24-hour Room Service: Lifehouse, Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex
Saturday 12 March 2011
Set in 130 acres of fields and woodland, and 12 acres of gardens, Lifehouse is a countryside spa that couldn't feel less like a country-house hotel. There's nothing chintzy about it, nothing olde worlde and nothing the least bit pretentious. Instead, it looks like what it is: a gleaming, purpose-built spa – the first to be built in England for 20 years – with rooms attached.
The look is "industrial chic" and it does feel a bit industrial, in the way that loft apartments owned by City traders also feel vaguely reminiscent of the warehouses or factories in which they sprung up. Lifehouse stands on the site of an old manor house that was demolished to make way for this gleaming, modern spa hotel. It feels, at least in the residential blocks, a bit like a cruise ship: light and fresh and clean and upbeat. Certainly, the stripy carpets feel as though someone's trying to cheer you up.
The whole place, in fact, feels as though someone's trying to cheer you up. The bright colours and the slightly whimsical names of the rooms – "play room" for the gym, "head space" for the hair salon, "forget-me-nots" for the manicure and pedicure area – all add to the feeling of a comfortable playground for grown-ups.
Designed by award-winning architects, The Manser Practice and opened in December, Lifehouse has clearly been built to make the most of the gardens and the light. In the central spa, there's an enormous atrium, with a "hub" where you book treatments, a juice bar where you can sip carrot juice or tuck into a not-hugely-healthy afternoon tea, a beauty area where you can gaze out at a pretty courtyard, and an awful lot of treatment rooms. There's also a "chill out zone", all done out in soft greys, where you can lie on a chaise longue, or in a super-duper massage chair that pummels you vigorously, and then, slightly unexpectedly, tips you backwards.
The Lifehouse approach to what used to be called health but now seems to be called "well-being" is pleasingly non-prescriptive. You can talk to nutritionists, life coaches, or health consultants, if you want to. You can work out in the "play ground", or do yoga, aerobics, or Tai'Chi. You can go for a run or for a bracing walk. Or you can take the view that I did, that proper R&R is about barely moving at all. You can drink cocktails in the pleasant bar and stuff your face in the restaurant. The focus is on fresh ingredients, unencumbered by complicated sauces, and all served up in portions big enough to satisfy, but small enough to leave space for pudding.
You can also explore the gardens. These date back to before The Domesday Book, and have been restored to reflect their peak in the 1920s. In January, there was almost as much water in the ground as in the seven lakes and accompanying waterways, but in the summer they'll be stunning.
And you can, of course, have treatments in the spa. My pedicure managed to make my claw-like feet look a little less claw-like. I also had the signature Oriental Bathing Experience. This largely involves being immersed in water of various temperatures. After a "grounding Thai foot ritual", you're led to a lukewarm pool and then to an aromatherapy area, a Japanese bathing area, a warm pool where two therapists bring you tea, a little room where you're massaged in warm oil and finally to a "private sleep pod", an enormous bed that can be screened off and lit according to your mood. In my case this was "sleepy" – I felt I could snooze all day.
Lifehouse is in the grounds of what used to be Thorpe Hall, just outside Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex. It's 80 minutes by train from London Liverpool Street, or an hour's drive from Stansted airport. The countryside around is gorgeous, but I can't see why you'd want to leave the spa and gardens.
The 89 rooms are, presumably on the same principle as Starbucks coffees, divided between "good", "great" or "best". I was in "best", which was gargantuan. As in the rest of the spa, the décor was what you might call "funky": stripy carpets, square lamp-shades, grey armchairs, pink and beige cushions. You get slippers and a bathrobe, which you can wear in the restaurant if you want to, and samples of some of the Babor products used in the spa. "Good" and "great" rooms are similar, but smaller.
Even when fully booked, and even with day visitors, the facilities didn't seem crowded, though I did have to wait a while for a table for breakfast. Comfortable and down-to-earth, Lifehouse feels like a jolly nice place to relax for people who have to, you know, work for a living, and not just for ladies who lunch.
Lifehouse, Frinton Road, Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, CO16 OJD (01255 860050; lifehouse.co.uk)
Double rooms start at £175, including welcome drink, full board and a 50-minute massage
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