my complete immersion in heat and cold therapy

I’m sitting in a bright orange tin bath deep in the woods of rural Aberdeenshire. The water is a chilly 8C and I’m being led through breathing exercises by the UK’s first female commando. This isn’t a military exercise or some sort of cult initiation, but an activity offered at the new Discovery and Adventure Centre on the Glen Dye estate, which I’ve volunteered for.

“Tell yourself it’s cold but you can do this,” says Pip Delamere-Wright, “Remember top-down thinking, you’re in control. Just keep breathing.” At first the cold water feels like needles against my skin and I have to breathe deeply to stay in the water, but eventually I manage to calm my mind. After the requisite two minutes, I sprint across the forest floor back to the sauna, pine needles clinging to the soles of my feet, waiting for my next call to the baths.

Contrast bathing, or the Nordic Cycle, involves alternating between a sauna and icy cold water, and it’s surprisingly good for you. The peaceful 15,000-acre Glen Dye estate, with its beautiful woodland and winding river, is the perfect place to try it, and Pip is a patient and gently encouraging coach. As sauna culture spreads across the UK, Glen Dye is perhaps leading the way in offering experiences like this.

Cold water immersion has been linked to reduced joint inflammation, stress reduction and better sleep

Over the years, the Gladstone family have renovated a collection of old workers’ cottages and steadings on the estate, adding off-grid bothies, riverside cabins and a small campsite. We’re staying in the Coach House, a handsome stone farmhouse decorated in rich hues with striking modern art in every room. It can be booked for exclusive use (it sleeps 12) and is now, for the first time, open as a room-by-room B&B during the week. A jukebox, board games and stacks of books encourage relaxation and connection. Each unit has access to outdoor wood-fired hot tubs, barbecues and fire pits, and there’s a quirky BYOB pub for mingling with other guests by the fire.

It’s a great base for day trips into Aberdeenshire, to dramatic Dunnottar Castle on the cliffs at Stonehaven, the glittering granite of Aberdeen or the beautiful curving bay of St Cyrus Beach. Most guests don’t venture far, though – and those who want more action can sign up for activities at the centre. Aimed at helping families and groups of friends spend time together outdoors, there’s a range of activities on offer, from cold water to bushcraft, run by Pip’s husband, Stu Wright.

Contrast bathing is a bit different than the increasingly popular cold water swimming, but it has many of the same benefits. Cold water immersion has been linked to reduced joint inflammation, improved cardiovascular health, stress reduction, and sleep promotion. Contrast bathing requires you to control the very real mammalian impulses that tell you to get out of the icy water as quickly as possible.

“Your body can’t tell you what the danger is, it’s like when you’re about to fall,” says Pip. “You get a huge rush of energy and adrenaline, it’s more powerful than morphine.” It’s certainly exhilarating to challenge yourself in such a basic way. “You’re talking to your prefrontal cortex and taking control,” says Pip. “This is where people take the cold water experience and apply it to the rest of their lives. This is where you build resilience and perseverance.”

Pip knows a lot about grit. After studying human biology and sports science, she spent 17 years in the army, where she was given the honour of becoming the UK’s first female commando. She left the force when she got older and retrained as a wild wellness instructor, based in rural Aberdeenshire. Last year she appeared in Channel 4’s Alone, a winter survival challenge in the Canadian wilderness. Contrast baths are a key part of Pips training to swim the Channel – that and eating doughnuts to help insulate against the cold.

No shocking ice cream headache, but instead a sparkling cocktail of adrenaline and joy

My second cold dive is surprisingly easy. I pass three minutes without really noticing it and as I approach the maximum five minutes I try Pip’s suggestion to put my head under water too. There is no shocking ice headache, but instead a fizzy cocktail of adrenaline and joy.

The third and final dip is more challenging for me; I haven’t really warmed up in the sauna yet, so after two minutes I’m ready to wrap myself in a robe and wrap my cold hands around a mug of freshly brewed pine needle tea. The idea of ​​a bath is to seal in cold, allowing the body to warm itself. Lots of layers, walking, and squats are recommended. For lunch, Caroline Gladstone, co-founder of Glen Dye Cabins and Cottages , has whipped up a big bottle of asparagus and spinach soup with fresh sourdough bread and a platter of perfectly ripe local cheeses. We’ve learned that contrast baths, along with a “swimmer’s high,” make you hungry.

In the afternoon we’re back at the Discovery and Adventure Centre with Stu. Also ex-serviceman, he spends his time teaching “skills that people can actually use outdoors”. Much of his work helps fund Operation Cairngorms, a charity he founded that focuses on restoring the mental health of service personnel through bushcraft and time spent with others in nature. We learn basic wood carving skills, a push cut and a pull cut, and make our own tent peg as a practice project. Stu then teaches us how to use a forked twig, often a waste material in forestry, to make a coat hook, and how to tie a simple knot in a piece of rope to secure it to a tree. “Use it to hang your towels when you’re swimming outdoors,” he suggests. Sitting around the fire, eyes on our projects, the conversation flows freely: it’s easy to feel the therapeutic benefits.

The next day we take a walk to Clachnaben (589m), starting along the river and through the dappled old growth forest on the estate. It’s a gentle six mile round trip to the distinctive granite tor on the horizon, with sweeping views of the Aberdeenshire hills from the windswept summit. Glen Dye is half an hour’s drive from the eastern reaches of the Cairngorms, but there are many wonderful walks from the estate and in the surrounding area.

In the afternoon I dive into the cool waters of the River Dye for a swim, repeating Pip’s words in my head and feeling galvanized by them. The water is wonderfully refreshing. It’s cold, but I can do this.

The trip was organised by Glen Dye. Rooms in the Coach House start at £175 per night, exclusive use is £1,000 a night (sleeps 12), minimum stay two nights. Wellness and bushcraft sessions in the Discovery and Adventure Centre by £25 per adult, below-15is £15.

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