Squelching through mud and wading through water. Kick your shoes off for a sensory stroll along Britain's first reflexology trail.
I am standing on the threshold of Britain's first - and only - barefoot park. It's a sort of playground for feet, an unorthodox nature trail covered with a variety of surfaces; and, amazingly, it's meant to boost our health and vitality. The trail, one kilometre long, is in a partly wooded area in the Italian gardens of the Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.
“On a sunny day, it's hugely popular with children and families,” says Simon Johnson, the operations manager. It's too bad, then, that on the day I visit the rain is bucketing down and it's deserted, apart from two girls in cagoules sporting muddy limbs and wide grins, with their equally sodden but stoic grandparents. Inspired by their cheeriness, I roll up my trousers, remove my shoes - there are lockers here, as well as foot showers - and gingerly wiggle toes that are unaccustomed to, and a little anxious about, getting touchy-feely with nature.
The textures on the trail, to my mind (or should that be feet?) fall into two broad categories: those that feel good, and those that are high on the “yuck” and “ouch” factor. Into the former fall logs that massage my arches (bliss), a sloshy trough of water, timber slices laid out like Smarties, soft sand, hay, and a warm burbling stream. But the pine cones are too damp, I hate the way the mud oozes through my toes, and the pebbles and gravel are sheer purgatory - like hopping on daggers, lots of them.
It has taken me half an hour to walk the loop and when I've finished, my hitherto humid, trainer-clad hooves feel airy and refreshed, a bit like the rest of me. I could put the effects down to exercise and fresh air, but there's more to it than a shoeless tramp in the great outdoors.
Officially the trail is called a Barfuss Park. “Barfuss” is German for “barefoot”, and the parks are popular in Germany and Austria. Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian monk, developed the concept in the 19th century. He is the founder of a natural health system called Kneippen (pronounced knipen), a kind of waterborne reflexology. Kneipp believed that wading barefoot on wet grass or in shallow water stimulated the internal organs, strengthened the immune system and helped the body to heal itself.
Source - Times