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Six really wild breaks from London

Feel like you need a strong dose of nature, stat? Six Londoners try out super-rural escapes offering just that. But can they find inner peace?

Lyford Gorge, really wild breaks
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Londoners are spending more time exploring the great outdoors, and we don’t just mean post-work pints in grassy beer gardens. This year’s Time Out Index, in which we surveyed more than 5,000 Londoners, revealed that 28 percent of us want going out to be ‘more outdoors’.

You can get a good dose of greenery in London (it is possible to have a country day out without leaving Zone 3, as we proved) but we’re throwing ourselves into the real, muddy, rural stuff too, doing things like hiking, camping and getting back to nature. Sometimes there isn’t even wi-fi.

To test the limits of our fledgling love affair with the countryside, we sent six writers out of the city (and their comfort zones) to experience really wild breaks from London. 

RECOMMENDED: The best weekend breaks from London

The one where you forage for lunch

How much nature can you cram into 24 hours? A lot, as it turns out – as long as you’re willing to get up early.

My wild adventure starts with a night at Tudor Farmhouse in the Forest of Dean. It ticks all my coddled millennial boxes. Locally sourced menu? Tick. Instagrammable roll-top bath? Tick. So why am I wide awake at 4.45am? I’ve left my duck-feather duvet to observe a ‘dawn chorus’ – not the symphony of groans as my hangover kicks in, but the birdsong that greets each morning.

Most of us aren’t awake to hear it, but my guide Ed Drewitt knows exactly where to cop the best seats in the house. ‘It all comes down to sex,’ he enthuses as we walk among the trees to the coos of wood pigeons. ‘The females are most fertile in the morning. Her mate doesn’t want other males to come in. They’re singing, “I’m here, keep out!”’ As blackbirds and robins chime in, the trees throb with the sound of an orchestra in full swing.

After a full English, I’m introduced to Raoul van den Broucke, a forager who used to supply Borough Market with wild delights and the sprightliest 77-year-old I’ve ever met. As we wander, Raoul points out wild garlic, sorrel and bittercress – all ready for harvesting. Then the mother lode: we spot morels (‘the most expensive mushroom in the world!’). We haul them back to the hotel kitchen to be sautéed in butter. They’re surprisingly substantial and utterly moreish – much like my 24-hour plunge into the Forest of Dean. Zing Tsjeng

Ellie at Wolf Wood Treehouse
Photograph: Lizzie Walker-Arnott

The one where you hike along a ravine

It’s rural rush hour in Devon and I’m getting shouted at by a tractor driver with North Circular-levels of road rage. So much for the serenity of the countryside, I’d rather be on the Central line.

I change my mind when I cross a rope bridge and step inside my treehouse at Wolf Wood. It’s beautiful, with rustic timber and an already balmy log burner, but, really, I’m here for what’s outside: fresh air, neon-green leaves and, in the distance, Dartmoor. Ever goal-oriented (thanks, London), I throw myself into unwinding. I take deep breaths. I ignore my phone.

The real switch-off is easier a short drive away at Lydford Gorge. Being mindful here isn’t optional. Start stressing about work and you could lose your footing on a mossy slope or slip into the churning river at the bottom of the ravine. I’m not joking.

Two hours of hiking and one blister later, I’ve come through lush greenery, past a waterfall and along a narrow ledge to the Devil’s Cauldron cavern. The loud rushing of water in the cavern is overwhelming, but, despite the name, standing in the middle of the roar is the anything but hellish.

Back at Wolf Wood, the little wood-fired forest sauna is up to temperature. The glass-sided shed is soothing, silent apart from the hiss of water on hot stones. I head back to the treehouse – no damp changing room overflowing with naked strangers for me. I run a bath outside on my now-dark deck and sit in a cloud of steam. A gentle drizzle lands on the wood. A cow moos somewhere in the distance. I feel reset and ready to face the city again. The countryside can keep its tractors, though. Ellie Walker-Arnott

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Alim forest bathing, really wild breaks
Photograph: Lizzie Walker-Arnott

The one where you ‘bathe’ in a forest

Heading to Hampshire for a ‘forest bathing’ weekend, I have no idea what’s on the cards. I certainly don’t expect to end up crying while hugging a tree. And it’s not how it goes for the first part of my trip (that involves a hot tub).

It all changes on Sunday morning when I’m introduced to David, a ranger who, for three hours, helps me get intimate with nature. He tells me that forest bathing involves immersion in a wood through touch. Based on Japanese shinrin-yoku (nature bathing), it’s designed to reduce blood pressure and improve mental wellbeing.

I’m asked to transfer distracting thoughts into a rock before we walk to a clearing. I shut my eyes and stretch out my arms, palms turned up. As I focus on the sounds of the natural world, I feel like a Jedi trying to use the Force. I don’t get a lightsaber, though. Instead, I get emotional.

Tasked with telling a tree what’s on my mind, I’m drawn to a silvery birch with gnarled branches. Someone with more emotional control might not have cried, but with birds chirping and my arms clasping the tree, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude.

I’m not quite ready for life as a forest dweller, but as Yoda might say: closer to becoming at one with nature I am. Alim Kheraj

The one where you sleep in a nature reserve

Every night when I go to sleep, I dread being woken up by the sound of the screeching toddler in the flat above me. But tonight I can rest easy. I’m at Elmley National Nature Reserve – the only one in the country where you can stay the night – and nearly all of my neighbours here are birds.

The handful of people I do spot are much better equipped than me. They’ve got binoculars and are probably not wearing their mum’s old walking boots, but what I lack in knowledge I make up for in enthusiasm. When I spot a lapwing (I Googled it), I shout excitedly: ‘Look at that one! It’s got a feathery thing on its head!’

After exploring the bird hides, I retire to a cosy shepherd’s hut overlooking the nature reserve and attempt to light a fire to toast marshmallows. I struggle to even set the firelighters alight, but eventually it gets going and I sit back with a cup of tea. It’s ridiculously peaceful.

Soon it’s pitch black and I’m ready for an early night. As I get into bed I hear something weird. It sounds like a toy ray gun. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? I open the door to check – turns out it is a bird. Nature truly is wild. Reassured that it’s nothing sinister, I close my eyes and sleep like a baby. Isabelle Aron

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The one where you camp in a quarry

Nothing says ‘unprepared’ like turning up to your coastal retreat with a massive wheelie suitcase. I’ve got two immediate problems. Firstly, it’s been raining all day and the paths have turned into muddy streams. Secondly, there’s a nine-foot ladder to scramble up to my bed.

I'm in a formerly abandoned quarry where home comforts are eschewed in favour of off-grid living, open-fire cooking, solar-powered showers and no wi-fi. So why venture to this wild corner of Cornwall? To stay in a kudhva (which translates from the Cornish to hideout). They’re architect-designed futuristic cocoons raised above the ground on three legs. We approach through the willow trees and I get my first glimpse – it’s like spotting a wild animal. The tripod is all steel, angles and plywood – like a martian machine from ‘War of the Worlds’.

It’s not an easy structure to get along with. The cold steel ladder is a scary climb. The door towers over me at 45 degrees. The bed has all the cushioning of a pantyliner. Glamping this ain’t, but it’s all part of the plan. Kudhva was designed to challenge.

I snuggle in and watch the seagulls getting buffeted by the wind on the coast. The insulated kudhva slowly warms with the homemade candles and my body heat as I slowly warm to the kudhva. I don’t want to leave. And not just because I don’t know how I’m going to get my suitcase back down the stairs. Kudhva is a refreshing taste of the wilderness. Just for God’s sake take a rucksack. Lucy Lovell 

The one where you float around on a lake

I’m in a wetsuit on the edge of a huge lake, trying to stand up on a paddleboard. It’s not going well. Five miserable attempts later, I decide the kayak is more in my comfort zone. The private lake I’m floating across was dug out by hand in the nineteenth century, and it’s charming. Giant carp swirl in the water and fat geese flap off in pairs through the trees. Other than the birds chirping and the wind rustling, there’s just silence.

Sometimes I forget how beautiful the wilderness is. Living where I do in Peckham can be hectic. I normally don’t have the time or energy to venture too far from London, so this cabin is ideal. Just a little over an hour on the train and I’m practically in Narnia. I feel extraordinarily calm wandering around the South Downs like a period drama extra, foraging for wild garlic to make pesto out of later.

It’s not all fairytale, though. I fully intend to go wild swimming, but I slip a single toe into the water and suddenly a hot bath seems like a much better idea. And, although there’s phone signal and wifi, there’s still a sense of isolation. No matter how loud I shout, nobody will be able to hear me. It’s both liberating and completely terrifying.

I wake in the early hours of the morning, a bit groggy and confused, and peak out through the giant floor-to-ceiling windows at the lake. It’s eerily illuminated and I half expect the creature from the black lagoon to crawl out of the murky water. It turns out all this nature is much dreamier in the daylight. Niellah Arboine 

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