Dad of two teenagers, lover of solitude, Nigel Pizey heads to Lifehouse, a spa and hotel in Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex for a bit of ‘me time’.
Lifehouse is off the beaten track in rural Essex, an angular, minimal, modern building – even a little Brutalist – softened by swathes of wooden panelling surrounding enormous glass panels. Inside, it seems to go on indefinitely, the modern furnishings not quite as dramatic or designer-y as the building. At spa reception, I was greeted by enthusiastic, smiling faces, given a device akin to a fitness-tracking wriststrap – a clever locker key that appealed to the nerd in me - then directed to the men’s changing rooms.
Entering the central spa hall, I was quietly impressed by the gender-free feel to the place. There’s nothing frilly here, rather grey slate panels and impossibly high white walls with thigh-thick ropes hanging on the right-hand wall. Art, innit? In the centre is a generous hydro-pool, guarded by two swan jets and surrounded by loungers. On the left-hand side of the entrance is a sauna and a steam room, while the swimming pool is seen through a glass wall. There were two other men following their partners around, one super fit, the other super skinny, clearly not my allies.
The sauna was occupied by a group of ladies, who I was sure would not want a large, bearded middle-aged man joining them, so I went for the empty steam room, a perfect temperature with a healthy, menthol tinge. After ten minutes, I decided to cool off in the swimming pool. As I clumsily dropped into the water, I noticed a group of four women standing bang in the middle of the pool, chatting. Treating them as a mildly annoying blockade on an assault course, I plunged underwater and swam to the far side. It’s not a massive pool, but long enough to feel a length is some sort of workout, and the discovery of steps on one side gave me a far more dignified exit.
As the large sauna was now vacated, I went to get a sweat on. The temperature was ideal, and I basted happily for almost 15 minutes. I checked out the hydro-pool, my shoulders and neck pleasantly attacked by the force of a swan jet. Then back to the pool, hoping to swim without obstacles this time, but a different and far larger group of women stood almost exactly in the centre of the water, not moving, just chatting. Is this a thing…?
I was given a buzzer (think old-school pager) at reception and asked to go up a spiral staircase to the vast waiting area. The room is not far off Stanstead Airport’s departure lounge in size, although it has a fantastic view of the gardens (more on those later). My buzzer gently came to life and my therapist arrived, introducing herself as Georgie. I was booked in for an Energising Back Treatment (55min £70) and off we trotted to a darkened, scented room.
After a quick rundown of what was about to take place, Georgie said I could roll up my swimming shorts or just take them off. Naked? This was something I hadn’t thought about. Ultimately, I just rolled up my shorts, so I appeared to be wearing a giant nappy. Yes, that’s much more dignified…
I lay face down on the table, and Georgie began, patting me down with warm towels before starting my back treatment with a coffee scrub. Think of a light sandpapering, gently removing a poor coat of varnish. This was then washed off with hot wet cloths and a chocolate mud mask applied. I felt a little like a piece of old toast being liberally spread with smooth Nutella. Mud in place, Georgie wrapped up my back in towels and started on the leg massage. She was generous with the oil and, as a man, this is particularly useful. Having long leg hair can incite a friction-burn sensation when firmly massaged if not enough unguents are used, but this was blissful.
Once my lower limbs were thoroughly relaxed, it was back to my back. Georgie washed away the mud with a wet cloth, then began the massage. She had nimble fingers (and elbows) and was sensitive to my request of not going too heavily into my shoulders. I’ve had massages in the past that have been genuinely painful – one gave me a stiff neck for a week – due to foolish male pride that stopped me saying the pressure was too hard. Speak up, people! It doesn’t have to hurt to be good for you.
The treatment lasted almost an hour and my back felt fantastic. Georgie had really helped the stiffness in my lower back. She led me to the darkened relaxation room, again far larger than many I had seen, and I collapsed on one of the leather recliners. I’m easily bored in relaxation rooms, and not too fond of whale music, so I stayed for a moment before heading for lunch.
How was the food?
The restaurant is straightforward - nothing overly fancy, but again boasting lovely views onto the gardens. And you can rock up in your bathrobe. I plumped for the three-course buffet, an all-you-can-eat affair, which always brings the worst out in me. Cramming my plate with little dollops of prawn cocktail served on lettuce leaves, hummus, goats cheese-stuffed peppers and olives, before finishing that off and heading for the main dishes. Although they didn’t look wonderfully appetising (and served in school-style canteen trays), my food was flavoursome: rice with vegetables and Mediterranean-style chicken. Pudding was a fantastic chocolate torte. Eating alone is something I really enjoy, able to be guided by your own pace.
What was the highlight?
Normally, I have no interest in anything horticultural, but the gardens at Lifehouse are spectacular. Starting in the Beth Chatto-inspired dry beds, the lawn leads out to various areas, each quite different. It isn’t a formal garden, but most of it is like you’ve stepped into a fairy-tale wood, with babbling brooks and rock gardens. Peter Pan author JM Barrie was a regular here back in the day when this was Thorpe Hall and I could understand how he would have been influenced by these magical spaces. With my newly loosened back giving me a bit more of a spring in my step, I felt a bit of Lost Boy enchantment myself.