Byline: ANNABEL RIVKIN
I find those dead days between Christmas and New Year really peculiar and rather depressing. Inevitably, wrung out by doing Christmas for all my waifs and strays, I hospitalise myself in my bedroom on Boxing Day for an old-fashioned convalescence. But recuperation soon turns into agoraphobia. I spoke to a great friend who returned from Barbados in early January but felt too anxious to let anyone know she was back, her mentality being: 'I could stay indoors for two days or two years and no one need know I'm here.'
Whether it's post-holiday, post-honeymoon or post-Christmas anxiety, the way to approach the new term is by finding something to break your fall and absorb the shock of a return to responsibilities.
Which is why, last Friday evening, I found myself driving through the rain towards Whatley Manor in Wiltshire. Housed in a Twenties manor house, Whatley aims to host rather than merely serve, and from the moment you hand over your car keys in a poetically lit, enclosed quadrangle, you are cosily wrapped in the knowledge that you won't have to think for yourself until you check out.
A series of sitting rooms takes up most of the ground floor, complete with fires, newspapers and peace. By the time my friend Kate arrived (she had come by train from Paddington to Chippenham), I was quite the lady of the manor and greeted her graciously from a large sofa from which I almost had to be surgically separated in order to go through to dinner. Whatley, which opened in 2003, has two restaurants: the formal Dining Room, which is about to undergo a redesign, and the more laidback Le Mazot, which translates as 'small mountain dwelling' according to the waitress. The hotel is owned by a Swiss pharmaceutical billionaire who lives locally, and some of the design choices, if not actually ill-advised, are certainly surprising. Le Mazot is one of them: it looks like a mountain chalet crossed with a Wetherspoons.
But, all fat from December, the last thing I wanted to do was walk into some glamorous, minimalist eaterie only to feel that I was making the place filthy merely by entering. So it worked for me.
The rooms are a bit corporate but comfortable with Bang & Olufsens all over the place, smelly candles, classical music playing after turndown and beautiful wood-walled bathrooms with forgiving lighting. The views are quite something.
The gardens at Whatley are not really relevant for a midwinter break - unless you are of the bracing-walk school of weekender - but they are worth noting. Designed to stay faithful to the traditional early 20th-century English gardening style, they come into their own in early summer, at which point, I suspect, the oddly designed restaurants matter little as the hotel has large and lovely terraces. In fact, there is a room full of rugs and picnic baskets for the taking. Every room has a portable telephone that works throughout the grounds, so if you find yourself horizontal by the river and in need of a cocktail, it's only a phone call away.
The following morning we padded down some stairs into a whole new world.
Spas are what the Swiss are really good at, and this one is no exception.
Don't bother with goggles as this pool is not for lengths. It has large hanging taps that squirt powerful jets on to your shoulders.
One side of the pool is lined with moulded metal bars that act like a bed and support you while the bubbles weave their spell. And, best of all, if you swim under some flappy things, you suddenly find yourself in the open air, gazing over the Wiltshire hills and watching your breath float away in clouds. This could be Lake Geneva, and suddenly, I understood the point of hydrotherapy.
This is the only spa in the UK to feature a La Prairie Art of Beauty Centre, but I opted for a really painful, absolutely excellent massage from a tiny blonde called Emily who, under her crisp uniform, must have arms like meat hooks. …