Cooped up at warm comfort farm

Eight months of pregnancy convinced Jane Acton that pampering was necessary to turn this earth mother into a goddess

Five weeks before the birth of my second child, I know things that I didn't know before the first was born. I know that once it arrives I will not have a night's sleep for at least six months. I will be exhausted to the point of hysteria, will not be able to read a paper, finish a book or eat a meal using both a knife and a fork. I will have no social life, and if I engage in adult conversation it will probably be about babies.

Five weeks before the birth of my second child, I know things that I didn't know before the first was born. I know that once it arrives I will not have a night's sleep for at least six months. I will be exhausted to the point of hysteria, will not be able to read a paper, finish a book or eat a meal using both a knife and a fork. I will have no social life, and if I engage in adult conversation it will probably be about babies.

For all these reasons and more, I decide to start my maternity leave by spending a couple of days at a health farm as one last self-indulgence. I do not expect to be transformed into a goddess, but I do want to feel like one, just for a day or so. I invite my mum along. She is far fitter than I am (she plays tennis every week of the year, even when it snows) and is always up for a new adventure.

We book into Henlow Grange, a red-brick Georgian country house set in the Bedfordshire countryside. It has gates with polished brass plaques, high chimneys and a cupola with a clock in it, but behind its symmetrical façade is a warren of modern extensions. Henlow Grange has been a spa for nearly 40 years: Sir Jimmy Savile, George Best, Boyzone, most of the cast of EastEnders and the Arsenal football team have all been pummelled and pampered here, as our guide is keen to point out. As if to illustrate the point, Charlie Dimmock promptly traverses the hall in a towelling robe.

Most of the health farm's facilities are found along a snaking thoroughfare in the modern extension and each area is glass-panelled as if to demonstrate its function. Indeed, it is a bit like a zoo. The beauty salon, the gym and the exercise room are in full view of everyone. Mum presses her nose up to the glass of the gym and points. "I feel so sorry for them," she says, looking pityingly at the four sweaty guests on treadmills, "being stuck in there with all that fresh air outside."

There is a variety of residents at the spa - groups of chattering, athletic girls in Lycra, mothers and daughters, squadrons of old ladies and about three couples. There are a few men lurking in the gym, and the odd one hovering around the "pampering" areas with a hangdog look. Eighty-five per cent of the guests are female. Women seem to grow into this kind of environment whereas men shrink.

For dress code, think geese: big, white and fluffy. Even on a sweltering hot day the guests pad the corridors and gardens in towelling robes. At "Beauty Reception", a whole flock wait for their names to be called. This is a sweet-smelling, if clinical, place in which we hope that our weary bodies will be relieved of executive stress, deflated self-esteem, weight problems and spots. The staff are angelic, dressed in white with upside-down watches attached to their uniforms, like nurses.

My "special treatment" of the stay is called "mother-to-be". It's too much to hope that this will reveal a secret formula for pain-free childbirth, but what it does promise is to improve the skin's elasticity ("to help to avoid skin slackening and stretch marks") as well as offer relief for "heavy" legs. I'm beyond salvation in all these departments, but I begin to inflate with anticipation at the thought of being drenched in potions all the same. Can I really afford to get any bigger?

I am taken to a small room where, having stripped, I don a pair of paper pants. I am scrubbed all over in an exfoliant, then led to a shower to remove it all with a delicious gel. As my legs and belly are smeared in more essential oils and creams, I close my eyes to guess each new smell, and at last begin to feel like a goddess. Next, the beautician lards my stomach with a clay mask, green as guacamole. After a further six products have been applied to my face, I'm wrapped in clingfilm, swaddled in blankets and left for 15 minutes to "absorb" while faux-Gregorian chants play in the background.

In due course, the belly mask is peeled off. It now looks like spinach lasagne. Finally, a menthol and camphor gel is applied to my legs and the cooling effect on my tired limbs is sensational. My mum, meanwhile, is having the time of her life, enjoying her first facial and massage in 70 years. I find her lying under a tree next to the swelling river watching a tern soar, swoop and plunge into the water. "I'm so happy," she gasps. "I feel I could do anything."

I'd expected my mum to be a bit sniffy about all this self-indulgence, what with growing up in the war and everything. On the contrary, she seems entirely thrilled by the experience. "I think it's marvellous," she says, examining her nails. "Women have earned their place in society and have the right to be pampered. We deserve it."

We both have "specialised manicures". "Shaped or straight?" the manicurist barks, brandishing an emery board. I haven't a clue. And there's certainly no point in mum fussing over her hands - she spends too much time in the garden. Still, it was an almighty treat to have someone spend 55 whole minutes fiddling with our hands, wrapping them in clingfilm, slotting them into toasting mitts, slathering them in "complex oils", then, treat of all treats, being awarded a further 15 minutes in which to make a life-and-death decision about what colour to paint the nails. At the end, I hop off the Captain Kirk-style manicure throne and scuff an electric-blue nail. I am gutted, as this experience has just cost me £32.

Henlow Grange has a gym, exercise classes, tennis, power walks and morning jogs. Mum and I are here to loaf, so we leave strenuous exercise to others. I do, however, take an invig- orating 7am swim. The pool is designed in the style of a classical bath with mosaics and statues of naked Romans all over the place. I am warned not to use the Jacuzzi in my condition. My swim is cut short by the start of the dawn "aquacize" class and I am swept out on a tide as eight big ladies plunge into the water.

Mum is keen to try out yoga, though is anxious she'll have to adopt funny positions and chant. It takes place in the stately Peacock Room where handsome birds hold court on ancient Chinese hand-painted wallpaper. Afterwards she declares that she's taller, thinner and straighter, although a little disappointed that she didn't "go into some sort of trance".

Henlow Grange is a still place at night, save for the odd soul doing penance in the gym. We are strangely tempted to "Discover your aural sphere", but the lecture is cancelled so we opt for an early night. My head can't have been completely emptied by the day's loafing, because I dream not only of my new baby, but also of a large gin and tonic.

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