A colleague once asked me what my ideal therapy room would look like. I visualised a very large, airy space, a pale colour palette, no desk, just a side table and easy chairs. And, of course, toys, art materials and a sand tray for the children. But the most striking feature was huge floor-to-ceiling windows, open (weather permitting) to allow the light and fresh air to flood in, while still maintaining safety and privacy for the client. I liked the idea of breaking out from the confines and atmosphere of a therapy room, giving my clients unlimited space and the freedom to express their feelings in a more natural environment.

This vision was far from my thoughts during my many walks on Exmoor with friends and family. But gradually the subtle effect of the wide open spaces on my companions’ states of mind began to resonate. I couldn’t help noticing how repressed emotional needs and anxieties frequently surfaced during our rambles. Unprompted, they inevitably began to share, became more open, even eager, to delve deeper and discuss their issues and problems. I was presented with a boundary issue, being too close to play therapist to my friends and family. However, I started to study this emerging phenomenon of openness, and willingly offered emotional honesty.

Was this happening because we were spending relatively long periods of quality time together? Was it because the natural surroundings cleared space to think and feel, away from the pressures of daily life and routine? Did the infinitely vast scale of nature put their fears and anxieties into perspective? Or maybe the action of physically walking relaxed and quietened the mind? I concluded that, in all probability, it was a combination of all these things.

Personally, I have always returned to walking on the moors whenever I need to emotionally replenish or process an issue from supervision, or my own therapy. Without question, I always return home feeling more at peace than I did when I started out, often having discovered a new insight around a troublesome issue. Then one day, after one of my walks, it hit me. In a flash, my imagined ideal therapy room gained a massive extension, totally free of charge: the great outdoors. The concept of Walk and Talk was born.

Healing space

My partner and I had owned a holiday home in the beautiful Exmoor village of Porlock for 18 years. But most of our time was spent working in London, where we both had a busy, full-time workload. Like most counsellors and psychotherapists, I worked in a variety of different settings. I was employed as a school counsellor in a primary school in West London, and as a staff counsellor in another school. Alongside this, I ran a growing private practice for all age groups. Whenever possible, I escaped to Porlock and, during this time, Exmoor offered me the healing space of its moorland, coast and woodlands, which was invaluable to my own self-care and replenishment. As much as I relished my work in London, I had always felt the pull towards Exmoor, and a longing to live and work there.

It was only when my partner was offered a job as head teacher in an Exmoor school, that the dream of living there full time finally became a reality. After all the usual performance of solicitors, admin and packing up, we moved to Porlock with our two dogs. Having local knowledge of the area, and knowing quite a few people in the nearby vicinity, made it easier to set up a private counselling practice. In conjunction with this, it was now possible for me to introduce the Walk and Talk experience to my clients.

I set up Walk and Talk, offering three-day blocks of short-term work to clients. This comprised one initial assessment session in my therapy room (which, it has to be said, was rather smaller than my original grand vision). Here, the client and I could build an initial working relationship and explore some themes to work on. The following day we would meet for an hour and a half for a one-to-one walking session on the moor, riverside or coast. This was followed on the third day by another hour’s walking session. Initially, I ran these sessions over weekends, from Friday to Sunday, but it soon became clear that I would need to offer sessions midweek too.

Unexpected revelations

So what’s so different from walking on the moors with a client than sitting in the therapy room? In my observations, there are many unexpected revelations. Freedom from the restraints and the predictable atmosphere of the therapy room encourages a more flexible and creative approach, from both client and therapist. I soon discovered I could use natural objects found on our walks to tap into the client’s subconscious inner world. Objects such as pine cones, leaves, pebbles and odd-shaped trees, replaced the small basket of stones that I used in the therapy room, for clients to illustrate and describe themselves, or significant people in their lives.

Various sensory advantages also became apparent. Take the silences that inevitably occur during an indoor therapy session, which, although often productive, can make clients feel awkward and apprehensive. In the outdoors, the natural silence is broken by birdsong, the rustle of trees, the sound of footfall, all of which are less threatening and more inducive to productive and creative thinking. Or take the issue of eye contact, which again can be a problem for many clients in a therapy room situation. When we’re walking, eye contact isn’t always held as we speak. For starters, we have to watch where we put our feet, or our eyes are simply taking in the beauty of the environment. Somehow, the broken eye contact doesn’t affect the therapeutic connection between client and therapist in this setting. We remain connected by what we hold in our awareness of our natural surroundings. Having said that, there are times when closer eye contact is appropriate and it feels right to stop and sit by a stream or in a wood to focus, or take time to recap on the work so far. As I explain to clients at the outset, when it's needed, our sessions may run over the set times.

I soon realised that walking sessions could feel more intimate in many ways, with naturally occurring points of closer connection between client and therapist. I’ve had to share a spare waterproof jacket or hat when the weather has taken a turn for the worst. Simple things, like offering my client a hand to cross a stream or a fallen tree on our path or offering my shoulder as a prop when they’re climbing across a style. And it seemed more acceptable to scrabble around in my pocket to offer a clean but crumpled Kleenex when the need arose; so much more personal than the obligatory tissue box ominously poised on the therapy room table.

Ethical issues

The issue of physical contact between counsellor and client has long been a matter of heated debate, and presented me with an ethical dilemma to work through in supervision. I decided that it was more important to offer to assist my client, and give them the choice of accepting my helping hand, or not. This allowed a greater opportunity to work with the transference and countertransference in our relationship. Although my modality is mainly integrative, I found this to be a very person-centred way of working. I had to take into consideration how it would feel for a client if they got upset or found themselves sitting with a strong emotion, out in the open. Would they feel exposed and worry about the possibility of a passer-by observing their distress? Luckily, the moors are vast and scantily populated, so it’s possible to choose a route where you rarely meet other walkers, even in the summer months. A private space to sit can usually be sourced quickly, and the emotion held and worked through.

Walking on the moor is never the same from one day to the next. Firstly, the wildlife on Exmoor can sometimes surprise: herds of wild red deer, Exmoor ponies, sheep and even the occasional adder on a path, not to mention the soaring birds of prey, changing flora and fauna and the insect life. Add to this the weather, which can be very changeable on Exmoor, and impact on the look and feel of the sweeping moorland vistas. Thanks to the infinitely rich tapestry of the environment, the Walk and Talk experience is, by its very nature, varied and invites interactivity. This creates unexpected situations, which often provide natural stimuli, triggering a whole array of emotions and memories. For one client, walking in the rain evoked strong childhood memories, which led to some really good work. For another, a young lone fledgling blackbird unleashed their deepest hidden fear of abandonment. For another, distant gunshot triggered the traumas of being engaged in active warfare in Afghanistan. This spontaneous reaction often led to my clients seeking the long-term work they had been avoiding, for fear of memories being unbearable to tolerate.

It goes without saying that I have to be fully prepared for every eventuality on our walking sessions. For safety, as well as insurance purposes, I've painstakingly planned and risk assessed all my routes. Also the fitness levels and health issues of clients need to be taken into consideration, in order to choose an appropriate walk. All clients are now required to fill out a health questionnaire when booking. And I have always held a current first aid certificate in case of any minor (or major) incident. The variable weather conditions also have to be considered when we choose our route, and clients need to be prepared for all weathers. The weather in the South West tends to be milder and we get our fair share of sunshine. But yes, we do sometimes walk in the mist or the wind and rain. Most of my Walk and Talk clients come from outside the local area. I link them up with various types of accommodation in the area. There is no shortage of places to stay around Porlock, from campsites and B&Bs, to pubs and country hotel accommodation.

The overall effect and success of Walk and Talk vary from client to client. But here’s just one anonymous reaction to the experience, printed with my client’s permission: ‘Like many people, I was hesitant to “bare all” and talk to a therapist. Somehow, being in the open air, surrounded by such beautiful scenery, made it feel less threatening. Not that I need have worried, as walking and talking with Laurence seemed so natural. It helped me to clear my mind and actually recognise how significantly my past issues were still affecting me. This realisation has helped me move forward and I will probably have more therapy in the future.’

Walk and Talk does not claim to replace conventional long-or short-term therapy sessions; but used selectively, and in conjunction, accelerates the process. I have found it to be a good way for clients to get their first taste of counselling, often presenting work-or stress-related issues that usually lead to deeper woundings and embedded patterns of behaviour. Knowing it’s a short-term piece of work somehow enables clients to dip their toe in the water for the first time. Many have reiterated that not being enclosed in a room with the therapist sitting opposite was what drew them to the challenge of trying the work.

Due to the positive progress made with many of my clients, I am now beginning to think about offering Walk and Talk as a supervision session for other therapists. If the stimulus of such a stunning natural environment can free the mind and enable creative thinking in clients, surely it would add an intriguing and enlightening slant to supervision?

As well as Walk and Talk sessions, Laurence Rowlands offers one-to-one counselling to adults, and specialises in school and private counselling for children of all ages. www.laurencerowlands.counselling.co.uk