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Alternative highs

September 07 2017
Plants and trees produce chemicals that help us manage our stress levels © Pexels Plants and trees produce chemicals that help us manage our stress levels © Pexels
Raynor Winn met ex-offenders who went walking and found it saved their lives

Raynor Winn met ex-offenders who went walking and found it saved their lives.

I was at the lowest point, homeless, with no hope for the future when I decided to go for a walk. By the time I stopped 600 miles later, it had literally changed my life. Not only had it given me the space and time to come to terms with the life-changing events I had gone through, it had also given me a sense of inner strength that would help me rebuild my life. Walking such a long distance, with a rucksack on my back that contained everything I needed to survive, empowered me in a way that nothing else has.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one to experience this transformation when I met the project manager of ACE, a Caritas Care charity project, who was also walking the path with a very large rucksack on her back.

She described ACE as a ‘through the gate’ charity, which operates on a self-referral basis for prisoners from all over the country. The project prepares ex-offenders for release and supports them as they return to the community.

The charity is also the home of the Men After Prison group (MAP). The group is run by men who have lived through the issues that leaving prison presents and with the help of the ACE project, have worked through drug and alcohol dependencies and recovered to a point where they’re rediscovering life.

The men chose to begin a walking group, taking long hikes in the mountains of the Lake District.

This gave them time to walk and talk with others in the same situation, a space to think about new lives and ways forward, giving each other the support they needed to continue to strengthen their mental health and sense of well-being. So much so that ACE could see the power of this form of green therapy and developed it into yet another one of the charity’s projects: Alternative Highs.

ACE trained some of the MAP men to become mentors, known as the ambassadors, with the aim of working with young people from the most vulnerable estates, whose lives mean they’re at risk of falling into anti-social behaviour and drugs.

The MAP mentors, working with the partner charity 1 Life to Live, take the young people into the mountains and countryside. Through walking, kayaking and outdoor experience they show them how to find a new ‘alternative high’ and with it an alternative way of living.

But this is a two-way experience. Not only are the young people benefitting, but the ex-offenders too. By sharing their prison stories and the life experiences that brought them there with the young people, they’re helping to prevent those teenagers from making the same mistakes, while at the same time turning their most negative of memories into something positive.

So what is it about a walk in the wilderness that can change lives in this way?

How can putting one foot in front of another save people from the point of despair and turn ex-offenders into community mentors?

It seems too simple: after all, it hardly needs teams of specialists or expensive equipment, just a pair of boots and a green path. But scientists may be on the way to finding the answer to that. Studies have found that walking in the countryside is far more beneficial than in an urban setting, but why would that be?

It’s been known for a while that undertaking an activity in a green setting can be soothing, but it seems it can actually trigger a physical response. Chemicals emitted by plants, known as secondary metabolites, can cause our levels of adrenaline, the human stress hormone, to drop when we’re exposed to them.

And when the stress levels fall it becomes easier to find a way through the problems. So reducing feelings of anger, aggression, even preventing heart attacks.

Whatever the cause, in my experience the beneficial effects of a long walk in the countryside are undeniable.

After a few days of walking I found I was letting go of anxieties I thought I’d carry for a lifetime. An even longer walk can make you push your boundaries to discover that you’re capable of so much more than you thought possible.

It’s at that point, as I found myself, that your long walk can actually save your life. Or as one MAP ambassador, trying to explain the feeling of testing his own comfort zones, said: “It’s unbelievable, a real alternative high.”


Walking groups and outdoor activities

ACE at Caritas Care, Lancashire; 01772 732 313
Explore the countryside. Walking boots and waterproofs available on loan.

Barony Contact Point, Edinburgh; 0345 140 7777
Daily activities including a walking group every Tuesday and a swimming group every Wednesday.

Forestry Commission, UK-wide; 01420 526 191
Training and work experience in forest maintenance activities - good step towards a sustainable job.

Outdoor Muckers, UK-wide;
Funds support for training in outdoors careers/activities/pursuits for people experiencing homelessness.