Indoors finally got to me. My germaphobe and introvert side lost the battle. My garden is a sanctuary, but I needed to see different shades of green, and yellow and brown. Westonbirt, the national arboretum seemed a good choice – far enough away to have an air of having to travel, but close enough that I don’t feel I’m letting down all those that have fought the good fight over the last year. The last time we visited was for the overpriced and underwhelming autumn leaves spectacular. Whether we’d gone too early or left it too late, I couldn’t say, but, except for the liturgical colours in Acer Avenue, everything else was just a bit mottled and dull.
We arrived early and were welcomed with a blue sky crisscrossed with white streaks, remnants of braver travellers. It was one of those days that confuses the English. Bright sun, clear sky, a touch of frost clinging to the tips of leaves and blades, but the supercomputers at the Met Office had promised temperatures of 17°c by 11 o’clock. So, I opted for sandals and a t-shirt and put up with the goosebumps and odd looks for the first hour, before feeling smug as the sun gently warmed the earth and the over-dressers started peeling off their jackets, jumpers and scarves.
The site wasn’t busy but having spent so much time surrounded by minimal people, I felt over-crowded and started to dart off on the little side trails of Silk Wood, ducking under boughs and branches, avoiding nettles, and creating my own routes as and when the trees conspired to block my path. It was walking along such a diversion that I felt the urge to go barefoot and have a Pretty Woman moment. I’m not particularly spiritual but I find something changes in my brain when I remove my shoes and let my feet skin into the grass or mud or sand. It feels grounding, connecting, more natural than cramming your toes into leather, plastic or those awful old-fashioned walking boots – I don’t know whose feet they were designed for.
The lush, dewy path eventually came to the central trail that circles the arboretum in a quasi-figure-of-eight. It was dusty and covered with a layer of gravel, I had to decide if my soft, winter feet were ready for the challenge? I put a toe out, testing it as I would the sea in January. Not too bad, another toe or two, then the ball, arch, heel, sharp, sharp, sharp. My husband tells me off for swearing near a group of rucksack-laden walkers. Sandals back on, my feet felt miserable, confined in red patent leather and cork.
We walk across the Downs, towards the Old Arboretum, this part of Westonbirt, my favourite, it feels more fertile with great interwoven canopies providing year-round shelter. The miserable gravel path continues its trudge around and between the ancient trees, but there is much more grass, wide tranches of long, silky blades that haven’t been brutally slain as they would have been at a National Trust site. I scrunch my toes in the moulted skin of the Paperbark Maple, the bark so thin it disintegrates with the slightest touch.
Acer Avenue is a delight for the eyes, but it is dull for the foot. The starburst leaves of Japanese Maples cling to their branches and the ground is rather flat. More exciting are the surroundings of the Scots Pines, the spikiness of the fallen pines needles depending very much how long since they have fallen from their branches.
The Western Hemlock is a beauty. Wide and tall with great folds of bark, each thick enough to wedge my hands into. Old and new webs cling between the corrugations. The soil underneath is fine dirt, dusty and almost worn away in places, feeling as mature as the tree that stands in and over it. It clings to warm ankles and calves.
I walk back to the car bare-footed, begrudgingly putting my sandals on at the last minute, unsure if it’s legal to drive shoeless in England. My feet are dirty, with the odd scratch from a sharp pinecone or hidden twig, but I’m happy, I feel more relaxed than I have in many months. Perhaps I will start walking barefoot more often.