“If I could pass on anything to the world it would be how to use a dock leaf properly.” As gifts to humanity go, it’s a little left-field, but I’m not going to argue with the army’s first female commando turned wild wellness instructor and therapeutic forest practitioner, Pip Wright.
I’m at Glen Dye, a Highland estate on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms National Park with a very modern take on wellbeing and a newly launched School of Wild Wellness and Bushcraft. For my first morning I’m with Pip, foraging and forest bathing, a “bimble” as she puts it, beside the peaty brown River Dye. On the other side of the river a huge pink billboard asks: ‘Shall we just love each other?’ It’s late in the season and we’ve missed most of the mushrooms but there are still plenty of plants if you know where to look. Like under a hedge.
Bending down, Pip picks a few small green leaves for me to taste. “ Wood sorrel is packed with potassium and great in salads.” It has an almost citrussy tang.
A patch of half-dead dock leaves and nettles catches her eye. The dock leaf flowers are now stringy and brown. “You can grind them down to make flour, which is good for stodgy baking like brownies,” she tells me, rubbing the flowers between her fingers. “The leaves are also a good source of vitamin C and an alternative to spinach.”
I’ve heard that you should pick nettles only in the spring, but she uses them year-round, in soup and smoothies. “They are so densely packed with nutrients, adding them to your diet on a regular basis really boosts your immune system — and they’re free,” she smiles. “People think you need a lot of knowledge to go foraging — but everyone knows what a nettle is!”
And the proper way to use a dock leaf? “You have to chew the leaves before rubbing them onto your skin. Or peel back the small leaf at the base of the plant and you’ll find a gooey substance like aloe vera. It acts as a cooling gel when you rub it onto the nettle’s sting.”
Glen Dye is the perfect setting for a holistic wilderness venture. With 15,000 acres of woodland, hill, moor and river, there’s forest bathing, tree-hugging, hiking and cold water therapy, aka wild swimming, on the doorstep.
And wild wellness fits snugly into estate owners Charlie and Caroline Gladstone’s slightly offbeat philosophy and vision. After converting a number of workers’ cottages and the old steading into a handful of vibrant, vintage-chic hideaways (they’re also the founders of homeware brand Pedlars), they turned their hand to a series of ‘camps’, or mini-festivals, themed around wild food, crafts and wellness.
Not a huge departure, they also established the Good Life Experience festival with Cerys Matthews back in 2014, an eclectic celebration of singalongs, storytelling and campfire cooking on their other estate in North Wales.
There has been the odd stumbling block along the way. The launch of the camps coincided with the pandemic, but creative thinking is part of their DNA. Daughter Xanthe reinvented the wild food camps into a series of guest chef residencies, with foraging, food demos and supper club feasting. And now the wild wellness school offers bespoke wellbeing sessions in the wilderness along with the opportunity to create your own DIY wild wellness retreat.
The concept of wild wellness is one we’re all becoming more familiar with. As we learnt during lockdown, spending time outdoors is vital for our mental and physical health.
“You don’t need to visit a spa. Just go outside for 20 minutes,” says Pip, as she leads me along a rough moorland track before turning uphill into the woods. “We very rarely engage all our senses, which is why being outdoors is so good for us — looking at what’s around us, listening to the birds, feeling the air on our faces.”
And tasting. The woodland floor is blanketed with wild blueberry bushes and we snack on nature’s bounty as Pip unpacks a small mat from her backpack and instructs me to find a “sit spot”.For 15 minutes I’m to sit with my back against a tree, empty my mind and focus on nature. Wandering off I find a gnarly trunk, balance the mat on the springy vegetation and still my mind.
I listen to birds singing, the wind rustling through branches, I touch damp earth and experience a deep stillness and connection. I could happily have stayed under the tree for hours but there is more to do. Meandering back to the rustic open-sided camp kitchen where the food demos are held, we light a fire with a flint and steel, brew a pot of dandelion root coffee (it has an earthy, nutty flavour and is said to be good for the liver) and prepare to make a pine resin balm.
Melting a few nubs of beeswax over a small stove we gradually stir in olive oil infused with pine resin. The balm is antimicrobial and increases circulation, and can be used for scrapes, scratches and dry skin. Adding an essential oil (I choose sage for muscular aches and pains) can turn it into a muscle rub or decongestant.
Glen Dye’s cottages and cabins each have a private hot tub, but North Lodge, where I’m staying, also has its own river cabin along with a wood-fired hot tub (bath-shaped with a chimney) hidden among the trees on the water’s edge and for the afternoon’s activities I’m experimenting with DIY wellness.
Just preparing the tub is an exercise in mindfulness, as it takes time (read hours) to heat it. You need to fill it with a hose, fetch kindling and logs from the wood store, light the fire and feed the flames until, eventually, steam starts to rise from the water.
Undressing in the cosy wood-burner-warmed cabin, I pad across a carpet of fallen leaves, slip off my robe and sink into the water for a warm woodland soak while gazing out onto the river rushing peaty red like oxtail soup beneath the fir trees’ feathery fronds.
The next day Pip has chillier water-based activities lined up. It’s been raining all night and the river is too dangerous for wild swimming, but not cold water therapy. However, first we head to the river cabin for a dynamic breathwork session.
With the fire crackling and the rain pattering on the tin roof, we sit on rugs on the floor as Pip guides me through some breathing exercises. Most of us don’t breathe properly into our diaphragms and are guilty of shallow breathing and breathing through our mouths.
“Nasal breathing filters pollution and also puts air into our lungs at the right pressure.” We practise a couple of powerful Wim Hoff techniques — and the horse stance. Spreading our legs hip distance apart then squatting, arms at chest height, we punch the air away to each side as we exhale. The last exercise is a Haka, breathing in, bent double, then exhaling as we fling our arms up over our heads to get the circulation moving.
With cold water therapy, she explains, you are consciously putting your body under stress by immersing yourself in icy water but your mind is in control. The idea is that when you encounter a stressful situation in the future your brain will recognise that it can deal with it. It’s also a short, sharp reboot and flushes out your system as all the blood surges to your core and then back to your limbs as you warm up.
Wrapped in huge, dry robes and wellies, we tramp down through a field to Pip’s wild swimming spot, picking spruce needles on the way, which she adds to a flask of hot water to make a warming pine needle tea (said to stimulate circulation and boost the immune system) for after our dip.
On the riverbank we do the Haka and the horse before hanging our robes on a branch. Following Pip into the icy water, I sink first up to my waist and then submerge my shoulders.
“Just breathe,’ she says, her voice calm and reassuring — and I do. My whole body tingles but I breathe in and out feeling strangely calm. The two minutes is up before I know it. Clambering out of the water I grab a towel and we walk up and down the sandy shore. The tingling is like violent pins and needles but I’ve never felt so alive. The blood rushes back to our skin in a vivid red blush as Pip pours us mugs of pine needle tea and, wrapping ourselves in the dry robes, we start to tramp back up the hill to the wood-fired sauna.
As we walk and she talks me through the science (she has a degree in sports science and human biology) we pass another giant billboard. Large pink letters on a purple background declare ‘I think you are the most beautiful creature in the world.’ And I’m flooded with a wonderful sense of wellbeing. That’s wild wellness right there, I think: wise words woven through the woods, glorious affirmations that make you break out in a smile.
Three more unmissable wild retreats
Scotland’s famous resort offers a wild wellness programme focusing on restorative nature-based activities to help you reconnect with the natural environment and harness its healing powers. The two-night retreat includes an outdoor breathwork session with a yoga instructor — an introduction to pranayama and the basics of primal breath control. There is an immersive nature walk culminating in the ancient Japanese ritual of waterfall bathing, stargazing and mindful hiking in the mountains. Two-night retreat from £3,470 half-board, based on two people sharing (Sunday to Thursday).
Maison Ila, France
Organic skincare brand Ila’s founder Denise Leicester tailor-makes healing retreats at her home, Maison Ila, located in a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Along with meditation, yoga, breathwork and sound healing there are Natural Movement sessions with personal trainer Ali Suddaby including mat-based stretching and balancing exercises beside the River Hers and hiking in the hills, hanging from trees, jumping and climbing using rocks and branches as a ‘green gym’. There is also wild swimming in the river and two nearby lakes and a visit to the natural hot springs in Rennes-les-Bains. Three-day bespoke retreats from £1,044 per person. Room not included.
Teton National Park, US
Practise yoga on a mountainside, meditate beside a river, jump into the sea from a yacht for an invigorating, re-grounding wild swim. Wild Wellness Retreats was founded by Danielle, a yoga teacher, reiki master and sound meditation guide, and Steve, RYA Yachtmaster captain, certified diving, kiteboard, flyfishing instructor and survival expert. They offer retreats in wild locations around the world from Montana to Mexico, the Greek Islands to the Caribbean. The annual summer retreat camping in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming includes daily yoga and meditation, a group reiki session, breathwork and guided hikes. The three-night retreat costs £451 per person full-board.
Glen Dye has double rooms in the Coach House (B&B or exclusive use) from £155 per night. The Wild Wellness and Bushcraft School offers three-hour sessions including Fire and Water, a gorge walk, breathwork, cold water and campfire experience for £55 per person.
Published in The Spa Collection 2023