Travel: Heaven in a dressing gown

From massages to algae body wraps, Alison Rice discovers the bliss of a break on a health farm
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The Independent Travel
I don't know why I should be so sensitive about admitting that a dream holiday for me was a week at a health farm - sorry, health fitness retreat. Of all the many and exotic travels I've notched up over the years, this treat turned out to be the one "adventure" that has generated the most questions and the most envy. And not just from women.

I asked around. I sent off for brochures and finally I settled on Grayshott Hall - not the cheapest but not quite the most expensive. It's only an hour's drive from home and two women I know who go there promised me I wouldn't feel out of of place without designer sportswear or a flat stomach. I arrived with best dressing-gown, a bag of books, a pair of M&S leggings and as much apprehension as when I first fetched up in Saigon or Benidorm.

First impressions were of a country house that has seen better days, the sort of place where the family has sold off the best heirlooms to keep going. I felt I'd walked into an institute from a parallel universe. The drawing room and the entrance hall and the dining room looked grand enough but all the guests were in dressing gowns. Everyone else sported nurse-type overalls and called themselves therapists or they wore sprayed- on Lycra and called themselves instructors. There were men around but it all felt very female. However, my welcome couldn't have been friendlier and I was given a lovely large bedroom with views over the garden and on to the woodland in the distance.

One of the many smiling uniformed woman took me off for my "consultation" and asked what I'd come for. She offered a list of possible "goals and objectives" that read Rest & Relaxation, Exercise Regime, Dietary Regime, Make Changes in Lifestyle, Make Health a Priority, Personal Space and Other.

Well, yes to all that, with Personal Space at the top, please, and I'd like time to think about Other. I got my blood pressure and weight recorded and then a sensible reassuring chat where I was advised not to try to do too much or book too many extras. A reassuring lack of hard-sell.

The Grayshott price includes a daily steam treatment and massage, breakfast, lunch, "cocktails" and dinner and all the non-alcoholic drinks you want, and there is a daily programme of free classes and talks. The extras include osteopathy, reflexology, weird algae body wraps and facials.

Maybe I'm lazy and was born to be pampered or maybe I was just too tired to want to think for myself but I loved being swept along into the routine of this parallel universe. Every night a card appeared under the bedroom door with next day's treatment times. All I had to do was turn up at the spa area and the uniformed women would lead me to a steam cabinet and then a massage table. What the country house saved on heirlooms it made up for in its lavish spa centre and swimming pool.

I loved the massages, but even better was breakfast in bed and swanning around all day in a dressing-gown and no make-up. And absolutely tops for me was supper in a dining room trimmed with flowers and candles, eating on a table all by myself, by choice, in slippers, leggings and T-shirt. And no one batting an eyelid. I didn't even feel obliged to read a book between courses. I could stare into space and no one thought me strange. Heaven.

Not that the other guests were unfriendly - indeed, such a rich mix of stereotypes was holed up with me that they were the very stuff of airport novels. Dear old bats who thought we still had an empire to boast of. Old buffers who dressed for dinner and demanded (but didn't get) claret, not water, with their steak; there was plenty of food, low in fat and usually tasty, and no alcohol. Women so stressed out from work and/or personal life overloads they couldn't string together a sentence. There was the speeding soldier (female) on leave from Bosnia, whose tales of romance on the frontline had me too stunned to sip my camomile. The district nurse whose family had rolled together Christmas and birthday presents for her two-night stay. The wannabe celeb (perhaps she was) dripping in gold jewellery and the elegant woman addressed by the staff as Lady. Oh, and at the end of the week the actor Richard Wilson checked in.

In for a penny ... I booked an extra treatment per day, including a private swimming lesson where for pounds 15 I finally got the courage and the knack of swimming breast stroke properly with head under water. The osteopathy session was also a life-changing marvel. The facial and the "body wrap" were administered in perfunctory manner. The luck of the draw of the staff I suppose. I liked most of them, the beauty "therapists", the instructors and the waiters. If they spent their time off chomping chips, swigging Scotch and decrying us lot as pampered spoilt gits, they showed no sign.

I survived the afternoon Fitness Walks - four-mile, 60-minute romps through glorious countryside. I had a go at the different exercise classes (I'm very glad the place was half empty) and I turned up for the evening talks. These ranged from great - art appreciation and nutrition - to dreadful: a so-called introduction to Feng Shui.

After six days I was four pounds lighter and unrecognisably calmer. Six months later, the weight loss has stayed with me. Sadly, the calmness hasn't.

Grayshott Hall, Headley Road, Grayshott, near Hindhead, Surrey GU26 6JJ (01428 604331). Alison Rice paid pounds 145 (including service and VAT) a night for single occupancy of a double room. The extras cost pounds 35 for a hydrotherapy bath treatment, pounds 25 for reflexology, pounds 32 for osteopathy, pounds 38 for a facial and pounds 15 for a private swimming lesson.

The writer is director of programmes at the Travel Channel, on cable and satellite.

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