Overloaded mum and editor of Family Traveller, Jane Anderson heads to Ockenden Manor in Sussex for a rejuvenating spa break
My friend Celia and I both turned 50 this year. We both have one child at high school, the other at primary, and like a lot of parents, especially mums, we carry the ‘mental load’ of family life around with us. We feel it in our tight shoulders and in our daily emotions that often fray over little things that ordinarily wouldn’t bother us at all. Instead of looking after ourselves, we’re usually thinking about 12 things at once from work deadlines to after school clubs.
To celebrate our milestones and ease some of the stress of juggling, we escaped our London family lives for a 24-hour spa getaway. Catching the 40-minute train from London Victoria to Haywards Heath on an autumnal Friday night and catching a cab to Ockenden Manor in the tiny village of Cuckfield, felt clandestine. Dads had been put in place to fetch the kids for school and take charge for 24 hours. We were free!
Ockenden Manor is one of those small historic hotels that’s a hotchpotch of architectural styles from different eras. Its heart is Elizabethan, but there are various add-ons due to its life as a family home, boys school, war time troops base, country house hotel, and most recently, a stand-alone 21st century spa with bedrooms. One minute you can be in the ancient oak panelled bar talking Blackdown Sussex dry gin with the well-informed barman, the next you’re ensconced in the impressive glass-fronted spa taking a dip in its magical indoor/outdoor pool.
Swimming outside in a heated pool in the cold November air is a treat. Steam rising off the water and woody, autumnal scents around us was truly invigorating. After a soak in the outdoor hot tub and a walk through the rainforest showers, we headed to our rooms to dress for dinner.
After a glass of champers in the ancient, snug bar with amuse-bouche, we chose from the menu decorated with their Vicky Mappin botanical drawings of beetroots and asparagus and headed to the restaurant to feast on Carlingford oysters and Balcombe Estate partridge, home-smoked mackerel and Newhaven landed cod.
The emphasis of head chef Stephen Crane’s menu is local. The dining room was a little formal but staff attentive, but a treat for Celia and I to set the world to rights over a long chatty meal with a bottle of red.
Returning for breakfast was a more relaxed affair with a lovely view of the terrace and garden. The autumn leaves were falling in the heavy rain, but it was obvious that in spring and summer, when the doors are open, this is a beautiful place to dine.
I had come to try out the spa’s new Silent Treatment. This fabulously indulgent two and three-quarter hour treatment began with a 30-minute macadamia and papaya body scrub that was carried out so beautifully with hot towels and a smattering of massage, it already calmed the soul. Next up was an hour in the floatation room. Picture a candlelit room with a giant white pod filled about half a metre deep with warm highly saline water, a bit like a mini Dead Sea. Climbing into the isopod, the floating part was easy, but getting my neck to relax was the hard part. I sorted myself out with a handy noodle supporting my neck and arms and soon fell into a floaty trance. Once you embrace the idea of weightlessness, it really does feel like a deep sleep. One hour is said to be the equivalent of three hours of normal sleep and I really felt the benefit.
After a shower to remove the salt and a quick lie down in the relaxation room, the best was yet to come – a delicious 60-minute Thai Qi Flow full body massage. Using a combination of massage, hot herbal pouches and stretches where the therapist guides your limbs like they’re the most precious things in the world, was both rejuvenating and relaxing. Just what the doctor ordered!
Celia opted for the Ho-Leaf and Rosemary Muscle Melt and looked like a sleepy cat afterwards. All she wanted to do was curl up and relax. I would have loved a stroll in the fresh South Downs air but it was back to reality. A reality much improved by good food, pampering and a good old-fashioned mum’s heart to heart to offload the everyday. Thank you Ockenden!
The 90-minute Silent Treatment at Ockenden Manor costs from £147 per person based on two people sharing an overnight stay on a B&B basis with Awakening Floatation for one person. Ho-Leaf and Rosemary Muscle Melt, 60 minutes, £99.