A new break in Cornwall offers participants a chance to reset and re-energise by connecting to the power of the sea. Writer James Stewart investigates
Photographs TOM YOUNG
A report in 2019 confirmed what many of us have understood intuitively for years: life is better by the sea. Researchers from the University of Exeter found that people living within half a mile of the shore were nearly a quarter less likely to experience mental health problems. The coast was a ‘protective zone’ for psychological wellbeing, they suggested in the journal Health & Place. Simultaneously, a report in science journal Nature that year confirmed that 120 minutes in nature a week lowered stress and boosted the immune system. If two hours outside is as efficacious as a fistful of pills how might you feel after two days by the coast?
HEADING TO CORNWALL
I went to South Cornwall to find out, going off-grid on the first Thera-Sea rewilding retreat. Or as the blurb puts it: ‘Awaken your adventurous spirit, unleash your warrior mentality, master your inner calm.’ If that sounds like a hairy-chested adventure you should know that Thera-Sea’s founder, Katy Griffin, has been a professional mental health nurse for over a decade. ‘There’s too much prescription medicine, and not enough wellness in how we treat mental health,’ she tells me. ‘Our lifestyles are so over-stimulated. They’re full of micro-stresses – the morning alarm, phones, email, social media – that human brains aren’t designed to cope with. Two nights away from that beside the sea is so powerful.’
Instead of chemicals, Katy advocates lifestyle medicine. She uses mental-health workshops, activities and nutritious food to help you de-stress, recalibrate. To step off life’s merry-go-round and remember what matters, basically.
If that makes Thera-Sea sound like just another holistic wellness retreat, it’s not. Indeed as a hotel it’s terrible. Access to its site in a dell beside the River Fal is only on foot; a slow cutting-off from the everyday past hedgerows and through woods. There’s no wifi and precious little phone reception. The loos are in a communal block outside and of the two shared showers (also outdoors), only one had hot water on my visit.
A SIMPLE LIFE
You stay in simple rooms of a cottage behind an inlet or in surrounding cabins. I’m in the treehouse. Cobbled together from scrap – an old door here, a bit of fibreglass boat there (no, really) – it barely passes muster as a shed. Then you step on to its balcony.
Behind is an oak forest of elemental beauty. Wood pigeons coo in the canopy. A stream gurgles below and the River Fal winks through the boughs. That balcony transforms my makeshift treehouse into a palace fit for Gaia. I lose hours sitting on its bench, deep-breathing the smell of woody decomposition, watching the river change colour – sapphire, jade, burnished steel – with the light. It’s like ocular tinnitus: you never quite get used to it.
The river appeals less at dawn on the first day. I stand on a quay in boardshorts, my bare feet squelching on bladder wrack. It’s 6.45am – time for cold water therapy. If you’ve heard of CWT you’re probably among the evangelists of an emerging natural medicine. Depending on who you talk to, wild swimming in cold water – heck, even a cold shower – can treat depression, turbo-charge your immune system and tackle stress.
To be honest, I’m not keen. My breath plumes in chill air. My toes are already numb. Still this is the deal, so it’s deep breath and in I dive. There’s a whip-crack sting of cold water. My skin crackles. I surface gasping. What you don’t get from a cold shower is what happens afterwards. Bobbing in the jade-green water, going comfortably numb, time slows. Reflected light shimmers in overhanging boughs and jackdaws tumble overhead. At one point a grey buoy nearby bobs, rolls, flares its nostrils – a seal. We gaze at each other equally surprised.
‘Cold water swimming really teaches you to cope,’ Katy says afterwards. ‘You push through the pain barrier and become really present – in the sea you forget everything else that’s going on in your life. For me it feels like…’ She searches for the word. ‘Like calmness.’
Looking for the perfect holiday right at the water’s edge? Try out our selection of exclusive cruise trips around the British Isles here.
CONNECTING TO NATURE
Other activities at Thera-Sea include yoga and bushcraft, plus foraging. We scull upriver on paddleboards, the Fal a stripe of gorgeous aquamarine water between green wooded banks, herons stalking the shoreline, cormorants emerging and vanishing like whack-a-moles. It’s a joy to be on the water.
We land on a small beach where a chap called Matt burbles happily about plants as he fills a wicker basket: spear-leaved orache with seeds like quinoa and sea-beet which tastes like spinach. Did you know that dandelion leaves are a kidney cleanse or that horse chestnut leaves pulp into a soap? Me neither. All the same, I find my gaze drawn to that beautiful river.
With a campfire smouldering day and night, our happy little group spends all waking hours outdoors (this may be the most Covid-secure retreat in Britain). We eat like kings on wholesome meals prepared by Adam Kesacoff, aka barbecue specialist The Aussie Smoker. Evenings pass yarning around the fire. I’m asleep by 10pm.
I haven’t mentioned the three mental-health workshops yet because I signed a non-disclosure agreement to protect other participants. Well, that and because I’d seen counselling as secondary to unplugging from life. So it’s a surprise that our group sessions are so informative, honest, occasionally funny. None of us are angels. We could all do with more exercise, more self-honesty, less coffee. And our discussions about stress, relationships or purpose produce quiet revelations. I realise I’d never really set life goals before. Is that a problem? I’m still unsure, but at least I’m now considering them.
And that’s the thing about Thera-Sea. It is therapeutic almost without you realising. Sure, the workshops are informative and you can collar Katy for chats at any time. But as efficacious is this magical place beside the sea. The soul-soaring beauty, the tranquillity, the sense of being cut off from micro-stresses like emails – not to mention macro-stresses like pandemics – catches the heart off-guard and lays it open to transformation.
TIME FOR A RESET
I’m not saying Thera-Sea will resolve whatever needs attention in your life. But it may well help you to glimpse new possibilities. I leave feeling like I’ve been reset. More than anything, I fall under the spell of the River Fal. It’s the first thing I look to when I wake. I lie by the shore in a hammock just to enjoy its companionable chuckle. And I swim: sometimes noisily in our group, sometimes quietly alone. I’m not going to pretend the cold ever became less shocking but I emerge each time happily salty, fizzing with endorphins. It is utterly life-affirming – no wonder coastal residents are happy folk.
I’d book your spot now if I was you. You need to go in spring before the sea warms up.
HOW TO DO IT
- Thera-Sea (thera-sea.co.uk) two-night retreats cost from £315pp, including food and all activities. Dates for 2021 are: 23-25 April, 18-20 May, 22-24 June, 10-12 September, 5-7 October and 5-6 November. The nearest train station is Truro: return tickets from London start from £51 with GWR (gwr.com). A taxi will cost around £40.
- Bring a swimsuit and two towels – one for swimming, one for the shower. Footwear like flipflops or Crocs for the walk to the river are a good idea, as are wetsuit boots or old trainers plus old shorts and a T-shirt to use while paddleboarding. Some guests may welcome a swimming wetsuit, especially in early spring, when the river is at its coldest.
- Pack for an outdoors weekend: bring a warm coat and perhaps a thermal upper layer; and sturdy shoes or walking boots for general wear around the camp and while foraging. Bring your phone by all means but you’ll get more from the retreat if you keep it on airplane mode.