Travel

Totally unplugged: a digital detox holiday in Cheshire


It was at the M6 toll plaza that I realised just how much I relied on my phone. An old-fashioned paper poster read: “No phone payments, card only.” I hadn’t used my physical bank card since before Covid. Cue me causing a major hold-up at the barrier, as I raced round to the car boot and rummaged through bags trying to find it.

Map for Phoebe Smith

I was on my way to try out a three-night “digital detox” in an off-grid cabin in the Cheshire countryside with my partner and three-year-old. The idea was to escape from the madness of the Christmas season. Unplugged has a selection of traditional, insulated cabins around the country, but until now they have been aimed at solo travellers or couples. After visitor feedback, though, this particular one (Luna, between the villages of Tarporley and Kelsall) had been enlarged with a single bed for a child.

When we arrived at about 7pm, I was again reminded how much I rely on my phone. We’d forgotten to bring head torches to light the muddy path from the parking spot to the cabin and so, determined to do things “analogue”, we made our way along the trail by the light of the moon, our luggage slung in the wheelbarrow provided.

Once inside, with the fire lit (the only source of heat, sorely needed in temperatures falling to -2C), and our son tucked up in the single bed (impressively hidden in a corner away from ours), we shut our phones away in the lockbox and sealed the key in an envelope to further prevent temptation. In lieu of modern tech, a Polaroid camera, a cassette player, an old Nokia phone (for calls only) and boardgames are provided.

Inside Luna cabin.
Inside Luna cabin. Photograph: Rebecca Hope

The cabin was light, airy and much larger than I expected – easily accommodating three of us – with light wood walls, picture windows and blackout blinds. Our double bed was generous, the tiny kitchen had all we needed, and the bathroom consisted of a compost toilet (surprisingly smell-free) and a shower with toasty warm water (vital in an unheated bathroom).

Before coming to Luna I had spoken to Unplugged co-founder Hector Hughes, who worked with tech start-ups, suffered burnout, went on a retreat in the Himalayas and became convinced that everyone could benefit from a digital detox. I couldn’t argue when I was forced to Google “how to turn off an iPhone”, much to my android-loving partner’s amusement.

“When we started we only had one cabin and used to personally meet guests for check-in before driving off with their phones,” Hector said. “Now with 22 cabins across the UK it’s impossible, though people say being able to lock them away is enough.”

I already missed mine. “Scrabble?” my partner asked. I soon spelled out the word “b-o-r-e-d” earning a triple word score.

Delamere Forest in winter
Delamere Forest in winter Photograph: Alan Williams/Alamy

I slept fitfully, mulling over the messages I might be missing, emails left unanswered and incredible Instagram images I’d have posted. Yet we – including the usually early rising toddler – woke at 8am and spent a slow morning relighting the fire, waiting for the kettle to boil and watching the morning mist spool over the hills.

“I’m going to take a photo of you,” said my partner, “where’s your phone?” I had to remind him it would have to be a Polaroid. He may have been annoyed, but my son delighted in watching the image magically materialise on the blank paper.

We headed out to explore nearby Delamare Forest, arriving later than planned after relying on road signs rather than Google Maps. “You’ll need to download the app to enjoy the Zog trail,” we were told when we got there – even outdoor play has been digitalised. But the £4 analogue alternative – a Zog adventure pack, with cardboard wings (attached with supplied twine), as well as 3D glasses to crack secret codes on panels along the walking trail – was a winner with our son. Between that and the wooden Gruffalo carvings elsewhere in the forest he was suitably entertained. For me, having the Polaroid with only 10 shots for the entire stay, meant I contemplated each moment, savouring them more when I didn’t rush to capture an image.

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The Sandstone Trail.
The Sandstone Trail in rural Cheshire. Photograph: Alamy

We found tasty lunch at Ginger and Pickles cafe in Tarporley, thanks to a local’s recommendation. In the afternoon, bad weather forced us to seek out (pre-researched) indoor entertainment at the Ice Cream Farm in Tattenhall. Here the family owned ice-cream manufacturer – much like farmers who work with Unplugged to lease their land without the hassle of managing bookings – has diversified to offer soft play, an indoor sand and water park as well as electric go karts and mini golf.

We opted to follow our noses for dinner and settled on The Swan in Tarporley (which turned out to have been voted Cheshire’s Pub of the Year), enjoying a gourmet Christmas meal within its 16th-century walls.

Over the rest of our stay we leaned into the detox further, filling our days with no bookable attractions. We walked directly from our door along the Sandstone Trail, played hide and seek, and “crack the ice puddles” in the farmyard, and taught our son the joys of a paper map (mainly to hide behind). We ate at The Hollies Farm Shop, where we stocked up on fresh local vegetables and as a family prepped and cooked stew for dinner, before sleeping the best we had for months.

On the final morning while our son amused himself dancing to a Now 25 cassette, we noted that he hadn’t even asked for the box of Duplo we’d hauled to Cheshire with us.

A Polaroid shot of the author and her son watching the views from Luna’s picture window.
A Polaroid shot of the author and her son watching the views from Luna’s picture window. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

It was only on the M40, less than an hour from home, in slow traffic, that I felt the urge to plug back in. I turned to my son, who was clutching one of our Polaroid photos. It looked as if we’d been on holiday in the 1970s and, in a way, we had. I asked him which was his favourite part of our adventure and he said: “Spending time with Mummy and Daddy”.

I thought about how he must see our phones – devices that whenever we look at them for a route map, or to take a photo, always manage to pull us in further to “just check that message/email/news headline” – and made a promise to be more present this festive season.

The trip was provided by Unplugged, which offers three-night digital detox stays from £390 in 22 cabins around England and Wales. For more attractions near Luna check out visitcheshire.com



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