OK, let’s get the obvious joke out of the way first. Boringdon is not in any way boring. In fact, its name comes from the Saxon “Burth-Y-Don” and means “enchanted place on the hill.” That’s a bit more like it.
Boringdon Hall is a truly lovely, mostly Tudor manor that dates back to 956 AD when it was part of a priory. After the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII gave it to a court favourite and it passed through various hands – and finally into those of the Parker family who owned it till 1920. It is a stone’s throw from Plymouth, sits in a lovely park and is the perfect “E” shape of an Elizabethan manor – adjustments made by the Parker of the day. I visited in midsummer but this is a place that works any time of year – I can picture the roaring fire in the massive fireplace in its Great Hall (the coat of arms of King James I above).
It’s not all old, though, but a place where the ancestral and the contemporary fit side by side very harmoniously. And by far the biggest element of the new is the very extensive spa that sits behind the building, entirely hidden by the original façade. It has a hydro/heat area with a massive pool and a smaller one that flows into an outside hot tub. As for heat, there are saunas, steam rooms (some with essential oils), a caldarium and a salt grotto, particularly good for anyone who suffers from asthma. Its treatments are equally extensive and the Gaia spa has gone far beyond facials and massages to create its own range of products – more on these later.
My first afternoon was spent having a four-handed massage. My therapist, Gemma, started off with a foot scrub and bath after which I chose my oils. “Your nose will tell you which one.” It decided on the “Calming” range – no surprise there then after the journey down from London.
A four-handed massage is a mysterious process, as much art as technique. It has to be delivered with the same synchronicity as those diving pairs in the Olympics. It is not just performing the same movements, it needs the same pressure, the same timing, a working rhythm, even the same sized hands if it’s going to work. Part of the time, the two therapists perform identical moves. Part of the time they are doing something quite different. At one point early in the massage, one had my left arm stretched out and was massaging gently through the hand, wrist and up the lower arm, while the other had my right arm bent at the elbow so the forearm lay across my back while she worked deep into the shoulder muscles, front and back.
Then there is another mystery that really concerns your sense of touch. There is so much happening, you can’t really focus on anything else and trying to work out where one pair of hands ends and another begins is at times impossible. You become totally at one with this most overlooked of the senses and this in itself has a remarkably calming effect. Focused on touch, trying to follow the patterns of the massage, you surrender to sensation and other thought becomes pretty well impossible. It’s a mindfulness exercise all on its own.
At Boringdon, there’s a further mystery – the invisible second therapist, Natalia. She wasn’t there at the beginning, she wasn’t there at the end. She wasn’t even there when I turned over in the middle. But she was definitely there during all the crucial moments …
At the end, Gemma led me off for a very relaxing herbal tea and I floated back to my room in the old stables. This is one of the areas that is a refurbished original structure but it is just one side of a lovely courtyard where the other sides have been built from scratch to look the same. You would never know. Inside, the room is contemporary but it has a lovely little private courtyard with sofas and a hot tub. It’s a perfect place to sit and watch the sunset fade from the sky.
Before that, though, there was dinner in the main hotel restaurant, the Gallery, that looks down over the Great Hall. This is quite a view and it’s quite a dinner too. Forget detoxing at Boringdon. My scallops came with celeriac, truffles and a glass of Sancerre. My monkfish and oxtail had a mixture of mushrooms, bacon and watercress. Even before all this there were three (yes, three) amuses bouches – deliciously melting cheese biscuits, a coffee cup of frothy celeriac soup and a tiny lime sorbet. It’s serious food, seriously cooked.
The spa, though, is opening up its Spatisserie on the top floor with two big terraces as well as a bright indoor space broken up with floating gauzy drapes. This not only has a very health-conscious attitude to food, it links to the three spa product themes – awakening, balancing and calming. So an awakening breakfast might be pink grapefruit with melon and mint, while a balancing one was poached egg with avocado on toasted rosemary bread (I had this – delicious). There are tapas plates – calming features sweet potato risotto, while balancing has beetroot and lentil salad with ginger and hazelnuts. There are larger lunch plates too served up till 8pm.
The next morning was my hot stone massage. Today my therapist was Layla and this was a massage that went much deeper than the four-handed one yesterday. The hot stones and the heated bed combine with the pressure to melt away tensions – she found (and destroyed) knots I didn’t even know I had. This time, obviously more relaxed than before, I chose the Balancing oil and there was plenty of it – my skin was soaking it up with relish. It was a whole body massage and took an incredible two hours, finishing with a scalp massage and with that gentle hair pulling that is curiously relaxing. Afterwards, Layla advised drinking plenty of water as I’d had two deep massages that would have released plenty of toxins into my system and it was time to flush them out.
I follow these instructions but I do have a bit of a treat in store. Back in the Spatisserie, I have afternoon tea. Well, I am in Devon. So little sandwiches, a choice of gorgeous cakes and scones with cream and jam. Lots of water, peppermint tea and, oh yes, it comes with a glass of champagne.
I still had one treatment left – the Gaia Jade Facial. Again it featured the Gaia product range and, if I thought the earlier body products were lovely, the exquisite smells and textures used in this lovely languorous facial were some of the best I’ve come across. The ingredients are chosen for particular beneficial properties and the essential oils are powerful and sensual. Each range features its own specific oils. Awakening has grapefruit, tangerine, peppermint and rosemary among others and lifts to the senses. The Balancing range has lemon, ylang ylang, as well as frankincense and rosemary to create a feeling of harmony. Calming products have lavender, chamomile and orange blossom to sooth and relax. Even the packaging is unique – 100% bamboo and 100% biodegradable.
But back to the facial. It started with a facial wash, followed by a facial cleanse, the latter accompanied by a very creamy, long slow hypnotic massage. A rose-scented gauze face-shaped mask wiped off the rich creams and unguents beneath. There was an exfoliator, then a serum (accompanied by the longest of a series of massages) then a mask based on Cornish clay was applied on top. While this all takes, I have a long and very satisfying scalp massage that reaches way beyond the scalp, into the shoulders and across the collarbone. And there is a magic ingredient, even more magic than the smells. Jade cones, cool as marble, are rolled across the face, shoulders and collarbone, stimulating lymph drainage and blood flow. This was a truly delightful and exceptional facial – delivered by Natalia my mystery therapist from the four-hands massage.
If you need an escape to recharge your batteries, Boringdon is ideal. The setting and the spa are lovely, the manor house is cosy and the staff a delight. This is the perfect winter escape. A walk through Boringdon’s park? Tea in front of a roaring fire? A completely indulgent facial? Have as many treats as you like….
Sublime Sunday Spa Break
Enjoy a special one-night Sublime Sunday Spa Break at Boringdon Hall from just £249 per couple. Be seduced by a Sunday night stay in a Courtyard Room, three course à la carte meal for two in the fine dining Gallery Restaurant, spa breakfast featuring Devon’s finest produce, a 60-minute Gaia Spa Treatment and full use of spa facilities.
Booking is an absolute must, please call 01752 344455 to check availability and up-to-the-minute prices. Please note that this break offers a considerable savings. It is subject to availability and is not available on Bank Holiday weekends.
The offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer, is not available every Sunday and may be suspended at any time.
And speaking of treats, drop in to the Plymouth Gin Distillery, the oldest working gin distillery in England. Billed as “the ultimate gin experience” you get to tour the distillery to discover it’s still made in the same way as it’s always been (by one man in Victorian copper still). Sampling is, of course, vital and you can buy bottles and miniatures, too. It’s Nigella’s favourite gin and I have to say the sloe gin is absolutely delicious. So perfect for a present and an unusual Christmas cocktail (mixed with Prosecco). For more information, visit www.plymouthdistillery.com.
The Gaia Spa at Boringdon Hall. For more information, including details of all spa treatments, packages and spa breaks, visit www.boringdonhall.co.uk.
Travel from London Paddington to Plymouth from £36.50 one way with Great Western Railway, www.gwr.com. More information on Plymouth, including details of what to do during your visit can be found at www.visitplymouth.co.uk.