Spa of the Month: Ye Olde Bell, Retford


It’s that time of year that you may well be hankering for the slopes. The smell of pine, open fires, hot chocolate, gluhwein. But what if you just don’t have the time to get there? There is an answer. Why not try Retford?

Now, you may never have been to Retford and probably most of us know it (if we know it at all) as a sign off the A1. It’s almost in Yorkshire (north Nottinghamshire) and you’re aware of this before you get off the train with a guard who thinks he’s John Browdie from Nicholas Nickleby and later a lady taxi driver who calls me “lovie” and tosses our bags into the boot with ease.

It’s a ten minute ride to the atmospherically-named Barnby Moor and the Olde Bell which is absolutely nothing like Dotheboys Hall, I promise. Inside, it’s all old coaching inn but we’re staying in one of the courtyard suites next to the spa and this is a different matter entirely.

The spa is just a few months old and, while not vast, has been designed to give a feeling of indoor/outdoor open space and a wonderfully relaxing ambience. So, if you begin with the warm and build up to hot, you can take yourself round a variety of rooms starting with the herbal laconium. This is set at a maximum of 60C and mildly humid due to the periodic bursts of steam that infuse the herbs on the central table.

Then – and this is something I have never seen before – there’s the Stonebath. It could be a nod to the industrial revolution and dark satanic mills, or even a reference to glowing infernal regions, but this is a steam room with attitude. So, with brick walls and slate seats, there is a central cast iron cauldron next to a tank of water. Every now and again, the room is bathed in red light and with the creak of an ancient portcullis, a bucket full of red hot coals is hoisted out of the fiery furnace and traverses to the water where it is lowered to steam and hiss. Spa theatre – it could catch on.

There is, too, a very hot sauna (inhale the pine) and a normal steam bath which you should alternate with cold experiences, like the snow storm walk – the first of its kind in the country. At the press of a button, you can walk through a gentle snow shower or be really brave and go for the snowstorm. Terrible, this mountain weather. Alternatively, there’s a shower walk through four different temperatures that leads to the grand finale of the bucket shower – pull the rope and icy water empties over your head.

There’s a vitality pool with lots of underwater massage (lying, sitting or standing) and a reflexology station for underwater foot massage. You can swim outside – at the touch of a button, the glass door opens and you’re in the same warm water outside but with the steam rising into the air – I was there in January.

So, remember those ski slopes? This is where you also get back to that alpine feel. There are pine “chalets” set around table-top fires with sheepskins, rugs and pillows and where the spa butlers will bring you that hot chocolate or gluhwein. There are heated recliners, too, and a giant apple (honestly) where you can curl up and relax on equally giant cushions.

There are fir trees, fairy lights and a stone deer so, while you might not be quite in an alpine setting (er, no mountains visible), there is a surprisingly après-ski feel to it and they build on this in their Friday evening “twilight spa” with all of the above, the place decked out with skis and poles and a positively party atmosphere complete with drinks and canapés.

And this brings me to the food. I can quite honestly say I have never had such good spa food. This is not the kind of food most people associate with spas but it really should be. Chef Richard Allen has created a menu that not only ticks all the right boxes (healthy, local, seasonal), it is constantly surprising. Between us, we tried a sweet potato and pumpkin soup (just the right amount of spice and not too thick), a delicate starter of figs and cheese, a delicious savoury open tart and a light version of boeuf bourguignon – so, as I say, not your traditional spa menu. And then there was the bread. I tend to avoid bread but this was good stuff – rosemary with sea salt was pretty good but the curry bread however unlikely it may sound was little short of sensational.

So you could go to Retford for the food alone. But there is more. On the upper floor of the spa are the treatment rooms and there’s an extensive array of them on offer – massages, wraps and facials. The spa features Germaine de Cappucini products based on the five Chinese elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water and your therapist can also match your oils to your star sign. They smell divine.

So, after a delicious lunch and a relaxing treatment or two, we went back down to the main spa and into the Salt Inhalation Room that features not just a wall of salt (good for respiratory problems) but giant bean bags and subdued lighting. Naturally, we both fell into a deep sleep.

It may not be the Alps. But it’s proper cosy.

Ye Olde Bell Hotel & Spa, Barnby Moor, Retford, Nottinghamshire, UK. For more information, visit