Taking Relaxation Seriously; Health Farms

A man I met outside the weighing room at Ragdale Hall gave me the good news about health farms. No one who goes there is fat; perish the thought. The big reason for visiting a health farm is stress.

I went to Ragdale because I was at least a stone overweight, quite unfit, and puffing a bit on the stairs; but I soon realized that I was indeed under stress, mostly about what to wear during my stay. Should I spend the day in a dressing gown, I wondered, or flit about the treatment rooms in my newly bought tracksuit? Once I had settled for the tracksuit, which is the unisex rig-of-the-day at most health farms, I felt a whole lot better; almost stress-free, in fact.

Set in a large country house close to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, Ragdale Hall concentrates on relaxation, diets and individually designed fitness programs. The food is good and so adjusted that you can eat like a horse and still not exceed 850 calories a day. With that, some exercise and a few treatments, I was melting away within hours, and my three-day stay passed quite pleasantly. I lost half a stone and left determined to try again.

Health farms vary in their approach to health and fitness, but the basic ingredients are much the same. Generally set in country houses surrounded by large grounds, they offer all the comforts of a five-star hotel, usually at a five-star price.

To the basic cost, which covers accommodation, meals, a range of treatments and free use of all the facilities, one must add the cost of any other optional treatments, some of which can be costly, exotic and hard to resist. You pay your money and you take your choice, but the cost of these treatments can mount alarmingly.

Health farm clients therefore tend to be well-heeled professional people, with a ratio between men and women of about 30:70 per cent. Some stick rigidly to their programs, others are simply there to relax and enjoy themselves.

Most health farms offer the same basic package for a minimum three-day stay, although some establishments also have day courses or weekend breaks. Those who want extra treatments book them individually and, within very broad limits, the visit can be as busy or as relaxed as the client wishes. That said, there are considerable variations between health farms, both in the range of facilities on offer and the approach they take to the serious business of relaxation.

Champneys, near Tring in Hertfordshire, was the first proper health farm, established in 1925 in a house that once belonged to the Rothschilds. Visits here, as elsewhere, begin with a consultation with the medical sister and a dietician, who weigh the guest in and provide a basic regimen for the rest of the stay. There is a full range of facilities, pool, gym, exercise room, and a vast range of treatments including the seaweed body wrap (Pounds 25) and advice on back pain and how to stop smoking, plus fresh-air activities including cycling, walking and horse-riding.

There are two dining-rooms, one for the weak-willed on strictly controlled diets, the other for those who can resist the puddings without too much effort. There are evening talks and lectures, usually on some health-related topic. A new feature for the coming winter is a weekend ski-fitness program, which runs through to the middle of February. Champneys also offers day programs, with massage and other treatments, at prices from Pounds 79.95, while rates for longer stays vary from Pounds 105 to Pounds 500 a night according to the accommodation required.

Grayshott Hall near Hindhead in Surrey offers the full range of health farm activities, plus a particular program to cope with stress, designed for Grayshott by psychologist Dr. Audrey Livingstone. This program, price Pounds 30, takes place in the afternoon, leaving the guests free to enjoy all the other activities in the morning and evening. There is a huge indoor pool, a dance studio, physiotherapy, osteopathy and chiropody, swimming lessons, golf and tennis coaching and two dining-rooms, one for diet-followers, the other for food-lovers. Neither room serves alcohol. Room rates at Grayshott vary from Pounds 75 to Pounds 100 per day.

Like most health farms, Shrublands occupies a former country house, in this case Shrublands Hall, built in 1740 on one of the highest hills in Suffolk and still surrounded by a classical English garden. The interior furnishings are on a lavish scale and the food is excellent but never cooked. Salads, raw fruit, homemade yoghurt and whole wheat bread make up the Shrubland diet. Treatments available include underwater massage, sauna, hydrotherapy and instruction on relaxation techniques. Weekly prices start at Pounds 290 for a single room and Pounds 325 for a double room.

Forest Mere, near Liphook in Hampshire, believes in the regimen that is serious, even strict. At most health farms, the guests can take a full part in the available activities or drift along gently on their own, but at Forest Mere they are expected to avoid business and social ties, stay off the telephone, stop or reduce smoking, refrain from alcohol altogether and take some exercise.

This sounds like my kind of place. Crash diets are not recommended, but most guests start on the light diet to get their gorging under control before returning to a more normal diet before leaving. Bicycles are available for excursions into the countryside, and there are a number of good golf courses in the vicinity. Basic prices start at Pounds 515 for one week.

Cedar Falls in Somerset is a place which believes in relaxation and tranquility up to a point. Diets are prepared individually and then taken one day at a time, with a nutritional adviser at your breakfast table every morning to plan the intake for the day. Otherwise the emphasis here is on reducing tension, increasing fitness and getting away from the hurly-burly of daily life. There is the usual range of treatments, plus golf, fishing, riding and walking in the beautiful Quantock Hills.

Cedar Falls tends to be less expensive than other health farms, at prices from Pounds 54 to Pounds 115 per night for a single room, though guests are expected to stay for seven nights.

Ragdale Hall concentrates on diet and beauty, so your first appointment here is with the dietician, and a beauty treatments office is open seven days a week, from 7.30am until 8pm. There is a sports coach on hand to arrange fitness programs in the gym or exercise room, and smoking is strictly forbidden except in the smokers’ lounge. I found this crowded. Diets are restricted to a steady 850 calories a day, and there is a full range of treatments and facilities, including an assault course. Ragdale Hall prices start at Pounds 71.50 per person per night in a twin room, rising to Pounds 130 per person in a suite.

Henlow Grange has a pleasantly relaxed approach to health and fitness, with the rare word “holiday” appearing frequently in its brochure. Set in the Bedfordshire countryside, just 40 miles north-east of London, Henlow offers a notably wide range of sporting activities: cycling, table tennis, swimming, that daily jog, walking, exercise classes.

Fortunately, there is also good food, pleasant company, and all the usual comforts. Prices for a one-week stay start at Pounds 62.50 per night, which includes a good range of massages and treatments, plus a total fitness and relaxation program.

Everyone arriving at the Inglewood Health Hydro in the Berkshire Downs gets a comprehensive, individually prescribed regimen covering diet, exercise and treatments for the duration of the stay. Medical consultants and gym instructors are on hand with special classes on subjects such as how to stop smoking, which are all part of the daily round.

Keen slimmers can start their stay with a 48-hour fast on lemon and water, gradually returning to a health diet over the week. The normal regimen covers four treatments a day, all included in the tariff, with saunas, steam baths, massages and perhaps a mud bath. Single room prices at Inglewood start at Pounds 295 per week, three-day breaks from Pounds 210.

The Tyringham Naturopathic Clinic at Newport Pagnell offers alternative medicine as the basis of the treatment. Fasting is permitted and vegetarian diets available, while treatments include acupuncture, inhalation, osteopathy and stress-release sessions. The clinic prefers clients to come on medical recommendation and stay for a minimum of one week. Facilities include an indoor and outdoor heated pool, tennis, badminton, and a wide range of beauty treatments. Prices start at Pounds 179 per person per week, rising to Pounds 413.

Finally, moving north, the Brooklands Country House Health Farm near Preston offers an all-in price for full-board accommodation and a wide range of treatments. Other facilities at this pleasant country house include a Turkish bath and steam room, a solarium, a range of exercise machines, tennis, and an indoor pool. Prices here for one week, inclusive of treatments, start at Pounds 713 for a seven-night stay. Five and three-day breaks are also available.