From down-to-earth retreat centres to extravagant spas, Robin Robinson takes a look at some of the best places in the UK to relax, indulge and escape this summer
Tucked away on the edge of Compton Dundon, and held within the ancient, sacred landscape around Glastonbury known as Avalon, is Earth Spirit. It’s a charming, unassuming, peaceful and earthy venue set within seven acres of fields and gardens. Hosting courses and retreats throughout the year, Earth Spirit is also available for hire.
The entire outer building complex is based around a converted long barn with oak timbers and glorious exposed stone walls. The feel is truly medieval yet with modern comforts too. The kitchen and dining space are cosy and communal with warm stone floors and farmhouse style windows peeking out on to the glorious gardens beyond. There’s a wood-burning stove in the main hall and a meditation room and a basic spa on-site.
The accommodation on offer ranges from the rustic rooms they call the Dairy, the ensuite Cowshed rooms, the Barn dormitory with its exposed roof timbers, a five bedded yurt or quaint wooden caravans.
Events this summer include yoga and shiatsu massage workshops and courses such as ‘Return to ease and happiness,’ or ‘Healing Voice’ with Jill Purce.
If the Cotswolds are your cup of tea then this place has to be seen to be believed. As the former home of the renowned gardener Rosemary Verey, the gardens for one are incredible. There is a ‘secret garden’ feel to them, with twists and turns, nooks and crannies alongside the sunny terraces and manicured lawns, through which you can walk while gazing out at ancient meadows.
To top it all off a remarkable wilderness covers the approach to their very own indoor Garden Spa, where you can indulge and spoil yourself with luxury facilities and a choice of holistic and beauty treatments.
The spa’s designer, Stephen Woodhams, has captured the magnificent tranquillity of the gardens and transported its effect indoors. There are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the grounds, dry stone walls, plants at every twist and turn and aromatic herbs hanging from wooden beams. The spa is fully equipped with five treatment rooms, a steam room, sauna, relaxation room and heated outdoor hydrotherapy pool.
Firle, East Sussex
This is a gorgeous little find, which has been running various singing, writing and yoga retreats for several years. It’s nestled underneath the South Downs and edged by woodland with far reaching views across the Sussex Weald. Tilton is in fact a Georgian country house that was once home to economist John Maynard Keynes and ballerina Lydia Lopokova and was used as their retreat for contemplation and calm.
From the minute you arrive, you will find Tilton House is a deeply peaceful and atmospheric space with large arched windows that allow you to gaze endlessly south across the downs. Having been through a complete redecoration in 2007, all seven bedrooms were decorated using natural materials. The rooms are full of character while retaining that periodic elegance from the Georgian era and all have impressive views.
In the summer months full use of the grounds and courtyards are a must and a firepit which sits in the woodland clearing nearby makes it all the more adventurous for night time camp outs and stargazing. The garden is loved for its magnificent mature trees and the owners relish it when visitors make use of their no-nonsense heavy-duty hammocks, relaxing and swaying softly to the sounds of birdsong. And there’s always the option to go for long meandering walks on the downs in-between yoga sessions.
Editor’s pick: Ragdale Hall Health Hydro
Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
by Seán Dagan Wood
We’ve all seen the typical photos of couples elegantly lounging in hot tubs, or the tanned, serene-looking woman lying on the massage table with pebbles on her back, but can a trip to a spa really boost our wellbeing? Or are they, as their promotional photos might suggest, too superficial?
Like the tension from a busy week, it didn’t take long for my reservations to disappear at Ragdale Hall. Independently owned for 20 years and set in an impressive building and grounds, it’s a bubble of relaxation with a carefully maintained atmosphere of ease.
The highlight of the facilities, a thermal spa area, offers a selection of saunas, steam rooms and other zones aiming to provide a full sensory experience. Particularly worth a visit are the 100% humidity volcanic salt bath and the candle pool – a genuinely tranquil water cave of soothing colours, twinkling lights and soft music.
The polite friendliness and efficiency of the staff suggests a high level of training. Nothing is too much trouble for them and everything runs like clockwork, while the expert therapists – who treat clients with care and respect – seal it for Ragdale as the place to be for those after some indulgence. And although it’s marketed mainly at women and I may have glazed over reading about treatments such as the ‘eyebrow shape & tidy,’ there’s plenty to keep us men happy too.
The whole building is immaculately clean and for guests staying overnight, the bedrooms are homely, bright and tastefully furnished. In the morning, a healthy and beautifully presented breakfast is delivered to your room before you head downstairs for a swim, a fitness class or a session in the gym perhaps, maybe a reflexology treatment, or to relax in the gardens.
With a ban on mobiles and laptops outside bedrooms, and volume limits on TVs, gentle boundaries are in place to ensure other guests don’t spoil your stay. Even on a busy weekend Ragdale feels uncrowded; people quietly glide between pool loungers and steam rooms, while the troubles of the world seem to disappear into the soothing sound of flowing water.
At the end of a day’s relaxing, the haute cuisine is typical of Ragdale: luxury without pretence. Where else can you eat a delicious three-course meal with a bottle of biodynamic organic wine, while in your swimwear, dressing gown and slippers?
Believe the photos, Ragdale is the real thing.
European retreat recommendation
F**k It Retreats
Offering a modern take on the idea from eastern spirituality of letting go, F**k It Weeks are one of the most irreverently blissful retreats available today. John Parkin, author of the book F**k It, and his wife Gaia have been running retreats from their Italian home The Hill That Breathes since 2005. In 2012 John and Gaia’s newly-branded F**k It Retreats will take place in three inspirational locations across Italy: a luxurious estate and spa near Urbino; one among the olive groves in Puglia; and one on a volcanic island in Stromboli near Sicily.
People report life-changing experiences from these weeks. After experiencing the F**k It way of life, an ‘oh-so-serious’ version of the self gets turned inside out and back to front, leaving you smiling from your toes to your teeth. It’s simple but powerful – the breathing techniques, the insight and the relaxation – it’s as if John and Gaia reset your ‘trip switch’ to a place in yourself where authenticity and happiness can blossom in your life.
There are different retreats available in the different locations. On Gaia’s Magic weeks you’ll experience her incredible, subtle approach to using the powers of intuition, which can leave people feeling touched, understood and transformed. There are also weeks being run later in the year by the inimitable Barefoot Doctor and Karl Grunick.
All this while surrounded by beautiful Italy. The F**k It Retreats offer first class know-how, delivered with real soul. It’s the perfect combination for a bumper blast of relaxation away from the UK.