Review: Forest Retreats at Hill Farm, Tintern

A wellness paradise in the rolling Wye Valley

Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, is an ancient practice with a deceptively simple concept.

It is effectively a form of outdoors, sensory meditation, where you allow the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the forest to ground you in the moment and open you up to a mindful state.

At Forest Retreats, based at Hill Farm and tucked between the gorgeous Wye Valley just at the edge of Tintern in Wales, you can experience Shinrin-Yoku as it was supposed to be experienced: in the heart of the forest. An eco-retreat centre, the farm offers a variety of wellbeing packages and experiences, including yoga classes, forest bathing, corporate wellness days – and the full package of weekend yoga and wellbeing retreats.

The land was bought by husband and wife duo Tom and Hayley Court eight years ago, who have spent the time since building their vision from the scraps, sheds and wood left over from the farm that previously stood on the land. Hayley is a trained yoga teacher and massage therapist, and Tom leads the forest bathing and serves as the designated retreat chef.

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I arrived late afternoon on a balmy Friday, and the first thing I noticed was the absolutely spectacular view. At Hill Farm you have a breath-taking vantage point of the rolling hills and ancient forest of the Wye Valley, a spot of rural Wales untainted by the loud, awkward buzz of metropolis life. It is, of course, a perfect place to practice mindfulness. And, as I was soon to learn, the perfect place to frolic barefoot in the forest.

The accommodation is made up of self-contained yurts and a singular ‘Room With A View’ with separate access from the main house. Having never stayed in a yurt before, I was a little unsure what to expect. But whatever my expectations were, they were exceeded by a quaintly decorated, cosy two-bed space, replete with flowers, rugs and a roaring wood fire. Round spaces, Tom explained to me, are more relaxing to sleep in than square ones. All those corners!

The yoga is held in a converted shed, beautifully rebuilt into a light, airy studio with floor-to-ceiling windows that take full advantage of the stunning valley view. We had a total of four yoga sessions over the course of the weekend retreat, guided by Hayley and accompanied by the hazy, peaceful scents of incense and oils. The classes varied between yin, yang and flow yoga, each with their own qualities: the more dynamic and movement-based yang yoga, the softer and slower yin yoga, and the flow, which is a mixture of both.

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Saturday spelled our introduction to Tom’s guided forest bathing. We ventured into the surrounding woodland, some of which Tom explained to us is over two thousand years old. Shinrin-Yoku, we learned, was practiced in Japan several hundred years ago before being virtually forgotten about for many centuries. It was rediscovered in the latter half of the twentieth century, when Japanese doctors were looking for antidotes to the rising levels of depression experienced by those living in dense metropolises.

The function of the practice is go into the forest with mindful intentions, with the aim of improving your mental and physical health. We headed into the forest as a group, walking slowly, making sure to take in every sight, sound and smell possible. It is nothing like a brisk walk through the woods. It is a slow, mindful and calming wander.

We took off our shoes. Any squeamishness was met with the admittance that it felt rather freeing to walk around barefoot – a minor social taboo that does feel nonetheless thrilling to break. This isn’t done for the sake of it: Tom explained that the barefootedness of it all is a grounding process. We are the only animal that constantly keeps a barrier between our feet and the earth. Since mindfulness is supposed to ground you in the present moment, the unfamiliar yet surprisingly welcome sensation of soil and twigs against your feet keeps you present and helps to stop your mind from wandering. You are constantly forced to notice it.

Scientific research has proven that the forest has beneficial qualities, both mentally and physically – even when you aren’t in the forest at all. Filling offices with the smells of the forest makes people calmer and allows them to work for longer without distraction. Putting the sounds of the forest into hospitals via sound systems soothes patients.

What’s my verdict? The effects are definitely tangible. I came out of the session feeling such a noticeable boost in my mood that it was impossible to deny. I don’t know everything about the scientific benefits of forest bathing (for that Tom recommended the book Shinrin-Yoku: Art and Science of Forest Bathing by Dr Qing Li) but I do have this piece of anecdotal evidence: it really does make you feel pretty good.

The entire retreat itself is an exercise in mood-boosting. Saturday night saw an evening of massages, followed by a night under the stars in their eco-spa, which consists of a handmade, wood-fired hot tub, a wood-fired sauna, and a cold plunge pool. I quickly found myself addicted to the plunge pool, dunking myself in no less than thrice (it’s remarkably easy to make yourself endure a cold water plunge when you’ve got a hot tub waiting for you).

Tom and Hayley are welcoming, accommodating, and extremely knowledgeable about their subjects. All food on the retreats is homemade by Tom, all vegetarian with the addition of vegan and gluten-free options available.

There are a variety of upcoming retreats still available to book at the farm this year. A ‘Re:Connection’ weekend led by Tom from 10-12 May and an autumn yoga and wellbeing retreat 27-29 September (prices from £295 for camping or £415 for shared yurt, up to £465 for modern room based on two sharing).

There also various one-day retreats available to book: yoga and brunch mornings on 13 July and 12 October (£50pp) and full-day yoga and wellbeing days on 14 July and 13 October (£140pp).

Forest Retreats, Hill Farm, Tintern, NP16 6ST