One of the reasons we encourage all our students to get outdoors is to connect to gathering ingredients for our botanical blends to make our bread. We mill the whole meadow to create our flour and so part of connecting to this is getting outside. We we always try to timetable in walking, because there are also the beneficial effect of moderate exercise. The health benefits are wide-reaching, enhancing our physical and mental wellbeing.
Pitsford reservoir is perhaps one of the most beautiful places to visit while you are here at The Sourdough School. I’ve been walking, cycling and sailing at Pitsford Reservoir since I was a little girl. It’s everything that you would want it to be. The water and surrounding countryside have this beautiful serenity. The colour of the reservoir when the sky is blue is dazzling, and on a grey day, there’s this incredible depth to the shades of green and grey in the depths of the water.
The reservoir is set in idyllic rolling countryside, nestled in among fields with hedges that roll down to the water’s edge. It’s a relaxing walk around the reservoir on some of the seven miles of marked trails, and there are plenty of benches if you like to stop and watch the world go by once in a while. The park is of special interest for bird watchers, there’s so much wildlife there if you take the time to look. You can also hire bicycles from Rutland Cycling (see link above) and enjoy the traffic-free trails.
Although it can be a little wild and blustery on a cold day, there’s something really good about getting out in some the fresh air, or even a little bit of drizzle to clear your head and connect with nature. Coming back into the bakery, you will really feel the warmth more than usual, and notice the smell of the bread. And you just feel better… there’s no doubt about it, you feel better for getting outside. There is also a growing body of evidence showing that exercise has positive influences on the gut microbiome.
Why do we reccomend walking?
What I find to be especially interesting, given my research into the role of the gut microbiome in health and digestion, are some new studies that suggest a physical activity, completely independent of diet, can alter the composition of the gut microbiome. These positive effects of exercise are shown in the increased production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and a more diverse gut microbial community. SCFAs are produced when fibre is fermented by microbes in our gut, and are known to be beneficial for health. They are an important source of energy for the cells lining the colon. For me, knowing that exercise alone can alter the diversity of your gut microbiome is a really great reason to get up and go out for a walk. One of the key things we’re doing when we make and eat sourdough is increasing the level of fibre, and the bioavailability of that fibre, in our diet. This makes me think there is a dual relationship between baking real bread to provide the fibre and getting outside for a walk. The two activities work hand in hand to increase the diversity of your gut microbiome and to nurture those microbes. All through doing something as simple as adding a 20-minute walk to your daily routine.
So, there’s evidence that exercise can be physically good for your gut microbiome, but also I think it has an amazing effect on your mental wellbeing. As a society, many of us spend a lot of time indoors, looking at screens. Whether for work or leisure, our phones and computers take a lot of our time and attention. But more and more psychologists are looking at the positive effects of getting outside into the fresh air and connecting with the natural world. Studies are showing that walking in the great outdoors could actually improve your short term memory. They are also finding that being outdoors has a de-stressing effect – there’s evidence it lowers cortisol, a hormone often used by scientists as a marker for how stressed you are. Then there are other studies showing that being outdoors can decrease your heart rate as well as your cortisol levels. There are many psychiatrists now using outdoor therapy as a way of lowering anxiety.
I’ve also read a really interesting study which showed significantly reduced inflammation, signs of stress, and a lowering of hypertension from being outside. When inflammation is going into overdrive, there’s an association with auto-immune disorders like IBS, depression and cancer. So again, being outside and enjoying some fresh air can potentially reduce levels of inflammation and fatigue. There are reviews of literature which strongly suggest that forest environments have a beneficial effect on human immune function too. As well as protecting you from stress and anxiety, there’s another interesting study suggesting that being outside could protect your eyesight too. The researchers looked at the eyesight of children who played outdoors and compared it with children who played mainly indoors. They found that those who regularly played outdoors had healthier eyes.
Ultimately for me there are other aspects that really drive the connection between getting outdoors for a walk and good mental and physical health home for me. I notice the difference when students put on their boots and coats and go out for a walk during the courses. The ones who take the time to go for a walk are better able to concentrate on the work we are doing when they get back. It has a restorative effect, clearing your brain after a long session of baking. A good walk outdoors gives you this ability to focus and concentrate. And, in turn, I guess that also helps us to be more creative. There is more research needed in this area, but it doesn’t take a scientist to tell me you need to get outside and benefit from the positive connection between green space, exercise and health.
There’s a natural surge when you see something beautiful in nature – it’s a natural boost to your mood. You can stand and just look at something and feel amazing. And I think Pitsford reservoir is one of those places where you can just stand, and breathe, and enjoy. It’s a very beautiful body of water, one of our greatest local assets. The reservoir is a 6 or 7 minute walk from the school, up a beautiful, leafy, green avenue of the most incredible beech trees. It really is worth taking the time to walk up there. On the first day we always try to put our walking boots on and have a wander up. And I like to encourage students, when they have a break after lunch, to go and walk along the shores of the reservoir. If you prefer two wheels to two feet, you can hire a bike and helmet from Rutland Cycling. The hire shop is a little over a mile away, and there are well maintained and signed tracks around the reservoir. My father, who is in his 70s, can do the complete circuit of the reservoir in 28 minutes… then he brags to us all for the next week about how fast he can manage it! I’m not suggesting that you have to race around the reservoir. Rather that you take your time and enjoy the experience. At a relatively relaxed pace it should take you about an hour to an hour and 20 minutes to cycle around the reservoir. You can cycle, you can walk or you can just stand and admire the view. There’s a café down by Rutland Cycling too, perfect for a good walk and a coffee.
It’s also possible to walk from the school, along the reservoir and on to Fleurfields Vineyard. The path leads from The Sourdough School, along the dam, up to Pitsford Sailing Club and then turns left up the hill. It’s about 1.2 miles from the school to the vineyard. A pleasant 30 minute walk with an interesting visit at the end.
Rutland Cycling at Pitsford Water: Brixworth Country Park, Northampton Road, Northampton NN6 9DG. Phone: 01604 881 777
The Willow Tree café: Brixworth Country Park, A508, Northampton NN6 9DG. Phone 01604 889343
We walk to the resevoir as we gather any seasonal ingredients to create our botanical blends and we recommend that you take some time to walk there during your fres time. It’s a lovely 6 or 7 minute walk to the water and less than a mile to the cycle hire shop and café. But if you’d really prefer to start your walk when you get there there are a number of local taxi companies:
KPD taxis – 01604 882798 https://www.kpdgroup.com/private-hire/
Amber Cars – 01604 232666 https://www.ambercarsnorthampton.com/
Ace Cars – 01604 719697 http://www.acecars4u.co.uk/
Bounds – 01604 626262 http://www.boundstaxis.co.uk/
Phoenix Class – 01604 222222 https://www.phoenixclass.co.uk/
And if you have your own car, there are details of car park locations and charges in the visitor information.