. You will start to notice that pain and discomfort is just pain and discomfort, and if you did it before, you can do it again. 

And you will start to notice that the people who you thought were your allies, are not your allies. You will start to notice that some of the people that you thought accepted and loved you only love and accept one version of you. A diminished, palatable, compartmentalised version of you. And you will have to let them go because you are on a mission. Because we don’t have time! We need your light! But there is no light where there isn’t dark, because you wouldn’t recognise the sunrise if you didn’t have the night. Being comfortable in the darkness will be the greatest gift that comes from this long walk.

But then the allies you need will show up. The mentors you need will show up. Therapists, books, online workshops, community groups, new friends, new gurus, healers of all disciplines. You might never have known them. They might have always been around, but were waiting in the wings for this moment. For your decision to say, “Enough. I accept the call to be the most I can be.” 

Your allies can’t meet you on the path if you don’t lace up your boots and hit the road. It will be arduous. It will test you. You will wonder if you can do it. You will think it should take less time, be easier. But it won’t be. You’ll check your map. Multiple times. You will hate the shit out of your map. But you’ll get there. Stronger physically. Stronger emotionally.

But most importantly, like the monsters under the bed, if you don’t look at what you’re scared of you stay frozen, on your bed, hoping and praying for things to be OK until night turns to day. But if you get out of bed, lift up your bedskirt, you’ll see that…oh, it’s just a bunch of crumpled laundry and boxes that you’re storing, and it certainly doesn’t look neat and pretty but it’s OK that it’s there. And it’s also OK for you to take it out and to have a look. And it’s also OK to put it in the recycling if it takes up space in your life that you don’t have time for. Because, really, we don’t have time to keep the clutter of things that no longer serve us. We just don’t have time.

There is one final note I’d like to make. While I think setting boundaries, saying “No” and distancing ourselves from dysfunction is generally accessible to most, it’s not for all. And the deeper work of healing becomes even less accessible. I wouldn’t really be a Social Worker if I didn’t acknowledge that, for some people, life is far too oppressive, abusive, and precarious to do much beyond hang by the thread they are hanging by. The process of owning our power is not meant to be easy. It is meant to require sacrifice, stretch and reprioritising. However, that’s just an impossibility for some. Which makes our responsibility to our own work that much more important.

It’s like one of those seemingly unscalable walls in obstacle course races. Whoever makes it to the top has to reach down and pull the next person up. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe you got a head start. It doesn’t matter how much hard work or skill or strategy you had to use to get to the top. Just reach down. 

Imagine if you insisted on taking the time to let everyone know how unsure you are about helping them, because of all the things you had to do to get yourself to the top. It would sound ridiculous. Some people start the race a massive distance behind, due to institutional and structural brokenness. Some people don’t. Either way, imagine how preposterous it would be to stop the race to demand an explanation of why others didn’t get to the top as quickly or as gracefully as you. We’ve talked and talked about these things, and now we just need action. 

Life is an obstacle course. Humanity is a team. And we are in a race. Not even for a better world, but a world that survives. So just so we’re clear, the only acceptable thing to do when you get to the top of that wall is to turn around and pull the next person up. Period. 

Sara

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.

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.