When body and soul need soothing, there’s nowhere more restorative than a country house hotel spa
Hippocrates knew how to live. The ancient Greek philosopher declared that “the way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.” Alas, we cannot all indulge so frequently, but increasing numbers of us see regular spa visits as essential to wellbeing. In Britain, around 6 million a year don white robes to be soaked, soothed and slathered with lavender oil – and, fortunately, a host of luxury hotels offer the most attractive surroundings to get wet in.
The home of the British spa experience is Bath, taking its name from the Roman-built hot baths established there in 60 AD. Visitors looking to ‘take the waters’ today could do no better than head to The Gainsborough Bath Spa, which enjoys a privileged position at the heart of Bath’s honey-hued streets. Arriving at this grand building feels like falling through the pages of a Jane Austen novel, the sun lighting its Cotswold stone in hues of gold and caramel.
Inside, the hotel is warm and luxurious, its rooms and suites plush with sumptuous fabrics, generous beds and bathrooms befitting of a top spa hotel, with lashings of marble and underfloor heating. A dedicated spa lift whisks you down to the wonderfully tranquil spa, which is the only hotel spa in the city with access to Bath’s celebrated thermal waters. A splendid Romanesque-style pool lined with columns and glittering mosaics is surrounded by smaller plunge pools, steam rooms and saunas at different temperatures, so you can follow a circuit, just as the ancient Romans did. Opt for the spa’s signature massage, in which essences of neroli, rosemary and pine are used to soothe limbs and transport minds.
Another spa hotel steeped in history – this time a little more salacious – is Cliveden House in Berkshire. It was here in the 1960s that a high-society party saw the introduction of Cabinet minister John Profumo to a 19-year-old called Christine Keeler. When it was revealed that she was also involved with a Soviet naval attaché, the British establishment was aghast. Though ‘the Profumo affair’ put Cliveden on the map, these days it is far better known as a luxury hotel; indeed it was the choice of the Duchess of Sussex the night before her wedding to Prince Harry.
A stay at Cliveden offers serious luxury, from the enormous wood-panelled lounge with its antique red velvet sofas, to the beautifully cut cucumbers in your Hendrick’s gin and tonic. The extravagance continues in the spa, an oasis surrounded by rose and lavender bushes, where among other luxury treatments you can undergo facials using the renowned Sarah Chapman range (again, the choice of a glowing Meghan Markle). Beyond the spa, lucky visitors can take a jaunt in a vintage boat down the Thames, watching the world go by.
An hour on the train from London, in the lush Sussex Downs, there sits another stately home-meets-luxe spa: South Lodge. This Victorian pile was originally the house of explorer Frederick Du Cane Godman, who would feel at home today in its heavy-curtained rooms covered in oil paintings. Bedrooms are utterly luxurious, down to in-room pillow menus, which allow guests to choose which kind of scented cloud they wish to lay their head on.
In the spa, guests are hurtled into the 21st century. Opened in 2019, this cutting-edge facility contains an indoor infinity pool that is the size of a small lake, multiple steam experiences and a warren of rooms offering everything from bamboo massages to rub-downs with restorative mud. Outside there are more than 90 acres of woods,
lakes and rolling expanses of green to explore, while for the gourmet contingent, high-end restaurant The Pass offers such delights as braised short rib of beef with black truffle polenta.
In the North of England, Harrogate is another elegant Regency town where for centuries the well-to-do have come to restore themselves with the local spa waters.
The town still enchants today, its bustling streets rich with gift shops and genteel cafés – including the must-visit Bettys tearoom, where scones and jam have been served by girls in frilly aprons for 100 years.
Those wishing to treat their body as a temple after a plateful of cake should head to Rudding Park, a hyper-luxurious spa hotel just down the road. Facilities here are spectacular: a hydrotherapy infinity pool, herbal steam rooms, a sunlight therapy room and, best of all, a rooftop spa experience where guests can lounge in the waters and star-gaze the night away.
Vying for the title of best spa in the North is Armathwaite Hall, located in one of the prettiest patches of the Lake District. Bordered by the sparkling waters of Bassenthwaite Lake and next to imposing Skiddaw mountain, the views from every window are spectacular. The decor is traditional, its tartan fabrics, open fireplaces and trophies on the wall giving it the feel of a hunting lodge. The spa is equally stunning, its star feature being an outdoor infinity pool overlooking the hotel gardens – perfect to take in the scenery with a glass of Champagne in hand.
Some 150 miles north sits Scotland’s finest place to stay: Gleneagles. With its own train station, acres of parkland and world-famous golf course, this place is more empire than mere hotel. Built in 1924, Gleneagles has the look of a Scottish château: scores of windows stare out from its long grey facade, while classic cars sweep the driveway.
Inside, the decor pays homage to the hotel’s jazz age roots, with Art Deco furnishings and lashings of marble. The spa offers decadent treatments such as The Source,
a two-hour full-body treatment using locally sourced products such as Scottish honey and lavender.
Those looking for sustenance after a hard day in the spa are spoiled for choice: from the two-Michelin-starred Andrew Fairlie restaurant to the Strathearn, a bustling, old-school restaurant where aproned waiters dart around carrying silver-domed dishes. A trip to the American Bar for post-dinner cocktails is essential; a place so dimly lit and atmospheric you may be forgiven for imagining that F Scott Fitzgerald is at a neighbouring table. Not for nothing is this place known as the ‘Riviera of the Highlands’…