New Forest

In the New Forest with Hayden Bridgeman


Hayden has lead groups of up to 30 refugees into the New Forest National Park regularly since summer 2022, bringing great joy to many marginalised individuals and families. Through this work, she has formed strong bonds with local refugee charities, including Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group (SWVG), and is continuing to reach more people as she develops her project.

For this work, in 2023 Hayden was shortlisted for our New Perspectives Award as part of our 2023 National Park Protector Awards. In early autumn this year we joined one of her groups to learn more about her work and how it’s impacted the participants.


Hayden leading a group of refugees in the New Forest

Hayden leading a group of refugees in the New Forest

What motivated you to start these visits?

Whilst new to my role a few years ago I was struck by how many barriers there are for people to get from inner city Southampton to the National Park despite being so close in proximity. I was also struck by how the majority of people I would see in the Forest looked like me. I wanted to change that. I wanted everyone to be able to benefit from nature – nature is all of ours. We, as a society, are so aware of how crucial access to nature is to good mental and wellbeing and yet those that need it most are often unable to access it and I wanted to change that. I am aware my position as National Park Ranger and my access to nature is a huge privilege, and I wanted to help make sure I am using that privilege to help make green spaces inclusive to all and that everybody has the opportunity to reap the benefits of the natural world.

Refugee communities continue to be under such scrutiny and go through such adversity and I thought if we, as the National Park, can help in any way I wanted to make sure we were. Nature is there for me when I need it and I wanted to make sure everyone feels they can lean on green spaces when they need it too.

What do you think the impact of your work is?

I think it has a huge impact on individuals that come out into the New Forest. From seeing the smiles and hearing the conversations, to the next trips where we get a chance to talk about the nature near them or what walks they have now gone on and hear about how much nature means. To be respite for just a few hours from the uncertainty they face and be able to provide a fun, safe, welcoming place to be has a huge positive impact. For some it’s the only chance to leave the city centre or even their hotel and the charities say how they see a different side to people when they come to the Forest – relaxed, happy, comfortable. We get the same people coming back on different trips, as well as new, and word gets round and often have waiting lists for trips. We have worked with different charities over the course of the project and hope to continue to do so.

What’s your favourite experience/memory from the project?

There’s lots of favourite experiences/memories but for me what sticks with me is seeing everyone happy and smiling when they first get off the train or minibus and into nature. To see people relax and get excited about a particular tree, or mushroom, or animal. That’s what it’s about and what sticks with me, sharing nature with each other and being able to enjoy it however you want to.

The city is not real life, nature is where I feel alive. It’s so calming, I feel free like the ponies” – Mex, walk participant

What are your aspirations for the project?

  • To have an apprentice from a refugee/asylum seeker background
  • To have a ‘bank’ of clothing/equipment for groups to use when out with us EG. wellies, raincoats
  • To train up members of the charity that want to lead their own guided walks for the group

Walks outdoors are good for participants’ mental health. Often they have little to get up for and regular trips and plans are good to add structure and enjoyment to days. There are few opportunities to connect with nature in the centre of Southampton in the same way as in a National Park. Many have difficulty accessing public transport (to reach places like the forest themselves) because of cost and not having their own money, so trips like this one with Hayden are really valuable.” – Lea, SWVG volunteer

Participating in the walk showed how National Parks can be there for people during tough times and how important access to them is for groups like refugees.