To boldly go where no man has gone before

Real men don’t relax, so your intrepid correspondent approached a stay at Champneys with healthy scepticism… but left with a healthier body – and mind.

The thalassotherapy pool with sea water

I’m a man, and men don’t relax. We sleep, get over-excited and get tense. Sometimes (women can’t do this) we do all three at once.

So when they said “Have a couple of days relaxing and being pampered”, my tension levels went through the roof. Even the masseuse at Champneys Tring, the king of British health spas, said I was tense. I couldn’t say “What do you expect? I’m relaxing. I’m being pampered. Of course I’m tense”. I just sort of apologised, as men do when it’s something – anything – to do with our bodies.

Because, for men, it’s bodies that are the problem. The whole idea of Champneys is to tend to the body, rubbing it and feeding it healthily, warming and cooling it, relaxing it, freeing it from the mental stresses that knot us up. They cover the entire gamut, from weight management and detox to clairvoyant readings, from cardiac prevention and (if you didn’t listen to the clairvoyant, who’d presumably have warned you in advance) rehabilitation to hypnotherapy. You can have a sports massage, but I didn’t deserve that because I don’t do sports, and you can have osteopathic de-stress treatment, which is a worry because what if one becomes de-stressed? I could see myself collapsing into an unsporty and boneless heap of stresslessness, like Jabba the Hutt.

Acupressure, stone therapy, Tui na, manual lymphatic drainage, Bach flower remedies, Bowen Technique: all these at my disposal. But I’m a man. How can I do this?

As I drove up the impressive sweeping drive, through immaculate lawns to the elegant country house, odd images crowded into my mind. In my imaginary Champneys, Barbara Windsor was playing nude volleyball behind a hedge while Sid James leered and Charles Hawtrey shivered knock-kneed by a greenish, icy swimming-pool. Somewhere nearby there would be an illicit pie stall in a layby for clients driven to madness by the lettuce-leaf and lemon-water diet. The soundtrack from The Road to Wellville played its intestinal tubas in my mind and was it me, or was that really the voice of Anthony Hopkins as John Harvey Kellogg, holding forth about beefsteak as the source of all corruption?

Champneys Tring

No. It wasn’t. The place was charming. Comfortable. Courteous staff. Five-star service. Cheerful-looking people pottering about in what the nice man at reception described as “tribal dress”: a hugely fluffy white towelling dressing gown and equally fluffy flip-flops. Lunch was actual lunch, with actual food that you could identify as food, not as a sort of edible penance.

This was not as I expected. I didn’t sit at the Champneys Table, a sort of free-for-all for those relaxing and being pampered on their own, partly because I was too alarmed at the pleasantness of it all, and partly because they were all women. Not Russian oligarchs’ women, sent off for their monthly scrubbing-up, nor the desperate sort, staving off time and flesh, but nice, normally-upholstered women, not entirely in the bloom of youth, nattering away happily.

In one of the corridors, on the way to the library, things were more as I expected. Duckboard floors, curtained cubicles in one of which a very thin man was having a colonic lavage from an equally thin man in a white coat while two stern nurses looked on. There were buckets and spartan examination tables and an awful lot of water being sluiced around. But these were photographs from the 1920s when naturopath Stanley Lief opened the place as Britain’s first-ever health farm.

Fine cuisine on offer

Now it’s soft music and careful lighting, thalassotherapy (where you’re squirted with sea-water) and, so un-punitive has it become, a crafty but legitimate fag on the terrace, and nobody to tell you off.

There’s even Sun Tower treatment and something called Kriotherapy, described by one of the Champneys Table ladies to me as “A sort of cell and they squirt freezing cold water at you and you do exercises and then you’re invigorated. Restarted. You know detox? Well this is like retox.”

They should give Champneys the NHS preventive medicine contract. The entire nation would be glowing with health. I defy anyone not to come away feeling, if not being, lighter. Pampered. Almost – though it’s hard to admit this, as a man – relaxed.

On my way there, I’d noted the nearest pub. On my way back, I drove straight past it, not so much smirking as glowing. Next time, I’ll try the Kriotherapy.

Michael Bywater is a journalist. He was a guest at Champneys where one night including meals, all facilities and a choice of two treatments, starts from £244pp.