Health & Grooming | Chronicles of a Spa Junkie

Spa Junkie at… Grayshott Hall

On the brink of burnout, our covert columnist heads to a countryside reatreat

Spa Junkie at… Grayshott Hall

Image: Jay Yeo

October 01 2011
Spa Junkie

Part: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

I have long traded the biannual four-city fashion week malarkey for the global contemporary art scene. Who could blame me? The densely encoded visual language lights a fire in my belly; it evokes a deep-rooted happiness I associate with a handful of red balloons and a Coke float on a sunny afternoon in the fairground.

It’s exciting and whimsical, it’s as deep as it is superficial. And this past season has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. It started with Urs Fischer’s monumental, fluorescent-yellow bronze bear, with a lamp springing out of its head, selling for almost $7m; the same artist had us ooh-ing in Venice as we watched the slow-burning and inevitable demise of a full-scale wax replica of Giovanni Bologna’s 16th-century sculpture, The Rape of the Sabine Women. The Picasso and Marie-Thérèse show at Gagosian, depicting the greatest sexual passion of Picasso’s life, had me in a rapturous mood in New York. The Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin show at Dulwich Picture Gallery brought the temperature gauge back down to a simmer for a moment – till Larry Gagosian’s River Café soiree celebrating the latest Murakami partnership, which was the perfect air-kiss finish to the London sales circuit.

To appreciate the art world in its robust global good health is one thing; to work in it will drive anyone to total burnout. So when a dear friend at the very Jeff Koons heart of the New York art scene calls to say he is heading into town for Frieze before flitting on to the Paris equivalent, Fiac, and he’s already daunted by it all, I decide to step in. “If it’s anything like the last rally,” he tells me, “I may end up doing a Steve Wynn and falling through a Picasso out of sheer exhaustion.”

But what The New Yorker really wants to know: “Is there anywhere we can go for a few days to relax before the Frieze frenzy begins? I want simple, local, lovely and honest – I just need to kick back and let it all hang out.”

FRIDAY: LATE AFTERNOON

The 40-minute commute by train to Grayshott in Surrey was painless; and with a driver waiting as we disembarked, the trip was just over an hour door to door.

The drive into the property is nothing like the long, winding, pristine greens of Stoke Park; the house is not as quaint as Whatley Manor; the reception is not anything like the Dorchester Collection’s sexy Coworth Park. No, Grayshott is a lot more like your nana’s country house. It’s not fussy or fashionable, it’s not pretentious or pose-y. Sitting next to 700 acres of National Trust land just 50 miles south of London, it was once the country seat of Alfred Tennyson. But for the last 46 years it’s been a place for rest and recuperation.

I’m led up the wooden staircase to my room on the first floor of the manor house. It’s simple in its décor and twice the size of a usual suite. The New Yorker is just next door, and his room is equally nice. (I’m not as sure about the rooms outside the main house; so do request one of the eight Manor House suites if, as with me, your salutary convalescing needs to take place in a large, beautiful room with a tub and all the mod cons.)

6pm

Vicki Edgson is smartly dressed and shoots us a killer smile as we enter the dining room where she has kept a quiet corner table for us. Her eyes sparkle and her skin glows, telling of a lifetime of healthy eating, I’m sure.

She is one of the UK’s top nutritionists; she used to be one half of The Food Doctor company and has written a handful of books on subjects ranging from hormones to healing. She’s an expert in Chinese herbal medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and naturopathic integrated medicine.

“‘Executive burnout’ is something we see more and more here,” she says. “High-performance jobs and high-octane socialising mean our guests are burning the candle at both ends, living on adrenaline.”

The New Yorker and I nod our heads. We know how tough it is out there – how we’re required to perform at supersonic level, both in and away from the office. And if you’re a woman, just add a husband and kids to the mix and you’ve switched into the fast lane on Route Burnout.

“You got it,” Vicki says. “In our striving to be the perfect mother, perfect boss, great friend, great daughter, good wife and overall good person we have turned into a nation of adrenaline junkies. And this lifestyle is not sustainable long term.”

“I live on adrenaline.” The New Yorker leans into the conversation. “I am exhausted. I’m exhausted just thinking about everything I have to do. I sometimes think it will take a broken limb to get me into the hospital for me to finally get some peace and quiet.”

I remind him that mobiles work in hospital wards, so his boss will just have him pawning art from his sick bed. And the doctors don’t look as sexy as on ER; and they definitely don’t serve Grey Goose dirty martinis, so he’d just be in a worse world of pain.

“What we try to do here,” Vicki breaks into the banter, “is understand how broad and deep the problem is – through listening, first and foremost. Then we put together a holistic programme that will give you the basic tools to help calm and centre your entire being. From the organic, guilt-free food we feed you to the treatments, it’s all here to help you relax and unwind – to refocus and rebalance your work-life ratio, and hopefully you’ll take some of what you have learnt home with you.”

Todd Le Page, the spa director, joins our party.

“Let me tell you a little bit about the spa. We have dedicated male and female areas, with 36 treatment rooms, including a hydrotherapy suite, heat treatment areas, hammam beds and relaxation rooms. We offer over 80 natural, medical, fitness and beauty treatments and therapies,” he continues, handing us the menu card. We start ticking off the additional group activity and specialist treatments we would like them to include in our stay.

“Right then; you’re both here for the Burn Out programme, and…”

“I have to stop you there,” I interject. “I’m not burnt out. I’m just opportunistic; any excuse to visit a new destination, and Spa Junkie is coming for the ride. Mona Lisa over here, though, is showing some cracks, and needs his mojo back before the sales start.”

The New Yorker’s shoulders droop and the corners of his mouth curl down slightly; the victim role suits him.

“Be at breakfast at 8am tomorrow,” says Todd. “Vicki will meet with you and start the adrenal testing.”

7.30pm

“You must have brought the weather from the smoggy Apple; it’s almost warm enough to eat outside. Shall we dine alfresco?” Me, trying to draw out a rare summer night in England for all it’s worth. The golf course stretches out before us, a gorgeous bit of English countryside beyond.

“This weather happens so seldom; shall we celebrate with a bottle of wine?” suggests The New Yorker.

“I thought you would never ask.”

Dinner is à la carte; we go for a broccoli soup and some steamed bass, accompanied with generous sides of insider art-scene gossip, recounted with a healthy dollop of hearsay and exaggeration. And then it’s lights out.

SATURDAY MORNING 8.15am

Vicki is at breakfast to greet us. “We’re going to start the programme with the adrenal test; so this means taking it easy for the first 24 hours.” Neither of us is complaining. “We use the Genova Diagnostics Adrenal Stress Profile test and will be taking four saliva samples at six-hour intervals to measure a full 24-hour circadian rhythm. We are monitoring the two most prolific hormones released from the adrenal cortex, cortisol and DHEA.

“Cortisol is what I call the ‘silent adrenaline’ hormone – it is there as a monitor of our ‘fight or flight’ response to the everyday stresses of life. It is our life-saving hormone, but often becomes permanently switched on in those who work in constantly stressful situations.

“DHEA is the counterpart hormone that redresses the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. It’s our ‘happy’ hormone, our rebuild and repair hormone. When we are in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’, our levels of DHEA become depressed as the two hormones are never secreted at the same time. Low DHEA can lead to fatigue, depression, anxiety and insomnia. In the long term, this is damaging to the cardiovascular system, lungs and respiratory system, and the brain.”

The New Yorker looks worried. “This may be too much for me on an empty stomach. Do you mind if I get some breakfast?” We all grab a bowl of Bircher muesli.

Vicki continues: “The adrenal stress test measures the output of these two vital hormones to assess the level of acute or chronic stress, so that repair and rebalance can be efficiently and accurately addressed.”

“And what if the results show my adrenals are shot to pieces? How are we going to put me back together?” The New Yorker is visibly concerned.

Vicki shoots him a comforting smile. “This is done through sleep, meditation, relaxation and, of course, nutritional supplementation, to support the adrenal glands themselves. Healing and repair of the adrenal glands can take from one to 12 months, depending on the severity of the case. There is no quick fix, but we will aim to start that process tomorrow, calming the autonomic nervous system in the first few days of your stay through relaxation and hypnotherapy, massage, craniosacral osteopathy, yoga, Tai Chi and healthy food, so you can literally ‘come down’ from the frenetic state you’re currently in.”

We both do our saliva swabs; then it’s on to group yoga. The class is pretty full; the crowd averages out at about 50 years old, and mainly women, most of whom have never done yoga before, so the routines are pretty basic.

“Lord, did you see that? I have never had a woman’s bottom so close to my face before,” says The New Yorker as soon as class is finished. “I’m traumatised! I just can’t do the group thing.”

I suggest we book private classes at reception. The staff are very nice and incredibly accommodating. “It’s no problem,” they tell us. “We’ll book you in for private lessons from tomorrow, and as you’re advanced we will ensure the teacher knows and prepares a stronger practice for you, sir.” The New Yorker is satisfied.

1.30pm

Lunch. A large buffet spread on coloured tablecloths takes centre stage in the dining room. The Grayshott Food Policy was created by the in-house dietician in collaboration with executive chef Adam Palmer, who has extensive knowledge of creating food for leading spas and has published several books on healthy cuisine.

The aim is to create honestly healthy dishes within a balanced diet, while ensuring that guests wishing to lose weight do so. No small task, that. Their key is portion control as an alternative to the “old-fashioned” method of calorie counting, which can result in eating that isn’t necessarily healthy, or balanced. The spa advocates a varied diet with the correct proportions from the five food groups (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy products) using fresh and seasonal local produce. It’s not the gourmet, melt-in -your-mouth-type stuff served up at the Hôtel du Cap Ferrat, it’s not as scientific as the Mayr & More; it’s more like healthy home-style cooking.

We are given the bespoke plate, which I love. It’s very basic, divided into three sections denoted by different colours: 25 per cent protein, 25 per cent carb and 50 per cent fruit and veg. The buffet has the same matching coloured tablecloths, so just like at kindergarten, you go round colour-matching. All very simple, and it definitely takes the thinking out of rationing.

Genius. No need for scales. I wish I’d thought of it.

Spa Junkie pays for all her own travel, treatments and accommodation.