my total immersion in hot and cold therapy

I am sitting in a bright orange tin bath deep in the woods in the countryside of County Aberdeen. The water is cold 8C and I am being guided through breathing exercises by the United Kingdom’s first female commando. This is not a military drill or some kind of cultural initiative, but an activity offered at the new Discovery and Adventure Center at the Dye Valley estate, which I willingly signed up for.

“Tell yourself it’s cold, but you can do this,” says Pip Delamere-Wright, “Remember to think from the top down, you’re in charge. Keep breathing.” At first the cold water feels like needles against my skin and I need a deep breath to stay in the water, but eventually I manage to calm my mind. After the necessary two minutes I run across forest floor back into the sauna, pine needles clinging to the soles of my feet, waiting for the next summons to the baths.

Contrast swimming, or the Nordic cycle, involves moving between a sauna and icy cold water and it’s surprisingly good for you. The peaceful 6,000 hectare (15,000 acre) estate of Glen Dye, with its beautiful woodland and winding river, is a great place to try it, and Pip is a patient and courageous coach. As sauna culture spreads across the UK, Glen Dye could be ahead of the curve in offering experiences like this.

Cold water immersion has been linked to reduced joint inflammation, reduced stress and aided sleep

Over the years the Gladstone family have renovated a collection of old cottages and working land on the estate, adding off-grid bothies, riverside cabins and a small campsite. We are staying in the Coach, a handsome stone farmhouse decorated in rich colors and stunning modern art hanging in every room. It can be booked for exclusive use (sleeps 12) and now for the first time at the room as B&B during the week. A jukebox, board games and stacks of books encourage relaxation and connection. Each place to stay has access to outdoor wood-burning hot tubs, barbecues and fire pits, and there’s a whimsical BYOB pub to mingle with other guests by the fire.

It is an ideal base for day trips from Aberdeenshire, to the dramatic Dunnottar Castle on the cliffs near Stonehaven, the gleaming granite of Aberdeen or the beautiful curved bay of St Cyrus beach. Most guests, however, don’t stray far – and those who want more activity can sign up for activities at the centre. Aimed at helping families and groups of friends spend time together outdoors, Pip’s husband Stu Wright offers a range from cold water to bush craft.

Contrast swimming is slightly different from the increasingly popular cold water swimming, but it shares many of the benefits. Cold water immersion has been linked to reduced joint inflammation, improved cardiovascular health, reduced stress and aided sleep. In a contrasting pool you have to control the real royal mammals telling you to get out of the frozen water as fast as possible.

“Your body can’t tell what the danger is, it’s like when you almost fall,” says Pip. “You’ll get a big boost of energy and adrenaline, it’s more powerful than morphine.” It is certainly very challenging to challenge yourself in such an elemental way. “You’re talking to your prefrontal cortex and taking control,” says Pip. “This is where people take the experience of cold water and apply it to the rest of their lives. This is where you build resilience and grit.”

Pip knows a lot about humor. After studying human biology and sports science, she spent 17 years in the army, achieving the distinction of being the UK’s first female army commander. She left the forces after becoming a parent and retrained as a wild fitness instructor based here in rural County Aberdeen. Last year she appeared on Channel 4’s Alone, a winter survival challenge in the Canadian wilderness. Contrast bathing is an important part of Pip’s training to swim the English Channel – that and eating donuts to help insulate the cold.

There is no terrible headache on ice cream, but instead a sparkling cocktail of adrenaline and joy

My second cold plunge is surprisingly easy. I go three minutes without really noticing and as I approach the maximum five minutes I try to get Pip’s suggestion to sink my head too. There is no terrible headache on ice cream, but instead a sparkling cocktail of adrenaline and joy.

The third and final immersion is more challenging for me; I haven’t warmed up enough in the sauna so after two minutes I’m ready to curl up in a bathing suit and wrap my chilled hands around a mug of freshly brewed pine needle tea. In contrast to swimming the idea is to finish the cold, forcing the body to warm itself up. Many rows, walking and squats are recommended. For lunch, Caroline Gladstone, co-founder of Glen Dye Cabins and Cottages, prepared a huge flask of asparagus and spinach soup for us along with fresh sourdough bread and a platter of perfectly ripe local cheeses. We’ve learned that contrast bathing, as well as “floater high”, makes you ravenous.

In the afternoon we are back at the Discovery and Adventure Center with Stu. Also ex-military, he devotes his time to teaching “skills that people could use outside”. Much of his work helps fund Operation Cairngorms, a charity he founded aimed at improving mental health for military personnel through nutrition and time spent with others in nature. We learn the basic skills of fissuring, push cutting and drag cutting, and design a tent peg as a practice project. Stu then teaches us how to use a twig, often forestry waste, to make a coat hook and how to tie a simple knot on a length of cord to tie it to a tree. “Use it to hang your towels while you’re swimming outdoors,” he says. Sitting around the fire, eyes on our projects, the conversation flows freely: it is easy to feel the therapeutic benefits.

The following day we take a walk up Clachna Binna (589 metres) starting by the river and through the ancient bald forest on the estate. It’s a six-mile round trip to the distinctive granite bush on the skyline, with gorgeous sweeping views of the Aberdeenshire hills from the breezy summit. Glen Dye is half an hour’s drive from the eastern reaches of the Rhone Mountains but there are many wonderful walks starting from the estate and in the surrounding area.

In the afternoon I slip into the cold waters of the River Dee for a swim, replaying Pip’s words in my head and feeling galvanized by them. The water is deliciously refreshing. It’s cold, but I can do this.

The tour was provided by Glen Dye. Rooms in the Coach start at £175 a night, and exclusive use is £1,000 night (sleeping 12), stay at least two nights. Fitness and Bushcraft sessions at the Discovery and Adventure Centre from £25 per adult, about-15s £15.

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