Explorers in the art of healing go with the glow: In search of self-awareness, Naomi Coleman follows the path of complementary medicine to a converted barn in north-west London

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The Independent Culture
COMPLEMENTARY medicine, the victim of a bad press and, more often than not, perceived as quackery, is not a modern innovation. Local herbalists and apothecaries found on high-street corners in 18th-century Britain were the equivalent of modern chemists.

A year ago the British Medical Association (BMA) published a landmark report recognising the importance of complementary medicine. In August 1993 - two months after the BMA's change of attitude - Boots launched a new range of over-the-counter homeopathic remedies. According to a Mintel survey their homeopathic, herbal and aromatherapy market was worth pounds 56.7m in 1993.

From the hundreds of treatment centres which have sprung up since the growth of interest in complementary medicine, none is more unusual than the combination of art and alternative healing found at Violet Hill, a converted barn in north- west London.

Flanked by the leafy avenues of St John's Wood, Violet Hill Studios was founded by Pauline Groman last year. She initally set out to convert the 18th-century building, originally a pub, into artists' studios. But it soon became apparent that Violet Hill was attracting not only artists but people inclined towards natural healing as well. 'I had some original contacts and slowly a network of practitioners - many of them from arty backgrounds - grew by word of mouth,' she says.

The studios are used by a diverse range of practitioners offering more than 25 disciplines, from the now commonplace reflexology to the more obscure osho-craniosacral therapy, which aims to balance the membranes, bones, fluids and fascia throughout the body.

A light, airy studio where the art exhibitions are held also provides a peaceful setting for the exploration of self-awareness. 'When we first found the barn it was an utter wreck. But even in all its sadness there was a glow that is felt by everyone who comes and works here today,' says Mrs Groman.

As the rift between orthodox and alternative medicine lessens, Mrs Groman hopes that eventually local surgeries and Violet Hill might be able to work together. 'I spend a long time with each practitioner to ensure they have the highest qualifications and experience. Regular meetings are held to keep in touch with the therapists and to give them a chance to refer clients.'

Art plays an important part at Violet Hill. The studios put on at least two exhibitions a year. The main studio currently exhibits art by some Chinese children whose work is also being shown at Bloomsbury College, London, in June. 'Many of these paintings have been bought by a children's trust and the money is being sent to the children in Jilan in China so they can continue their painting,' says Mrs Groman.

Artists of all kinds are encouraged to bring in their work and hang them on the walls of the barn, showing some oil paintings, silk prints and some rich images of myths and fairytales. The work of one photographer shows how she uses natural sunlight to set off healing crystals.

Using art to express feeling is incorporated into some of the therapies. 'All the workshops are aimed towards creativity and inner growth. Art plays a part in workshops such as the 'creative woman' day where drawing is encouraged.'

As well as a diverse range of weekend workshops, there are weekly meetings for help in divorce recovery, eating disorders and addiction in relationships. Private consultations are held in smaller studios while the bigger workshops benefit from the abundant space in the loft. 'The ethos behind Violet Hill is to provide a venue with as many activities as possible taking place within a nurturing environment. We have had various kinds of children's workshops here which have been a great success,' says Mrs Groman.

The centre is one of the few in the country to offer colonic hydrotherapy, a technique used to clean out the colon by inserting a water hose - a modish treatment which could literally take off in all directions, but could also prove to be a pain in the butt.

Open afternoon on Sunday 8 May from 2-6pm, 6 Violet Hill, St John's Wood, London NW8 9EB. Telephone: 071- 624 6101.