If you haven’t listened to Stephen Fry describing the beauty of the lavender fields of Provence, you haven’t experienced the only good thing about a sleepless night. Listening to Blue Gold, a sleep story on Calm.com, you find yourself “bimbling” with Fry in the “sublime spectacle” of the fields, hypnotised by his descriptions of the plants in “pleasing lines of purple”. His pronunciation is as exquisite as you can imagine: it’s a particular pleasure when he says the name “Mont Ventoux”.
While bedtime stories are as old as time, specialist stories for getting adults to sleep are relatively new and a very welcome offshoot of the mindfulness industry. I found Blue Gold probably the same way as the other two-and-a-half million people who’ve listened to Calm's sleep stories – scrolling one night, desperately searching for something, anything, that would get me back to sleep. And then I found Stephen Fry. “It’s an honour to have him reading my story,” says Blue Gold’s writer, Phoebe Smith. “I wrote it with his voice in my head, thinking about how he would pronounce it. He made it so beautiful.” He really does. And the best thing? It actually works. Having listened to it probably 50 times, I’ve only heard the ending once or twice. On average, Smith tells me, people fall asleep 10 minutes into a story.
Smith was asked to write her first sleep story by the co-founder of Calm, Michael Acton Smith, after he read a travel piece she’d written about the Trans-Siberian Railway. “When I heard about the idea, I absolutely fell in love with it,” she says. If stories at bedtime helped us relax and fall asleep when we were little, why wouldn’t a relaxing, soothing story still work?” She’s now written 15 stories for Calm, including one read by Joanna Lumley on meandering through the jungles of Nepal with an elephant, and others on the bothies of Scotland and the wilds of Sweden.
Smith is fascinated by sleep; she’s also author of the book Extreme Sleeps, about her adventures sleeping outside in jungles, on mountains and even hanging off the edge of a cliff. Of course, as the bestseller status of spoof children’s bedtime book Go The Fuck To Sleep showed a few years ago, bedtime stories don’t always do the trick, but these new sleep stories are cannily crafted for maximum effect. At the beginning of each story, you are instructed to get yourself comfortable, just like being tucked in. “You allow the scent to wash over you, breathing it in deeper with every comforting breath,” reads Fry in Blue Gold.
The key, says Smith, is that if you’re sleepless, you can often only fall asleep when you stop worrying about falling asleep
Writing for sleep, says Smith, turns the normal rules of storytelling on their head: “Usually, you’d want to hook someone in with excitement.” Here, the pace is slow, making each story purely mindful, painting a picture as if you’re there – “of the bees landing on the lavender buds”, the scent of the lavender “a micro-cloud of perfume”, the touch of the “silvery green leaves” and the sound; “all you can hear is the occasional melodic tinkle adorning the necks of the goats and sheep”.
The key, says Smith, is that if you’re sleepless, you can often only fall asleep when you stop worrying about falling asleep. “People get obsessed with not being able to sleep, and the story distracts them from that.” There’s a secret added bonus to listening to these stories, too – when Smith meets her listeners, they often tell her they were so entranced by her descriptions, they’ve booked a holiday to the place she describes.
5 of the best sleep stories on calm
Blue Gold is free on the Calm app, while the rest are available with a subscription. Phoebe Smith is doing a Sleep Story tour of the UK and Ireland in January 2019.
Blue Gold, narrated by Stephen Fry
An intoxicating meander through the lavender fields and sleepy villages of Provence in midsummer.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad, narrated by Erik Braa
Travelling to the farthest reaches of northern Russia to take a trip on the longest train ride in the world.
Elephants of Nepal, narrated by Joanna Lumley
Relax on a beautiful ‘mind safari’ in Chitwan National Park, guided by an elephant.
Scotland’s Hidden Hideaways, narrated by May Charters
A wander through Scotland’s craggy mountains and tranquil lakes to discover the magic of the bothies.
Morocco’s Hidden Forest, narrated by Phoebe Smith
Phoebe Smith describes her own experience of sleeping wild in the cedar forests of Morocco.