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No more pain: how health farms became spas, and we got a bit soft

WITHOUT FAIL, my grandmother and her mother used to go to a “health farm” for a week. It sounded like my idea of hell: a week of deprivation, nothing fun to do or eat. The end results spoke for themselves, though – they’d lose six kilos in a week and come home with wonderfully tapered waists and jaw bones they were proud of.

Elaine Williams, director of natural therapeutics at Grayshott Spa in Hampshire, says: “Things were much more spartan in the old days. When you went to a health farm, it was serious. You’d have nothing but hot lemon water for three days, then some carrot juice and broth on the fourth day and if you stayed a week, some salad.”

Instead of state-of-the-art gyms, there were wooden planks for press ups, and treatments were water-based and painful, involving something called a Scottish douche, where sharp jets of hot and cold water battered your back, and a “sitz bath”, where you sat with your feet in cold water and your hips in hot water, then reversed them after three minutes. Enemas, saunas and cold plunges were also popular, and the massages were “agony”, according to Williams. Nor were the rooms particularly comfortable (and certainly not attractive) – a couple of blankets on the bed, brown carpets or lino on the floor, a small wooden wardrobe and, often, shared bathrooms.

How different our approach to wellbeing is now. Even our “boot camps” are luxurious – chic and comfortable, with lots of one-on-one sessions with various experts, and countless pampering spa treatments. Our “destination spas” like Champneys and Babington House – formerly known as health farms – are loaded with palatable food and you can spend your time swigging champagne between facials and manicures if you so choose. These days, it’s pampering over pain; indulgence over discipline, comfort over rigour. What happened?

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According to Williams, litigation, for one. “You can’t just do enemas on people now; it’s not possible to take the risk of tearing someone’s colon,” she says. We’ve also become more medically aware (or just soft), with contra-indications limiting what therapists can do. “We have to be more cautious – people disclose all sorts of illnesses or problems which mean they need a different approach. You can’t pummel everyone or starve everyone in the same way, as they used to.” According to Williams, it wasn’t unheard of for the health farm “matrons” – who checked all the “patients” throughout – to discover someone needed to be sent to hospital, delivering them from their brutal regime – and, sometimes, grave danger.

In the 1980s, things began to change. “People started wanting something new,” says Williams. “We brought in body wraps, reflexology, aromatherapy and facials. There were a lot more beauty treatments. Medicine evolved too – procedures such as lymphatic drainage, used in cancer therapy, were incorporated into massage.”

Perhaps most of all, culture changed. Cassandra Cavanah, director of SpaFinder, the global spa review website, says: “As consumers we’ve evolved into expecting something nice and comfortable. We’ve got to the point where we believe we can have top thread count sheets, decent lovely food and also get results.”

But have we lost something? “We have lost that sense of discipline,” says Cavanah. “It’s a bummer that alcohol is allowed in spas nowadays. People don’t want to be deprived, so it’s a bit of a conundrum.”

These days, health retreats are what you make of them – nobody is going to force you to live on lettuce and lemon water for days. Here are a few shining examples of the modern health farm.