Unplugged are a weekend ‘Digital Detox Retreat’ that help you to recharge – by disconnecting to reconnect. Here’s what happened when I locked my phone away in an off-grid cabin in order to escape from everyone and everything.
I first came across Unplugged on an app I used to work with – Nightkey. Appreciating the synergy between an outgoing London entertainment and wellbeing platform, and a secluded retreat, it didn’t take much convincing for me to book in an antidote to the cycle of lockdown zoom calls and new university relationships at the turn of a century.
Unplugged was launched by founders Ben and Hector, after spending 2 weeks at a silent retreat in the Himalayas in order to switch off. Wanting to bring some of the beneficial effects closer to home, they set up their digital detox cabins in the quiet Thakeham countryside.
Plugging Back Into Nature
Before I left, researchers from the University Of Greenwich contacted me to ask if I wouldn’t mind participating in their study looking into the effects of technology on humans. On my transformative weekend of becoming a green witch, the data-driven scientist within was more than happy to accommodate.
I met Brad the lead researcher over a glass of wine and was given my criminal-looking tracking device to wear throughout the entire stay as an inmate. I was told it would measure my arousal levels (sounded worrying), and that I should also wear it for 24 hours before and after my stay.
I was curious to know Brad’s stance on technology, having devoted his life to analysing the impacts of the space. We discussed programmes such as The Social Dilemma, as well as the limitations of data subjectivity and the importance of context. What was more interesting was Brad’s personal experiences of having stayed at Unplugged with his partner, as well as some of the stories of other participants.
At the mention of ‘repressed memories’ it was beginning to sound less like a relaxing spa weekend and a little more like a sober ayahuasca ceremony. But I was intrigued and decided that going it alone would be the best (and ironically most sanity-preserving) way to peek into such a world.
Check-in was at 3pm on Friday afternoon – and I recommend arriving around this time as it would have been a nightmare to navigate at night. In classic countryside fashion the postcode doesn’t take you directly to the location but a little fiddling with the Satnav helps you to spot the unassuming turning into an old dairy farm…
A little further up the street, I turned into a vacant field and met Danielle, another researcher from Greenwich who supplied me with the next two days worth of wristband monitors. There are a few different options for accommodation, and you can either opt for something standalone, or choose to share a field with another cabin.
I initially opted for the standalone cabin but had to move my dates due to COVID and was given the ‘Gruff‘ house. This is a good option if you want to be surrounded by nature but also feel reassured that other guests are nearby. You check yourself into the cabins using a pin-code by the door (a winning business model), and will find mostly everything you need in terms of utensils and supplies.
Perhaps it was the tracking devices but I had expected the procedure to be a little more militant. The undisciplined millennial convenience queen in me had assumed that your phone would be taken from you during check-in and locked away for safe-keeping, until you had behaved well enough to deserve it back.
Instead, a wooden lockbox sat on the table with the key tucked away in a small envelope. Knowing myself only too well, I was pre-eminently disappointed. This called for some astute adult self-control and responsibility and surely such a thing was mostly a myth.
There were also a few core recommendations for the surrounding area: the Spring Gardens Nursery for fresh groceries, the White Lion Pub and Kinsbrook winery. The do-er / experience junkie in me was already planning when and where I was going to fit each and every one of these in. And it was not long before a short stroll around the middle of nowhere reminded me that I wouldn’t be getting to any of them without GPS…. Already the stress levels were rising.
I decided that Friday was a write off phone-wise. I’d been told to wear the wristbands on Saturday and Sunday anyway! So it was fine to get to know the surrounds for just one more technology-led afternoon. Besides this was about feeling relaxed at the end of the day, and that called for a few more hours of convenience (efficiency) and dopamine.
In hindsight, I got a surprising amount done in half a day. Having scoped out the area, tracked down a few forgotten supplies (toothbrush), and popped by the vineyard to pickup some essentials (sedatives), I attempted to locate somewhere for dinner.
My urbanite brain had forgotten that good pubs in quiet locations still require advanced planning and booking in order to secure a spot. So I eventually found a hotel restaurant in town that would allow me to decompress in the garden. Besides, weed makes even my home-cooked food taste Michelin.
I was so keen to start inhaling my saving grace that just how much the uniquely divine scent still carries and turns some heads, actually slipped my mind. Having been approached by a smoker at the next table and asked to put it out, the not so subtly selfish activist in me couldn’t help pointing out that his cigarettes both smelled and did far worse. I was not using any tobacco or nicotine and these were obviously completely legal THC-free, non-psychoactive CBD buds.
A few puffs of the medicine stick later and the trouble was soon solved (was he silent, or was he silenced). It transpired that he was the owner, and had a few hypocritical stories himself. Upon asking where I was staying, the peace was once again disrupted; “So you’re telling me you’re staying in a Yurt built by a Yoghurt blender – and how much is that?”
I still don’t know where the yoghurt blender reference came from (didn’t ask) but the Glamping element was not completely lost on me. Just as a side note – I did have a Nightkey discount code and also got a generous voucher from Greenwich. But when he showed me the little patch of grass located on the hotel balcony and told me I could stay in a cabin he’d build there, completely phone-free, I failed to see the point.
A rough analogy might be the one he gave me himself. After contracting a tooth infection on the NHS, they offered to solve the problem by removing the entirety of his mouth and supplying him with a lifetimes’ worth of upper and lower dentures, at 38.
Or he was told he could go privately and have some sort of liquid tooth technology injected back in, leaving him with veneer-like results. Both of these offerings would save his life and solve the problem – but sometimes, the frills and the aesthetics make a difference.
Having had my hangry animal quashed by a happy and full belly, I was willing to contemplate this a little further. How strange for it to now be a novelty to be able to pay more for less. This was encapsulated by a book and philosophy that frequently reared its rustic head – wabi sabi. I couldn’t decide whether this was a garish middle-class glamorisation of fashionable poverty, or an earnest return to presence, humility and grace in simplicity.
A Solitary Saturday
By Friday evening I had locked my phone away and was committed to the sober ayahuasca experience. Tech or no tech, cooking for 1 still wasn’t something that hugely interested me so breakfast was a healthy grown-up mix of raspberries and cream. Given the lack of other things to do, it was also fun to grind your own coffee beans and to have to boil water on the stove – the good old fashioned way.
Having risen early with the natural light, I had plenty of time for a trip to Brighton and to read a book by the sea (maybe a small amount of window shopping too)… I had been meaning to finish Spell Of The Sensuous for quite some time and it was amazing how quickly this was achieved in a different environment.
Returning home to my field and following the bridleway, it wasn’t long before I’d decided I’d done enough communing with nature while slipping and sliding around in my TK Maxx DKNY for one day. But the retreat didn’t need to be a silent one and a few casette tapes, some wine, and some yoga cards made for a ‘productive’ afternoon of relaxation.
While the lack of 5 minute intermissions had helped me to complete a book in peace, I did notice that exploring foreign territory felt marginally less safe sans handheld device. People often comment on feeling naked without their phones and I was feeling slightly less secure and connected without mine. But the cabins were beyond beautiful and I enjoyed lighting log fires, eating good food, thinking, meditating, reading, and felt incredibly lucky and grateful. Until Sunday (!).
The Sunday Scaries
Shoot me for initially wondering if it was a female thing but I just woke up in a mood on Sunday. The kind of mood where you get annoyed about being in a mood. A friend in Chicago once introduced me to ‘the Sunday Scaries’ – the day of drinking planned to mask the horrible sinking feeling you get knowing Monday is around the corner (an American thing).
Except that this was like the reverse. Like a digital crack addict that was starting to go into withdrawal, I started to feel as though this whole no phones thing was silly. Something was missing and it needn’t be! Perhaps it was just pathetic (yes) fallacy but it was also pouring down with rain.
While this was all very ‘hygge’, having exhausted most of the books and activities I was now turning my attention to the frustration of having so little to do. No ability to Whatsapp a friend for a chuckle, to get a dopamine fix off the gram, a little adrenaline rush from a dating app, or to travel down rabbit holes on Reddit. The essential oils and coffee beans were no longer cutting it, I’d finally graduated from living off creme fraiche and the artisan wine had soured.
This was not what I expected. I’m very good in my own company and can happily pass up people and events in favour of time alone. But being left with the only option of admiring nature from a safe and comfortable distance was starting to make me restless. In-house literature like ‘Do Nothing’ started to seem irritating and ironically out of touch. And I hadn’t noticeably ‘achieved’ the spiritual awakenings and epiphanies I’d come for (god knows why I keep pursuing these things).
I was beginning to think that the re-examined life was not worth living. Counting down the hours until my release while imagining the cocktails and constructive post-lockdown destruction I had planned. Counter-intuitively, it had made me appreciate how eventful, spontaneous, connected and stimulating life is, thanks in large part – to technology. Without which, guided meditations and podcasts are also a thing of the past…
Like the crack addict justifying her next fix, I was torn between two perspectives. Was I a rampant, fast paced, consumption monster, or did I have a new found appreciation for some of the opportunity and excitement that exists? As I picked up the sulfate-free, paraben-free, organic, handmade shower gel and opened the beautiful individually wrapped sustainable bamboo loo rolls… I wondered who was really going mad.
As with cosmetics, the selling point is now about what’s been artfully taken away – in a form that brings a little bit of the past back into the future. But it’s also a faux nostalgia that feels both painfully and wonderfully as though it’s all a little too late, and there is no going back now.
Meeting Danielle in the car park after check-out, I failed to hide the order of the day. “You didn’t look at your phone did you?” She asked innocently. I had a rather sheepish response that revolved around having required my satnav by Sunday evening, but there not having been enough signal for emails and messages anyway (not entirely untrue).
I then vaguely remember blabbering on about feeling happy to have my phone back and how it’s not about what we use but how and why we use it… After-all, there’s only so much extra free time you can fill with grinding coffee and opening deluxe loo roll. And surely the space and choice to fill it with something else – whether that be something more meaningful, creative, fun or simply just a little distracting is a good thing when done ‘right’?
That was probably the largest looming sentiment underpinning the experience. The sense of ‘not doing it right’, whatever you happen to be doing. For there to be a better, more efficient, more conscious, slower, simpler, sustainable or responsible way that you haven’t yet exposed with your wilful ignorance.
And it does seem like the main take-home of all such philosophies and retreats – is to just be. A sentiment, experience and practice that now sells.