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Visit The World’s Greatest Health Farms

Some are little more than residential beauty parlors taking half a dozen guests while others are stately homes of baronial elegance.

Unashamed hedonists wallow in Jacuzzis and guzzle home-made cakes while such occasional extras as seaweed baths and salt rubs sound almost naughty.

The rich, sleeping in pampered luxury, can easily pay as much for a single night (over pounds 200) as a more budget-conscious client would expect to be charged for an entire week.

The British health farm of 1985 is all things to all men – and women. And just about the only thing it is not is that shrine to weight-watching self-deprivation which exemplified its origins in the 1960s.

Today a typical batch of visitors would certainly include business men trying to avoid their first or second coronary, younger executives worried about the first signs of business lunch belly, women of all ages fighting the effects of advancing years and a fair sprinkling of celebrities recuperating from the strain of public exposure.

For most, the shedding of a pound or two is a welcome bonus but not to be confused with the principal purpose of switching off from the tension of routine daily life. Others readily admit to seeking nothing more than good company and a pleasant chat.

One regular visitor, describing his motives, said: ‘The benefit lies as much in eliminating the negatives – in my case smoking, drinking and business entertaining – as in any positive approach to health through diet or exercise.’

Many others, however, are attracted by the wide range of sporting facilities that are available at most health farms and the prospect of a spell of intensive physical activity.

If the hopes and aims of any two visitors differ, they cannot do so nearly so much as the facilities, degree of comfort and life-style of the establishments themselves. The health farm has become an almost indefinable institution.

New arrivals are usually given a consultation with a nurse, doctor or dietician who, after checking blood pressure, pulse rate and medical history, might recommend a particular diet of course of treatment. There the similarity ends.

While one forbids alcohol but serves home-made cakes, another allows alcohol in moderation but issues biscuits on prescription only. Some impose strict rules – ‘a certain amount of self-denial and self-discipline is essential’ says one – and at others almost anything goes.

Standards vary considerably and, falling neither within the compass of the private health sector nor, directly, the hotel and catering industry, there are few statutory regulations governing the way health farms are run.

Rules and regimes aside, however, the real fun lies in what they do to you – a panoply of steaming, soaking, kneading, and pummeling that exudes deliciously pampered relaxation.

The cost is high but the price can often be justified. Health farms are heavy on skilled staff and equipment and light on other sources of profit like bar sales, cigarettes and a la carte menus. And, whatever the price, they can easily become addictive. Most who go once return.
But Dr. Alan Maryon-Davis, chief medical officer with the Health Education Council, warns that health farms might lull some into a false sense of security about their physical well-being.

‘The fitness tests carried out in some establishments might show no abnormality and encourage people to think that they can carry on high-pressure lives with no ill effect.

‘It would be foolish to think one could undo the damage caused by an unhealthy lifestyle during an annual two-week spell in a health farm’, he said.

‘Psychologically it could be of great therapeutic value, more so than a usual holiday with the hassle that sometimes entails. But, physically, the treatments offered in some health farms are on more controversial territory.’

Inadequate supervision of exercise classes and the unknown long-term effects of artificial sun-tanning treatments particularly concerned him.

The British Dietetic Association advised against the very low calorie diets and short-term fasts recommended by some health farms.

‘Diets of less than 800 calories a day should be extremely carefully supervised’, said a spokesman. ‘If protein intake is reduced below this level the body can no longer perform the function of maintaining and protecting lean muscle tissue, which can then be easily damaged.

‘Most weight lost over a short period of time is caused by a reduction in the body’s water content and is quickly put back on.’

More beneficial than a temporary diet, he said, would be professional instruction on long-term healthy eating.

CHAMPNEYS

This one won’t disappoint those for whom health farms conjure a Club Mediterranean image. It has the air of a lively international house party. The outdoor Jacuzzi, open all year round, is the social hub, where I was approached within hours of arriving and asked by one middle-aged business man if I wanted ‘company – just for one night’.

Not only for the gregarious, Champneys is ideal for those who enjoy their food with excellent and interesting meals. Snacks, however are not allowed. When I asked for afternoon biscuits, I was told they were issued on prescription only.

Appropriately for an establishment taken over recently by Guinness, it is one of the few to allow alcohol – half a bottle of wine per person of an evening.

Throughout the day a non-alcoholic bar (installed three years ago according to barman Christopher to ‘break up the boredom between meals’) serves fruit juice mixes.

Founded 60 years ago, Champneys was Britain’s first health farm and occupies a former Rothschild mansion. The clientele includes many Arabs during the summer months and, in recent years, Lulu, Gary Glitter, Bianca Jagger, John Cleese and Lesley-Anne Down.

VIPs are provided with a private treatment room. There is a craft center (‘to satisfy suppressed artistic longings’) and a packed activities program sensibly warning guests not to attempt to try everything.

Evening talks included a rather tedious one on Positive Thinking, accompanied by the sounds of rumbling stomachs. Treatments include seaweed baths and salt rubs. Accommodation varies from the style of an Arabian palace to rather rundown and cramped budget cabins with peeling wallpaper and broken fixtures.

Champneys at Tring, Tring, Herts (04427 3351) Capacity: approx 100. Prices: from pounds 53 to pounds 213 per person per night.

FOREST MERE

Here, the atmosphere of a nursing home pervades. Quietly spoken staff in white clinical uniforms ushered me, rather unnervingly, into a ‘treatment area’. Then, after an initial sauna, I was wrapped in a white linen sheet and laid down to rest before a vigorous massage.

The medical consultation, physiotherapy, heat treatment and osteopathy included in the price is a big attraction for the elderly and infirm who patronize the place in large numbers. Clientele includes Prince Rainier and Princess Stephanie of Monaco, the Duchess of Kent, Lord Olivier, Maggie Smith and Sir Robin Day.

This comfortable house, now owned by the Savoy Hotel, is set in a beautiful forest and parkland overlooking a small boating lake. Bedrooms are simply but comfortably furnished.

Slimmers are relegated to a ‘light diet room’ and fed on soup, fruit and an occasional treat of yoghurt with wheat germ and honey. Meanwhile non-slimmers tuck into a daily salad banquet at lunchtime and home-made cakes at high tea, which is followed by a set three-course dinner.

The regime is considered disciplined. ‘Patients are expected to avoid business ties and social engagements as far as possible’, warns the brochure, ‘to limit car driving, stop or reduce smoking and refrain from alcohol altogether.’

The clinical atmosphere can, depending on your own condition, have a comforting or disquieting effect. It was certainly rather unnerving to hear patients talking about when they were to be ‘released’.

Forest Mere Liphook, Hants (0428 722051). Capacity: approx 80. Prices: from pounds 47.14 to pounds 114.28 per person per night.

GRAYSHOTT HALL

While elsewhere people turn up for their evening meal in track suits, the guests at this ivy-clad mansion house change for dinner.

It was the most formal and sophisticated of the five. The boutique is full of expensive clothes. Accommodation ranges from spacious, elegant suites overlooking the gardens to smaller and simply furnished but comfortable rooms. Most have wall safes – perhaps so women don’t have to wear their diamonds in the Jacuzzi.

The clientele is predominantly business people – the sound of their bleepers occasionally being heard over the conversation in the dining room. Guests have included Felicity Kendall, Frankie Howard, and Anthony Hopkins.

Dallas and Dynasty devotees who are worried about missing their favorite soap operas because of the rigors of exercise and treatment are reassured to find that episodes are recorded and played back on their respective evenings when organized activities are over. Subject to a dietician’s recommendation, slimmers are offered high protein (500 calories) or low carbohydrate (1000 calories) diets. Non-slimmers have a salad lunch and a three-course dinner. No alcohol is available and fruit cocktails are served in the drawing room before dinner.

The 47 acres of grounds include a nine-hole golf course. Grayshott offers an extensive range of beauty treatments and alternative-medicine therapies in a restful, spacious and private environment.

Grayshott Hall, Grayshott, near Hindhead, Surrey (042873 4331). Capacity: approx 100. Price: from pounds 65 to pounds 152.50 per night.

INGLEWOOD

A car was waiting for me at the station piloted by an enthusiastic Chelsea FC supporter with a gold stud earring. He engagingly informed me that Inglewood looked ‘just like Colditz’. Indeed the impressive grey stone stately home set in magnificent formal gardens still has the slightly daunting air of the boys’ public school it once was.

Some guests rattle around in spacious, high-ceilinged rooms and suites in the main building, while others are crammed into budget rooms in which they can reach the basin and open the door while sitting on the bed.

‘Diet is fundamental to the Inglewood way of life’, according to its manifesto. ‘We aim to coax you away from the bad eating habits of modern life.’

Slimmers can, if they wish, be put on a lemon and water fast for 48 hours on arrival, followed by a light diet of fruit, soup, salad and cottage cheese.

The cost of accommodation includes medical consultations and treatments. I tried a peat bath which is recommended as a skin softener. It is a bit like thrashing around in a large and extremely soggy window box.

Amenities include an indoor pool. Nearby nursery facilities are available.

Inglewood, Kintbury, Berks (0488 82022). Capacity: 80 guests. Prices: from budget accommodation at pounds 235 per week to pounds 125 a night for a suite.

RAGDALE HALL

Porters in red and gold uniforms and white gloves whisk new arrivals from their cars into this turreted edifice. Once inside, extravagant formality gives way to a pleasant country house party atmosphere.

Whereas in the other four places guests are shown to separate tables, here we all sat together at long tables in the oak paneled dining room.

There is no apartheid for slimmers and everyone is treated to an appetizing set menu. The a la carte menu featured delicious home reared trout and crepes suzette. Alcohol is unlimited and chosen from a list which features ‘organically grown wines.’ Ragdale doesn’t hold with strict fasting, which it considers ‘unnecessary and undesirable.’

Room service proved to be rather forgetful (my early morning call was overlooked and my breakfast forgotten). And it wasn’t pleasant to be given a facial by beauty staff who leant over me with heavy colds.

That there were more married couples and fewer single men than in the other four farms made for a pleasant atmosphere and meant it was easier for someone on their own, like me.

The indoor swimming pool with its tiled arches and tropical plants is exotic, but activities are limited. There is a nightly video but most guests disappear to bed by nine o’clock.

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