Gather round the jacuzzi, girls

Retreats tend to come in two types: those that refresh the spirit, and those that pamper the body. We tried one of each
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The Independent Travel
My first instinct after arriving at Hartrigg Country House, "a lovely old Victorian building standing in its own grounds in Buckden", was to go home. This was not what I had expected. The brochure had promised of a "bygone era" atmosphere, but this "Pamper" retreat was a cross between a youth hostel and a bed and breakfast. As for the "privately owned" swim, sauna and whirlpool bath, this was owned by the caravan park 20 minutes away.

What made me stay? Curiosity, I suppose. Guests who had written in the visitors' book were enthusiastic about previous Ladies Pamper Weekends. "This is a pool of tranquil water amid the roaring gales and stormy seas of life", wrote one woman. "The most relaxing time I've ever spent - and this is my fifth visit", said another.

Two by two and pack by pack, the rest of the "ladies" arrived. A group of six office workers who had had their pamper weekend paid for by their boss. They were excited and giggly and dying to discover the local talent. Then there was a group of four thirtysomethings. They had known each other for years: a real "let's-go-away-and-to-hell-with-men" weekend. Then there were the couples: two women from Essex ("our second time"), a local mother and her mother ("here to escape the kids"), two hippie-types from Hull (a break from the council estate women's centre) and my favourites: Maggie and Sue.

We sat round in awkward silence while Lawrence, our bearded, middle- aged host to'd and fro'd offering tea and coffee: "More, girls?" Then it was time for a bit of pampering. Time for hours of relaxed sweating and soothing swimming. In the pouring rain and roaring wind, we waded over to the mini-bus and sat in cold darkness until the caravan park emerged out of nowhere. "Right - you've got an hour." Like schoolchildren, we scattered.

Lawrence Earnshaw and Sylvia Longstaff set up the Pamper Weekend for Ladies 10 years ago. It seemed a bright way of attracting tourists into a village that would otherwise be off the map. It also provides a service, says Ms Longstaff: "We felt women need to have a break for themselves - away from their husbands and families. We wanted to create a little haven where they can get away from the stress of everyday life."

Visitors pay £120 for a weekend - which includes shared room, all meals, a trip to the caravan park's facilities and an informal talk with local speakers on subjects such as Graphology and You, and Colour. Beauty treatments - a range of massages, leg waxing, facials and eyelash tinting - are provided by visiting beauty therapists. These are offered on a pay-as- you-go basis.

Sylvia says the Ladies Pamper Weekend is popular: the 19 places fill nearly every time. But still, she is selling up and moving. Meanwhile, her business partner Lawrence is running the retreats.

Tottering round the changing rooms at the swimming pool with nothing on, the female bonding started. "Do you mind if I borrow your shampoo?" or "What do you mean - cellulite!" With giggles, we told each other why we were there - leaving the hubby, kids or boyfriend behind.

All too soon it ended and we were called back out again, driven home, then herded into the dining room. At the sight of the communal eating table, I saw one woman sink her head into her hands. "I couldn't believe they were making us eat like that," she told me later. "I'd imagined intimate candlelit tables for four."

After a night of inventing excuses as to why I should leave a day early, I decided to stay. I wanted to get a verdict from the women. That afternoon, a group of us went walking on the moors. I had spent the morning lying around having my legs waxed and a full body massage, so I was raring to go. The walk was beautiful. Really. Along a river, then into a 12th-century church, then up on to the hills: barren, windy, smelling of heather, rain dropping, quietness and sheep. For two hours, I wanted to stay in Yorkshire for ever and live in a barn. But then we were escorted back to the house. It was teatime. "Now, how many sugars would you like? Come on, exercise that little brain of yours."

We had got to know each other by now. We sat round in socks and dressing gowns and giggled and chatted. We read the newspapers, lay on our backs listening to some relaxation tape ("My name is Nina. I am your friend. I'm going to count five and you will feel relaxed"), and then got dressed for the communal candlelit dinner. Garlic mushrooms, then boiled bacon, then sticky treacle pudding.

At 8.30pm the colour analyst arrived - our evening's entertainment. For three hours we endured a talk during which she told us if we were "spring, summer, autumn or winter people" and whether we were "pale spring" or "warm spring", "pale summer" or "warm summer". Then the body shape was assessed. Were we a "circle" (fat) or a "square" (no waist)? Were we a "triangle" (swimmers' shoulders) or a "pear"?

I got through the evening. Then another night in my cardboard-walled bedroom. When I woke up, it was a delight to pull back the curtains and to see sheep, snow on the hills and rich green grass, wet and long from the winter.

When it was time to go I felt sorry to leave some of the "ladies". I had enjoyed their company and learnt strange, sad things about some of them. And I also learnt that I actually lead a surprisingly pampered existence - back here in smoggy London.

Hartrigg Country House, Buckden, Skipton, North Yorkshire BD23 5JA (01756 760 246).

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