Can a rewilding retreat really help your mental health?

Thera-Sea offers water-based activities as part of its retreats (Thera-Sea)
Thera-Sea offers water-based activities as part of its retreats (Thera-Sea)

If this strange year has taught us anything, it’s that time spent outdoors is essential for our wellbeing.

GPs are prescribing country walks as a cure for depression, cold water swimming has been proven to boost white blood cells as well as our endorphin levels and we’ve all learned the value of one precious hour outside each day. Is the natural world the solution to the nation’s growing levels of anxiety?

The answer may lie in a hidden corner of Cornwall, where Katy Griffin runs Thera-Sea, which offers three-day stress management and wellbeing retreats held on the banks of the saltwater River Fal.

Thera-Sea isn’t the easiest place to get to – no roads lead here, and the site is reachable only by boat or by 20-minute hike down a dirt trail. Once you’ve made it to the shoreline, though, you’re really in another world – this is a retreat in every sense of the word, cut off from real life as well as from the main electrical grid. A 300-year-old former stonemason’s cottage looks out over the river. Hammocks swing in the tall trees, and the air is scented with woodsmoke.

Katy teaches participants how to “rewild and master inner calm” in this fairy-tale setting. If it all sounds a bit wishy-washy, just note that her background is as a mental health nurse for the NHS – now she uses those skills, married with her love of the outdoors and the ocean, to treat stress and anxiety with what she calls the “six pillars of lifestyle medicine”: physical activity, relaxation, purpose, sleep, nutrition and relationships.

“Instead of trying to treat the outcomes of stress, I want to work with people to prevent stress becoming overwhelming in the first place. After all, most of us will experience plenty of tough moments in modern life – we all need tools to cope with them.

"I created Thera-Sea around the idea that good mental health is about balance. On the retreats we focus on sleep, physical health through swimming, kayaking, yoga and nutrition and mindfulness through foraging and bushcraft, as well as more traditional therapy.”

Our group of 10 would-be wildlings are holing up here for two nights – and Katy promises to help us relax through a mix of wellness workshops, cold-water swimming, forest hikes, yoga, bushcraft and feasts shared around the firepit.

Accommodation is in the cosy stone cottage or in tiny houses dotted among the trees – a shepherd’s hut, a minute hunting cabin, a former potting shed and my digs, a colourful treehouse that looks out over the water. There’s no heating inside, so I sleep under a huge pile of duvets and blankets, listening to the walls of the cabin creak gently when the wind blows through the branches supporting it. I can’t remember the last time I slept so well.

Food tastes better when cooked on an open fireThera-Sea
Food tastes better when cooked on an open fireThera-Sea

The sea is a constant presence here, whether we’re in the water for twice-daily dips, practising yoga on the shore or kayaking in the estuary. “Hence the name, Thera-Sea!” says Katy. “The natural world is a powerful healer – and I think wild swimming is a form of therapy in itself. Being submerged in cold water is so good for you, both physically and mentally, and has been proved to reduce inflammation and speed up your metabolism as well as giving you head space.”

Early the next morning, dawn mist is still hovering on the water as a procession of us walk down to the shore and dive into the cold River Fal – our rewilding has begun.

“Look out for Seamus the seal! He likes to join in,” says Mark Kelly, Thera-Sea’s activity leader, on hand as lifeguard. The shock of the icy water soon wears off, and after a few gasping strokes I start to feel strangely warm and alive, my skin tingling as I float on the surface. We climb back out of the water, up a seaweedy bank, mud squishing between our toes. Once we’re on dry land, Seamus pops his glossy head out of the river, curious to see who has been taking a morning dip in his estuary.

Steaming cups of campfire coffee in hand, we sit at a long table under the trees for the first workshop. I’m wary of my first encounter with group therapy, but Katy’s session is relaxed and open, and sharing is optional. I come away with a better understanding of the physical and mental manifestations of stress (clue – there are lots) and simple techniques for combating them. Others in the group have varied reasons for escaping here – grief, a demanding job, the stress of navigating life during a pandemic. But as Katy explains, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the crux of a crisis or not – addressing mental health is essential for everyone.

Participants learn the fundamentals of bushcraftThera-Sea
Participants learn the fundamentals of bushcraftThera-Sea

One of the big highlight of the weekend feeds the body as well as the soul, warming us up after our cold-water therapy sessions – Thera-Sea’s campfire feasts. The affable Aussie Smoker, Adam Kesacoff, is guest chef, serving up delectable wood-fired delights from shakshuka for breakfast to roasted salmon and a rainbow of salads for supper.

The fresh food ties into Katy’s next workshop, all about how nutrition and fitness are two keys to a good mood. In the afternoon, local forager Matt Vernon arrives with a wicker basket to lead us on a guided walk through the trees. We chew on fleshy navelwort leaves, pick ripe hazelnuts and watch as Matt cuts a bolete mushroom in half – its custard-yellow flesh turns a virulent blue as if by magic. The wild bounty we bring back for Adam to add to supper is a reminder of the natural nutrition that can be gained from wild plants, as well as the mindful benefits of a foraging stroll.

Katy runs workshops alongside more strenuous activitiesThera-Sea
Katy runs workshops alongside more strenuous activitiesThera-Sea

Come Sunday afternoon, my mind has slipped into a slower, more appreciative state of contentment. I’ve slept deeply, eaten well, paddled in cooling water and stayed far away from screens. It seems like an obvious recipe for wellbeing – but it’s taken Katy, and these beautiful surroundings, to remind me of it.

Before we leave, to hike back up the dirt track to reality, there’s time for one more swim. This time, the water is glinting gold, and has been warmed slightly by the afternoon sun. We float over the seaweed in a peaceful green world, a fitting place for Katy to share her thoughts on the power of the ocean: “when you are in the water, you are present.”

Travel essentials

Getting there

A First Class Return ticket from London Paddington to Truro starts from £101 and a Standard Return ticket starts from £51, from GWR.

More information

A two-night Thera-Sea retreat costs from £315 per person. The Treehouse (sleeping two) costs from £607.50 per person, based on two sharing.

The last dates available for 2020 are 6 to 8 November. Dates for 2021 include 19 to 21 March, 23 to 25 April, 18 to 20 May, 22 to 24 June, 10 to 12 September, 5 to 7 October, and 5 to 7 November.

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