Indulge the healthy way

Is a long weekend at a `dry' fitness retreat really any way to celebrate a birthday? Despite the lack of booze, Grayshott Hall - England's original spa - left Raymond Whitaker on a high

It was my birthday. To celebrate, my wife and I had ordered from a menu including dishes such as beef carpaccio, poached pheasant, poussin with caramelised vegetables and twice-poached pear with a wine and cream sauce. And what did we drink to mark the occasion? Cold water.

We were at Grayshott Hall, a health and fitness retreat in Surrey that has a strict no-alcohol regime, although it is far from being a prison camp. While determined slimmers can stick to a low-calorie menu in a separate dining room, the less penitential can eat well, as the list above shows. Indeed, it must be uniquely testing for a chef when the calorie content of everything you cook is listed next to the dish, and the diners' critical faculties are not blunted by bordeaux or sauvignon blanc. If you must smoke, you can do so in the billiard room, and if you can't get through the weekend without alcohol, there are a couple of pubs outside the gates - which are not locked.

You might be wondering why I should choose to deprive myself on my birthday. Well, having been born exactly two weeks after Christmas, I long ago learned to accept that very few people are in the mood for further excesses when the cake hasn't been finished and the New Year hangover is still lingering. I feel much the same way myself, now that the years whistle past at increasing speed.

So it seemed like a good idea to start 2005 with a bit of de-stressing and healthy living for a change. Grayshott Hall describes itself as "one of the UK's few remaining authentic health retreats", by which it means that the increasing number of country-house hotels that have installed a Jacuzzi and a few exercise machines are not doing the thing seriously. Here they aim to purify you, regenerate you and set you firmly on the path to healthy living, if you so choose.

Let me say that I am no New Ager. Apart from the odd visit to the Turkish baths at Ironmonger Row in London (where you can steam quietly in the company of traders from the nearby Whitecross Street market and be pummelled by masseurs with the demeanour of ex-Army gym instructors), I am a stranger to alternative therapies and philosophies (what my daughter calls "woo- woo stuff"). My position on crystals is that they might make your bath smell nice, but they won't do anything for your soul.

It was in a mood of polite scepticism that I arrived at Grayshott Hall, a reassuringly sturdy manor house near Hindhead, on the border between Surrey and Hampshire. Once the country retreat of Alfred Lord Tennyson, it was rebuilt in Victorian baronial style by Alexander Ingraham Whitaker, whose branch of the family made its fortune exporting marsala from Sicily to Britain. Alexander added a tower in 1886 with the mottoes "Pax Intrantibus" (Peace as you enter) and "Salus Exuentibus" (Health as you leave), which proved entirely appropriate when the manor became a health spa 78 years later. Facilities have been constantly added since, catering to every form of exercise as well as health and beauty treatment.

The first indication that this is not a conventional country-house hotel is when you arrive fully-clothed at the reception desk and see your fellow guests swanning around in fluffy white dressing gowns. Most people do not bother to put on proper clothes until dinner, which is preceded by a "cocktail hour" featuring fruit juice. The robes create a rough democracy that belies the high cost of this kind of leisure break, though I recognised a famous actress giving an insider's assessment of Oscars form, and eavesdropped on a glamorous gaggle of women who seemed to be married to Arsenal footballers, judging by their knowledge of the club's training schedules.

Once we had installed ourselves in our comfortable, chintzy room and donned our white robes, we submitted to weight and blood pressure checks, answered a catalogue of general health questions and were invited to discuss our health and exercise "goals". I was quite clear what I was there for: no workouts, no self-flagellation, just relaxation and a dose of moderation. Oh, and exfoliation, which involves being scrubbed with a mixture of clay and rock salts.

Then it was time for my "lymphatic stimulation". I was led away to a dim room and brushed with sisal before being rubbed with a combination of juniper, lemon and barley oil, which, according to the literature, deals with a host of physical, mental and emotional conditions, ranging from acne, cellulite, hangovers and gastric infections to confusion, exhaustion and nerves. My apprehension, depression, shyness and timidity were soothed away with sandalwood, quite apart from the overall detoxification. All I can say is that it was very relaxing, especially as I listened to the ambient music competing with a raging storm outside.

The next day the treatments began in earnest. First, though, I had to have my body composition analysed by a machine - Grayshott has the only one in the country - that passes electric waves through you to assess how much is fat and how much muscle, and how far you deviate from the ideal. The result was the best birthday present I could have had: it said I was 99 per cent. "I have been here many years," said the head trainer, "and only three or four people have come out 100 per cent." So the next time my wife complains about my waistline, I can say I am only one per cent short of perfection, and have a print-out to prove it.

With so many treatments and exercise sessions going on, not to mention guests roaming from steam room to sauna to swimming-pool, Grayshott needs to run like clockwork to unite therapist and client, and it does. Next on my schedule was a seaweed wrap, which I had envisaged would leave me looking like a piece of sushi: instead you are coated in a gel, put in a hydrotherapy bath swimming in seaweed extracts and marine salts, and marinated for 45 minutes while high-pressure jets move up and down your body. What was it like? Pleasant, I suppose, but therapeutic? I'm not sure.

Every guest at Grayshott has a daily 40-minute massage and unlimited use of the spa and exercise facilities, which can also be had on day packages. After our rub-downs, my wife and I decided to borrow mountain bikes and explore Ludshott Common, a sandy, scrubby expanse of National Trust land that borders Grayshott. The exertion in a freezing gale was just what I needed before my next treatment, a massage incorporating Oriental techniques that quickly dealt with any aches sustained on the ride.

Sceptical though I remain, I am prepared to concede that there is something in Oriental theories of pathways and pressure points. Though several therapists assured me that their subjects often fell asleep - "You should hear some of them snore," said one - I had never come close until now, when gentle pressure on my temples sent me drifting blissfully away. Being told that the session was over felt like a cruel wrench.

So there I was, at the end of the healthiest break I had had for years. I had not held a glass containing anything but water for the best part of 48 hours - Grayshott puts its mineral water close at hand wherever you are, and urges you to consume lots of it. I had exercised, I had cleansed myself inside and out, and my check-out consultation the next day showed that, although my weight was unchanged, my blood pressure had fallen.

How did I feel? Pampered, certainly - nobody could be more attentive than the staff - but all this focus on the body left my mind feeling a little disused. With no wine accompanying the food, and the service so efficient, my birthday dinner was soon over, and the only diversions on hand were board games to the accompaniment of Richard Clayderman-style piano music. It was a relief to discover that Jerry Springer: The Opera was on the telly in our room. As we drove home the next day, I was eagerly planning my retox diet, consisting of a pizza and some supermarket plonk.

I will definitely return to Grayshott the next time I want to feel simultaneously virtuous and spoiled rotten, but I guess the experience shows that what I really need to do is eat a little better, exercise a little more and drink a little less every day. If I could do that, who knows? I might be able to persuade the magic machine that I am 100 per cent perfect - physically, at any rate.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest railway station to Grayshott Hall is Haslemere, which is served by South West Trains (08456 000650; www.southwesttrains.co.uk) direct from London Waterloo and Portsmouth. The station is a 10-minute drive from Grayshott Hall.

STAYING THERE

Grayshott Hall, Headley Road, Grayshott, near Hindhead, Surrey (01428 602020; www.grayshott-hall.co.uk) has doubles from pounds 320 including all meals, a full body massage, personal consultation, spa facilities, relaxation and exercise classes and evening lectures; minimum stay two nights. Treatments cost from pounds 25-90.

VISITING

Ludshott Common (01372 453401; www.nationaltrust.org.uk)

FURTHER INFORMATION

Surrey Tourism (08456 009009; www.surreytourism.org.uk)

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