Sometimes it’s easier to jump than slowly paddle in…(Picture: Miranda Larbi)
There’s nothing like sitting on a long train journey… only to remember that you left your phone charger behind.
You start doing mental gymnastics trying to work out how long battery-saving mode might prolong the phone’s life, and how socially acceptable it is to borrow other people’s chargers in the age of coronavirus.
I realised my grave error just as my train left Paddington Station on a nearly five-hour journey to Truro. The next three days yawned ahead like a misty No Man’s Land with much reduced access to vital WhatsApp and Instagram scrolls.
When I finally arrived at Thera-Sea down in deepest, darkest Cornwall, however, something weird happened.
I looked at my phone (now on 60% battery saving)…and turned it off.
And it remained switched off until I got back to London three days later. And that was with the offer of a charger.
Thera-Sea isn’t a retreat.
It’s time to appreciate nature (Picture: Miranda Larbi)
It’s hard to know what the right word is for it. The brainchild of Katy Griffin, a former clinical mental health nurse who now specialises in helping stress-heads recharge, relax and rewild, it’s an experience that seeks to calm the mind, re-energise the body and help to reevaluate what really matters via wild swimming, water sports, foraging, open fires, yoga, workshops and more.
It’s the kind of place that you go to not realising just how stressed out, anxious and overwhelmed you really are until you arrive.
Certainly, I turned up hoping at best for two nights of proper sleep (I live on a main road in east London) and a bit of fresh air. By the time I left, I realised that I had needed and received so much more.
Katy works as part of a trio of outdoor heroes, including Mark – the Northern Irish Ray Mears who doubles up as a watersports instructor and lifeguard, Adam, AKA The Aussie Smoker (the weekend’s brilliant cook), and Matt, the forager.
Thera-Sea isn’t a retreat in that it’s not all about relaxing and being pampered. In fact, there’s no physical pampering beyond the fact that there are steaming hot showers, roaring fires and really cosy bedrooms.
If you want to go away for a weekend of massages, booze and light chitchat, go to Champneys. If you want to break your hyperconnectivity habit, rewild yourself, and re-engage with your natural environment and other people while having a bloody good laugh, go to Thera-Sea.
There are umpteen retreats run over the course of the year, but it’s no coincidence that the October Thera-Sea retreat always falls on World Mental Health Day.
I arrived on a Friday afternoon, somewhat muddle-headed after the early train to find the camp in full swing. An ample lunch of various salads and a huge vegan sausage were waiting before the first workshop was underway. These workshops, run by Katy, are a daily feature and take you through the various elements of wellness that many of us neglect.
(Picture: Miranda Larbi)
Day one was about spotting the signs of chronic stress. As someone who has had stress-induced pancreatitis, I was interested to find out that I’d missed about 20 signs of physical stress before ending up in A&E last year.
The following sessions went through sleep, nutrition and relationships, with the group discussing ideas about getting the most from our chosen love languages, barriers to personal success, and sleep resolutions.
Needless to say, there were tears, laughter and more than just a few lightbulb moments.
But that’s about as ‘therapy-ish’ as Thera-Sea gets, in the sit-down-and-think sense. For me, the real therapy happened in the water.
Water plays a massive part in the Thera-Sea ethos – hence the name! (Picture: Miranda Larbi)
I love swimming and messing around in water. I take my baths and showers scorching hot and come the summer, you’ll find me bobbing around in some cool lake or river before coming out to bake in the 35 degree heat. So when I was told to jump into a freezing cold, salty lagoon in what can’t have been more than 10’C outside, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit.
Never one to lose face, in I jumped. For a brief moment, I thought I was having a heart attack but following Katy’s advice to breathe deeply and continuously, the stabbing sensation melted into one of bizarre calm. Once you concentrate on staying alive and breathing, everything settles down – you don’t feel that cold, you feel calm, soothed, and as if you could swim and swim.
The second morning, I swam for about 20 minutes so that I could bask in the beauty of the bay. Even the local friendly seal, Seamus, came to play for a few minutes. What a way to wake up in the morning!
Mercifully, the retreat has hot showers and kettles so I was able to coax my fingers back to working order before too long.
When we weren’t swild swimming, we were paddleboarding to other parts of the bay – battling the wind for the promise of Katy’s cacao bliss balls. It was decided by that point that it’d be rude to paddle on by without securing our boards to a pontoon and jumping off for another good splash.
(Picture: Miranda Larbi)
The water aspect of Thera-Sea is important. Swimming forces you to meditate, to breathe slowly and deeply, to embrace pain and acknowledge that discomfort is temporary. Being somewhere between retreat and adventure weekend, it also pushes those of us who don’t live by the coast to go a little outside our comfort zones.
You don’t have to be a good swimmer to reap the benefits of cold water therapy; simply getting in and dipping your body is good enough.
In fact, I’d argue just being in that place (on the River Fal) – the perfect combination of blue and green space – is enough to start the healing process.
(Picture: Miranda Larbi)
When you go away to somewhere like this, there are two things you need to ascertain first. Number one is the accommodation, and number two is the grub.
I stayed in a pretty little Shepherdess Hut situated on the edge of the dwelling – far from the madding crowd. While most guests are concentrated in the main house (where there’s a communal living room with a fire), some of us were dotted around outside in lovely cabins.
I couldn’t have been more snug or had a much better view of sunrise over the treetops as I did from my bed… although I was slightly jealous of the couple who were camped out in the spectacular treehouse that looked as if it’d been plucked straight from a Brothers Grimm tale.
The food was incredible (PIcture: Thera Sea)
The food was just something else. I’ll just say this: it’s rare to find someone who cooks vegan food with the same passion and expertise as meat and who makes such good plant-based food that those of us who are vegan don’t feel like we were an after-thought.
Thera-Sea caters for all dietary requests, with a few of us being gluten and dairy-free, and me needing the whole plant-based shibang. Adam treated us to vegetables in a hundred ways – coconut rices, cabbage delights, carrot and ginger plates, homemade baked beans, grilled cinnamon pineapple – everything made fresh and if cooked, done so on the smoker. I had my own plates of sausages, patties, tomato stew, smoked mushrooms while the others tucked into chunks of freshly smoked salmon, ladles of shakshuka and BBQ chicken. It was sublime. I need Adam to hurry up and make a cookbook.
But perhaps the best meal we had was the last one, in which Adam barbecued the beefsteak mushroom we’d foraged the day before.
Matt is something of a woodland legend. Starting at the main house’s door, we found plantain leaves to quell bloated stomachs (reader: they work), fresh samphire on the beach and edible mushrooms.
The biggest and most impressive was this beefsteak shroom – so called because it looks and feels like a solid piece of meat. The top is covered in this red sort of jelly and the underbelly has an odd texture singularly unlike that of a mushroom. Once chopped and grilled, it seemed even more like steak. It was truly delicious.
Behold the beefsteak mushroom (Picture: Miranda Larbi)
From the sounds of this, you might still be thinking that Thera-Sea is a bit airy fairy. Ooh, look at these people splashing around, eating mushrooms and talking about their feelings, you might be muttering. And while you wouldn’t exactly be wrong per se, there’s still slightly more to it.
When he’s not lifeguarding, teaching watersports or training folk up to be paddleboard instructors, Mark is out leading survival courses. Mark taught us so many things (like how not to fall off a paddleboard) but undoubtedly the most useful was how to make a fire from scratch. And just to make it a little more spicy, he split us into teams in a race to the best and longest-lasting flames.
My group came an honourable second place, having got started first – so let that be a lesson to you: the first flame doesn’t always last the longest.
You want to gather your dry wood (your baby twiglets, medium twigs and big branches) and have it all laid out and sorted before you light anything. We were given cotton wool but I’m told that the army uses tampons as a shortcut for making fires.
In the real wild, you’re looking for dry moss instead. Stick your cotton or moss on the ground and using a flint device or lighter, spark it up and quickly get your twiglets on the flames, creating a square shape around the cotton. Once they’ve caught light, move onto your bigger twigs – ensuring that the flames have plenty of oxygen to grow. Finally, move onto the bigger sticks.
We were taught how to start fires in the wild (Picture: Miranda Larbi)
Over the course of the weekend, we’d learnt to find our own food in the woods and how to make a fire on which we could cook our foraged finds.
It’s hard to pinpoint what Thera-Sea is but one thing’s for certain: I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay for at least another few days – if not longer.
The work you do there feels like only the very beginning but it’s enough to make positive changes back home. A week later and I’m still trying to choose foods that are made from five ingredients or fewer, turning off my phone at 9pm and not engaging in social media until I’m up and out of the house in the morning. My sleep is better, my concentration more solid and my gut is less bloated.
Perhaps I do need help – I’m contemplating going back in the depths of winter to test my resolve in that river again!
The practical bit
Thera-Sea, off-grid rewilding retreats
Prices for a place on the 2-night retreats start from £315, per person sharing.
The Shepherd’s Hut (sleeping two) costs from £870 per person, based on two people sharing.
The retreat is running on 6-8 November 2020 and then recommence in 2021 on the following dates: 19-21 March, 23-25 April, 18-20 May, 22-24 June, 10-12 September, 5-7 October, and 5-7 November.
For more information and to book, visit www.thera-sea.co.uk or call 07958276247.
Travel with GWR
We spend down to Truro from Paddington on GWR. Splash out on a first-class return ticket (prices from £101) or grab a standard return for as little as £51. Tickets can be purchased from the GWR website: www.GWR.com
You’ve got two options once you arrive in Truro. Either take the bus to Trelissick National Trust Gardens and then walk to the King Harry Ferry. The Ferry is free for foot passengers and that’s then followed by a 20-minute walk to the venue – up hill. Alternatively, take a taxi directly to the venue (about a 40-minute journey from Truro) with A2B Taxis. Call them on: 01872 272989.
For more information on Cornwall see www.visitcornwall.com.
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