This alcohol-free spirit promises to give you all the good bits of booze – and none of the bad

Cast your mind back to a time when you could go on a night out.

You’d start with a G&T or a glass of bubbles as you put on your mascara. Then, drinks out at a bar: a couple of cocktails or pints of lager. It could easily end up with Jagers on the dancefloor, or tequila shots at an afterparty – and most likely, a nauseous train journey to work the next morning, or a full English fry-up to kick off a Saturday on the sofa.

Alcohol is ingrained into the way that we socialise. 82% of British adults drink alcohol regularly and our obsession with ‘the pub’ made itself painfully clear as lockdowns came and went – alongside trips to the local boozer – throughout 2020.

Yet there’s growing cultural awareness about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol Change UK reports a steady rise in non-drinkers between the ages of 16 and 24, and the non-profit predicted that 6.5 million people would take part in Dry January this month. That’s up from 3.9 million in 2020, and just 4,000 when the concept launched in 2013.

However, many of us have scrapped Dry January as we struggle with the latest UK lockdown. YouGov figures found that a third of people pledging to stay off booze this month had given up in the first week, and Waitrose beer sales were up 49% after week one of lockdown.

For many of us, to give up alcohol under lockdown is to lose one of the remaining small pleasures getting us through it. But the British public is caught in an arm wrestle between the knowledge that alcohol is harmful – in 2019, alcohol-related hospital admissions in the UK had reached an annual peak of 1.26 million – and the fact that drinking it is so pervasive in our society. For many, it’s also very enjoyable.

There’s a solution to all this.

What if we told you that you could enjoy all the positive effects of alcohol, but end up with no hangover or damage to your health?

It sounds like something from a sci-fi, but a drink like this has been invented. You can buy it online right now.

Sentia Spirits is the brainchild of David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. Once a government drugs advisor, Nutt was sacked in 2009 for highlighting the hypocrisy of drug policy in the UK. Famously, he presented evidence that alcohol is more harmful to society than heroin or crack.

‘Alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK,’ says Nutt, now.

‘It’s the most common drug that we encounter causing damage to people, in every branch of medicine. As a doctor and scientist, my life’s work has been trying to reduce the damage of alcohol – and this is a way of doing it.’

The science behind Sentia

Sentia is a non-alcoholic drink made of a licensed, ‘Botanical GABAergic Blend’ from Nutt’s team at GABA Labs.

There are other botanical drinks on the market – like Three Spirit Drinks, which uses ingredients like cacao and lion’s mane for mood-boosting, energising effects. Not to mention the slew of non-alcoholic beers, wines and spirits already flooding the market.  

But Sentia does much more than mimic the taste and texture of an alcoholic spirit: it actually gets you tipsy. The magic recipe has been developed from decades of scientific research into the way that alcohol affects the brain.

‘Sentia is the first drink to replicate the pro-social effects of alcohol, by targeting the brain system that mediates them,’ says Nutt.

‘It started in 1980 when I was doing my PhD. I discovered an antidote to alcohol and thought, this is amazing – you could take it at the end of a night out, get sober and find your way home.

‘But my professor said, what’s the point of that? Isn’t the alcohol still going to be killing your liver? And won’t people just drink more?

‘Nevertheless, it was the first step into discovering how alcohol works in your brain.

‘The main calming transmitter in your brain is called GABA [gamma-Aminobutyric acid]. Alcohol enhances GABA, which is why it relaxes you and makes you more convivial.

‘Over the last 40 years or so we’ve been working to understand the GABA system in the brain. It turns out it’s a very sophisticated system with multiple parts, and alcohol stimulates them all. We’re trying to stimulate the good effects of alcohol, without the bad.’

This research has branched into two directions. The long-term project is the invention of a synthesised, alcohol-alternative molecule. Then there’s Sentia: the herbal alternative, which took the past two years to create.

‘Hopefully it’ll raise enough money to fund the more expensive, chemistry part,’ says Nutt.

‘We’re in the process of raising funds to take the molecules through safety testing, so they can become foodstuffs ingredients in a few years’ time, but that costs millions of pounds.

‘So to raise that money and develop the concept, we started looking for botanical ingredients that would work in a similar way to GABA. We identified four plants that in combination, and with uptake enhancers, produced this effect.

‘All the ingredients are either foods or food additives, so they’re covered by safety standards already.’

The herbal combination is top secret for now, but I wanted to get my hands on a bottle.

What’s drinking Sentia like?

In a glass, bell-jar-style bottle, Sentia looks like a boutique gin or whisky – and at £30 for a 50cl bottle, the price tag more-or-less matches that description. It’s a rich magenta in colour, complementing its lavender label and pouring out thick and juice-like.

It doesn’t have a strong smell – just a hint of botanicals. Neat, over three cubes of ice, its full flavour comes through: a strong, herbaceous first taste, followed by sweetness, then a clove-like aftertaste. It’s a bit like mulled wine. Add tonic water or lemonade and it becomes a sweet and tangy aperitif, bold enough in flavour and texture to easily hold up against any other mixed drink I might rustle up from the cupboard.

After one glass, I feel just like I would after a gin and tonic (my usual go-to). My cheeks are slightly flushed and I’m definitely more relaxed. After a second, I’m a bit giggly and chatty. How far can I take this, I wonder? I drink a third, then a fourth, but the sensation doesn’t progress much further. Unlike with alcohol, you can’t get beyond that initial tipsy feeling.

‘We want you to get a good effect that plateaus,’ says Nutt, confirming that it’s not possible to get wasted on Sentia.

‘The effects might last longer, but it’s not poisoning the body in the same way that alcohol does.’

Could you drink Sentia as a designated driver, or underage, or pregnant?

‘We suggest over 18s only and have no data for pregnancy or breastfeeding yet,’ says Nutt.

And while there’s no evidence of impairment with Sentia, the team won’t recommend it for designated drivers as people might be affected by it differently.

On the plus side, Sentia’s been found to improve sleep in some people and you don’t get the munchies – which means no more 3am kebabs. Plus, I woke up the next morning feeling entirely hangover-free, which would not have been the case had I swapped those Sentia measures for vodka.

The future of drinking?

Post-lockdown, it might not be long before you spot Sentia in delis, specialist drinks shops or behind the bar at high-end cocktail spots (not least at Pulp, a bar that Nutt co-owns in Ealing). Going forward, the range of flavours or effects could expand, or it could enter the world of mixology, especially if a clear-liquid version is made available. All are in the works at GABA Labs.

It’s safe to say there’s a market for all this. In 2020, 11 new non-alcoholic spirit brands launched in the UK market, making a grand total of 42. As fewer millennials choose to drink alcohol, the market for alternatives is growing drastically, including variations from big drinks brands like Gordon’s and Martini. It’s similar to Big Tobacco’s investment in e-cigarettes, or the backing of the meat industry for vegan mock meats.

‘Let’s face it, the drinks industry has known for hundreds of years that alcohol is not very good for your body,’ says Nutt.

‘Now that the rest of the world has wisened up to that, it would make a lot of sense for them to have drinks like this as part of their portfolio. I suspect many alcohol companies will want to join us. It makes commercial sense.’

There’s still a place for recreating comforting classics with non-alcoholic spirits. Gordon’s deliciously juniper-infused 0.0% spirit went on the market just before Christmas, and – like Seedlip – it shows that a grown-up, treaty drink doesn’t have to involve booze.

But these drinks will always be missing something.

‘80% of adults drink alcohol,’ says Nutt.

‘Why? Because they enjoy the sensation. For most people, many of their pleasant social interactions have occurred alongside alcohol.

‘All we’re trying to do is give them something that will do what they want, but with very, very reduced risks of harm.’

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the sensation of alcohol, and GABA Labs is certainly not trying to replace alcohol for good. But an actual alcohol alternative, that makes Dry January fun? I’ll drink to that.

Original post:


Is London the vegan capital of the world?

For the country with the most livestock in Africa, Ethiopia boasts curiously vegan-friendly cuisine. But it’s long been customary for Orthodox Tewahedo Christians to omit meat from their diet on Wednesdays and Fridays – something that the West cottoned onto in recent decades, with campaigns such as Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney’s Meat Free Monday. London has just been voted the world’s most vegan-friendly city by online vegan restaurant guide HappyCow, with 152 meat- and dairy-free eateries, including a family-run Ethiopian canteen. Here’s five of the best.

The Ethiopian bargain: Andu Cafe

Any Londoner will point you in the direction of Dalston for plant-based grub. The east London district’s main thoroughfare, Kingsland Road, is packed with veg-centric diners from a deep-fried jackfruit joint to the new outpost of Soho spot Mildreds. But there’s one unassuming, cash-only canteen that set up shop here long before vegan eating became a hipster trend.

“I came to London from Addis Ababa in 1970, and the city was missing Ethiopian food,” says Andu Cafe’s owner, Andu Alam. “We opened the UK’s first vegan Ethiopian restaurant. At first it wasn’t that busy, but since vegan food has taken off it’s gained popularity. Now people come from all over the UK and beyond.”

It’s easy to see why. Sitting at a wicker chair, surrounded by carved wooden figurines and faded photos on the lime-green walls, feels like being in a friend’s living room. And the food couldn’t get any homelier: brought out quickly on platters bearing six dishes each, it’s a warming antidote to the harsh winter outside. Alam’s yemisir wot (lentil stew) is his crowning glory. Smoky, oily and rich in tomato, it’s got just enough of a kick to ward off a cold, and its smooth texture complements the crunch of the accompanying cabbage and beans. It’s all mopped up with a tangy injera flatbread and followed by jebena-served coffee to keep you warm for the rest of the night.

The veggie pioneer: The Gate

Red buses trundle past the ceiling-high windows of the bright dining room, where a shiny, glazed aubergine waits on a polished wooden table. Sliced in half, it drips with a sticky sauce of miso paste, sugar and soy. The knife slides smoothly through its roasted flesh and each bite crunches with a garnish of toasted cashew nuts and sesame seeds.

At vegetarian fine-dining spot The Gate – which launched in Hammersmith in 1989 and was followed by three more London openings – aubergine replaces meat. “Another of our classic Gate dishes is aubergine ‘schnitzel’,” says owner Michael Daniel. “But although we live in a world where everything gets compared to meat, vegetarian ‘meatballs’ are not meatballs – they’re lentil balls, or something different.”

Daniel’s mainly vegan menu pre-dates and avoids the current craze for meat replacements, letting seasonal, local vegetables shine on their own merits. Artfully plated South- and East-Asian inflections spice up foraged mushrooms, baby artichokes and raw beetroot.

“Plant-based has gone mainstream, and it’s very exciting,” says Daniel. “Nowadays, we see people in the restaurant we wouldn’t expect – groups of guys, and people who are open to just trying vegan once in a while.”

The insta paradise: Kalifornia Kitchen

“Healthy is sexy!” proclaims Tottenham Court Road’s latest plant-based eatery on Instagram. The Barbie-pink eatery seems tailored for the social media generation. The youthful clientele is equally photo-ready, sipping on quinoa, strawberry and coconut milk smoothies and nibbling on CBD granola on banana pancakes, in between photoshoots on the fuchsia spiral staircase.

But there’s substance behind the fashionable facade. Many diners head to Kalifornia Kitchen for a Moving Mountains burger, one of the most convincing mock-meat products on the market. Made from oyster mushrooms, vitamin B12, wheat proteins and coconut oil, the patty also contains beetroot juice which makes it “bleed” in the middle.

“The environmental impact of animal agriculture is becoming catastrophic,” says Moving Mountains’ Simeon Van der Molen. “Plant-based meat requires less land, less water and produces less greenhouse emissions than animal meat.”

The one for dessert: by CHLOE

Vegan cakes get a bad rap: traditional bakers have long complained that replacing eggs and butter with coconut oil and soy milk leads to heavy, dry results. Those prejudices can be left at the door of by CHLOE, which arrived from New York City in Covent Garden in 2017, with its menu of fast-casual burgers, sandwiches and salads, and the most un-vegan-tasting vegan cakes on the market. Think sweet sponge topped with rich vanilla icing, dotted with cocoa nibs and raspberries; air-light blueberry muffins tinged green with matcha; silky, red velvet cupcakes smeared with shocking-pink icing.

The interior is Instagrammable and millennial-friendly, with wicker chairs swinging from the ceiling and recyclable plates and cutlery. The sweet stuff here should be good: Californian founder Chloe Coscarelli made her name as the first vegan chef to win the USA’s Food Network’s Cupcake Wars in 2010.

The Michelin-starred treat: Pied à Terre

In Fitzrovia, the restaurant-packed pocket just north of Oxford Street, the roster of food businesses is in near-constant flux. But Pied à Terre is not only one of the area’s longest-standing restaurants, it also boasts one of London’s longest-held Michelin stars, awarded in 1993, two years after opening. Thanks to founder David Moore’s determination to be ahead of the curve, you can forget the starched tablecloths and haughty service usually associated with Michelin-starred dining rooms. Here, pendant lamps cast dappled light over leather booths and teal velvet chairs.

But it’s the restaurant’s 10-course vegan tasting menu, launched almost three years ago with the appointment of head chef Asimakis Chaniotis, that’s kept it modern. The delicate tasters of spelt risotto, coconut cream “cheese” and zesty lime sorbet are a far cry from the meat-focused kitchen of the 90s, where the chefs would scrabble to find a plant-based alternative on the fly.

“Nowadays, out of 45 covers, 20 of them could be on the vegan menu,” says Moore. “Over the next five or 10 years we are all going to eat much less meat. It’ll be like when we stopped smoking on buses or planes. Your kids will say to you, ‘Did you really eat meat twice a day?’”


So hot right now: London’s new sauna obsession

I’m face down on a hot wooden bench, in a dimly lit steam room. To my side, a large, hairy man dressed in swimming trunks opens the door of a deep stove that resembles a pizza oven. Inside, red-hot metal glows at 700ºC. He throws in a ladle of cold water, which explodes into steam. Then he begins to lightly whip my back, legs and feet with a bunch of oak branches, forcing down the hot sauna air so that it stings and slightly burns my skin.

As the sweat seeps from my pores, I’m on the verge of crying out in pain – but just when I can’t take any more, he stops and presses the branches onto my skin like a leafy hot water bottle.

“Our therapists keep you on the edge of pain and pleasure,” owner Andrei Fomin had warned me on arrival. Moscow-born Fomin opened Banya No. 1, London’s first real banya (Russian steam bath) seven years ago, and it’s still the only place in the capital where you can experience a traditional parenie (from €35), the fairly extreme treatment I’m enjoying – or suffering – now.

Banya No. 1 has garnered a reputation as London’s most intense sauna experience. The spa counts Justin Bieber, Emilia Clarke and Kate Moss among its fans – in fact, Biebs loved his post-parenie massage so much that he asked the therapist to join him on a three-month album tour. I had to find out what the fuss was all about.

Turns out the whipping is just the first step. Now my banschik (bath attendant) tells me to stand by a wall. Suddenly he pours a wooden bucket of iced water over my head. I scream. He leads me to a tub that looks like a Jacuzzi – except the water is chilled to 8ºC. Reluctantly, I climb in till the water’s over my head. By the time I come up for air, my body is in shock. Shaking and disoriented, I sit on the plunge pool steps while the banschik wraps towels around my shoulders and legs, laughing at my reaction. I feel intoxicated.

They’ve been doing parenie in heated log cabins in rural Russia for over 1,000 years, and those who practise it weekly swear by its health benefits. It’s effectively a cardiovascular workout that also releases toxins through intense sweating.

“If you do it regularly during the winter season, you don’t catch flu or colds,” says Fomin. “When I opened Banya No. 1 it was for Russians in London who were missing parenie. But after a couple of years the non-Russian customers took over. I was surprised at how quickly people got hooked on it.”

The wellness industry (which encompasses nutrition, fitness and cosmetics) is now worth up to €3.3 trillion worldwide. Instagram has gone a long way to drive it with sumptuous marketing imagery and picture-perfect influencers. Londoners aren’t only seeking increasingly novel experiences, they also want to feel and look good while doing it (or at least afterwards).

We’ve seen alternative fitness trends such as disco yoga and circus training. Now profuse sweating, and its associated benefits, is the capital’s feel-good trend – and standard thermal spa treatments don’t seem to cut it any more. London’s Glow Bar offers one-person infra-red pods heated to up to 70ºC for 45-minute solo sweat sessions. Spending the best part of an hour in a personal sauna (from €45), podcast playing over the inbuilt speakers, feels like an almost over-indulgent amount of me-time. After 20 minutes I’m so sweat-drenched that I wonder whether such a long stint is a good idea. However, according to Glow Bar’s owner, Sasha Sabapathy, lengthy sauna sessions lead to better circulation, immune function and sleep. “It also encourages the production of collagen, which makes skin glow.” My post-sauna skin isn’t so much glowing as fire-engine red, but I do feel both energised and relaxed.

Wellness today has nothing to do with floating lazily in the pool. You sweat, you scream, you’re tormented with cold water. These days, feeling good is tough work. But you just might end up looking as good as Kate Moss or Justin Bieber.,


My First Time: Extinction Training

In the Arctic, shrinking ice sheets are leaving polar bears starving, with nowhere to hunt. 7,000 miles south, Tokyo reels from its worst typhoon in 60 years. Extinction Rebellion protesters are staging a “die in” outside the New York Stock Exchange while on London’s Westminster Bridge, they’re locking arms in defiance of an approaching police line.

Two miles up the road at Gymbox, Farringdon, I’m hyperventilating through an asphyxiation mask that’s strapped to my face.

“It is the year 2050,” the gym trainer shouts, pacing down the row of panting participants, each of us looking like extras in a nuclear fallout dystopia. “Climate change has happened. Do not breathe too fast through your mask – you’ll choke.”

Gymbox is a London-based fitness company that cites “making sweating enjoyable” as its primary goal – and the flagship Farringdon branch goes all out to achieve that. A DJ spins Daft Punk from a booth by the treadmills, while low lighting and industrial design lend the boxing ring a gritty, steampunk vibe. It’s like a nightclub, if all misbehaviour was swapped for weight lifting and cross-training. No wonder London’s trendiest gym has been behind many of the capital’s quirkiest fitness ideas – from a CBD-enhanced stretch class called Cannabliss to Brexfit, in which participants attack a Boris Johnson-printed punchbag. It’s part of a city-wide yearning to ditch the dumbbells in favour of less-boring exercise: think parkour, pole dancing and circus training.

Gymbox’s latest brainchild, Extinction Training, is even more out there. Having launched in Farringdon this month, the hour-long HIIT class aims to emulate the worst-case-scenario of global warming: “scorching heat, restricted air, extreme conditions and lack of water”, according to the description online.

“The idea is that, if we carry on the way we are, this is what the world could be like in 2050,” says the company’s creative director, Rory McEntee. “We increase the temperature of the room to up to 34 degrees. You wear an asphyxiation mask to imagine a world where the air is so poor that you struggle to breathe. We want to raise awareness – all the exercises are based on science, like real rising temperature statistics.”

So far, so dramatic. I head into the class, my imagination whirring with apocalyptic images of barbed wire and contaminated water – as well as an internal debate about using the most pressing matter of our time, climate change, as a marketing tool. Is this a gimmick, or a genuine attempt to raise awareness of the consequences of inaction? We’re already plagued with eco-anxiety: 70% of the UK population wants dramatic governmental action, but we’re set to miss both our 2025 and 2030 targets for cutting emissions. Perhaps taking it out on some gym equipment could be helpful.

In groups of four, we undergo a series of 60-second exercises, from lunges to dumbbell curls, squats to ball slams. Some keep their asphyxiation masks on at all times, while the rest of us slip them on during the minute-long recovery after each set. It’s a well-devised workout, but I haven’t noticed the elevated heat, or thought much about melting icecaps, since the instructor’s brief introduction.

The second half of the class is more unusual. We crawl under a camouflage net into room two, where we each pick up a plastic water container, half-filled with liquid, and run across a squidgy mat as fast as we can (this part aims to draw attention to water shortages and create the sensation of running through water). We spend a minute each on a rowing machine and a spin bicycle, and push a metal frame in the path of an industrial-strength fan, which is meant to replicate the weather extremes of a hurricane. We’re each given a 125ml sachet of “emergency drinking water”, which everybody spills as they tear open the tricky packaging.

I leave with my heart-rate soaring and thigh muscles burning, but I’m not sure I’m any the wiser about climate change, which makes me question the class’s awareness-raising power.

“Our goal is to educate and inspire our members in our own Gymbox way, while giving them a really good workout,” says McEntee. “The feedback I’ve had from members is that it’s fun, and a bit of a wakeup call. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.”

When I hear that proceeds from Extinction Training go to Greenpeace, and the water sachets are recyclable, I agree. “We couldn’t put on this class without living and breathing the values behind it,” says McEntee. “It’s inspired the team to make sure we’re doing our bit, and we’ve changed to reusable bags and coffee cups as a result. These may be small things in the business, but we’re not perfect. We’re just asking, how can we inspire our members to make a little bit of a difference?”

The Gymbox social media hashtag is #AnythingGoes. When I first heard about Extinction Training, I cynically agreed. But stepping back out into the cool autumn night, I gaze at the trees and the London streetlights and realise that climate change is on my mind after all – but I’m so packed full of post-exercise endorphins that my eco-anxiety has been replaced by energy. This class isn’t a lecture or a protest, and it’s not meant to be. But if it slips climate change into our general consciousness just a tiny bit more – however vaguely – it’s surely done some good.

N by Norwegian

A wellness guide to witch city: Salem, Massachusetts

A makeshift altar stands on the cobbled waterfront of Salem’s misty harbour. Fashioned from a wooden cabinet, it’s draped with animal skins and topped with candles that flicker in the cool East Coast breeze. Holding hands, 10 women and two men encircle it, sporting long, flowing robes, wolf-tooth earrings and flowers in their hair. One by one they place offerings: a rosebud, a sunflower, a rabbit’s paw.

Justice the Wizard, an oracle who’s leading this evening’s ritual, rolls up the sleeves of his cloak and tears a sprig of mint leaves into a stone font of water fragranced with rose petals and lemon juice. I rinse my hands before taking the silver chalice of grape juice he’s holding out. “May you never thirst,” he says, smiling.

Welcome to Salem, Massachusetts – or Witch City, as this former fishing port is nicknamed. It’s best known for its leading role in the witch trials of 1692, which saw the execution of 20 people and imprisonment of more than 200 others, most of them women. Over the past 50 years, it’s developed a thriving tourism industry around its gruesome history. Less well known, though, is that Salem is now home to a community of real-life witches – as many as 1,600 out of a 40,000 population – who’ve been reclaiming the town as their own. Rather than black capes and pointy hats, these enchanters and enchantresses are identified by their liberal politics: performing protective charms for vulnerable groups, engaging in cleansing rituals, and sharing spells on the #witchesofinstagram hashtag.

Salem is now, somewhat ironically, considered one of the most inclusive communities on America’s East Coast for Wicca, witchcraft and paganism. And, although tourist tat shops still peddle a cartoon version of witchery with black-cat coasters and broomstick key rings, the town is now welcoming a growing number of guests for alternative wellness holidays – ones that swap spas for tarot cards and saunas for Moon circles.

“A lot of people come to Salem to experience modern witchcraft,” says Now Age Travel guide Melissa Nierman, who runs walking tours of the city that aim to tell a non-sensationalist version of the events of 1692 and to unpick Salem’s complex relationship with witchcraft. “People think Salem’s always had witches,” she says, “but we didn’t have any witch shops here before the ’70s. That’s because in the past, the term ‘witch’ was very disempowered and led to the murder of innocent people.”

While on the surface Salem has come to terms with its witchy history, she points out that most of the witchcraft imagery around town still tends to focus either on the tragic deaths of the trial victims, or on a kitsch, cartoonish archetype. The latter is typified by the cutesy statue of sorceress Samantha Stephens (from the 1960s sitcom Bewitched), which sits on the site where “the hanging judge”, John Hathorne, lived. Its installation in 2005 prompted protests by real practitioners of witchcraft, who take issue with the patriarchy-friendly image that’s often seen on screen.

Her tours shows how this trivialisation of a violently misogynistic period of history points to a wider tendency in Western culture to neutralise the threat that witches traditionally represent. “I ask how this ties in with cycles of persecution that are happening today,” she says.

While this sub-text certainly doesn’t deter the many thousands of visitors who come here (as many as 250,000 just for its Halloween Happenings each October), Nierman has found an increasing number are eager to learn about how magical beliefs manifest today – and how “modern feminist witchcraft offers an alternative to the status quo”. Those who don’t move in Wiccan circles might be surprised by this level of interest, but as membership of traditional religions has fallen among younger generations, nature-based spirituality is booming. Surveys show that 40% of Americans now believe in psychics and 30% in astrology. The country’s psychic services industry – which includes astrology, tarot-card reading and palmistry – is worth US$2 billion.

One major highlight for these pilgrims is HausWitch Home + Healing. Opened in 2015 by self-identifying witch Erica Feldmann, its airy, minimalist interior wouldn’t look amiss in Copenhagen. On the whitepainted shelves are origami-encased spell kits, velvet-bound spell books and herbal cosmetics. “We only stock things we truly believe are medicine and magic, from makers that are women, queer, people of colour,” says Feldmann. “We focus on self-care as witchcraft. You can effortlessly bring magic into your everyday life, to empower you to create the life you want.”

This idea of witchcraft as wellness isn’t so different from the philosophies seen in popular self-help manuals like The Secret and The Law of Attraction, where practitioners hope to harness natural forces to manifest positive futures. Books like last year’s The Witch’s Book of Self-Care, Spellwork for Self-Care and the forthcoming Magical Self-Care for Everyday Life, are part of a new phenomenon that seems particularly tailored to millennials, who are driving the $4.2 trillion global wellness market with their love of yoga, meditation and, now, love spells and moonstones.

In Salem today you’ll find every possible wellness trope given a uniquely witchy bent, with spiritual treatments for a litany of life ills. There are Full Moon, Half Moon or Dark Moon rituals, lessons on the guiding power of crystals, tarot card readings and candlelit seances. You can visit a high priestess at Omen (a “Psychic Parlour and Witchcraft Emporium”) and learn to “manifest your life” on a “Ritual Transformation” that involves discarding symbols of unwanted habits into a “dark cauldron”. Or – for those who are particularly worried about Mercury entering retrograde this month – work out which herbs will protect you at a “folk herbalism” workshop.

Across town, Artemisia Botanicals, home to the “Green Witch School of Herbalism”, is the place to find out more about how plants can aid well-being. Stepping inside, there’s a rich scent of dried petals and incense sticks. The walls are stacked, floor-to-ceiling, with essential oils, handcrafted goat-milk soaps, gleaming crystals and dried herbs. The owner, herbalist and coven-sister Teri Kalgren, points out that historically wellness has always been plant-based. Before we had medicine in the scientific sense, humans put their faith in wise women to cure ills, whether they claimed to have magical powers or not.

She describes casting spells – quite simply – as a therapeutic form of meditation. “If you’re going through a rough time, you might naturally want to have a bath, make a cup of tea, light a candle. When you light it, you’ll meditate on it and visualise yourself getting better. Positive affirmations are so good for the spirit.”

I’m a bit wary of trying some of the more occult-sounding stuff, but in the interests of research I find myself at The Cauldron Black, a Mediterranean folk-magic shop opened on the harbour in 2017. Tarot reader Nick Dickinson leads me behind a velvet curtain at the back of the shop and hands me a deck of cards to shuffle. To soothing sitar playing over the speakers, he leans forward and smiles. “Things have been a bit up in the air lately,” he says softly. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

As my tarot reading progresses into an impromptu counselling session, I start to understand the appeal of these treatments. For witchcraft to work as self-care, you have to be receptive to its influence. Like talking therapies, meditation and arguably prayer, these practices are simply tools for making sense of and coping with daily life.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Americans are turning to these natural touchstones during an era of political upheaval. As Feldman told me: “People are feeling a bit powerless right now, and women and other oppressed people feel a connection to witchcraft as a language. People practised Earth worship for millions of years. It’s only in the past couple of hundred years that it’s been looked at as a wacky idea, but it’s in all of our ancestry.” To seek harmony with the natural cycles of the Earth, when global insecurity weighs heavy, is an act of well-being in itself.

I meditate on this as I end my stay at Justice the Wizard’s sunset ritual, holding a rose to my heart, then placing it on the makeshift altar by the sea. As I sip from the chalice and pass it back to Justice, to my slight surprise I’m full of calm and feel present on a more fundamental level than a spa weekend could have wrought. I smile back at him. “May you never thirst.”


Ring leaders: the female wrestlers at London’s most kickass night out

Eighteen minutes into a 20-minute match, and Nightshade is seething.

Eyes blazing and teeth bared, she turns from her hobbling opponent and starts to growl at the crowd, who are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in this dark, sweaty room. Each clutching cans of lager, they begin a taunting chant – “Lampshade, lampshade!” – stamping their feet at an increasingly frenzied pace. Nightshade’s growl crescendos into a roar and then a bone-chilling scream as she jumps on to the ropes and catapults herself at her opponent. She grabs them and flings them over her head, pinning them to the floor as the referee slams his hand down three times.

We’re at Eve, a punk-feminist wrestling event in east London, and guest wrestler Nightshade’s stage presence is on par with any act you’d see at Glastonbury. But just two hours previously, we’d met her as 22-year-old Lucy Gibbs – all sweet smiles and soft, curly hair. Her transformation into supervillain has been dramatic to say the least. “It’s so liberating,” she beams. “You don’t have to be yourself in the ring, and it’s just so much fun.”

Eve is a female wrestling promoter at the forefront of an unprecedented global interest in women’s wrestling, which has recently powerslammed into popular consciousness. The Netflix series Glow painted a fluorescent, Lycra-clad picture of mid-1980s wrestling, highlighting the era’s sexism and sisterhood via a diverse cast. Next came the hit film Fighting with My Family. A comedy based on the life of ex-World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fighter Paige, it charts her rise through the ranks of professional wrestling to become the first NXT Women’s Champion in 2013.

While ladies have featured in wrestling since the early days, women wrestlers have only worked the main events since 2005, when an all-female group called Shimmer made its debut (it’s still going strong). Since then, the WWE launched a new Women’s Championship in 2016 and staged its first all-female main event at WrestleMania 35 this year. Smash Wrestling will host an international women’s wrestling event in Toronto this August, while Eve, which launched in 2010, held the biggest women’s wrestling show in European history in June. And it’s not just female wrestlers that are getting a look in. Wrestling is becoming more popular among female spectators, too, thanks to its emergence into the mainstream media.

No promoter believes in this more than Eve, whose outspoken feminist approach seeks to change the sexualised way women wrestlers have previously been portrayed. “Women were decoration,” says Eve co-founder Emily Read, who now MCs the shows. “I trained in Portsmouth and the levels of sexism I found were horrendous. It was crushing. When I met [co-founder and husband] Dann he was already running women’s wrestling events and I saw that if I got involved in that side we could make big changes.”

“Wrestling used to be a big boys’ club,” agrees Dann. “Women weren’t being held to the same standards, and the majority would leave really quickly because they’d get bullied out. We wanted to create an even platform and open it up to everyone. For me, women’s wrestling is just wrestling that happens to be by women. Everyone deserves a space to do their art form.”

One of the first wrestlers to fight for Eve was Erin Angel, who met Dann 10 years ago when he booked her for a show. Eve’s equal-opportunities attitude was radically different to anything she’d experienced in wrestling before.

“When I started it was the Diva era, when the women were dressed in skimpy outfits and their matches weren’t very serious,” she says. “They’d do pillow fights and things. And I remember being told by promoters, you’re not wearing enough make-up, you don’t look pretty enough, you don’t have enough skin on show. No one would dream of saying that now.”

According to the wrestler – who takes joy in combining ultra-feminine sparkly outfits with jaw-dropping dropkicks – that culture change owes a lot to Eve. “Eve made everyone else step up,” she claims. “Other promoters are now taking their female wrestlers more seriously.”

It’s something that each wrestler competing there agrees with. “Expectations for women wrestlers were so low when I started wrestling in 2006, that I did a leapfrog and they were like, ‘Wow, that’s the first time a girl’s ever done that around here!’” laughs Nicole Matthews, who hails from Vancouver and is now a head trainer at a wrestling school there. “Because of that, they rushed me through training. I started at 18 and did my first professional match at 19.” That match was against Becky Lynch – who won the headline fight at WWE’s first-ever all-female main event at WrestleMania 35.

Matthews’ fast-track to fame had everything to do with talent – she competed in the WWE’s prestigious 2018 Mae Young Classic women’s tournament – but the Eve trainers agree that, for female wrestlers, being held to lower standards has made it harder for them to advance. “We want to get female wrestlers to the standard of the main event,” says Emily, noting that women wrestlers were traditionally allocated the “toilet break” slot before the higher-stakes men’s matches. “They’d never been given the chance before, and it wasn’t because of a lack of talent – it’s just that if you haven’t got any work experience you’re not going to be ready for the top job.”

But thanks to Eve, some of its alumni are starting to nab those top spots. The show we attend includes a farewell match between Scottish duo Kay Lee Ray and Viper, who signed with WWE to train at their new UK centre (the first outside of the USA). And their commitment is plain to see: nights here are not for the faint-hearted. The fighters slam each other’s backs into concrete floors dotted with drawing pins, and drag each other by the hair out of the ring to trade punches by the bar, cheered on by the sort of language that would make Tony Soprano blush. And despite the fact that each match has a pre-determined outcome, the risks involved are very real.

“You’re putting your body in someone else’s hands,” says Rhia O’Reilly, who debuted as a professional wrestler at Eve’s first ever show and once performed a whole match on a broken ankle. “Yes, it’s entertainment – it’s a live stunt show with a storyline – but a bad fall can paralyse you.”

It’s all the more remarkable when you understand how much further women have had to climb to get into this position.

“Women aren’t encouraged to rough-house or be loud,” says Emily. “A lot of male trainers are not aware that they have to help women to literally find a voice. But being loud and bold, and taking up space? Those things trickle into the rest of your life. Go get that promotion, speak up in a meeting. Some of our wrestlers start off shy, but after a year you see them walk in and they’re standing differently, with their heads up.”

For now, women’s wrestling remains a niche interest. There’s only one other all-female promoter in the UK – Fierce Females in Glasgow – and aside from Shimmer and some gender-segregated schools in Japan, wrestling promoters only host women’s training alongside the men’s.

But Eve isn’t about converting everybody into diehard fans.

“Eve takes the stereotype of being a woman and beats it up,” smiles Darcy Stone, a former dancer who incorporates ballet steps into her entrance routine, dressed in a kimono and tutu. “It’s not about wrestling anymore – it’s a movement. You can be a girly girl, and still hit hard.”

This is echoed by Emily, who celebrates Eve’s wide appeal. “The majority of people at our shows just want a good night out,” she says. “They don’t go to other wrestling shows but they like ours. We do family shows and we see these little girls there, and their faces are just lit up. It’s like seeing real-life superheroes.”

This clearly resonates with Rhia, who, post-match, changes from her gold Lycra costume into Batman leggings. “All we want is to make wrestling more accessible to everybody,” she says. “I want Eve to make people think that they can do anything and be whoever they want to be.”