The house ktichen at the Babington House in UK
updated 9/28/2006 12:36:52 PM ET 2006-09-28T16:36:52

Not far from London, a new breed of sanctuary is taking shape at country house estates, where, as Ellin Stein reports, hip decor and aristocratic service are giving spas a bit of English.

Each spring, as winter’s leaden cloud cover gives way to blue sky, England’s famously verdant countryside stirs back to life. Delicate blossoms appear overnight on once-bare branches while drifts of bluebells and daffodils emerge in meadows and woods.

It’s also when my own thoughts turn to renewal and restoration, especially in terms of sloughing off dry winter skin and loosening muscles stiff from months of damp weather. To hasten the process, I went to visit a trio of country house hotels all located within a few hours of central London and all part of a growing breed of period mansions turned stylish sanctuaries complete with full spas.

As soon as I walked into the reception hall of Babington House, an 18th-century mansion with dark-stained floors and mahogany staircases, I knew everything was going to be done right. Like the house itself, the decor reflects the classic Georgian taste for elegant simplicity. More importantly, the welcome was friendly yet professional, with a cold drink pressed into my hand as my bags and car were whisked away. Immediately, I felt as though I were staying with thoughtful friends prepared to provide such country house essentials as an abundance of newspapers, friendly dogs and a staff alert to an empty glass.

My spirits lifted still further when I was led up to Room 6, tucked away under the eaves, and saw a big double bed and French windows with a spectacular view of the grounds and lake beyond. Even better, the windows open onto a private roof deck with its own tub and lounge chairs. All of Babington’s 28 rooms are different: While mine was furnished in a soothing palette of taupe and brown with crisp white linens, others were decorated in a sensual mixture of deep reds and plums.

And then there’s the Cowshed spa. (It should be noted that beyond the name’s bovine implications, British humor would allow that difficult females, also known as “cows,” might be transformed by a visit to the spa.) A yurt and eight cozy, tree-shaded cabins down by the lake define the spa, whose menu lists amusingly named treatments like Complete Cow (a scrub/facial/massage combination) in playful contrast to the sophisticated luxury of the environment. I opted for the Rawhide, in which a salt exfoliation is followed by a rubdown with the spa’s contour cream, a blend that incorporates essential oils and crushed flowers from the garden, restoring skin to a silkiness ready to expose on the first warm days of spring.

The spa’s standout treatment, the Marhalika Massage, was developed by Cowshed therapist Victor Quemuel over the course of 20 years of travel and practice in Southeast Asia. The therapy is a fusion of various styles, combining the stretching of Thai massage and long strokes of Hawaiian lomilomi with shiatsu pressure point work and Reiki energy-balancing techniques. After a few minutes under Quemuel’s hands, you can tell he’s an artist in his field. (Indeed, he is the former artistic director of the spa at Chiva-Som — the well-regarded health-and-wellness retreat in Thailand — brought to Babington on the personal recommendation of actress Elizabeth Hurley.)

But the weather was far too beautiful to linger indoors, even with the superb spa beckoning. The estate’s rolling lawn was dotted with families sharing a meal, creative huddles discussing projects and readers stretching out on chaises in the shade of towering oaks. Unlike some spas in which a lone traveler can feel solitary, I immediately felt part of a community. There’s no pressure to join a group, but the omnipresent sense of conviviality is fostered by weekend soccer and cricket matches, evening salsa classes and first-run movies — some so first-run they’re not even in theaters yet — in the screening room.

Babington, I discovered, leans more toward the fun and sociability of a country-house party than the introspection and silence of a spiritual retreat. And despite being cocooned in the countryside, you’re still connected to the rest of the world thanks to plasma-screen televisions in the bar and Wi-Fi throughout.

In warm weather, modern British cuisine — such as monkfish with vine tomatoes and Le Puy lentils with organic and (whenever possible) locally sourced fish, meats and produce — is served on the terrace, onto which inquisitive ducks wander at will. I’d heard that Babington has showbiz associations and was concerned it might be poseur-central. However, it is surprisingly family friendly, offering baby massage at the spa and special children’s hours in the outdoor heated pool. Meanwhile, the rest of us can take advantage of the five tennis courts or fitness classes ranging from self-defense to yoga.

A similar blend of rural tranquility and metropolitan finesse characterizes Cowley Manor, 90 minutes north of London in a particularly lovely part of the Cotswolds. On seeing the building’s exterior (modeled on the Villa Borghese), I expected chintz and Chippendale, which made the cutting-edge style of the interior a complete surprise. The contemporary furniture in the public rooms is upholstered in bright shades of chartreuse and turquoise, and the spacious wood-paneled bar makes a postmodern statement on country house tradition with an assortment of papier-mâché animal heads mounted on the walls. There is a billiard room, but this definitely isn’t Gosford Park; the table felt is bright blue and the walls are upholstered in leather.

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After a previous owner ripped the original features out of the house, it was given over to a variety of institutional uses, leaving the current owners a blank slate. They took the opportunity to create 15 guestrooms in the main house (there are an additional 15 in the converted stable block) that are the size of suites. Even the bathrooms are spacious, especially the huge (five-foot long, at least) cobalt blue walk-in showers. If a visit to Babington is like staying with a young, hip family blessed with money and taste, a weekend at Cowley is like staying with a fashionable friend whose city residence is a fabulous loft.

The design highlight of Cowley is its architecturally distinguished C-Side spa. Built inconspicuously into the side of a hill, and with a lavender-covered roof, the modern building could easily pass for a small museum. Indoors, the slate-tiled infinity pool is especially beautiful, enclosed by double-height glass walls on three sides and natural rock on the other. Like the smaller outdoor pool, it’s heated to 78 degrees, making it ideal for spring bathing. The treatments in the spa’s four rooms include aromatherapist Michelle Roques-O’Neil’s plant-based oils, offering a range of blends to suit your mood. So, for example, you might choose Stillness oil to relieve tension or Meditation oil to aid focus.

Cowley’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly its 55 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds. Designed to reflect a Victorian fondness for romantic nature (it comes complete with hidden groves and secret gardens), the park has more than one thousand trees including majestic oaks and massive evergreens. Although the spa was a total delight, I found that taking in this view of water and woods while swooping over it on a wooden swing tied to a high branch was as restoring to my spirit as any treatment could be. There is a diversity of landscape to explore, ranging from groomed walking trails in the woods to grand displays, such as a lake ornamented with cascades pouring from the mouths of stone lions. In addition to a small church on the property that has remained virtually unchanged since it was built in the 13th century, there are many sites of cultural interest nearby including Gloucester Cathedral; the Regency spa town of Cheltenham; and Stanton, a picture-book Cotswold village.

As with Cowley, Whatley Manor’s appearance is deceptive. At first glance, the handmade Persian rugs, wood-paneled public rooms, mullioned windows and location in the heart of England’s horse country (Prince Charles’ country house is nearby) suggested a more traditional experience — but then subtle differences emerged. The structure was built in the 1920s, so the 15 rooms and eight suites are more spacious than in older manors. There are also up-to-the-minute Philippe Starck– designed bathrooms and Bang & Olufsen electronics in the bedrooms. And the service is more European than British in its slightly formal but extremely solicitous attentiveness, a reflection of the hotel’s Swiss ownership. At Cowley, I sometimes had trouble spotting the staff, whose uniform of T-shirts and khakis makes them blend in easily among the guests. But at Whatley, by contrast, I was greeted by a manager in frock coat and trousers and immediately felt enveloped in an air of sedate luxury.

This same attitude is apparent in Whatley’s spa, Aquarias, created within the footprint of the old stable block. With its polished plaster walls, light oak floors, indirect lighting and carefully chosen artwork, Aquarias could double as a gallery. Whatley is one of only seven La Prairie spas worldwide, so the emphasis is on facial and body treatments using the Swiss line’s luxurious, caviar-based products in combination with shiatsu, acupressure, effleurage and hot stone techniques.

All these elements were part of the spa’s signature facial, beginning with tension-relieving warm stones slipped between my fingers and toes while a firming facial cream was applied with a pressure point technique. Next, my neck and shoulders dissolved into butter when it was their turn for the hot stone massage. While a caviar facial masque was setting, a caviar body cream was smoothed into my hands, arms, legs and feet with the same unshowy expertise that characterizes the hotel service. I came away as languid as linguine and exuding a sumptuous glow from every pore.

As the name Aquarius suggests, water-based therapy is a guiding principle of the spa. In addition to a Wave Dream Sensory Room (an art installation that projects waves onto a domed ceiling), there’s an exceptional heated hydrotherapy pool featuring an underwater recliner with strategically placed jets for neck massage. As I sat in the outdoor section of the pool overlooking the surrounding woodland while pulsing jets gently soothed my muscles, I had a sense of the last vestiges of winter’s distress drifting away.

Not to be missed is the spa’s thermal suite, ideal for those spring days still harboring a hint of English chill. Incorporating mosaic-tiled benches and small central fountains, the suite’s series of Greco-Roman themed cabins is structured to provide increasing levels of heat, beginning with the gentle Tepidarium. Here, heated walls, seats and floors generate a gradual warming. Once you become acclimatized, you can move on to the dry heat of the Laconium, the steamy Caldarium, the Camomile Steam Grotto, or, for those who like it really hot, a Finnish Sauna, stopping in between for a refreshing cool mist or warm tropical rain shower.

Arrangements for less passive forms of relaxation are similarly comprehensive and efficient, with personal trainers on call for tai chi, yoga, Pilates and workouts in the well-equipped gym. However, after the facial, the most exertion I could muster was a turn around the formal gardens to smell the spring flowers.

All three of these destinations are within an hour of Bath, the elegant spa town to which world-weary Regency sophisticates retreated to relax and revive in fashionable surroundings. As Jane Austen, a resident of Bath (the town that inspired two of her novels) said, “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” I have to agree.

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC


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