With social media and email waiting to fill our every spare moment, many have become dependent on connecting via technology. So what happens when you take a digital detox, reconnecting with new experiences, other people and the land instead?
Thom Hunt, 29, one third of TV’s Three Hungry Boys, felt invincible before he was diagnosed with bowel cancer three years ago. But after undergoing successful treatment, he realised there was no time to waste and decided to follow a long-held dream. Now he runs courses in foraging, hunting, fishing and wild food cooking at a lovingly refurbished cottage in Cornwall, a place where the only rule is to leave your phones at the door.
Nestled away on the banks of the River Fal, his business, called 7th Rise, offers much more than your average weekend getaway. Thom gives his guests (or castaways as they are more affectionately referred to), lessons in the likes of identifying edible wild food or gutting and filleting fish. In a nutshell: how to read, eat and survive the great outdoors. A big draw is the river and the wildlife it attracts: swans, otters, seals and dolphins have all been spotted there, and the likes of mussels, Cornish oysters, crab, trout, mackerel and bass are never far away.
The lack of technology is refreshing. There is no television in the living room, no landline telephone, no mobile phones, laptops or iPads; no screens at all. Instead there is one small radio, shelf after shelf of books and people. To talk to.
From day courses to weekend stays and even breaks for a month or more, Thom is happy to arrange all sorts of flexible and tailored breaks, all with the natural world placed firmly at their heart. But 7th Rise has become much more than a pleasant spot for a break since it was established in 2012. In line with the growing popularity of retreat holidays, the shaded forest glades and serene riverside perches offer visitors what are perhaps becoming the most precious commodities in our busy lives: space and time.
Thom tells Positive News how life led him to establish 7th Rise: “Coming up to three years ago, when I was 27, I was diagnosed with cancer. During the time of my diagnosis and treatment, I went through a huge amount of change. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been through, but coming out the other side, I also feel it’s one of the best things that has happened to me. Before my diagnosis, I basically got up every morning to go to work in the building trade, I went out at the weekends and I went fishing on a Sunday – that was it. Worst of all, I actually thought I enjoyed it.
“I think that most people generally think they aren’t going to die. But because I had a doctor standing in front of me with a piece of paper, giving me a percentage chance of being alive in five years, I decided I was no longer willing to accept all the little things that weren’t a complete priority: I had nothing to lose any more. All the things that stop us from really doing what we want, like the fear of financial instability, of not making ourselves vulnerable, or not making an idiot out of ourselves, melt away when you think: what is life really about?”
7th Rise has already meant a lot of different things to many people. Thom describes former visitors who have made huge, life-changing decisions while at or on leaving 7th Rise, from a woman who gained the strength to leave a long, destructive relationship to the high-flying city executive who followed his dream to completely switch careers.
“Some people who come just want a break from their lives, some come here with a serious problem or challenge in their life which they want to address and some come knowing they want to change something but aren’t sure what it is,” Thom explains.
“What people allow themselves by coming here is space, freedom and time. People can get confused about things that are emotional or difficult or complex. My job here is not to fix people – and I learn from every single person who comes here just as much as they may from me – but I feel like my main task is to connect people with the right choice.”
There is a growing demand for this kind of break, according to Jo Pickering, founder of Leicester-based The Retreat Company, which offers holidays all around the world where people can focus on wellbeing.
“There has most definitely been an increase in the popularity of retreat breaks and the range that is available has really expanded too,” she says. “Technology and the pace of life is much quicker now and the expectations society has of us, and therefore the expectations we have of ourselves, are much greater. We have to slow down because the speed is counter-productive to clarity and wellbeing. The body and the soul tell us that we need to take some time, and that we require maintenance. So people are turning to breaks which offer this.”
This comes at a time when psychiatrists have established the UK’s first technology addiction programme, treating children as young as four for a dependency on gadgets. In Amsterdam, special benches have been built that block Wi-Fi signal and in March this year, the lead singer of American folk rock band The Lumineers urged those standing in the crowd at a gig in south London to “put away your cameras and recording devices and just be human with us for a while.”
For me, the biggest lessons I took from 7th Rise were that Google does not hold the answer to every question, Facebook does not need to be checked every day and that as well as turning to other people, I need to give myself the peace and quiet to listen to my own thoughts. Social media is too often where we turn when we feel anxious, or in need of support or affirmation. But in fact, there is a fine line between consciousness and compulsion – the freedom to think is a luxury we must all afford ourselves. And with freedom often comes exciting ideas and positive change.