As cliche as it sounds for my generation, I'm one of those people who can be found with a cell phone glued to her hand at all times — yes, even in the bathroom, as disgusting as that sounds. Being a digital writer in the current landscape has trained me to be "on" at all times. At any given point during the day, my eyes are probably fixated on a rotation between a laptop screen or smartphone. Call it an occupational hazard, but a nagging sense of FOMO eats away at me — like I've missed out on some major news event — whenever I haven't scrolled through my feed for a couple hours.
Even when I'm on vacation, I hardly take a break from technology. Since my job entails writing about travel, documenting my trip on social media is second nature to me: I always whip out my camera for the #wingviews when I land. Each meal I take has to be meticulously styled for the perfect flat lay. And, you can bet I've never left a colourful mural alone — without at least snapping a dozen OOTD shots.
A significant amount of hours in my travels is spent tracking my Instagram feed to see how many likes I've managed to rack up. No matter where I am in the world, my default mode is that the online world needs to know where I'm going, and that I'm having a lot of fun. I'm a victim — and an active participant — of the #wishyouwerehere mentality.
This way of travelling — and to an extent, living — can be pretty exhausting, which was why I was eager to pack up my bags and head to the Wilderness Reserve for a short staycation. Sure, the English countryside is lovely, and Suffolk county has the lowest rainfall in the UK, but there was another major reason propelling my desire to visit: The estate has a fairytale-like house tucked in the woods — coincidentally named "Hex Cottage" — with no electricity and wifi.
Normally, going without all the comforts that electricity and internet can bring — and for that to be the unique selling value of a vacation — was something that seemed almost inconceivable to me. But, this opportunity couldn't have come at a better time, since a digital detox seemed to be precisely what I needed: I had been suffering from a bad case of migraines all week, possibly due to how much time I spend staring at a screen. Any chance to force myself to drop the devices — and spend time alone with my thoughts — sounds like a good call.
The Hex Cottage dates back at least a few hundred years, according to staff who worked on the grounds of the reserve. It was formerly kept as a residence for the gamekeeper, someone who manages the countryside to ensure an abundant supply of animals for hunting. The brick house has retained a rustic charm and can pass for the gingerbread house out of Hansel and Gretel. The bedroom is decorated with plush sheepskin rugs and a large canopy bed.
A huge hamper stuffed with local cheeses, eggs, jams, wines, and cured meats was waiting for me in the kitchen. A handmade wooden swing can be seen swaying outside the window. It looked like the picture-prefect representation of how people lived before technology. I got into it: With a surrounding this cozy, who cares if there's no electricity or wifi?
Turns out, staying in a storybook cottage is a lot more work than it seems. The fact that I couldn't really use my phone was the last thing on my mind: Living in a house with no access to energy means that most of my attention was devoted to keeping myself warm. This probably explains why people had a very different set of priorities before the advent of electricity.
The staff was kind enough to kept the fireplace going at full speed upon my arrival, but it required constant upkeep. Maintaining the flame felt like solving a complex jigsaw puzzle: You need the right mix of kindling — the small bits of wood that sparks the fire — and logs that are small enough to make it work. There needs to be just the right amount of space between the pieces to let the oxygen in. Multiple times I threw down a chunk of wood, hoping for the best, only to almost smoke myself out of the house.
The indoor heating and hot water were supplied by an Esse range, an old-school wood-burning stove that requires a refuel every hour or so. Caring for two open flames felt like a full-time gig: Every time I was ready to hunker down with a book, there was something that needed to be replenished to keep the room toasty.
Soon, the sun was setting and I was left to make sure that I wasn't sitting in pitch darkness. Thankfully, there were no less than 30 candles and tea lights to keep the room well-illuminated. I grabbed a box of matches from the mantle and that's when I realised: I've never successfully lit a match before. (I've stuck to using a lighter ever since accidentally burning my finger with a match as a kid.)
I was agonising over my next move when the night porter showed up — thank God — and asked if I needed any help. He did chuckle at my ineptness but alas, crisis averted! I was able to spark my first match under his tutelage. Basking in the warm glow of candles and the fireplace, I was more relaxed than ever.
Without the internet to distract me, and nothing but the sound of the crackling fireplace in a distance, I was able to hear myself think for the first time in months.
Not having wifi had affected me much less than I imagined. If anything, I felt liberated by the fact that I didn't have to look at my phone so often — because there was nothing to check. Always eager to update my 'gram and send photos and videos to my parents whenever I'm traveling for a work assignment, I was starkly aware that these digital updates are always be done later, and you know what? No one actually needs an up-to-the-minute broadcast of my whereabouts and what I'm doing.
Another major revelation was how reliant I've been on white noise created by technology: Whether I was folding laundry at home or answering emails, I'm used to having some sort of podcast or Youtube video playing in the background. Any time that was not spent on listening to something or absorbing new information felt like a waste to me, but I had not realise how much overstimulation my brain must've been under. Without the internet to distract me, and nothing but the sound of the crackling fireplace in a distance, I was able to hear myself think for the first time in months.
From the Instagrams included in the story, you can probably tell that I haven't completely given up on my tech-obsessed ways: Yes, I did bring my camera with me and tucked away an external phone battery just in case. And, I still couldn't resist troubling a staff member to help me take a few photos. (It'd be a shame to leave without document this lovely place, amirite?) But, the point was, with no wifi or reception, I didn't obsessed with when these photos will go social media. I took the photos, but I didn't live online in real time: I could simply put down my phone and go on a stroll as soon as I got the shot, instead of immediately devising the perfect caption or hashtag. It was nice to still do my thing — just on a slight delay. Knowing that I can always detach from my online obsession is an empowering feeling.
My evening without electricity and wifi wrapped up with an impromptu stargazing session on the wooden bench, a total luxury for someone living in a city. There was no better place to do some self reflection and make plans for the future — something that I've never manage to do on other staycations without my phone screen lighting up every few seconds.
Is another digital detox in my near future? Who knows. But, at least now I know how to take a digital break — with the full knowledge that I don't need to be denied electricity to do that. The next time I go on a staycation, you bet I'll be switching my phone on airplane mode.