'Do you think there’ll be other couples in other cabins that we can hang out with? Surely we won’t be completely alone in the middle of nowhere? Do you think they’ll have a TV, or does "no screens" stretch to Freeview channels? I think I’ll be ok if we can watch Come Dine with Me at least.'
If my boyfriend’s sick of me already, he’s kind enough not to show it.
Nestled in what feels like the depths of the British countryside, yet is a mere hour’s drive from London, Wilbur is charming, attractive and classy in equal measure. More than just a new-found friend on our off-grid excursion, he was our entire destination – a cosy cabin where we hunkered down for the duration of our 72-hour stint offline.
Now I’ve never been one to shy away from the analogue life – I document my travels almost exclusively with my film camera, I unwind to the grainy dulcet tones of artists long gone on my record player, and as a writer (and romantic) being nostalgic for a time gone by – one that I never experienced to the full the first-time round – comes with the territory.
But however much you romanticise this time offline, nothing quite prepares you for a stay here – and the curiously joyful feeling of boredom that comes with it.
Here’s why this was a lesson in wellness I’ll never forget, plus where to walk and what to do to make your time here most rewarding…
Getting there & the location
Just an hour north of London in the car (or a 50-minute train from Highbury and Islingon), Wilbur is convenient for outer-London commuters and cosmopolitans alike. The retreat is run by Unplugged, which has cabins peppered across the British countryside, with many dog-friendly destinations and even a few positioned near local vineyards. We opted to steer clear of any wineries, so we could properly unwind without alcohol.
When you arrive there’s an oh-so-chic trolley to tug along the ambitious pile of books you’ve brought with you. After rattling our bags over potholes and through puddles, we finally caught a glimpse of our cabin in the corner of the field. We followed instructions and a physical map (who knew?!) and felt très Bear Grylls when we got the fire going, which was the first point of call.
As soon as you step inside, you’re hit with the comfort of the cabin. Fiercely cosy in comparison to the frosty surrounds, February is the perfect month to make a nest here. Cue that smug looking-out-the-window-while-it’s-raining feeling that makes UK weather almost worth putting up with.
Rustic yet expensive-looking equipment adorns the wooden cubby holes in the little kitchen. Books line the shelves (more books!), and I would recognise that Piglet In Bed linen bedding anywhere – offering folkorian levels of comfort, it’s famed among my friends. But innocently, on the table next to the polaroid camera, lies the dreaded phone lockbox. In they both went. Apple watches and all. Keys placed firmly out of sight to avoid temptation. And that was it – the 72-hour count down had begun.
What to do
We’ve all been guilty of going away for the weekend and coming back to work more exhausted than when we left – time off often means game on for most of us. But this three-day escape really is the exception to the rule.
When it comes to ‘what to do’ I want to stress that the most important thing I took from this trip was that you don’t always have to be doing something adventurous to make the most of a holiday. The languid gaps between going and doing things are what make these countryside escapes sparkle, but the surrounding set-up meant for enjoyable mooching, too.
At this location we were spoilt for choice with cosy country pubs within walking distance. We committed to The Fox for somewhere to settle in and spend a Saturday in front of the fire. The hour amble down into the village had stirred an insatiable hunger, and though the warmth of the flames did a good job of drawing us in, the traditional pub grub kept us there all afternoon grazing and chatting.
Afterwards we followed local trekking paths around Westmill, and we didn’t find ourselves fumbling in our pockets for our phantom phones even once as we walked. We just marvelled at the feeling of fresh air in our lungs and mud on our boots (read: mine were my trusty Merrell x Sweaty Betty numbers).
I’m not going to pretend going to sleep at night wasn’t just a little bit creepy – those once stunning bed-to-ceiling windows were akin to an inky TV screen after dark, where the next Cabin in The Woods-esque horror was sure to play out. But a noise in the night was the only time our cortisol came out to play all weekend, and for the more level-headed campers this might not pose quite as much of a problem.
To break up the Sunday we wandered back into the village for afternoon tea at Westmill Tea Room, where I admit I’d have liked a humble brag pic of the quaint setting for my clotted cream and jam scones. This was but a fleeting thought though – we got firmly distracted by the scone or scone debate.
The science behind digital detoxing
Before this trip, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been bored – I’m talking voluntarily-tidying-my-bedroom level of bored. Yet studies show that creative brains can only work to their full potential if they have the space to breathe.
In Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, Psychologist John Eastwood writes, 'When you feel bored, because it’s an aversive and uncomfortable state, you’re motivated to look for something else. In that gap there’s a real chance to discover something new. What matters to me and what am I passionate about? I think that looking can be a source of creativity.'
During lockdown, artists came out in droves to divulge tales of boredom that led them to lean on their creativity in new ways. People took up instruments and learnt how to knit. Boredom isn’t the affliction that our Silicon Valley pals would have us believe – it’s a catalyst for creativity and a precious commodity that feels nostalgic in an age of overconsumption.
Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, likens trying to concentrate on a single task in the modern world to 'walking upwards on a down escalator.' He explains that our focus hasn’t been lost, but stolen by screens and our insatiable consumption of everything we scroll during every spare waking second. 80 per cent of us check our phones within 15 minutes of waking up – we’re chained to constant content and absorbed in comparison. What would it be like to not compare myself to someone online for a whole weekend?
What I learnt
Like a fast for the brain, it felt refreshing to get away from the overstimulation of everyday life and cut though the noise of constant doing, by just being. It meant we could truly focus on conversations and each other, fly through our books and put more love and time into cooking our meals.
Perhaps the most unexpected joy that came from the sprawling hours we had laid in front of us was talking about our goals. We asked each other where we wanted to be in a few years’ time, what we wanted to have done and seen of the world. We may have asked these questions before, but having the time to discuss them without distraction meant we actually learnt new things about each other.
We smoothed down edges and slotted together pieces of our futures that we’d been trying to jam when they didn’t quite fit. We aligned our paths towards our plans while we took each turn on our trek as it came, not really worrying if we might get a little lost – we had nowhere else to be.
The main reason I wanted to reset my brain from its digital shackles in the first place was my focus, which probably rings true for many people coming into the new year and working towards new goals and projects. When we unlocked the box after 72 hours we both felt a weird aversion to scrolling and typing. I left WhatsApp chats unread and felt far more comfortable leaving my phone in a bag and forgetting about it. I’ve taken this comfort with me back to work, and feel more motivated and at peace when writing for hours on end without distraction. For now.
In the end we did make a friend in Wilbur. We reconnected with each other. We found some space to breathe and really notice nature again. Most importantly, we found solace in a healthy slice of boredom, that precious commodity so productive and magical that we tasted in lockdown, yet seem to have forgotten since. It was bliss – the best kind of cabin fever. Now to try one of the winery locations…
Unplugged have cabins across the UK, with prices starting at £130 a night (for a 3-night minimum stay) for two people.
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