I'm a great believer in the countryside retreat. In a bid to live a more sustainable life, I decided a few years ago that I would take a break from travelling by plane and would instead keep my adventures more local, looking at destinations I could reach via train or car. I've never taken a long haul flight or travelled further than Europe so this wasn't too difficult an ask for me, and then COVID happened and we all went into lockdown so it became much easier, but the motivation was always to try and travel without the huge carbon footprint of air travel. I'll get on my soapbox another day about how social media culture has cemented this idea of numerous holidays a year as both normal and encouraged without ever addressing the detriment this has to the planet (offsetting the carbon doesn't erase the damage already done - prevention is better than a cure) but this post is not about that. This post is about my digital detox, a short walk from the most photographed village in Essex (apparently, so the taxi drivers told us).
The idea behind Unplugged Retreat is to create a no-phone environment where you can detach completely from pings and notifications and relax quietly in the good ole countryside.
I wouldn’t consider myself to be addicted to my phone. I have to be on it a lot for work but it’s not something I feel I need and I tend to take little breaks naturally over the weekend when I’m busy with friends or on the sofa imitating a slug. I am, however, a mindless scroller. I’ll procrastinate scrolling through Reddit, eBay, Twitch: whatever I’ve not grown bored of in the last few seconds of browsing. It’s also a pretty common occurrence to close Instagram and then through a combination of muscle memory and instinct, to instantly reopen the app without it registering consciously in my mind what I’m doing. Didn’t I just close this?
That’s what I welcomed a break from: the thoughtless fodder. Random internet stuff which I’m not especially interested in, sometimes that I’m not consciously engaging with at all - filler. Taking away the temptation to reach for my phone the second I woke up or to have a TV show on in the background while I was making a tea or taking a shower was refreshing. Life-changing? No. I don’t necessarily think a few days in the countryside has the power to change your relationship with technology because the setting and context of your daily life is so different, but it *is* refreshing. And who wouldn’t want to see some synchronised duck butts and drink (albeit overpriced) beer in a posh country pub?
WHERE TO STAY?
We stayed in the Marcel cabin, about 20 minutes drive away from Braintree station (Unplugged categorise their cabins as north or south of London and this is north). The nearest village is Finchingfield which is a 10-15 minute walk depending on your pace and the weather. The location is super private and secluded; the only people you'll see from the cabin are dog-walkers no bigger than ants, far off on the side roads that border the fields.
All of the Unplugged cabins are in different locations so you'll have to check with each individually to find the best spot for you, although the Gruff and Basil cabins are on the same plot so if you're wanting to go with a few friends, those two would be your best option. Which leads us nicely onto...
CAN I TRAVEL ALONE?
Absolutely! The cabins are snug so they're perfect for solo travel, however I understand being apprehensive to stray off the beaten path *alone* and then lock your phone in a box. Rest assured, you have access to the lockbox at all times (it's more a measure of self-restraint and discipline than a rigid ban) and Unplugged provide you with an emergency phone which - drumroll please - HAS SNAKE! Proper old school. My high score was 202 so see if you can beat that.
If you're looking to travel with a pal or partner, make sure you like them a lot because you're going to be living in very close quarters with absolutely no digital distractions. You will literally be able to hear them pee from the bed, which is fine for your bestie but not so fine for your brother. You'll find a few books and board games to keep you occupied while you're indoors but otherwise, get yourself out there! Umbrellas and wellies are provided in accordance with the mercurial nature of British weather, plus lots of firewood and kindling to keep your interior and exterior fires burning (not a euphemism).
WHAT TO DO?
Our cabin was a 10 minute walk from the beautiful village of Finchingfield so we moseyed around here on the first full day, taking refuge in the local pubs when the April showers burst through (okay fine, we went into the pubs before it started raining).
I was surprised by how decent the food offerings were. I was expecting the usual suspects of ham egg and chips or Hunter's Chicken but there were some great fish choices and I ended up having a delicious halloumi burger with mango chutney and the best kind of skinny salted chips. If I'd have had space I would have inhaled some crispy brie bites too, with a little apple and cinnamon crumble to top it off. Also nachos! I love jalapenos and nachos and I was able to find them twice in two days.
We ate at The Fox on the Green in Finchingfield and then at Knead Food which is located in The Blue Egg farm shop just outside of Great Bardfield. Great Bardfield is about 45 mins - 1 hour walk away from the cabin, so pack your comfy shoes (a mistake I regretted bitterly when I arrived at the farm shop with blisters and sore toes) and take an umbrella, just in case.
If you have a car you'll certainly have more options for what to do, but I want to recommend ditching the four wheels and getting out on your two legs instead. The premise underpinning the retreat is to be off-grid and I feel like travelling as nature intended is part of that. Use the map to get lost and get muddy.
WHAT TO KNOW?
Here are a few tips and recommendations to keep in mind if you're considering staying with Unplugged:
- There are two gas hobs but no oven, so don't bring anything you need to oven cook.
- Wellies are provided but not for petite feet, so if you're a little bit stumpy down there like me, you might want to bring you own.
- You have to walk to the cabin once you arrive. There is a designated parking spot near the road but you'll need to pop your belongings in the provided trolley and walk across a field or two to reach the cabin itself, so arrive in appropriate attire.
- Since the cabin is in a field, there is no exterior lighting to illuminate the arriving path. Because of this we chose not to go to pubs in the evening but there is a torch if you fancy tackling nature at night.
- There is a stovetop kettle, teabags and coffee provided, but no sugar.
- Cooking oil, salt and pepper are all provided.
- If you're travelling via train, book your transfer taxis in advance. Rural taxis are much harder to come by so you want to avoid calling on the day in case they're booked up or busy.
- Bring plenty of games and books! Even if you think you won't finish one book in a few days, you'll probably be reading a lot so it's better to have options. The same goes for games. There are a few already tucked away in the cabin but it's nice to switch it up a little.
- Shower gel and shampoo are provided, but no conditioner.
- If you *really* want to use your phone then there is one USB charging slot. Otherwise the cabin runs entirely off of solar energy so your heating comes from the fire and your food comes from the gas hob. The shower is still delightfully powerful and hot though.