Simple Serenity: discover Cowdray Park’s dark sky reserve and wild woodlands
A spa break might be the ticket to temporary wellness but the natural world might offer a more lasting solution to letting go. Discover the dark night reserve and wild woodlands of Cowdray Park
“Give yourself permission to be playful,” says Helena Skoog, as we pause in an archway of undergrowth that separates Cowdray Estate’s gardens from one of many patches of fairy-tale woodland dotting the 16,000-acre West Sussex estate. We have just poured our worries and stresses into a token and handed it to Helena, a forest bathing guide and yoga instructor, and are about to embark on a mindful adventure that will set the tone of our relaxing weekend exploring the Cowdray Estate.
Forest bathing – the Japanese wellness practice shirin-yoku – is the epitome of low-maintenance mindfulness, refreshing the mind and reducing stress simply through spending time in nature. The secret ingredient, as Helena explains, lies in the senses: engaging with your sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing and even taste to ensure you remain present in the moment, leaving any worries scattered like debris on the forest floor. We walk (and occasionally scramble) over roots and fallen leaves in a peaceful silence, through the woods towards Cowdray’s grand avenue of sequoia trees, where Helena ups the ante with a guided sensory meditation lying beneath the giant branches. As introductions to a relaxing getaway go, this is an impressive one. What could be simpler than a walk in a beautiful forest? Yet, so often, it’s something so easily put off for a later date. Just a short walk fills me with energy; the grown-up version of running in the woods as a child. Soon enough, we’re invited to burn our worry-tokens in a bonfire before enjoying a buffet-style afternoon tea, where I learn that Cowdray offers its guests even more ways to embrace their sense of play – from foraging for wild food with the estate’s expert, George Linklater, to fly fishing, an 18-hole golf course, clay pigeon shooting, and the famed polo academy for the more seriously sporty.
The estate’s lodgings, too, accommodate the different interests of its guests. The historic Cowdray House has 22 classically furnished rooms with views over the South Downs, while private cottages and lodges include the Grade II-listed Challens Yarde, Costers Lodge, Apsley Cottage and more. While most of the estate’s accommodations are steeped in history (more than 30% of Cowdray-owned properties are Grade II-Listed), the newest additions to the estate are a set of four idyllic treehouses, hidden away in tranquil woodland. Launched in February in partnership with Tree House Retreats, each private house features a king-size bed, open-plan living area and kitchen (stocked with a hamper filled with local goodies from the estate’s Cowdray Farm Shop), and wrap-around balcony – complete with an outdoor bath and seating area – that overlooks the polo fields and romantic 16th-century ruins of the original Cowdray House.
The ruins themselves are a true local landmark and a centrepiece of the estate. One of England’s most important early Tudor houses, Cowdray was visited by both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I during their reigns. The majority of the house was destroyed in 1793, when workmen carrying out repairs may have knocked over a lamp and set the house ablaze. Perhaps ironically, the kitchen tower – which was isolated from the rest of the house due to the risk of fire – is the only part of the mansion to remain intact today, and has been known to play host to events such as tours and art courses, as well as weddings and more at the adjacent Walled Gardens.
The park still boasts royal connections today thanks to its outstanding polo fields. Home of the Coronation Cup, hosted since 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was an occasional visitor, while her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, and son King Charles III both played competitive polo at the venue.
Moving away from high-octane activities, our relaxing weekend continues back at the modern day Cowdray House, as the sun sets and we prepare to take advantage of another jewel in the South Downs’ seemingly endless collection of selling points – its status as a Dark Night Reserve.
Beneath a flawlessly bright full moon, we first prepare for our astronomy lesson with an astrology session – by way of an affirming Tarot session with Nadia of London’s Psychic Sisters – further emphasising the many different and personalised routes to wellness offered by the estate.
Then, armed with warming cocktails created by The Drunken Jockeys, we head outside into the cold to take advantage of the crisp, clear skies. While the brightness of the full moon makes spotting some constellations difficult, we are treated to sights of Jupiter and four of its moons, the red glow of Mars, and the bright twinkle of more constellations than I have ever seen in the UK sky – all under the fun and fascinating guidance of Dr John Mason MBE. With minds and spirits full, it’s time to focus on the body – with an extravagant three-course meal in the estate’s historic Buck Hall, overlooked by grand portraits of the current owners, the Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray, Michael and Marina Pearson. Head chef Ben Jupp uses hyper-local ingredients to deliver a mouth-watering starter of butter-poached lobster tail on pan-fried brioche, followed by Cowdray venison loin (from the estate’s own Home Farm) with seasonal vegetables and dauphinoise potatoes, and finished with a revelatory saffron-poached pear with homemade vanilla ice cream. All this, paired with local English wines including Stopham Estate Pinot Gris, Nutbourne Vineyards Pinot Noir, and the Nyetimber Cuvée Cherie MV – a sparkling wine from the South Downs producer that is known to be on par with some of the best champagne houses on the market, and a multi-vintage I can’t resist picking up during my visit to the Cowdray Farm Shop the next morning – before taking a nightcap in the House’s morning room.
With such a full itinerary, the next morning receives an admittedly slow greeting – only the lure of fresh breakfast and a trip to the estate’s farm shop (stocked with more local produce including vegetables, meat and fish to candles and homeware) convinces me to leave the comforts of my room. As I leave the fresh air and wild woodland of Cowdray, I’m surprised at how refreshed I feel considering the short stay and relative simplicity of my experience: taking time out in nature, learning something new beneath the stars, and enjoying fine food in great company. In such a picturesque location, and with such interesting experts guiding guests through every experience, this is truly self-care well worth sustaining.