With its crunchy gravel drive, stately old trees, neatly clipped lawn and pretty Georgian stonework, Middleton Lodge in North Yorkshire might have come straight from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. As I pulled up on a warm summer evening, a house party atmosphere seemed to be developing inside. While a clutch of my fellow new arrivals strolled around the gardens, or tested the fluffiness of their duvets, others had headed straight to the kitchen and were introducing themselves over the mountains of food which had been bought in for the weekend ahead.
But this is no ordinary country house retreat. There were no chocolates on the pillows, no fizz of bubbles against glass, and definitely no plans for wild, late-night partying. We were there to detox, testing out fitness holiday company In:Spa's inaugural UK weekend break. The company was set up in 2003 to fill a gap in the market for sophisticated, healthy holidays that didn't involve travelling to Asia. Though already gaining a following for its week-long retreats in Spain and Morocco (former clients include Cat Deeley), this was the first holiday In:Spa had run in the UK, and the first short break. Guests on this trip didn't have the personal nutrition consultations, massages and one-on-one instruction that are part of the company's longer breaks. In almost all other respects, however, the weekend was simply a condensed version of a regular In:Spa trip.
A week before the retreat began, it had been recommended that we reduce or cut out caffeine, alcohol, bread and snacks and increase the amount of water, fruit and vegetables we consumed. The weekend itself would consist of three days of yoga, running and circuit classes; hikes in the scenic Yorkshire Dales; cooking demonstrations; and all the early nights, healthy food and fresh mint tea we could manage. Alcohol was strictly out. (Although, just to put temptation in our way, the directions the company had emailed over used a pub as the nearest landmark.)
I'd been nervous before setting off. The last time I'd signed up for a trip like this it turned out to be a disaster, with the management more interested in money than customer service and the guests neurotically comparing eating disorders. But the fact that this break was so short – and close to home – had sold it to me. However miserable things turned out, I could surely last a few days and, if not, I could be home in three hours.
I needn't have worried. This was as far as you could get from mung beans, hair shirts and wide-boys masquerading as yoga devotees. The nurturing philosophy may not have come cheap but at least it was top of the agenda here. Middleton Lodge is usually rented out for weddings or group birthday parties, so it caters to those looking for a bit of luxury. Each room has a huge, comfortable bed, a hot shower or bath and an extensive collection of Ren toiletries to dip into. The food was equally swanky. Chef Alan Wichert is an Australian living in Morocco, so the menu he'd put together for the weekend was unsurprisingly creative, running the gamut from delicious berry and pineapple porridge to a spicy tom-yam soup, baked cod and home-made turkey burgers – all served with a vast range of herb and spice-laden salads, vegetables and sauces.
And, unlike the yoga holiday from hell, there was no boot-camp mentality here. If you wanted to lie in the garden with a book, or ask for some extra yoga tuition, it could all be arranged. "It's about having a rest as much as anything. If you want to skip the activities and sleep all day, that's fine," said one of the two personal trainers in attendance, Wendy Spence. To have stayed in bed would have meant missing out, though. As we set off for a "gentle hike" through Swaledale with Wendy's colleague Nik Cook (any less gentle and we would have been jogging), it became clear how thoughtfully the whole exercise had been put together. Knowing that group-based weekends can feel a bit like being kidnapped, the company had slotted in plenty of time away from the lodge.
Tramping a sunny path through long buttercup and clover-filled grass, past cool mossy becks and out across a patchwork of ancient stone walls and barns, there was time to regroup, rethink and just enjoy some space. Not that everyone seemed to feel as invigorated by the walks as I did. "This is a bit rural," said one girl, holding her nose and carefully picking each step as we crossed through a particularly pungent farmyard.
The highlight of the weekend for me was practising yoga out on Middleton Lodge's grand, sweeping lawn. Led, encouragingly, by teacher Melinda Reed, the afternoon sessions were designed to build on work done in the early morning classes and to stretch out aching muscles after a day's exercise. I found it much easier to focus outside than in, with the smell of grass, the chirrup of birds and a sometimes upside-down view of the class's idyllic setting all helping to distract from the frustration of more challenging postures.
It wasn't just me who appreciated the approach. This was the second or third such retreat for several of the people on the course, a surprising number of whom were men. One of them summed up the appeal when he explained: "It's just so nice to come back from a holiday feeling good rather than exhausted after too many nights drinking too much and eating too much."
After just three days I felt fitter and better rested than I had when I had arrived, even if I was also more tired physically. Waking up each morning to sunshine, and watching rabbits chasing around the lawn, I also felt much more relaxed.
Not everyone slept as soundly as I did. Some of those who didn't put it down to the effects of going cold turkey on alcohol, as nobody I spoke to had managed to detox, as recommended, for the week before they arrived. But it is surprising how easy it is, away from home, to give up caffeine and booze. Especially once the post-exercise endorphins kicked in. For others, stronger hormones may have been at work; in the four years that the company has been running trips four couples have got engaged after meeting through the retreats.
There was much talk of other life-changes, too. Most of the In:Spa team had swapped jobs in banking, law or advertising to become yoga instructors, personal trainers or, in one case, the director of a healthy holiday company. Some of the guests were contemplating similar moves; others just wanted to chill out, relax or be motivated to get fit. One particularly inspiring fellow retreatee had lost six stone and run her first marathon after doing a week-long In:Spa retreat a year ago.
For me, the weekend had successfully laid to rest the ghost of bad yoga holidays past. With Alan's great cooking, a moratorium on alcohol and more exercise than I had done in a long time, I came away having lost three pounds and gained a bit of a glow. Of course it's easier to do that with a personal chef to whip up gourmet healthy meals and none of the phone calls or work distractions that normally stop you from going to the gym, but it worked nonetheless. One week later, and I wouldn't sign up for a marathon just yet but I'm definitely up for a few really long walks.
Middleton Lodge is just off the A1 at Scotch Corner. The nearest railway station is at Darlington, seven miles away, with trains taking around two hours from Edinburgh and two and a half hours from London King's Cross (National Rail enquiries: 0845 748 4950; www.nationalrail.co.uk). In:Spa can arrange taxis from Darlington to Middleton Lodge to tie in with recommended trains.
In:Spa's (0845 458 0723; www.inspa-retreats.com) next Yorkshire weekend breaks take place from 2-5 August and from 20-23 September. Prices start at £595 per person, including three nights' all-inclusive accommodation and all group activities (yoga, walking, circuits, cooking demonstrations).
Middleton Lodge, Middleton Tyas, Richmond, North Yorkshire (01325 377 977; www.middletonlodge.co.uk).
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