Get your socks off
Walking barefoot over different types of terrain is said to be beneficial to one's health. To test the theory, Alice Wignall braves the Barfuss trail - mudbath and all Alice Wignall Tuesday March 25, 2008
Guardian It is a cold morning in March and going to a wood in Stoke-on-Trent, taking off my socks and shoes and wading up to my knees in frigid mud is a prospect that appeals far less than the idea of, say, not taking off my socks and shoes and wading. Even the people who are supposed to be encouraging me aren't doing an entirely convincing job.
When I assure Michael Walker, gardens manager at the Trentham Estate, home to the UK's only Barfuss walk, that, yes, in the name of journalistic integrity I do intend to tackle the kilometre-long path, he yelps, "You're brave!" before registering my blanching face and quickly insisting that, "No, no, no, it's fine." Either to prove that it is, indeed, fine or to be on hand in case the Barfuss (for non-German speakers, that's "barefoot"), proves too much for my pathetic city feet, he ends up taking the plunge with me.
We're the first to do the walk this year. It opened for the season over the Easter weekend - a plan surely made before the "white Easter" forecasts. Since it was built three years ago at the estate (the redeveloped 750-acre grounds of a former stately home) it has proved one of their most popular attractions. "People come here just to do the walk!" says the aptly named Walker, as we divest ourselves of shoes and socks.
The idea of the Barfuss was imported by one of the investors in the private company that now owns the Trentham estate. "Willi Reitz suggested it," explains Walker. "He's German and lives in the Black Forest where there are lots of Barfuss walks. Willi likes them a lot and he was very keen that we build one here."
There is more to Barfuss than just going for an unshod tramp through whichever bit of wilderness you can lay your feet on. The concept was first developed by a 19th-century Bavarian priest, Sebastian Kneipp. He was one of the founders of the naturopathic medicine movement, developed a form of hydrotherapy and came up with the recipe for Kneipbrød, still the most commonly eaten bread in Norway. He also believed that applying your feet to a different range of natural stimuli would have therapeutic benefits. So on a specially-designed Barfuss you don't simply trudge over rather samey woodland floor. At Trentham, different stages of the walk present you with running water (pumped from the lake), stone and brick (from the remains of the old house), sand, grass, logs, planks, pebbles, flint, those knobbly paving stones you find near pedestrian crossings and - at the start - a mudbath the colour of dark chocolate. It's at this embarrassingly early stage that my first girly scream is uttered.
Putting your naked and vulnerable feet into something of uncertain depth and content is both an unnerving feeling and borderline pleasurable. Walker and Shaun Finney, visitor services manager at Trentham who helped build the walk, have a good laugh at my expense and assure me that there aren't hidden mud-monsters waiting to devour me from the toes up. "It's all sifted, this," says Finney. "Only the purest mud. Honest."
There is something pleasingly novel about bringing your toes into contact with things they have never encountered before. There is also no small measure of self-satisfaction involved, as you successfully navigate each stretch of sharp gravel or scratchy bark.
Mike O'Neill, a podiatric surgeon and spokesman for the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, says that walking barefoot is a natural instinct. "What's the nicest thing to do when you're on holiday?" he says. "Taking your shoes off and walking on the beach. We've been given feet to walk around on and it's what they're designed for. It's a positive and beneficial thing to do for your feet, because it's a different way of using them." Provided you don't suffer from foot pain or ankle, knee or postural problems, a walk like the one at Trentham should be within the capabilities of most people, he adds.
Not that it is easy going: at times I am reminded of childhood holidays on the south coast, most of which I spent complaining about how the vicious shingle of Eastbourne beach was too painful to walk on. But the pain is part of the gain. "We went to Germany to look at a few [established Barfuss walks]," says Walker, "and they are much more arduous than this one. After one particularly tough one I just thought, 'Never again!' but a few hours later my feet were tingling and I felt really good." He also reveals that Reitz, who is 75, declared the original Trentham Barfuss "a bit tame", so it's been toughened up for this year.
And after hobbling down the final strait, washing off the mud in the cold showers provided and drinking 14 mugs of restorative tea, my feet do feel remarkable, like living marble; heavy and strong at the same time. Once back inside their socks, they feel cool and polished and refined.
There's possibly even more to it than that. The beneficial effects on your whole body of stimulating your feet is the basis of the ancient practice of reflexology. In China, reflexology paths paved with different types of stone have been around for thousands of years and are regularly walked on for relaxation and to promote longevity.
Research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2005 showed that walking reflexology paths three times a week for 30 minutes a session over 16 weeks can reduce blood pressure and improve balance.
And I believe it, because after my own Barfuss experience I suddenly feel exhausted. Not the fuzzy tiredness of a day spent on trains and walking barefoot in the name of work but the helium-brained body and soul catatonia that I associate with the after-effects of a strong massage or hours of yoga. I don't know what it did; but it definitely did something. The next day I woke up serene, with mud still between my toes. I don't think it would take much persuasion to get me barefoot again, though it might need to be a bit warmer.