Alexandra Topping, The Guardian, June 9, 2014
Our ukulele instructor exhorts us to let go of our inhibitions, and launches into song. "That's it G,C,G,D, … G,C,G,D ...'In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight …'"
While the group strums along, delighting in the collective endeavour, I find myself thinking of the Clash, and wondering if I could get away with grabbing my uke by the neck and smashing it down in the middle of the circle of joy.
I'm in a Georgian country house by an ancient Caledonian forest in the Cairngorms, drinking mulled wine and strumming the small instrument favoured by George Formby in an attempt to rediscover the "good life". While Tom and Barbara may have nailed it by growing their own veg and winding up Margot and Jerry, Polly and Ross Cameron at the Dell of Abernethy near Aviemore are hoping that their beautiful setting and a range of hearty activities – including seasonal yoga, bread-making and, yes, ukulele sessions – will be just as effective.
Aviemore is the gateway to the Cairngorms and is the region's snow sports base, but the ancient forests, rivers and lochs provide enough incentive to visit year-round. The Camerons, who run a holiday home business in the area, think so – which is why they decided to host four weekends a year, each designed to harness the talents of local residents and share the seasonal delights of the area. A weekend package includes all classes, food and copious amounts to drink, but non-participating partners can come along for a reduced fee, and locals, or those passing through, can sign up for individual classes.
Things starts well, with whisky in the lurid lounge car of the Scotrail Caledonian sleeper from London to the Highlands. When I wake up, grey concrete and sprawling suburbs have been replaced by snow-capped mountains and dawn-illuminated clouds. If there is a better way to start a holiday, I've yet to find it.
Bleary-eyed but happy, I'm met at Aviemore by Ross, who apologises immediately. "Sorry, I was meant to pick you up in a Morris Minor – a bit more Barbara and Tom – but it wouldn't start, so I had to bring this," he says, pointing to a beautiful, vintage cream Daimler.
We wind down narrow, pine-flanked roads until we arrive at a collection of holiday cottages grouped around a Georgian country house. The morning air is fresh, clouds stretch across a blue sky and the only noise comes from the birds and wind in the trees. The house itself is a treasure, restored and stripped back by the pair, who have the stylist's knack for coupling antiques with modern classics. In the sitting room, there's a fire in the grate, books on the shelves and whisky in the cabinet, while the elegant staircase leads to four large bedrooms (plus a single) and a drawing room. Guests can also stay in cute self-catering cottages with log fires, comfy beds and 50s kitsch.
I spend the day reading next to the fire and walking around the sparkling water of a nearby loch and, by early evening, meet the other guests: nursery teacher Louise from south London, and Fiona and Michael, a jovial couple from Elie, who run a shop named, excellently, Feather Your Nest.
Unsurprisingly, they take to the first ukulele session like ducks to water and Louise has even done it before. Despite my obvious ineptitude, Scottish folk musician Hector MacInnes is patient and, when it is over, the session does seem to have worked some magic. As we gather around the huge kitchen table, it is as though, disconcertingly, we've been transformed into friends via the power of the uke – and the effects of a startlingly good dinner. This involves a perfectly balanced salad of pomegranate, goats cheese and candied walnuts, followed by melt-in-the-mouth shin of beef and fondant potatoes, and finished with one of my favourites: lemon posset.
The next day starts early with "seasonal" yoga run by the beatific Dominque Picot. With the fire crackling and the sky slowly awakening outside, we rub our kidneys and stretch out our stress. Previously, trying to find inner peace in a draughty sports hall has proved beyond my capabilities. But here, somehow, it happens. Remember, Dominique says, the peace you feel now is always inside you. I feel strangely emotional afterwards, happy to have a few moments of fireside solitude before the next activity.
During our bread-making class, run by chef and baker Pamela Brunton, we learn about the alchemy of yeast, enzymes and glutens, and I'm left with two overriding impressions. One: making sourdough takes a very long time. Two: it is worth it. I suspect I am too impatient to ever make my own again, but I'm delighted when it's served in abundance at lunch, alongside homemade soup, local cheese and ham.
Polly and Ross, whose warmth and generosity of spirit bind this weekend like the glutens in the sourdough, took over the running of the Dell a few years ago after overseeing a hotel in Bali and their own restaurant in Aviemore. The pair are full of ideas for the future, with forthcoming workshops offering woodland yoga, a masterclass in fruit and vegetable growing and acapella singing, as well as a paddle on the Spey.
The key is that the activities draw you into the surroundings, engage you over dinner, and stimulate mind and body. After yoga on Sunday, we get on mountain bikes and spend an exhilarating few hours going through the forest. "I think people are starting to realise that checking your phone all the time doesn't make you feel great," says Louise. "This," she adds, spraying through mud, "makes you feel great."
I leave slightly less cynical, and more rested, than when I arrived. Did I find the good life? Well, I laughed a lot, ate and drank well, slept, and learned new things – even if mastering the uke was an ask too far. If that's not the good life, it's certainly pretty close.
• The trip was provided by The Dell of Abernathy (01479 821643, holiday-cairngorm.co.uk). Fully catered weekends on the Good Life Workshop cost £425 full-board (or £275 for non-participating partners). Travel from London to Aviemore was provided by Scotrail on the Caledonian Sleeper (0845 601 5929, scotrail.co.uk); seats from £37.50 one-way, standard berths from £68.10 one-way, though a limited number of "Bargain Berth" one-way fares are also available from £19
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Alexandra Topping from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.