‘I was convinced I’d visited magical, mystical woods before, even centuries ago’

It is a beautiful, crisp morning and as I push open the kissing gate to enter the woods I feel a familiar tingle of excitement.

I walk along a peaceful trail, hearing only the tchur-tchur of a woodpecker and crunch of frost beneath my boots.

And at a spot I have known for ever, I veer off the path and into the trees to visit my Ancient Watchers.

I’m near Chichester in West Sussex at a stunning National Nature Reserve where I first came walking with my family when I was just a youngster.

Although, even then, I had the strongest sense of deja vu.

I was convinced I had visited those woods before… perhaps many centuries before.

Because Kingley Vale has always felt like a magical, mystical kingdom.

It is home to one of the finest yew forests in Europe with trees more than 2,000 years old.

Pagan druids are said to have worshipped among them, Viking Warriors strode through their groves and their branches somehow survived the ravages of 14th century craftsmen making longbows for English archers.

Known as the Ancient Watchers, they are the oldest living things in Britain.

And as you stare up at their arching bows and touch their gnarly trunks, you can almost feel them throbbing with the wisdom of all that they’ve witnessed.

But it’s not just the yew forest that makes Kingley Vale such a spectacular place to walk.

The chalk grassland is home to a wealth of plants and animals with more than 50 species of birds, including woodpeckers, buzzards and red kites and 39 types of butterfly.

The reserve is also one of the most important archaeological sites in the country with 14 ancient monuments including a Neolithic flint mine, two Iron Age settlements, 19th century and WWII military firing ranges and many Bronze Age features.

The most famous of these are the Devil’s Humps, a collection of four barrows, or burial mounds, on the summit of Bow Hill.

They mark the high point of a 7km (4.4 mile) circular walk which should take you around three hours to complete.

From a car park in the village of West Stoke, it’s a 15-minute walk to the entrance of the reserve and you can then follow the Hidden Landscape Trail up to the hilltop.

It’s steep in places and not wheelchair accessible but most people will manage it.

As I’ve done the walk a few times before, I stupidly decided to go off-road, up a hill face to the Devil’s Hump.

But it was muddy and slippery and I took a few tumbles.

Which was a devil of a nuisance and gave me the right hump.

But it was well worth it once I made it to the top.

Because on this brilliantly clear day, I had the most breathtaking views across the South Downs to Chichester, Brighton and the Isle of Wight.

It was awe-inspiring and, for a while, it helped me escape from the stresses of our new normal and feel on top of the world.

Daily walks have been my lockdown lifeline, as they have for millions of others.

The fresh air and exercise gets my endorphins flowing and never fails to boost my mood.

But now scientists have discovered that taking a weekly “awe walk” really does improve our mental health.

Psychologists in San Francisco studied a group of hikers who’d been asked to go walking in new places, particularly ones that were vast, open and physically beautiful.

They reported increased feelings of wonder, gratitude and compassion and “a new perspective on their place in the world”.

I thought about this as I walked back down the hill and passed the Ancient Watchers who have known this place for 2,000 years.

And I remembered that yew trees also have the ability to go into lockdown when necessary.

If conditions are hard they enter a period of dormancy and preservation, ensuring their own survival.

But then, when the bad times pass, they start to grow and flourish again.

So, before I headed home I found my favourite old yew tree again and sat down at its base.

I closed my eyes, pressed my ear against its gnarly trunk and listened.

And I swear the wise old Watcher whispered, “This too shall pass”.