Our digital detox

It started as an experiment go off grid and free her kids from their smartphones, tablets and laptops. Then Charlotte Edwardes realised that they weren’t the ones with the problem…

My kids have let the chickens out. They were having an argument about whose turn it was with the penknife and forgot to shut the wire-mesh gate to the coop. Now there are five brown chickens, pecking, flapping and squawking through the nettles. They are rescue chickens, saved from a battery farm. I’m not sure they wanted the freedom to be eaten by a fox.

And my three kids are trying to corral them, flapping, squawking – and barking. Why are you barking at the chickens?

“They’re like dogs,” Audrey says. “Look.” She gets one to jump up for a piece of bread. “Good boy. Good. Boy.” The chicken is a girl, I say. It laid an egg for our breakfast. Jesus, my townie kids know nothing about the country.

Maybe the bread bribery will work, though. Then I realise they are using the good bread. It’s all we have and we are stuck in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall. The nearest shop is miles away.

Actually, we’ve been left here by our two “site managers”, Louis and Shelley, a relaxed couple who radiate peace and good health, and who have “gone out”.

We – Margot, 11, Douglas, 9, Audrey, 8, and I – radiate city stress and technological toxicity.

I have brought the children here as an experiment, to see if we can escape our high dependency on electronics and re-engage with what’s around us. There has been a flood of reports on smartphone addiction – not least one by Deloitte, which surveyed 4,000 Brits, and showed one in three of us check our smartphones in the middle of the night. Ten per cent check it first thing, immediately after opening their eyes.

While I usually let out the dog first, I have indeed been known to look at the screen the second I wake up. And my children are worse. One even ransacked my room at dawn looking for an iPad during an obsessive Minecraft period.

Anyway, in less than a day here we have destroyed Louis and Shelley’s ecosystem by letting one of their main suppliers of food – the chickens – run amok and pilfer the bread.

So far my tech-stripped children are louder and screamier than usual, shattering the peace of this almost inaccessible woodland, cleaved through two sloping hills at the edge of a river. They’ve screamed at me, at each other, their screams ringing around the trees, sending birds shooting upwards in panic.

One in three of us check our smartphones in the middle of the night. Ten per cent check it first thing, immediately after waking up

“Where the hell are we going anyway?” my eldest had asked seven hours into the road trip from London, when her Instagram connection stopped working on Bodmin Moor. Well, I’d said, “We’re going ‘off the grid’ – which basically means no internet, no iPhone, no Pokémon, no iPad, no YouTubers, no Instagram.” I think that was when she started screaming – something about neglect and calling Childline (which sounds very 1986, but they’re given the number by teachers to record in their school diary, ready for emergencies like this).

Actually, I pointed out, it’s the opposite of neglect, because we’ll spend more time with each other than normal. We’re even sleeping in the same room. All of us. Spending all day every day together for a week.

“You are absolutely kidding me,” came the reply. It’s fair to say that the tone was not excitement.

Basically – basically is a word my children use a lot – the kernel of the idea that we had to escape this mainstay of modern life began to seed in Greece, where I took them on an account-draining holiday, and where they spent their days, while the sun blazed outside, beneath the gills of an air-conditioning unit, faces silver-blue in the glow of screens. Later we went to Dorset. They played Minecraft. Outside were fields to discover. They didn’t notice. They were in pixelated countryside, with square cows and square clouds.

Back in London, I watched Captain Fantastic, a film about a family living off the grid in a forest. What appealed was the idea that this family were not on a commune as such. They were in blissful isolation. They talked to each other. Their father taught them to hunt, rock-climb, learn languages and to read without the distraction of television. They’d never heard of Netflix or Instagram. I thought about the number of times I tell mine to “get off that screen and read a book”.

At the same time, a film of Swallows and Amazons opened, a book I loved as a child. So the seed began to germinate. What if my hardcore city offspring were forced into an entirely different environment, not unlike my own childhood, where boredom ruled and had to be tamed and overcome? Where different skills – I think they call them “life skills” – were learnt.

I grew up in Dorset. It was late medieval in every sense of the word. Pets were dogs, cats, polecats and ducks. Every other Thursday, a mobile library in a van stopped in the village. In the evenings, to combat creeping apathy, I binge-read Agatha Christie.

My parents insist we had heating, yet no one can explain why the beds felt wet with cold, why condensation froze on the inside of windows, or why my brothers and I jostled for space in front of the fire to dress.

Children aged ten are most susceptible to digital addiction, experts argue

God, the miserable hours sitting still on damp riverbanks to fish. Each of us skinned rabbits. The snapping of a bunny’s leg in my hands has been hard to erase. I became a vegetarian for a decade. So did my younger brother. Now we are lily-livered city dwellers.

On the other hand, there was freedom. In the mornings we clambered onto rattling Raleighs and that was it, freewheeling for the day. Summers were spent in the cliché of rural idyll: building dens in the woods, climbing, netting minnows and doing, well, nothing.

My children have none of this. They have gym club, Mandarin (compulsory) and coding. The eldest meets hair-flicking friends in cafés on Hampstead High Street.

And they have screens – the bane of every modern parent’s life. I’ve tried to ban them; or at least set strict rules. Nothing works. That Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was a low-tech parent with ascetic time limits around use brings me out in a cold sweat.

From top: Douglas, Audrey and MargotHarry Borden

The final straw was an article I saw in an American newspaper: “It’s ‘digital heroin’: how screens turn kids into psychotic junkies” – written, urgh, by a doctor. It claimed Silicon Valley executives send their kids to low-fi Steiner Waldorf schools, and quoted Dr Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, who calls screens “electronic cocaine”.

Children aged ten are most susceptible to addiction, experts argue. Once hooked, children need to detox completely before any kind of therapy works. The prescribed detox period is four to six weeks.

My son (currently a Pokémon obsessive) wandered in as I was researching. For his birthday, he announced, he would like an Oculus Rift – a virtual-reality headset: basically, full detachment from the world.

“That’s it,” I said. “We’re going off grid.”

“Is it the same as camping?” he asked.

“Sort of.”

“Can I bring the iPad?”

We arrive in the dark and park the car. To reach our off-the-grid home we have a short trek. The instructions run along the lines of, “Climb the gate, cross the field, cross another field, and then another one. Climb some more gates. Ignore the ‘Beware of the bull’ sign …”

The kids are jumpy and clinging on to each other, so I give them each a torch. Immediately, they start larking about, shining them up their noses, making spooky noises and then scaring the crap out of each other by shouting, “What the hell is that behind you?”

Once the littlest has stopped crying, we set off through the fields with our rucksacks on. The only sound is the grassy thud of footfall and rustling of waterproofs. Above are an insane number of stars, Africa-plains bright.

“How far is it?” one asks.

“I can’t carry this any more,” pants another.

“Jeez, what the hell. Mum! Oh my God, I think I stepped in a cowpat.”

A leucistic face looms into view and they start screaming. It’s a horse, I say, calm down.

The house that Louis and Shelley live in is called, appropriately, Lost Cottage. It was once the home of charcoal burners and then derelict for years.

“It’s freezing in winter,” confides Shelley.

Margot takes my phone to high ground in the woods. We wrestle with it and she bolts. I’m left with it in my hand. I look down. 4G, 3 bars…

Our lodgings are outside, a sort of lean-to, shed-like structure filled with army beds and blankets. The floor is made of green chipboard laid on the joists of the open kitchen below. There’s a little square window.

“Look at the stars,” I say to my son as I tuck him in. He doesn’t like the itchy blanket on his skin.

“Where?” he asks.

“Out of the window,” I say.

“Is that a window? I thought it was a catflap.”

Once they are settled, I look at my phone. No service. I switch it off. It feels liberating. I think. I bite my lip.

In the dark, a small voice. “Mumma?”

Yes.

“You’re always on your phone. If you can do without it for a week, so can we. Easily.”

I lie down on the bed feeling a little unnerved. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might find this difficult.

Next morning, we can see our new home in the light. It’s a fresh autumn morning. Outside there is a vegetable patch. At breakfast, I realise I’ve put my phone in my back pocket. I check it, not sure why. No service, it reminds me. I decide to keep it with me – in case it’s useful for taking photographs.

We’re miles from the nearest village or town. Truro is 40 minutes by car. The car is a 20-minute uphill walk. The nearest shop is a “very good second-hand bookstore”, according to Shelley, in some National Trust gardens that we could walk to in about an hour.

Margot, the eldest, spins her hair into an elaborate up-do and tuts at the lack of mirrors. She spends a good 15 minutes plodding around and muttering, “What the actual …?” at the open kitchen, at the fire pits, the river-water-fed loos, the river-water-fed solar “shower” (two plastic bags with hose attachments filled with water that are heated by the sun).

Douglas is so excited he forgets to wear shoes – despite Louis’ warning – and runs full pelt into nettles. Audrey takes her breakfast up to the coop so that she can eat while talking to the chickens.

Usually in life there are three things to keep your kids away from: fire, knives, fast-running water with an undercurrent. Here, these are things that cannot be avoided. As well as dirt. In a matter of hours they look as if they’ve been down a coal mine. Under their nails are thick crescents of soil.

The difference between here and camping is that it’s set up for living full-time. The phrase “living off the grid” can be used by anyone relying on solar or water or biomass fuels to generate energy. You can live in a stately home and be “off the grid” (as some do).

What we are doing is also classed as “alternative living”, a way of living that has been around in various forms since it was merely “normal living”. But whether the reason is cultural, ideological or ecological, more people are choosing to do it – and increasingly in response to the churn of our high-tech existence. More than 75,000 people now live off the grid in the UK, including Louis and Shelley.

This morning, Louis is smoking a roll-up and enjoying ground coffee made in an aero press (an essential piece of survival kit,I discover, because coffee addiction comes in a close second to my phone). He doesn’t freak at the sight of Douglas chopping wood in flip-flops. He doesn’t flinch when my daughter cuts herself on the Leatherman multi-tool while whittling. When they ask if he can do something for them – light the fire, change the gas canister on the cooking ring – he shows them how so they won’t have to ask again.

It’s about midway through the afternoon when Margot suddenly howls. “I hate it here. I want to go home. I hate that time moves so slooooooowly.” She back-arches, body rigid, and falls to the grass groaning. I think what she’s really saying is that she can’t get online. That someone might have snapchatted a photo of themselves with doggy ears and a pout and she can’t comment “stuuuuunneeeerrr” with a row of love hearts.

I realise I haven’t seen Douglas for hours. He’s down by the shore, collecting mussels. Audrey is wearing pyjama bottoms, wellies and yellow Marigolds because, “The chickens feel funny when you pick them up.” She confides, “I don’t want to go home. Ever.”

Later, the younger two persuade Margot to go wild-swimming in the freezing river. I listen to the splashes and their yells of excitement.

Louis has gone to help a friend and Shelley has “gone to the doctors” (at least she said that, but I swear I saw her break into a run at the top of the track), so I am alone. I force myself to sit and relax.

I try not to fidget. My mind spirals to the thought of my phone. I’ve left it off, lying flat on the tree-stump side-table by the beds. My foot jiggles of its own accord.

So I drive my mind away from it and make a mental list. Things I miss: electric toothbrush. Massively. Things I don’t miss: checking my phone every minute (it’s a horrid habit). Emails. The carpet-bombing of requests and reminders from schools, work, PRs.

After two minutes of this, I get a novel. And my phone – to take photographs.

On the way home in the car, the children are laughing. The iPads are in the boot. They know, but no one asks for them

With the exception of Margot, the kids seem to be settling into the routine – or lack of it. Later, when we roast the sausages I bought from a farm shop en route for tea, the ratio of squabbling to laughing is the most positive I’ve seen for the entire summer. That night when I kiss their heads goodnight, I can smell wood smoke on their hair.

I check my phone. No service. Margot sees me. “Mum,” she scolds. “Put it down.”

“I was just looking at photos,” I protest.

“Let’s see?”

“No,” I say. “No screens.”

Immediately I grasp this double standard. And it’s a double standard I’m guilty of all the time: how often do I tell them to get off their screens and read a book when I am – yup – checking my emails, reading an article online, looking at Twitter and Instagram, myself?

By day three, Margot is cajoling in her kitten voice. “I love it here, Mumma. And it’s amazing that you’ve brought us. Honestly. We should do this more. Next year. It’s just I think we should go home now. Actually right now.”

Later, there is an incident. I find her up in the woods with my phone. She pretended she was “building dens” with the other two, but found reception on high ground. She’s posted two photos. I try to confiscate it but she goes wild. “Give me back the phone,” she growls, sounding like the kid from The Exorcist. We wrestle with it. Then she bolts to our room and bangs the chipboard door shut.

I’m left with the phone. It’s in my hand.

I look down. 4G, 3 bars …

I am starting to worry about lunch – what time is it anyway? – when Stuart Woodman arrives. He’s a professional foraging teacher from Redruth and a friend of Louis and Shelley. He has a beard like a Shoreditch barista, but brushed and oiled. He studied American literature and fine art and looks like a GQ model. Right now, the important thing about Stu is that he can get free food.

He’s brought with him some bottles of raw milk, and the children race to see it with the same enthusiasm they might greet an iPhone 7. He teaches them to separate curds and whey. The curd is to make cheese; the whey we add to white-bread flour and rye to make dough that will rise while we forage.

We set off with a basket. Within minutes it’s full – the hedgerow is like Whole Foods Market.

The kids are transfixed when Stu tells them you can eat nettles – “just the tip, blanched”. He tells them about the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and the “four F’s” – things you are allowed to pick: flowers, fruit, foliage and fungi. They’re totally gripped, especially when we find hemlock water dropwort. Stu explains death from hemlock produces that ugly grin, “the sardonic smile”: apparently because of overuse of hemlock to poison by the Mafia in Sardinia.

“This is so much fun,” whispers Margot. She is not being sardonic.

By the stream Stu encourages us to try water mint (tastes like spearmint) and ground ivy (tastes like sage), sea beet (looks like glossy spinach), sea arrow grass (looks like chives, tastes like coriander) and rock samphire (tastes like crunchy carrot).

We eat lunch on our laps. I ask Stu how often he washes. He says the wood smoke stops your hair going greasy and that it’s good for your skin.

He tells Audrey how well she’s done. “Some of the stag groups I teach turn green when we’re gutting venison,” he confides. “Men much bigger than me. They stagger away.”

“What’s venison?” she asks.

It starts to drizzle in the afternoon, which means the few clothes I’ve brought for them are under threat. I also worry they won’t have anything to do. But they take themselves off to our bed shed to read without prompt. Even Margot gets stuck in. Later they find a Monopoly set and are unbothered by the extent of missing pieces and money.

From time to time the squabbling flares up (“It’s my turn with the knife”; “Let me hold the chicken”) but on the whole something is happening. They are more engaged, more relaxed. Dare I say, they are nicer to each other; more helpful to me. I realise I haven’t thought about the phone for hours. Apparently nor have they.

Day four, I am foraging for tampons. This appears to be strictly “moon cup” territory. I need to find out what a moon cup is but there’s no internet and I’m too embarrassed to ask. How did we find anything out before Google?

I add to my what I’m missing list: tampons. And – just generally – body scrub. And hot water. And a really good flat white coffee. And access to instant knowledge.

I am starting to feel irritable too. Why are all these off-the-grid people so bloody calm? From the second the light wakes me at six, I’m on it. Breakfast. Cleaning. Doing the washing-up in river water. Everything has a greasy coat. Plus, the sink is by the outhouse where there’s a vague but permanent faecal smell. I boil river water and walk the steaming pot to the washing-up bowl. There is chicken s*** everywhere, now that the chickens are allowed to stalk around freely under a new law suggested by Audrey and ratified by Louis and Shelley.

The kids are filthy. No one has brushed their hair. Audrey still has blackberry juice stains around her mouth from yesterday. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of them near a toothbrush.

I try to light the fire with the flint and striker. The paper takes and goes out. The kindling glowers and then darkens. I try multiple times, then call the kids. “Give it here,” says Douglas. “I’ll do it.” It takes first time, smoke palling upwards. “Do you want me to do lunch?” he asks. He has never in his entire life uttered these words before.

Later, Audrey is running up from the river, wet and naked, in pursuit of Zelda the chicken.

Why are you naked chasing a chicken? “Because Margot and Dougie have the towels,” she replies. “I’m cold. And the chicken is warm.”

I realise Audrey has also run out of clothes and I have no idea how I can wash her filthy dungarees, but I give it a go. I dry them on a branch. The mud acts like rigor mortis.

I’d like to sit and read my book, but I’m non-stop. As I go through my chores – wash, lift, stomp – I can feel new muscles in my arms. My feet hurt in my wellies. I’m not sure I’ve taken my socks off in three days.

On the positive side – and this is weird – I can see more clearly. Can your eyesight improve from not looking at a screen? Later, when a lovely friend of Shelley’s helps me wash my hair with water boiled in a pan, I feel I might never have felt better in my life.

Douglas makes a sort of seafood soup lunch, which I decline (just in case), and later Stu brings some rabbits, which he and Margot gut for supper.

By the evening, I have added to my miss list: sashimi, nail file, hand cream and a proper mirror. I swear I have dreadlocks growing at the nape of my neck.

As I come up to the open kitchen I pass Audrey singing to Zelda. Margot has actually made a loaf of bread.

The next morning I wake up to find a foot inches from my face. It’s black and smells of fish. Audrey has climbed into my bed during the night. When did she last shower? Five days ago? Then I remember we are leaving today and suddenly it’s not so bad. We did it. We survived. And I haven’t thought about my phone at all this morning.

On the way home in the car the children are laughing. The iPads are in the boot. I think they know, but no one asks for them.

“We’ve so got to do it again,” says Margot.

When we pull over in a service station, they go to the loo and I have a peek of my phone – 48 likes on a photo I put up of them cooking and 55 on one of Audrey holding Zelda.

“MUM!” Margot is at my window. “You posted photos on Instagram! OhmyGod, Mum. You are literally such a hypocrite.”

Stella Turner
Stella Turner

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