Tina Lofthouse heads off with the family on a digital detox in the New Forest
My children looked at me in horror. My husband was aghast. “Have you actually thought this through?” he asked.
The usual expressions of excitement when I announce we’re going away for the weekend had been replaced by those of bewilderment. “What, a whole weekend?” asked the 12-year-old. “Well, we can always just swim in the pool,” said the nine-year-old. “There’s no pool, and we’re NOT taking screens…” said I, delighted by my mission.
Like many families, we have quite a reliance on screens. My boys love Minecraft and YouTube, and my husband and I are often on our phones sorting out plans on WhatsApp, reading up on stuff, listening to podcasts and the occasional scroll through social media. But during lockdown it reached a whole new level, and it has become the constant go-to. Everyone seems plugged into something.
A weekend with no distractions and no technology was just what we needed – okay, what I needed. And the New Forest would be perfect – not too far to head to after work on a Friday, plus there’s plenty of outdoor activities to keep us entertained and our minds off screens. I just prayed it wouldn’t rain. Board games packed in case, we set off. First problem – we needed our phones for navigation, and we would hit rush hour traffic. Okay, we could all have screens on the journey, I relented…
We arrived at our self-catering apartment in Burley – a cosy spot, it is well-equipped, and crucially, has a wood burner for cosy nights in with board games. Called The Old Chemist, the apartment is ideal for a small family, with two double bedrooms, a single room, and two bathrooms. It can also be joined up with a neighbouring property for larger groups who want to be together but keep some privacy. And it’s also right in the heart of the village so we could head to one of the local pubs to eat.
We booked into the Queens Arms, which dates back to 1685 and was once the blacksmiths. The kids love going out to dinner – they grabbed their sketch books, as they usually do to keep them occupied, but they often like the aid of a screen for some drawing inspo or a YouTube tutorial. There was a shrug of the shoulders when they realised the predicament but no major whingeing and we passed a pleasant evening without the screens (other than using our phones as torches on the way back to the cottage – but surely that doesn’t count?) After we’d tucked the kids up in bed, my husband and I did something we hadn’t done in a long time…we played cards. We had to look up the rules for Rummy but it was rather fun.
We awoke the next morning to Gordon Ramsay’s voice booming out. The children were sat watching his Kitchen Nightmares on TV. “But that’s a screen,” I protested. “No, it’s not,” the boys said.
To avoid argument, we dressed and headed off to our first stop for the day to meet Sally from Wild Heritage. She was to provide us with some insights into the fascinating natural world of the New Forest. This vast national park of nearly 220 square miles features swathes of heathland, many types of woodland and vast grassy lawns naturally mown by the thousands of ponies that roam freely across the land.
Sally leads guided walks and goes into schools to impart her knowledge. And she soon had my boys on side with her tales and sightings of mushrooms with terrifying names, an experiment to create the iconic Alice in Wonderland agaric fungi using a red balloon and tissue paper, and her tips on how to identify the forest’s animals by their poo. She also had my husband and I fascinated with her info on the symbiosis between trees and fungi – who knew about the sheer power of the ‘World Wide Wood’ under our feet with a vast network of mushrooms and trees communicating together?
The highlight for our youngest was spotting a tiny grass snake and he watched enthralled as it slivered across the ground. It was a beautiful morning with the sun shining through the tree tops, and the overnight mist coating the thousands of cobwebs adorning the gorse bushes. Curious ponies crossed our tracks and Sally told us about how they came to be there, who owned them, and the annual ‘drift’ where they are corralled, checked over, and their tails cut into distinctive shapes to show their fees have been paid and where they belong.
We then headed for some lunch in nearby Brockenhurst, a quaint village with a great butchers (we stocked up on some local venison for dinner) and greengrocers. Our afternoon plan was canoeing on the Beaulieu River. We hopped back into the car and soon realised something was amiss – eldest was on his phone playing a game. I shouted, he looked bemused – “but we’re on a journey,” he protested. Okay, maybe my instructions hadn’t been clear and I’d set a precedent getting here, but I confiscated the phone anyway.
New Forest Activities offers a wide range of pursuits – including archery, bushcraft, high ropes and kayaking, which I love. We’d booked for canoeing and when we took to the river, I remembered why I hadn’t done this in a long time. I’m pretty rubbish at it. And it didn’t help when I realised how wobbly the boats are, particularly when there’s four of you.
We struggled initially. But our patient instructor Josh showed us the ropes well. The eldest took charge of getting us rowing in sync. It was idyllic. The river is peaceful and beautiful. We canoed into creeks and Josh explained the fascinating history of Beaulieu and pointed out the wildlife – the youngest was really taken by the interesting (non-stingy) jellyfish we saw. We were all smiles afterwards – and no one had mentioned their screens (other than taking some photos on our phones!). Back at the cottage, we relaxed with a drink in the little suntrap in the back garden. When the evening chill settled, I went in and got the wood burner going while hubby cooked the venison in the range cooker. We set up the board games (we all squabbled and remembered why we don’t often play board games). The eldest then wanted us all to help make a film on the iPad – the idea being that we all take on roles, he records us, then edits it into a fun film… it’s on a screen but it is creative – I compromised – 20 minutes only…
Tired from all the fresh air, we hit the hay. The evening had passed in a flash. Sunday was another beautiful morning and we strolled around Burley – the village is linked with witches, one famous one being Sybil Leek, from the 1950s, a white witch who was often seen walking around in her long black cloak with her pet jackdaw sitting on her shoulder. And the shops are full of associated paraphernalia – perfect for our pre-Halloween break. There’s also a Scandichic café, serving excellent coffee and fab ciabattas. We wanted to explore more of the forest and drove out to Blackwater Tall Trees Arboretum, which boasts majestic sequoia, redwoods and Douglas firs. The scent of pine is heady and it really is a special (though popular) spot.
Weekend over, we charged up the screens ready for the journey home. Youngest wasn’t bothered – he wanted to sleep, eldest was happy to listen to music (yes, via the phone, admittedly) rather than be glued to a game. I realised though just how much technology is ingrained into our lives. I can’t imagine map reading now on a journey, phones take amazing-quality pictures, we can listen to music, make films. Where the danger lies is in the disconnect it can create. Carving out that special time to be together is everything…
The Old Chemist in Burley village sleeps 5. Short breaks from £581 www.newforestcottages.co.uk
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