Award-winning children's author and illustrator Rachel Bright tells Living about her latest venture – the Happy River wellness retreat based in Wareham Forest.


Q: What is Happy River, in a nutshell?

A: Happy River is a health and wellbeing retreat championing holistic health and plant-powered living. The beating heart of our retreat will be plant-based nutrition, but we will also be exploring all aspects of physical, mental and soul health. It is a place to come and find your own personal flow.

Q: When did you first come up with the idea?

A: Myself and my co-founder, my partner Robbie, have had this idea for quite a few years. We knew this small slice of forest heaven was a special place and that we wanted to share it for a bigger purpose. That purpose became clear over the last few years as we researched and became passionate about nutrition and health and discovered all the empowering information that has the potential to change so many lives for the better. We want this place is the embodiment of that.

Q: How long did it take to transform the site?

A: We are still in the process of transforming it! It has been quite an organic process over the last 8 years, with us making improvements to the site and creating the cabin spaces. We have been renting out Sika Lodge for just over 6 years as a place to come and be in nature and experience a break from the relentless pace of modern life so many of us are grappling with. For families, couples and individuals alike, it seemed to strike a chord – especially as it’s something of a digital detox with no phone signal, internet or TV which is quite a rarity nowadays. It really is a chance to reconnect with nature and each other. Last year, we applied for and successfully won a major Rural Development grant to really go fot it and create the bigger picture, which involves a complete renovation of the our main barn and the surrounding gardens to transform it to into a gathering space, educational kitchen, creative printmaking space and permaculture gardens as well as a large outdoor gathering space we intend to use for a talks series and other exciting events. The grant meant we could really achieve it all and although it was a big process of almost a year for the application, it has propelled us forward at a spectacular pace! We now have just three months left of the main build and then we hope to be launching later this year with our first courses and events and also re-opening the cabins as part of that. It’s all VERY exciting and we still have a long to-do list but the evolution will continue for many years to come as we have big ambitions for the project as a whole.

Q: Why did you want to create such a retreat? What was the aim behind it?

A: We have felt incredibly empowered by our own research and subsequent actions for our own health and been very inspired by countless stories of individuals who have done the same – through changes to their diet, lifestyle and perspective. When we became entirely plant-powered ourselves and learned about the benefits – both on a personal and planetary level – we knew that this would be at the centre of what we wanted to do here: celebrate the incredible potential for plants for your health. We’d love to inspire others to take the step to becoming whole-food plant-based themselves and to consider all the other potentially life-changing things they can do to improve their wellbeing alongside that. We also believe that true health is just as much about finding your own personal sense of purpose and connection in the world – which is where the creativity, yoga, meditation and other aspects of what we offer here will come in. It is all encompassed in mindful, conscious awareness. We want everyone who stays here to go away feeling like they are empowered to create better health in their day-to-day life so that everyday for them has the potential to be a mini wellbeing retreat! The hope is that when more and more people are attuned to health and flow that the ripple effect in terms of the heath of our wider communities. If there is one central aim for all we are doing here it is to empower and inspire.

Q: Who are you hoping to appeal to with Happy River?

A: Everyone! I am yet to meet someone who is not interested in improving their life in some way but I think it will resonate particularly with people who are feeling ready to make a change or are already interested in a plant-based way of life. We are also going to have a community of artists here as part of the creative studio so there will be creative courses and days and events running all the time too – often as part of holistic health days. We will be running events for people of all ages and backgrounds and in particular, as parents ourselves, we are also really excited to be running family events. When we first went plant-based as a family, I craved information on how to make it possible for all of us and that led me to do a lot of research on nutrition. Although there’s been a staggering rise in veganism across the world and awareness of plant-based living in the last couple of years and there’s a lot more information in the public domain about it, it can still be confusing when you are new to it as a parent as some of the information is conflicting. We hope to create great resource for all those who are interested in family health too. For example - we want to run a ‘Little Growers Club’, where kids learn all about the stories behind their food – from soil to fork. Over the coming five years we will have so much to offer and we hope to evolve that offering as we learn what people are most interested in.

Q: What are you hoping people will get out of their time with you?

A: Nothing short of radical personal empowerment! Perhaps the odd Paradigm shift or two! And definitely a sense of viewing life and health from a new perspective. And in between that: simply an experience of feeling completely wonderful during their time here – connecting, learning, preparing and eating delicious food, finding space to practice yoga and meditation or learn a new creative skill and perhaps take that new skill into their day to day lives. We would love Happy River to be a haven for all who come and connect with what we have to offer.

Q: Why is sustainability so important to you?

A: Sustainability should really be important to everyone. As we all know, the world, whilst abundant, also has to be balanced to provide the resources we and every other living entity on the planet requires for survival and more than that – to thrive. If we are doing something that is not sustainable then we are essentially contributing to the challenges facing us, whether it’s on a personal level or when it comes to climate change and wildlife protection. Each time we take more than we put back, the balance is upset. Everything is balance – whether it’s your own personal health or the health of the planet and so each and every individual, business, community and government has the power to restore this balance as much as possible. It can be incredibly overwhelming to consider, but if you start with concsious choices individually, it ripples outwards through everything you do. We wanted sustainability to be woven into the very fabric of everything Happy River does, rather than an afterthought. We had the opportunity to consider this from scratch. For example, the whole site will be heated by a biomass boiler, we have designed rainwater harvesting systems, learnt about seed saving as part of our food-growing plans and we intend the website to be hosted on an eco-server, entirely powered by renewable energy. Of course, plant-based diets are widely accepted as a way to reduce your own personal impact very quickly. There are so many things you can do as an individual which will positively effect more than just your own health.

q: Are you hoping that visitors to Happy River will learn more about sustainability as a result of their stay?

A: Definitely. This will be a key part of visiting an event or course here. We hope to have information about all of the ways we aim to be sustainable around the site for those who are interested and ideas on how our visitors could take some of that into their own lives. Simply by considering more whole plant foods and less animal products in their diets, our visitors will be taking a huge step toward sustainability which will be immediately implementable. When we consider everything we put in and on our bodies, how we move them, what we do to nurture them (and indeed our minds and spirits within them), it’s a completely natural next step to make more sustainable choices.

Q: How important is the wellness factor and how will a visit to Happy River improve the wellbeing of guests?

A: Wellness, health and conscious living is what Happy River is all about. It’s about thriving rather than just surviving. Whether you are already in good health, but considering what you can do to ensure you maintain health and longevity in a preventative sense, or indeed you have a particular health challenge – whether physical or otherwise, we want our events, courses and retreats to help our visitors to find their own personal path – their own personal flow – which they can then take away into their day to day lives. We will be working to create a huge information resource both here and online for people to help them to understand how to create better and better health in their own kitchens and in their own unique lives and situations.

Q: Do you think Happy River will appeal to locals as well as those from further afield?

A: Yes we welcome visitors from near, far and everywhere in between. We expect lots of people might come from London as we are a short 2 and a bit hour hop on the direct train, but over the last 6 years of renting the cabin, we’ve had people come from all over the country. Happy River is all about health and that is universal to all of us, so we hope to appeal to anyone who is interested. We also want our online information and courses to be available for an even wider audience.

Q: Do you have an even bigger vision for the future?

A: Indeed we do! We have plans to run a talk series (which will also be available on line) hosted here, inviting leading experts in the health arena, specifically in plant-based nutrition to begin with. We plan to create new events and courses as time goes on and maybe even take the retreat into new locations as well. For now though, we’re focusing on 2020 as our year to begin!

Q: How do you find the time to launch the retreat, alongside your work as an author, stationery and homewares creator, and a mum?!

A: That’s good question! I’m not sure I know the answer! I just always try to follow joy wherever I can and I’m lucky to say that all the things I do bring me such fulfilment. I am lucky to do all this work from where I live too which means I can flex around life. There is no real separation between what I do and who I am. I have an amazing partner, who is also the co-founder and director of Happy River who is the mastermind behind all the creation of the physical spaces and gardens here, so I’m not doing it all on my own! He is also a very involved dad and is with the girls whenever I’m writing or working on the retreat. Likewise, I get to spend lots of time with our daughters when he is busy with Happy River. Between us we find the balance (most of the time!) It all just somehow slots together and if the balance gets out of whack we try to address it. I try to focus less on the Hows and more on the Whys and whenever I do that, everything seems to work out.

Rachel Bright has worked with CBeebies on an animated series based on her Love Monster books. Her latest book, The Worrysaurus, is a fun, reassuring tale about dealing with childhood anxiety and worries – introducing discussions about anxiety and mindfulness with children in a light-hearted, approachable way.

Alpha Farm, Bere Road, Coldharbour, Wareham

01929 556389