I’ve never been the spa-ing type, like I imagine the majority of middle-aged women would be, given the chance. The whole ‘beauty-thing’ has always bored me. It kills me to have to sit in a hairdresser’s chair for two hours of torture to get my hair coloured when I could be doing a myriad of far more stimulating things like watching Ellen or picking my toe nails.
Visiting a spa has always seemed like a particularly wasteful form of indulgence, when you could spend that money on important stuff like alcohol and new clothes.
Where is the fun and relaxation to be had in a place where drinking is frowned upon and you’re forced to expose your dry, floppy skin and hairy bits to other, more lithe, conditioned and judgmental bodies?
Which is why, when some old school friends suggested catching up over a spa day during my trip to England, I had to bring out my best method acting skills and feign enthusiasm, consoling myself that the company would make up for it.
My only experience of spa-life until that day was when NC and I visited one in Bali – mainly because it was cheap.
However, certain elements of the experience had left me traumatised and questioning its true appeal. Sharing a steam room with your teenage daughter, clad only in paper knickers, will test the most liberal of mother/daughter relationships; feet massages are probably only good for those who have a high tolerance to being tickled and when a massage turns out to be more of a violent pummelling, whose only appeal lay in the hope that I might lose some weight, the experience made me think twice about rebooking.
My Pennyhill Park experience was very different, and I’m not saying that just because one of aforementioned bestest mate’s husband contributed a massage, lunch and glass of champers to the three of us out-of-shape, middle-aged women, who I’m sure he realised were far more interested in chit-chatting than having dead skin removed.
Pennyhilll Park is in Bagshot, Surrey, about 45 minutes out of London and if heaven exists, this is it. It is just so archetypally British in its British-ness, it almost hurt me to look at it, so homesick was I already feeling during that first week of my trip. It’s country house beauty reminded me of all those wonderful ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’ weddings I went to in the nineties; so inviting in its warmth and under-stated opulence.
The best part was that even though we were at a spa and impressively out of condition, we weren’t made to feel out of place, even if it was fairly obvious from the speed with which we downed our bubbly that our true vocation was less about improving our bodies and more about luxuriating in the company of good friends.
Our day began with lunch – a luscious quinoa and grilled chicken salad that did not resemble the nightmare I’d had the previous night about portion-sizes more suited to ants, and I nearly screamed with relief when I spotted the bread basket.
Lunch was followed by an unscheduled exercise class spent getting the quinoa out of our teeth before we were then hurried off to the massage rooms.
To be honest, I’ve always been terrified of the invasiveness of the massage, but all the masseurs at Pennyhill Park were charming, beautiful, young British girls with beautician bun reassuringly sat on the top of their beautiful heads and their perfect, pristine bodies adorned in the purest of white beauty power-suits.
I have to admit that one of the highlights for me was being able to walk around in my white towelling dressing-gown in public all day and without judgment – it was like being home-from-home.
However, once in the massage room (and in spite of my masseur’s attempts to make me feel relaxed), I still felt more than a twinge of awkie-ness when she instructed me to push my swimming costume down to my waist and wait for her on the bed – still unsure at that stage whether I had to lie face down or (horror or all horrors) face up, fully exposing the sad flaps of skin I once called breasts. Those few seconds of indecision reminded me of every visit to the gyny for anything vaginally-awkward when they tell you politely to remove your knickers and you stand there in shock for a few seconds, as your brain registers that yes you do have to take your knickers off to a complete stranger.
Just me, then?
Anyway, thirty minutes of gently exhilarating massage with yummy-smelling oils managed to relax me and there was even a moment when I forgot the embarrassment of when the masseur had commenced the massage and removed my last vestige of modesty – the protective sheet – yanked my cossie much further down my hips and revealed the top of my butt crack.
Rather her than me, I remember thinking.
Relaxed and feeling less coy about our middle-aged bodies, the three of us spent the remainder of the day as though we did that sort of thing every day, secretly delighting in childish frolics in every hot tub, never-ending gossips in the steam rooms, comparisons of muffin tops and stretch marks (mine won easily) and finally freezing our butts off in a spa that was weirdly located outdoors, where the temperature was about ten degrees – and I might be exaggerating there.
Towards the end of the day we rested our re-invigorated bodies on hot beds and caught up on the previous three years. Nothing has changed really, except our bodies. The kids are still challenging and we’re all still waiting for them to leave home, husbands continue to be disappointing and work is an ongoing irritant.
It’s just lucky that true friendships never change.