Most of us associate wellness with spas, yoga, or meditation retreats. But, on a visit to the United Kingdom, our contributor discovers that the essence of wellness can be found in the most unexpected places. By Neeta Lal
Nestled in the picture-perfect village of Painswick in Gloucestershire county, I am at the Painswick Hotel–a Palladian mansion with roaring fires and sink-into-me sofas. I am booked here for a mindful photography workshop called Look Again, which fuses photography with mindfulness and nature. The idea? To help me slow down, take notice, expand my vision, and see my life and world with a fresh perspective. Taking notice is one of the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and is also used by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), I am told.
As I enter the hotel’s cosy lounge, redolent of freshly brewed coffee, I am greeted by Ruth Davey, the workshop organiser. After a brief round of introductions with other participants, all from different continents, Davey begins the session by recounting how–after episodes of anxiety, depression, and then ultimately a breakdown in 2015–she had finally asked herself what she really loved.
“My response was photography, nature, walking, and mindfulness. I gradually combined these four elements as part of my own recovery from the challenges of mental health. And it worked! My ‘breakdown’ was, in fact, my ‘breakthrough’!” she says.
Today, she offers this approach to others through her workshops. Her work is recognised by NHS, Adult Social Care, The University of Gloucestershire, and many other organisations in the field of health and community development. Apart from being a professional, published, and commissioned photographer, Davey is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
To demonstrate how mindfulness combined with photography can help bolster one’s well being, we’re shepherded into the hotel’s beautiful garden overlooking the spectacular Cotswold landscape. Think undulating hills, lush valleys, honey-hued cottages, and towering pines. We inhale the pine-scented air while admiring the riotous blend of rhododendrons, poppies, snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, and cherry blossoms. I stand still and let the scenery wash over me.
“In today’s smartphone-saturated age, we’ve stopped appreciating our surroundings–a process that is key to mindfulness,” Davey elaborates as we stroll on the velvety grass engaging with a different kind of Twitter—chirruping birds! “Connecting with the universe helps us connect better with ourselves,” she adds.
As I soak in my environs, each object seems to acquire a life of its own. Each flower appears to have a story to tell; each leaf and stalk beckons. I observed the grass’ colours (green in some patches, dun-hued in others), and the pattern of the auburn leaves rustling on the ground. Moving my gaze to the sky, I notice the clouds—some plump and billowy, others tiny and indistinct.
The exercise of doing nothing but simply observing is immersive and deeply relaxing. Once I take it all in, I start clicking photos. Close-up shots of the blooms, and clicks of low clouds scudding across the sky, twittering birds, and trees of sundry shapes soon flood my picture gallery.
Half-an-hour later, we return to the hotel and talk about how being ‘in the moment’ has sharpened our senses and enhanced our experience as photographers. We review each other’s pictures over steaming cups of hot chocolate and moist cakes.
Wrapping up the workshop, Davey advises us to keep up with our mindful photography sessions as frequently as possible. “Remember, we’re enriched when we’re in tune with the universe,” she explains. “It helps us become better individuals, more productive professionals, and bolsters our confidence and self-esteem,” she adds. And, I couldn’t agree more.
The next day, I attend a Christmas wreath-making workshop in Broadway, one of England’s prettiest villages in the county of Worcestershire. The venue, perched high above the village, is Farncombe Estate, a glorious sprawl of forest and fi eld, riddled with rambling trails and biking routes.
Never having held a wreath in my hand before, I am worried I will embarrass myself in front of a group of eight other international journalists. However, my fear vamooses the moment I learn that none of the others have ever made a Christmas wreath before! Nipping up to the first floor of the beautiful estate, we huddle excitedly into a cosy wood-panelled studio brimming with fragrant flowers and foliage. A large rectangular table waits for us with small wreaths, along with scissors, knives, tape, wires, etc. placed at regular intervals for each participant. In one corner rest boxfuls of beads, baubles, blooms, dried flowers, berries, and other accoutrements needed to ornament our handmade creations.
Allyson Martin of Bloomery workshops kick-starts the session by demonstrating how to work the foliage around the frame. A while later, she lets us do our own thing. For inspiration, we look around at the wreaths displayed on the studio’s walls.
Strapping on our aprons, we get down to business. Though diffident at first, we gradually gain confidence as the workshop progresses. A healthy dose of competition from the peer group acts as a catalyst! After arranging foliage around our wreaths using wires and tapes (the most challenging part), we begin embellishing these with a mix of fresh and dried flowers, silver balls, and bells.
The activity is deeply therapeutic and cathartic. What makes the exercise even more meaningful is knowing that Bloomery’s workshops use only locally grown British flowers and foraged foliage. Sustainability lies at the core of the business.
“We use as many flowers from local farms as we can and create our designs with environment-friendly methods. We try to support the local economy. Floral foam is avoided as it takes many years to break down, and can’t be composted or recycled,” Martin shares.
Bloomery also creates bespoke floral designs, using natural garden flowers, for events, weddings, and special occasions. From seasonal table arrangements to handcrafted fl oral arrangements, it covers the whole gamut. While going through their picture-book full of stunning designs and decorations, I want to turn into a florist myself.
As the workshop advances, Martin tells us how flowers and plants are her first love. “As a child, I’d sneak away to my grandparents’ house and go to the garden or greenhouse with my grandfather looking after the plants and vegetables that he grew. I knew I’d be launching my own flower business one day. Over the years, I’ve created arrangements for prestigious events such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Henley Royal Regatta, Aegon Championship, and even Wimbledon,” she says.
A little over an hour later, all of us are proudly holding our bespoke creations in our hands. Each piece looks unique and distinct, stamped with its creator’s imprimatur. There are smiles all around, and a round of applause fills the room as Martin praises our efforts. It is now time to thank her and leave the Farncombe Estate with our masterpieces.
Back home, every time I gaze at my handsome creation exhibited proudly on my living room wall, I’m reminded of that beautiful day in Broadway.
Worcestershire and Gloucestershire are easily accessible by train from London.
Ellenborough Park is a plush 16th-century manor offering posh dining, an outdoor pool and spa, in Gloucestershire. Rooms start from INR 16,688. The Cotford Hotel in Worcestershire is a Victorian Gothic hotel. Rooms start from INR 14,000.