How Penny Lee creates space by bringing great minds and ideas into the great outdoors

Happyplaces stories

Illustration: Rich Wells

Penny and I know about each other for quite a while, but we never met. That needed to change, so we met on Skype. She is, amongst other things, the founder of Walking Whisky Wellness, ‘a business conference in disguise’, bringing together industry experts and great creative minds for some truly beneficial walking and talking, sharing of ideas and making worthy connections. The mission: Get more people to do their business outside, because being amongst great minds and ideas in the great outdoors is good for all of us. At some point during our conversation, I noticed she was heading towards an uninterrupted sprint about what she does, what drives and motivates her, how she creates space in her life and that of others, so I decided to press the record button on my voice recorder. I thought I’d better ask for forgiveness than for permission because I didn’t want to interrupt her. When I confessed about what I did, she forgave me.


Clarity across cultures

I lived in the Netherlands for a while, in Amsterdam. And what I loved was when you met new people or at a party, people would go round shaking every one’s hand and say hello. British people stand back a bit more. I really loved that and continued that coming back to the UK. There is this reaching out what is very appealing because people don’t always like to do it so when someone does that to you, and in your own language that melts some ice. When I came back from living in the Netherlands, it was like trying to learn how England works again. Because I liked the Dutch up-frontness, being a bit more brutal and not beating around the bush but I had to tame it a bit. I like knowing where you stand with all the, not the behind the elbow stuff. Just say what you mean! So this is where I’m at now: if I have an issue with something, then I will just tell you. If you have a problem with that, then just tell me because I’m not going to try to read the situation. If you don’t tell me I’m just going to presume that we’re all good. Because I think it is tiring. So I just put it out there in the beginning and say: ‘This is how I work. You have to tell me if that doesn’t work for you and then we deal with it. But I’m not going to try to read every situation.’ This clarity in my view helps to create worthy connections.

This is how I work. You have to tell me if that doesn’t work for you and then we deal with it. But I’m not going to try to read every situation.’

Better to gather

I started doing this when I was living in Amsterdam, for my own inspiration. To create some kind of ‘creative retreat’. I would stay somewhere, and I’d walk for eight hours a day, find a pub to go to and sit by the fire and read just to get thoughts together and make plans. And when I came back to the UK, friends missed those events. Holland has the countryside for it, just like here. The city was really ‘gezellig’, but the countryside not as much in the perception of people. I believe that going outside makes you appreciate things more. There are some amazing places and spaces out there. Instead of going to fancy cocktail bars and restaurants in the city, going outside into nature where you always feel better is just way more energising. So I had the idea, I knew it was about ideas and bringing people together in the outdoors and not to be just behind the desk.

It’s about stripping things back. Fresh air, excellent food, really good drinks and really interesting people, and that’s it. And when you put them in a really interesting place, then magic happens.

Outside the box, into nature

Then I started the Creative Mornings in Sheffield. I’ve always liked to go to talks and festivals, to be around people to learn. I started my own with the Creative Mornings in Sheffield because I moved to the middle of nowhere rather than to the middle of the city. That’s why I have to put in a bit more effort to meet more diverse and interesting people. I really love organising those events. Walking Whisky Wellness grew from that. It started off as a one-day event, and then somehow it turned into a two-day conference. First, it was just one speaker, and suddenly it was a programme; it just organically grew bigger. It just felt good, and it works. It is a weird combination, it is away from a conference in stuffy rooms where you want to get out. You come back from Walking Whisky Wellness feeling refreshed from being with likeminded people, being outside in nature and experiencing lots of talking and whiskey drinking and loads of inspiration. People then bond much more. The wellness side can be a bit Goody Two-Shoes, a bit sanctimonious, so the whiskey side gives it a bit of an edge. It says in a way that learning does not need to be uncomfortable. It was mixing it all together to show that you can do the learning, feel a lot better, you can meet some great people while you are really enjoying yourself. It strips things back. Fresh air, excellent food, really good drinks and really interesting people, and that’s it. And when you put them in a really interesting place, then magic happens. It is about stripping it back to the basics: fresh air, walking, talking, eating, drinking, fire, lots of fire. It is not about anti-technology or a digital detox, because technology allows us to do this. So it is not an anti. We have technology, and we can use it to be more outside and take more of these opportunities.

Variety in all its layers is what interests me. Just seeing how people are doing things differently. Putting on these events, getting people together is the best way to do it.

Learning from differences

When I moved back to the UK, I moved to between Leeds and Manchester. I thought if I’m there, then I can get into the cities easy. There is no need to live in cities really. With all the technology we have, why is everyone sitting in boxes sitting at the same places at the same time? It doesn’t make sense, why are we doing this? I can imagine that if you are a company, you need to connect physically, but the technology is changing faster than we are changing our lives and our routines where everyone is just sitting behind a desk for a certain amount of time. So it is also about finding people who do things differently. I think that the more people connect like that, share and give those ideas, that is doing my bit to contribute to that change. And this is a really fun way of doing it. It is a lot of work, but it is incredible and just feels good. It helps me to connect to people who believe what I believe. You get in touch with the people who inspire you. Just like Creative Mornings in Sheffield. I want to learn from the people who are speaking all the time, and when possible an as wide variety as possible. For example, we had a dairy farmer who had a better social media reach than all the great brands. It is just a small family farm, and its social media reach beats all the dairy brands here that have an eight million budget. That variety in all its layers is what interests me. Just seeing how people are doing things differently. Putting on these events, getting people together is the best way to do it.