The ancient woodlands of Gloucestershire where the three day retreat takes place.Photo: Andrew Brooks
It’s November and I’m on the train, halfway through my trip to Danny Shmulevitch’s Walking Your Promise retreat in Gloucester, when I realize I’m having a panic attack.
I had booked the retreat a few months before as I was struggling to recover from Covid, crawling through my days in a fog of anxiety and exhaustion, then spending my nights in the clutches of insomnia.
I was physically beaten, but it was more than that. I felt sick and lost. More than ten years of exposure to darkness and trauma in my work life as a human rights journalist, and the relentless momentum of my home life, broke something deep inside me. I felt like my life was like a high-speed freight train that had suddenly hit a wall, and now the carriages were crashing in behind me.
I had to quit to heal, but I didn’t know how. Then, one night while scrolling online through yoga weeks and spa hotels, I found the Walking Your Promise retreat, which immerses participants in the solitude of ancient woodland in Gloucestershire for three days. You sleep under the stars, fast for 24 hours and “buy into the rhythms of the surrounding nature to connect with your body and find a deeper way of feeling”.
I see light streaming through the shadows – this campsite will be my woodland for the next three days
I signed up immediately. But now, as the train approaches Gloucester station, my heart is trembling and my hands are slippery with sweat. It suddenly seems silly that I have paid a lot of money to be cold and hungry. The prospect of sitting around in trees by myself for days with nothing to do is now more worrying than terrifying. There will be no yoga, no cooking classes, no craft projects. I will have to leave my phone behind and I was not allowed to bring a book. As I have never done it, I have no idea what will happen when I stop, and suddenly I don’t want to know.
Still, the prospect of pulling out seems too disgusting, so I head sweating and panicking all the way to Danny’s house. When the taxi pulls up, he comes out to meet me, a compact figure in cash-dyed wool, so calm, so kind and so confident that this is where I should be, that I feel my mind at release me.
An hour later, after lunch and reading some relaxing poetry, it’s time to head into the woods, so I leave my phone and follow Danny’s torchlight down a country lane into the darkness. We walk silently through the gloom, weaving between the dark shapes of the trees, an owl hooting overhead, until I see light seeping through the shadows and we see the campsite, my woodland home for the next three days.
If Danny wants to get out of the nature retreat business he could definitely land a gig as an outdoor hygge stylist because it’s so beautiful. The main camp is laid out under the protective cover of a huge oak tree, from which the canvas is stretched over a crackling campfire and a bubbling pot of turmeric and orange peel tea. There are sofas and armchairs, lots of sheepskins, and altar candles flickering in glass jars. Danny tells me this is where he’ll stay throughout the retreat, tending the fire and providing company and conversation if I need it. The rest of the camp is just for me.
Danny sees his job as helping people rediscover the connection they have with their bodies and hearts
He leads me through the trees to where a very comfortable bed is laid out on the ground, covered in blankets and sheepskin. Nearby is a hammock with more sheepskin. Beyond that is a meditation space overlooking the woods.
We go back to the fire and have dinner, and Danny tells me about his childhood growing up in the Sinai desert; working with Bedouin tribes; and his pursuit of peace and connection. He believes that people are becoming unhappy and sick because we are conditioned to live in our heads, ignoring our innate ability to understand and connect with the natural world around us. He sees his job as helping people rediscover the connection they have with their bodies and hearts. He is a beautiful companion, wise and considerate, and able to sit in silence without feeling strange.
Sometime later (who knows what time without my phone), I fill up a hot water bottle, turn on my torch and make my way to bed, where I tuck into my sleeping bag.
Above him, through the swaying branches, the black velvet sky is studded with glittering stars. I have never slept outside like this and at first it feels too strange to be able to sleep, but soon I drift off to the sound of trees and trees in the dark.
In the morning light, the woods shine green, gold and fiery red. I am surrounded by old beech trees, oak trees and sweet chestnuts and, fern wedges and holly bushes.
I sit by the fire for a while and then, suddenly overcome with deep fatigue, I head for the hammock, where I fall asleep. When I wake up, I walk down to the meditation space and sit there looking at the trees.
I notice a beetle making its way through the undergrowth. Everything feels vibrantly alive
I realize that my mind, usually a jumble of to-do lists, work stress and self-flagellation, has fallen silent. For a long time I sit there, watching the branches move in the wind and leave a spiral to the ground. I’m not bored. I don’t think about my children, or work, or the big issues of life. I notice tiny mushrooms growing in the roots of fallen trees and a beetle moving through the undergrowth. Everything feels vibrantly alive. My nervous system settles, and I sit and feel my heart beat and breath enter and leave my body as the light fades and the woods darken.
Without my phone or clock, time will come. I’m not eating today, so with nothing to do or eat it ceases to matter what time it is. The night ends, the day begins and then it rolls out minute by minute. It’s a great feeling.
When I go to sleep that night I imagine dystopian city skylines, trains screeching out of tunnels, and trucks belching oil. At some point I wake up and go and lie in the hammock, looking up at the full moon and watching as the night slowly, quietly, recedes and the day begins again.
Related: Peace of mind: a weekend of mindful walking in Wales
The next morning we break our fast with nuts and fruit, then walk a few miles up to the top of May Hill, where I sit in a clump of old firs looking out over the Gloucestershire countryside. The things that scared me before I came here – hunger, cold, loneliness and boredom – they were a mercy. Instead, it’s no exaggeration to say that everything changed when Danny managed to expand and connect with the world around me.
Two years later, it’s still hard for me to explain, but it’s like the woods have given me a reservoir of joy and peace within me that I can now access when I need to. Sometimes this feeling increases when I’m walking or swimming outside, and I can tune out of the noise and chat and be a part of the living world around me, even for the briefest of moments.
It still amazes me that something as simple as putting my phone away and sitting in the woods for a few days could be such a transformative experience. But there you go. It turns out that the hardest thing was just stopping and looking around; the rest was long past me.
The Walking Your Promise solo retreat £1,150 for three days/two nights; group retreat is £595 (bursaries available)