Traditionally, the English have tended towards a rather masochistic approach to health, fitness and wellbeing. After all, it was no-nonsense, muscular Christianity that built the Empire: a nation's youth shorn of its rough edges through discipline, robust physical jerks and cold showers.
In recent years, of course, attitudes have softened: indoor gyms and leg-warmers; juice bars and macrobiotic diets. Which makes Nicholas Gray's job all the more difficult. As chief executive of what is argu-ably Britain's last old-school health "clinic", Gray presides over an establishment that, at least on paper, is in danger of becoming an anachronism.
Shrubland Hall, a late 18th-century pile in rural-ish Suffolk, has been occupied by various incarnations of the Baron de Saumarez since 1882. It was the sixth Baron who, in 1965, converted it into a health clinic. As a business model it was pretty much genius, pre-empting the modern health farm (big fees, small food) by several decades.
A colleague who visited as recently as four years ago dubbed it "Scrublands", not so much for its detoxifying capabilities as its austere, prison-like regime. Her intro-ductory "treatment" involved standing naked against a wall while a member of staff blasted her with an ice-cold, high-pressure hose. Does wonders for the circulation, apparently.
Lunch was raw vegetables, supper a cup of broth. And all the while nurses circled like hawks, alert to the threat posed by any inmate brave enough to smuggle in a contraband chocolate bar. Yet, for all the frugality, it proved popular.
"Our regular clients have tended not to like too much change," says Gray of his clientele, some of whom have provided repeat business for 30 years. "We've had clients stay for months at a time. If they're on a strict weight-loss programme, a disciplined approach can be quite reassuring."
But in a fiercely competitive market dictated largely by fashion, keeping punter numbers up became difficult. So Gray decided to mitigate Shrubland's trademark austerity with a range of less brutal therapies designed to appeal to stressed-out City-boy types.
As I pull on to the forecourt, my motor is the shabbiest by several insurance brackets. My first appointment is with a nurse who checks my height, weight and blood pressure before outlining the programmes available during my three-day stay. I opt for a "de-stress" programme, a series of relaxation treatments allied to daily runs of up to 10km.
When she asks if I have any questions, I come straight to the point. The food. "The type of food, dear, or the amount?" Both. It transpires that the "Shrubland diet", consisting mainly of raw vegetables and water, is one part of the old regime that has remained intact.
She assures me that guests on active programmes such as mine have the option of a "full" diet: the same menu but as much as you can eat. Planet Shrubland is a world free of caffeine, alcohol and red meat. The prevailing philosophy may sound prescriptive, but the thinking is reasonably sound: to leave guests feeling cleansed and rejuvenated.
What this means in real terms becomes clear at lunch.To aid digestion, everything - and I mean everything - is grated: carrot; celeriac; cauliflower; buckwheat; alfalfa sprouts. Gluten- and cholesterol-free to the last shaving, it is then pressed into colourful terrines. Superior rabbit food, but rabbit food none the less.
The guests floating around the dining room in towelling robes wear glazed expressions of blissed-out contentment (or possibly the early stages of malnutrition). Supper, when it comes, is served in your bedroom. Yes, it's room service, but it's also a cup of broth and a slice of bread. Mine arrives at six o'clock, and I'm ready for bed by five past.
To keep your mind off what you could be eating, schedules are kept full. Breakfast on my first full day arrives at 6.45am. Then it's down into the bowels of the building for a Turkish bath, consisting of a sauna followed by a scrub-down with a herb-laden mitt. As the hefty gentleman in charge asks me to assume the position - hands against the wall, bum to the world - I discover that what a man loses in terms of his dignity, he more that recoups in exfoliation.
Next up it's underwater massage, or "hydrotherapy". As you lie in a warm bath, a high-pressure hose massages "deep-lying muscle, subcutaneous tissue and internal organs," according to Chris, my masseur. For those with "sensitive tissue" - those not familiar with regular exercise - a relatively low water pressure of between 0.5 and 1.5 bar is used. Those with denser muscle mass (athletes, for example) require between 2 and 4 bar. I settle for a medium pressure, and the sensation is a bit like being hit repeatedly with a spoon.
Peter, my next masseur, explains as he begins to unknot my muscles that the masseurs at Shrubland are encouraged to combine techniques from various disciplines. "We're looking to get your body back to its natural state, how it should be when you're not hunched up with tension," he explains. "I learnt this," he adds, pressing my shoulders down into my body, "from a Reiki healer". "And this," he says, moving into broad kneading strokes known as "effleurage", "is a more traditional Swedish technique."
After our session, Peter advises me to drink plenty of water. Reckoning that I haven't expended too much energy, I decide not to take his advice, heading out instead on a 10km run. Big mistake. One of the side effects of a thorough deep-tissue massage is to make the body more fuel-efficient by freeing up toxins that build up in muscle fibres, which water then flushes out. While these are mostly fatty acids they can also include lactic acid, a very relevant factor where running is concerned. Even in the murk of a mid-winter afternoon, Shrubland's roads and paths are navigable by moonlight, but in my mid-detox state, I'm forced to call it a day halfway round.
After the following morning's Turkish bath, I head for the last of the Shrubland massages, shiatsu, the ancient Japanese system designed to aid the interaction of nerves and muscles and improve circulation and the movement of gases around the body. Ann, my masseuse, begins to walk (shiatsu practitioners use feet, knees, and elbows) up and down my spine, locating various pressure points. Unlike the other treatments, shiatsu treads a fine line between vigorous and painful. "If you scream, I'll stop," she says as she gets to work on a pressure point behind my ear.
The final treatment of my stay is a seaweed wrap, a skin treatment in which liquid seaweed is applied to the whole body. The recipient is then left to sweat in a heated blanket for 30 minutes. With nutrients drawn into the body by osmosis, in addition to offering a balm for various dermatological ailments it also has the less obvious side-effect of cleansing the colon. The effects are broadly similar to eating seaweed in its original, fibrous state.
Left to my own devices on my final afternoon (spent mostly in the loo), it occurs to me that over the past three days I haven't hankered for coffee, felt the need to turn on the television or even read a newspaper. On top of which I feel energised and relaxed. Perhaps Nanny doesn't know best when it comes to looking after yourself, but she clearly knows more than me.
Three-day breaks at Shrubland Hall (01473 830 404, shrublandhall.co.uk) from £477, including medical consultation, food and accommodation, two treatments daily and exercise classes
Although not the first stately-home health retreat in Britain - Champneys in Hertfordshire, founded in 1925 by the naturopath Stanley Lief, lays claim to that accolade - Shrubland Hall's ethos echoes that of a far older and, in its day, far more famous establishment: Battle Creek Sanitarium, immortalised in the 1994 movie The Road to Wellville.
Established by Seventh Day Adventists in Michigan in 1866, its operations expanded after Dr John Henry Kellogg took over in 1876. The "San", as it became known - Kellogg coined the word sanitarium to reflect "a place where people learn to stay well ", rather than a sanitorium for the sick - pioneered daily colonic cleansing, grape diets (up to 14lb a day), plenty of exercise and strictly no meat or alcohol. Kellogg himself devised some 80 grain and cereal products, including peanut butter in 1893, while his brother Will came up with the first corn flakes five years later.
At its peak, the San could accommodate 1,250 patients, looked after by a staff of 1,800, and it attracted presidents and the powerful, including Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was the beginning of the end for the increasingly plush operation as the supply of well-heeled inmates dried up. The San went into receivership in 1933, and the buildings had been sold to the US Army by the time Dr Kellogg died, aged 91, in 1943.
Yet the marketeers keep coming up with variations of healthy living for the wealthy. If the private-jet set are bored with seaweed wraps at sea level (pictured), FlightSpa will soothe them in the sky. Their promotional literature says it all, really: "Limo at the door, aircraft at the gate, and the low-salt, no-wheat Thai bolognese? It's already on board. Mission accomplished."Reuse content