Once upon a time … there was a magical storytelling walk in a Sussex forest

It’s a sunny late-autumn morning in woodlands on the outskirts of Lewes, East Sussex, and I’m sitting under a beech tree having a story told to me. For an adult, this may seem like a slightly odd thing to be doing, but I’m on a storytelling walk with nature guide and tale-weaver Nana Tomova, and her mesmerising voice is transporting me to some faraway places.

We have wandered through forest to this spot, with Nana sharing her knowledge of mushrooms and trees. The surroundings add to the fairytale vibe: squirrels eye us unafraid, a robin perches on a log next to me – and even hops on to my boot for a moment.

We start with a Norwegian folktale – East of the Sun, West of the Moon – a kind of Beauty and the Beast yarn. Its message, of bravery, following your heart and being in communion with the elements, somehow suits the setting.

“Stories were originally spoken outdoors around the fire,” says Nana. “They come alive when told outside – it’s not the same indoors. People think oral storytelling is just for children, but it’s the way information and beliefs were shared and remains important for many tribal communities.”

Originally from Bulgaria, Nana came to the UK as a child. She is a trained pharmacist and became interested in the power of storytelling a few years ago. A guide, photographer and poet, too, she runs several Walk in the Wild events around Sussex.

During lockdown the focus is on one-to-one walks – rather than the usual small groups – and they range from a five-mile walk from Seaford Head with folktales related to the Seven Sisters cliffs, to a morning strolling the South Downs. Other elements are usually woven into the walks, too, such as creative writing and making art from finds in nature.

“When we slow down and connect to nature, people often find they can tap into creativity,” she says. “I might suggest writing a poem inspired by the feeling of the wind on their skin, or by the autumn colours. I’ve had blocked writers suddenly able to work again, and people writing their first poetry – it’s lovely to see.”

We wander deeper into the woods, passing a 400-year-oak, a majestic twisted hornbeam, and places where deer have grazed. By a makeshift den we stop for a poem (Sweet Darkness by David Whyte) and another tale, a story of freedom and dreams from Hungary.

Nana says her choice of story depends on the setting, the season, the group, or perhaps world events. “There are thousands of stories to choose from, passed down over centuries all over the world, which are still relevant today. I just have a feeling about what needs to be told.”

While the benefits of forest bathing and slowing down in nature have been well documented lately, hearing poems and stories outdoors adds another dimension. It’s relaxing just listening to the words, with the gentle babble of nature in the background.

In her role as a pharmacist, Nana works with mental health patients and sometimes puts her storytelling skills to use with them. She has recently launched a podcast – The Story Apothecary – that focuses on healing stories designed to ease anything from sadness to anxiety.

“Listening to stories can decrease agitation and soothe mental disturbance, so I started to offer it to patients and could see it sparked something. It’s definitely good for mental health. There’s something very human in telling these tales: it connects us to each other.”

My morning in the woods over, I go home feeling calmed. The tales and their messages play over in my head for the rest of the day.

Storytelling walks start from £22.15 for three hours, nanatomova.com

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