Gill Sherry

Is there anything better than a visit to a health spa? A day/weekend of relaxation and pampering is hard to beat. As well as bubbles (Jacuzzi) and bubbles (Prosecco), the options are endless: beauty treatments, massage, steam baths, reflexology…

Back in the early 80s, they were known as health farms or retreats and people took them very seriously. Think carrot juice, calorie-counted meals and rigorous exercise. People would arrive for a week of detoxification and would leave feeling cleansed (and hungry).

I remember my first ever trip to a health farm. It was in Staffordshire and it had gained a reputation as being one of the best health retreats in the country. Naturally, this was reflected in the rates charged for accommodation and treatments. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about the cost. The overnight trip, for myself and a colleague, was funded by our boss and included an unlimited choice of treatments.

Determined to take full advantage of this marvellous opportunity, I studied the extensive list of treatments and finally opted for a session in a floatation tank. I have no idea why; maybe it was the prospect of my endorphins being stimulated.

These days, you are actually enclosed in a futuristic-looking tank (sometimes called a float pod) and left to float in the dark in a foot of salted water. This particular tank was slightly different in that it was brick built with no lid, and although the lights were dimmed, the experience was heavily reliant upon my eyes remaining closed.

I was supposed to relax, empty my mind, and drift into a meditative state. However, far from feeling relaxed, I felt cold and somewhat vulnerable. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate it (it was a very long time ago) but I couldn’t wait to get out of what was basically a bath of salt water. It was the longest 30 minutes of my life.

They say, if used correctly, flotation tanks rejuvenate both body and mind. They also recommend, for optimal results, that you spend up to 90 minutes enclosed in the tank. That’s the same length of time as a football match. I know how I’d rather spend an hour and a half.

My second treatment was a seaweed facial. Again, I have absolutely no idea why I opted for this. Maybe I thought it would remind me of the seaside (living in Coventry, I couldn’t have been any further away from the coast). It promised to rejuvenate my skin, improving its clarity and tone. I expected to be glowing after my hour-long treatment.

It started off quite promising with a massage to the head, neck and shoulders. The facial itself, however, was not quite so relaxing. I’d been told to expect the scent of the ocean and imagined myself drifting off on a sail boat, arriving on a deserted island and paddling in the warm, turquoise sea. Instead, I felt as though I’d been slapped around the face with a week-old mackerel. Rather than the magic of a tropical island, I was transported back to Coventry Fish Market, the wheels of my nan’s shopping trolley picking up all sorts of fishy scraps from the wet floor, the odour accompanying us all the way home on the bus.

Getting dressed for dinner was much more pleasurable and sweet-scented. The bedroom was luxurious and, thanks to the complimentary lotions and potions, I arrived downstairs smelling more like a rose garden than an old fishing boat. I was looking forward to an evening of fine dining (albeit meat-free) with my colleague. But first, a drink!

Fortuitously, this health farm (unlike some) did allow residents to drink alcohol. It also allowed them to smoke, the one designated smoking area being the bar. The toxic cloud in the dark, wood-panelled room made a mockery of the so-called rejuvenating treatments I’d had earlier in the day, not to mention the time I’d spent doing my hair and dressing for dinner. In fact, it made a mockery of the entire health farm ethos.

We could, of course, have taken our drinks through to the restaurant, but with no music and very few diners the atmosphere was far from welcoming. So, we chose to escape.

The taxi driver confirmed our suspicions that residents rarely left the premises. In fact, in his five years of driving a taxi in the local area, he had not once picked up a fare from the health farm, other than to take them to the train station on the day of their departure. That would explain the receptionist’s raised eyebrows as we raced through the revolving doors.

The driver dropped us in Burton town centre where we visited a number of buzzing bars before dancing the night away in the local hot-spot. It was certainly more fun than sitting in a smoky bar and eating vegetables in a library-quiet restaurant. The only trouble was, when we finally returned, we couldn’t get back in.

Knocking the door was futile, the place was in darkness (not surprising at 1am). Eventually, after repeatedly dialling the main telephone number, we were let in (and interrogated) by a very disgruntled night porter. What were our names? What was our room number? Where had we been? Had we been drinking? We responded with a fit of giggles before tumbling up the stairs to our room.

Having been both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, I still lived by the motto ‘be prepared’. Which is why, despite staying at a health farm, I had a supply of Alka-Seltzer in my overnight bag.

Needless to say, as a result of our night out, we both needed one.

We chose to spend our last morning relaxing by the pool before enjoying the final treatment of our stay. This time I went for something ‘normal’ and booked a pedicure. After a night of dancing in high heels I couldn’t think of anything better. It was a good decision. By the time we were ready to leave, I felt as though I was floating on air (a much nicer feeling than floating in a dark tank).

As we waited for our taxi, we reflected on our stay. It was fair to say we hadn’t taken full advantage of what was on offer. For a start, we hadn’t set foot in the gym or taken part in any of the exercise classes and, with hindsight, I had probably chosen the wrong treatments. It was a shame we hadn’t sampled the delights of the al a carte menu, but something tells me our night on the town was a lot more memorable than nibbling on a three-bean tagine in what was once (and still resembled) a library.

I’ve enjoyed countless spa breaks since this maiden trip back in the 80s. Things have changed a lot since then, not least with the introduction of the smoking ban. Health spas are now very much focused on enjoyment and include a wide range of treatments that really do rejuvenate the body and mind. And I’ve no doubt the plant-based menu options are a lot more exciting and wide ranging than they once were. That said, the three things at the top of my list for a trip to a health spa remain the same: bubbles (Jacuzzi), bubbles (Prosecco), and bubbles (Alka-Seltzer).