Seaham Hall: Seaside revival

Set on England's rugged northern coast, Seaham Hall is a holistic haven. And, the author Maggie O'Farrell discovers, a very hot place to be this winter
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The Independent Travel

As I set out for my New Year programme of purification, I discover that the world of the luxury spa is being rocked to its foundations. The newspapers are making much of a group of scientists who have come out to say that there is no such thing as "detox". It is a meaningless concept, the scientists are claiming, it doesn't exist. You can have your thighs brushed with willow twigs as many times as you like, you can consume endless pints of live moss juice but you'll get more benefit from eating less and going to bed early. Assorted starlets are coming out to express their shock and disbelief and to vow their allegiance to costly seaweed wraps.

I drive down through the Borders and Northumberland, and into County Durham, and wonder at the timing of all of this. Will Seaham Hall, one of the trailblazing luxury British spa hotels, the kind of place for which "detox" is the very cornerstone, have crumbled at this news? Will I find it hollowed out, razed to the ground, like Manderley at the end of Rebecca? Will the roads around it be filled with people in white robes, fleeing in shame and disillusionment? Is detox really dead?

When I take the final bend, I discover the place jammed with cars. The lights are all on, someone is raking the gravel and there is a woman in a pink Juicy Couture tracksuit heading single-mindedly along a path. Whatever the scientists may be saying, these people obviously aren't listening.

At first glance, the exterior of Seaham Hall is a slight disappointment. Before you can get a good look at the building, the driveway takes you on a circuitous tour of the car parks. It all feels back to front, as if these shrubberies and parking spaces ought to have been tucked away from view.

Just in front of the main doors, however, is a water sculpture of such mesmeric, surprising cleverness that you soon forget all about the ugly entrance. A huge whirlpool rises and falls inside a clear tube, brimming up to the top every quarter of an hour and flooding down the sides. You can climb up the steps to peer down into its queer, twisting depths.

Inside, the hall is hushed, decorated in muted tones, with a curving staircase and a huge, stained-glass ceiling. There seem to be staff everywhere, dressed entirely in black, padding about the thick carpets, smiling enigmatically. They don't seem troubled by the death of detox, either.

We are shown to our room and discover that we have been given an entire beige and gold suite to ourselves. There is a sitting room, complete with immense sofas that make you feel like Laurel and Hardy in that film where they play toddlers, and a television of such high spec that I cannot get it to work. The lighting system alone requires a qualification in electronics to operate.

The bed is the largest I have ever seen. Six people could comfortably pass a night in it, under its beige and gold mantle. The sheer enormity of it makes my two-year-old son lose his head and he has to be dissuaded from performing swallow dives off it.

After we have moved from room to room, marvelling at the heaviness of the curtains, the depth of the bath, the plethora of aromatherapy products beside the sink and the intricacies of the dimmer switches, we decide to check out the spa.

Seaham Hall has a split identity. There is the luxury, five-star hotel with its immense beds, quiet corridors and haute cuisine restaurant; in a separate building, there is the Serenity Spa. An underground tunnel links the two so that you need never go outside during your entire stay.

Being fortunate enough not to suffer from agoraphobia, I decide to take the old-fashioned option of putting on my coat and woolly hat to walk through the gardens. The back of the hotel is more pleasant than the front, with terraces fronted by balustrades and ponds that may or may not contain goldfish. On a frosty January afternoon, it was far too cold for fish to make themselves known.

Seconds after I cross the threshold to the Serenity Spa, I realise my mistake. It is hot in here. Very hot. This is an atmosphere specifically designed for lounging about in scant clothing, for receiving relaxing treatments in a naked state, and I am dressed for a walk in a County Durham winter.

I am in urgent danger of heatstroke. Before I can reply to the polite enquiry from the helpful woman at reception, I have to frantically shuck off my coat and two jumpers, remove my hat and free myself from my scarf, which is doing that trick of tightening itself noose-like about my neck as I tug.

After I have removed 90 per cent of my clothing, I am ready to wander around the Serenity Spa (a name somewhat less apt since my son made his entrance: he is very taken with the lifesize elephant sculpture and the wooden floors, which are satisfyingly noisy when stamped on). It is in two circular, teepee-shaped buildings. The air is heavy with the scent of jasmine and the sound of flowing water, the lighting subdued.

There is something about its circular, partially subterranean architecture and the expression of concentrated intent with which everyone is conducting themselves that reminds me of those fantastical, often sub-aquatic headquarters of the Bond villain. The ones where Sean Connery has to swim through a dangerously narrow tube before happening on an immense, secret factory where workers are assembling some nefarious weapon. The Serenity Spa has the same aura of top secrecy, of driven purpose. But what they are manufacturing here is relaxation. It's very Californian, or rather California tinged with Japan.

There is a beautiful, turquoise, amoeba-shaped pool with jets and tiny footbridges, a Jacuzzi the size of a normal swimming pool, a sauna, a hammam steam room and two lethal, ice-cold plunge pools. Out on the decking, there are some furious, spitting hot tubs. Only the real die-hard spa goers venture out to those. Most people seem to be stretched out, comatose on the loungers around the pool. Curiously, they all seem to have the same haircut - a heavily highlighted, asymmetric sculpture of opposing planes. The fringe goes one way, the side goes the other and the top goes another. It seems you cannot attend a spa without a time-consuming hairstyle.

One of the teepee domes is occupied by a restaurant. Smoothies and Asian tapas are served here to people who are in the thick of their spa experience. They are all sporting flushed cheeks, a thousand-yard stare and a set of white karate-style pyjamas.

Arriving as I did, in an abrupt fashion from the outside world, the whole place has the surreality of a dream, where everyone is doing normal things like eating and sitting at a table chatting, except wearing their night clothes.

I should confess at this point that I am not a fan of relaxation, especially organised, mass relaxation like this. It can't be good for you, all that unwinding and emptying your mind. What if you unwind so much you begin to unravel? What if you empty your head so efficiently that, like some faulty toilet cistern, it never fills again? No, I am very much of the opinion that you need a healthy amount of stress to keep things ticking over. These people in their white pyjamas scare me. The idea of serenity scares me. The smoothies scare me. I make my escape, dragging my bundle of clothes after me.

That evening, after a shockingly delicious dinner at the White Room Restaurant, where I rack up a few more toxins for myself during dessert, I do some research on the history of Seaham Hall. This is partly to console myself for the thought that tomorrow I too must don white pyjamas and surrender myself to the spa therapists and the concept of detox. It is also partly because I am interested in the hotel's address: Lord Byron's Walk.

A short hop on Google reveals that the hall was built for Ralph and Judith Milbanke. Byronites will recognise the surname: they were the parents of Anne Isabella (or Annabella) Milbanke, the only woman Byron ever married. The ceremony itself took place precisely below where I am sitting, in Seaham's drawing room, on 2 January 1815.

Byron began writing his Hebrew Melodies at Seaham during the October of 1814, and continued working on them during his honeymoon, Annabella dutifully copying them out. He seems to have been as enamoured of Seaham as he was of his new wife. "Upon this dreary coast," he spits in a letter of February 1815, "we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks: and I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the late gales." * * To say the wedding was not a success would be an understatement. Byron was never going to be a man much suited to the condition. After trying to break off the engagement by letter on his way to Seaham, Byron was reported by guests to have faltered several times during his vows. The marriage lasted just under a year; they parted when their only daughter, Ada, was a month old.

The next morning, I visit the beach that Annabella and Byron would walk along during their honeymoon (or "treaclemoon" as he described it). No shipwrecks occur while I am there but I fail to see anything to inspire the ire that Byron felt for the coastline. It is a long stretch of beach with impressively louring cliffs, the sand pitted with egg-shaped pebbles and coloured shells. I decide that, although Byron's connection to Seaham Hall was a brief and largely unhappy one, it is somehow apt that a building now devoted to the pleasure principle was once frequented by a man who lived according to the many tenets of hedonism, a man unafraid of toxins.

As I sit on a Corbusier leather recliner in the Zen Lounge of the Serenity Spa, dressed in my white pyjamas, I get talking to a woman who has just had the treatment I am about to undergo. "It's wonderful," she says, with evangelist fervour, "the cream they put on you is impregnated with oxygen. The oxygen goes into your skin and breaks down the fats and toxins." I examine her. She is wearing, like me, a set of the karate pyjamas. Her hair is relatively normal. She would pass for sane, in the outside world. Do you really believe that, I want to say. My fellow detoxer tells me there are as many as 250 toxins in the human body. I am just wondering where they would all have come from when my therapist arrives, a woman from Newcastle dressed in a black cheongsam blouse.

I am lain face-down on a heated couch, covered with towels, and given a body brush, which sounds a bit like housework but isn't. I am massaged and pummelled and stretched and then covered in the miracle-working oxygen cream. Whatever its gaseous content, it smells wonderful and also expensive. I lie on my warm couch like a cat in front of a fire. I have no idea how many toxins I once had or now have in my body.

Does detox actually do us any medical good? Does it rid us of anything other than cash? At this precise moment the question is: do I care? If it feels this good, it will be immortal. Long live detox.

Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel is 'The Distance Between Us' (Review, £6.99)

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Seaham train station is a five-minute drive from Seaham Hall, with links to Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland on Northern Rail (0845 00 00 125; www.northernrail.org). National Rail enquiries: 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk. If travelling by road, it is just off the A19.

STAYING THERE

Seaham Hall Hotel, Lord Byrons Walk, Seaham, County Durham (0191-516 1400; www.seaham-hall.com). Doubles start at £195 including breakfast; minimum two night-stay at weekends.

The Serenity Spa at Seaham Hall Hotel (0191-516 1550; www.seaham-serenityspa.com) is offering the Karin Herzog detox treatment at the discounted price of £30 (members £25) throughout January and February.

MORE INFORMATION

County Durham Tourism (0191-383 3354; www.durham.gov.uk/tourism).

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