All the fun of the health farm

Sue Gaisford and her daughter find that a lot of what they fancy does them good
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The Independent Travel
THE WOMAN in front of me was helping herself, as slowly and fastidiously as a Burmese cat, from a large bowl of fresh fruit salad. "It's OK," I said, encouragingly."I can wait. Feel free to go on picking out the best bits as long as you like."

"I certainly shall," she replied with queenly confidence. "I only come here for the pineapple." It's a pricey way to eat pineapple - but if that's what turns you on, go for it. The message of today's health farms would be familiar to the fans of Marie Lloyd: a little of what you fancy does you good.

These places used to be a good deal tougher, dedicated solely to the business of serious slimming. The fat and idle rich enrolled to suffer and to pay through the nose for the ordeal. Long before the arrival of cuisine minceur, only health farms had the nerve to provide a glass of lightly boiled water accompanying a tastefully peeled carrot and call it lunch. If desperate guests smuggled in a Mars bar or escaped to the pub after lights out, the management was delighted. To leave before reaching your target weight guaranteed loss of face and a waste of cash: the agony and the expenditure were prolonged indefinitely.

By the 1980s it was getting better. My first experience came then, on a visit to Grayshott Hall with my sister. The emphasis on losing weight was still pretty strong: vigorous, competitive exercise was encouraged and a sad group haunted the light diet room, begging for nourishment. But we were there for fun - revelling in the swimming, the sauna and the deliciously therapeutic delights of massage - and sharing a bedroom for the first time since our teens.

That sense of female solidarity persists. Deciding that it was high time for another dose of hedonism, my daughter and I recently shared a room for a weekend at Cedar Falls, near Taunton. It's not a big place - the very maximum they can handle is 68 and, in November, the numbers can fall very low - yet around every corner lurked another mother-daughter team. It became fun to spot the similarities and to remember Oscar Wilde's mischievous dictum about all women resembling their mothers, and that being their tragedy. One afternoon we shared the bar with four other such couples, all covertly playing exactly the same game.

Though the ambience is predominantly female, there are a few men. One strode about grandly in a darkly monkish robe, edged with frivolous, unmonastic piping. His other outfit was a less appealing silver boiler-suit and his wife was a judge. (She had her eyebrows finely sharpened during her stay, which must have increased her judicial gravitas, and her toe-nails painted magenta, which could have had the opposite effect.) The only other man was small and lively, dressed in unseasonal safari shorts. He and his wife had won their healthy weekend in a competition. They looked as if they had landed in never- never land when they had expected somewhere like Scarborough.

The female clientele is fascinating. We came across a witty and delightful farmer from Devon, who was also a competitive sprinter and a PhD. She was bruised yellow and purple from recent struggles with a recalcitrant sow - she didn't say it was a Middle White, but that was the impression we got. Her scarred, battered and archaeologically filthy hands were the stuff of a manicurist's nightmares, yet they were transformed until they could have graced an idle duchess. And there is a real duchess who stays there every summer. Discretion prevented the staff from identifying who she is, but apparently she and her lord get fed up with visitors trundling round the stately pile and regularly retire to Cedar Falls for a private month or two, where they can sit in their room to watch EastEnders, unobserved.

Despite these differences in background, a fine sense of togetherness develops - a wartime mentality, really, in which the common enemy is no longer obesity but those twin, millennial adversaries: stress and impurity. To attack the former, visit the natural therapy centre, where you can have manual lymphatic drainage, shiatsu, reiki, hypnotherapy - even daft things like iridology. I settled for deliciously soothing aromatherapy while my daughter had a holistic therapeutic massage. This was a bit of a failure: she felt insufficiently unsettled and spent the next day neurotically avoiding the ultra-caring masseuse. She did better in the beauty salon, whence she emerged cleansed and purified, with newly refined eyebrows, while I foolishly endured a body therm wrap, which combined "warm and cold envelopments" in seaweed: still, no toxin could survive that.

The trouble is, you want to try everything; if you hare about from super- cathiodermie facial to applied kinesiology to manicure to aqua-aerobics, you could well end up feeling as if scented impurities are bursting from every stressed pore. On Saturday, I swam before the 7.45am yoga class: I had left myself with no further opportunities.

But it is all tremendously enjoyable. At some establishments, designer leisure-wear is de rigueur. You daren't leave your room at Champneys, I was told, without gold jewellery and matching robe and slippers. At Forest Mere, according to a recent television series, you could find yourself embarrassingly naked in a mud-bath with the opposite sex. (That might not be an entirely fair assessment, but the mud sticks.) At Cedar Falls, however, the atmosphere is so laid back that, to use a cliche that is scarcely a metaphor, you're permanently horizontal. People arrive for dinner in shabby old dressing-gowns or unappealing leggings and if you sport even a pair of earrings, someone will say - with a hint of disapproval - "My, don't you look smart!".

As we set off for home, through glorious golden Somerset, we realised that it had done us a power of good. I'd learned the techniques of Indian head massage and was longing to try it on anyone who'd agree to sit still for a minute. My daughter, meanwhile, had turned delicately toast coloured and managed to renounce smoking. And, miraculously in view of the scrumptious food, we'd put on barely half a stone. Each.


health farm

Get a makeover

Cedar Falls (tel: 01823 433338) is running special pre- and post-Christmas promotions. Prices for December 1998 and January 1999 range from pounds 65 to pounds 90 per person per night, based on two people sharing for a minimum two- night stay. Single rooms cost pounds 10 extra. Your stay includes all meals, from dinner on day of arrival to breakfast on day of departure, unlimited use of facilities and pounds 18 worth of beauty treatments.