Lifehouse Spa & Hotel
Accessible spa & wellbeing breaks in Essex
The Quick Read: We were charmed by this adults-only 89-bedroomed spa and hotel, a set of sleek, low-slung white modern buildings surrounded by 130 acres of gorgeously lush English Heritage Listed gardens and mature grounds. This is a health spa as well as a pamper spa, for it offers refreshingly affordable spa breaks and more nourishing wellbeing breaks including 3 night detox retreats, 2 night juice fasts and breaks for those wanting to lose weight, grow older gracefully or recover from stress, illness, cancer treatment or bereavement. There will be couples using it as a spa hotel at weekends and local day guests throughout the week, but the buildings are spacious enough to lose yourself in if you want to come for something a little deeper, most especially midweek. Staff are smiling and helpful, if sometimes a little scarce, and the health retreats are nicely held together by experienced resident naturopath Sue Davis, and healer Michael Barthaud, both of whom have worked at the destination spa Chiva Som in Thailand. Not bad for a pad in humble Essex.
Who it’s best for: It’s just over an hour from London Liverpool Street, so very reachable for Londoners who need a weekend break. Men or women travelling alone looking for an easy, short and reasonably light spa or wellbeing escape will feel comfortable here during the week – most especially those who find smaller heath retreats a little too claustrophobic for comfort. Here the property is large enough for you to lose yourself. At the weekend, it’s best to come with a companion – there are a lot of couples cosying up over champagne in the bar, and friends chatting in the steam room, as well as occasional groups of friends. Indeed, it’s a great place for an affordable and fun healthy(ish) hen break, but when it’s peace you need, ask ahead to ensure there are no groups booked in on your visit.
What you can do: Come just to relax and enjoy the spa, gardens and good food, or book a wellbeing retreat for a more substantial healthy break to help you lose weight, get fitter or detox. There’s also a special ‘recovery break’ for those getting over stress, illness, cancer treatment or bereavement, and a ‘nifty at fifty’ break to help you ‘grow older gracefully’, natch. There are classes in meditation, yoga and all manner of fitness activities including boxing to music, core stability circuits, aqua workouts and country walks. The treatment menu is extensive, and as well as more predictable facials and body treatments from Decléor and ESPA you’ll find wraps, massages and facials with Ishga products, which use Scottish seaweed and natural spring water from the Outer Hebrides, one to one sessions of meditation, reiki and energy healing, nutritional consultations and manis and pedis with vegan brand SpaRitual in a lovely specialised pea and pastel green-coloured space.
We tried the 3-night detox retreat, a gentle cleansing break that’s ideal for people who have never detoxed before and anyone else who wants a lighter, easier, quick fix than a full-on juice fast. The programme has been devised and is managed by naturopath Sue, who hand-holds you through the process and has put together an impressive detox kit you receive on arrival, which includes a Detox Essence Flower Remedy, a supplement of French clay (lighter, we told, than the more usual bentonite clay), a body brush, a jar of energising green powders by Nature’s Living and some cleansing teas. You get a detox wrap and scrub, a massage and a session of reflexology, and can book as many more treatments as you like on top.
Where you stay: The buildings are low-slung, large and spacious affairs with lots of windows. A slightly soulless, clinical, spartan feel inside is tempered by the views out to the historic gardens from large, bright windows and glass walkways. Bedrooms are fairy bland but perfectly comfortable, some with sunnier aspects than others. The Signature rooms are the largest rooms, but we preferred the sunnier garden rooms. Room 48 in the Mulberry block was great for friends sharing a twin room, the beds positioned so that you feel as if you have a little private space. There area also smaller rooms on the first floor with Juliet balconies. If a bath is important to you, ask ahead, as only 10 rooms have these.
The spa itself has a huge hot tub facing huge windows, a Japanese salt steam room infused with a lovely orange-based essential oil, a basic but large steam room and sauna, experience showers (of which we can never quite see the point, but ho hum) and a large swimming pool. The gym has no view and no TV screens, and a lot of the equipment is facing a wall, but it’s fairly well equipped. There’s also a studio in a separate part of the hotel for workouts, yoga and mediation.
After your treatments, you could head to the enormous deep relaxation room, though there is no-one stopping chat in this area and we found the totally blacked-out windows to be a tiny bit bleak rather than soothing. You might find it better to head back to your room, sit on your bed and enjoy your garden view (be sure to ask for one).
Be sure to get out and walk in the acres of grounds, which include the 12 acres of English Heritage listed Thorpe Hall Gardens, landscaped way back in the 1830s by the original owners of the land (and now demolished manor house), Lord and Lady Byng. These are filled with unusual and mature trees, little lakes, water features, a walled garden and original red-stoned structures dating back to the 1830s which create pleasing sections to the garden and little nooks and crannies to hang out in. Bliss.
How was it for us: I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and I’m a bit of a spa snob. I visited for a very quick 3 nights in the middle of a very busy month, and what made it for me was the staff – most especially Sue Davis’s sure nutritional knowledge, which guided me through my gentle 3 night detox. A pre-set, well-organised series of juices and cleansing meals punctuated my days, starting with a sunny yellow flask of hot water with half a lemon wrapped in muslin waiting for me outside my bedroom door each morning. The cleansing meals were undoubtedly a highlight – utterly delicious, tender and light. I ate them in my PJs in the dining room one night, and nobody seemed to notice, even though many people were dressed up and chatty. It’s that kind of place – relaxed, and very easy to be in.
I walked in the gardens, swam in the pool, sweated in the steam room, and cosied up in my room, and had treatments to help fill in the gaps. The Ishga detox massage and facial I had were exceptionally good in the capable hands of Jana, a therapist from the Czech Republic. Jana is deaf and a highly sensitive, nurturing therapist who thought of everything, asking me how I was before she started, then during the treatment, pulling a corner straight here, covering my foot there (I loved the clay mask especially). Reflexology with Ellena was excellent – I blissed out, feeling warm and cold shudders as my energy changed beneath the large cream towels covering me as she worked my feet using an ESPA foot balm. And I was surprised how deeply I relaxed in just a 30 minute session with healer Michael Barthaud, who did a very powerful chakra balancing session with me using cute coloured metal discs. His group meditation provided a welcome focus to my stay too – most especially his advice on how to deal with being busy. ‘If you are having a lot of thoughts – the quickest way to de stress is to acknowledge that you are having a lot of thoughts’. I am busy, I said to myself a little later, and went back to my room to catch up on emails without feeling stressed or resentful about it.
What we took home: The feeling of having taken a giant deep breath before launching myself back into life again, with a clearer skin and a softer face to boot. Plus the remains of my rather generous detox kit, including a body brush and simply delicious Eight Butterflies Green Tea by Emeyu.
Would we go back: Yes I would, especially as the spa is so easy on the pocket – there’s no ‘that will be £200 for an hour’s light rub’ nonsense here. But I’d go midweek, when it’s less busy, and probably in the summer time, so I can spend more time in those gardens.
People watch: If you’re here for anything deeper than a relaxing spa break, be sure to book a session with naturopath Sue Davis and healer Michael, who will add depth and purpose to your stay. All staff were unfailingly helpful, positive and polite, but there’s not enough of them, wet towels are often left lying round the spa area for too long, plastic cups linger on tables in The Hub, reception staff are often too busy to cope with everyone’s demands, and getting transfers to and from the local station, Thorpe-le-Soken, isn’t always a straightforward affair (there are no taxis available – Lifehouse charges a reasonable £3 for a ride instead). On our last day our transfer wasn’t available at the time we had booked, and as a consequence we had to wait an hour for the next train to London. We’re told that Lifehouse are recruiting more staff.
Food watch: The spacious, stylish main restaurant has floor to ceiling windows overlooking garden areas and always had a mellow, relaxed vibe on our visit except for Saturday morning, when everything seemed to have run out including the tea pot lids. There’s a main menu of upmarket comfort food with a decent Healthy Options menu too, plus afternoon tea and bar snacks for those who want to indulge. People eat in their white towelling robes, or dress up – it’s up to you. A highlight of our stay was the detox food. Giant superfood salads with home dehydrated crisp breads, humous, pesto, spiralised beetroot and fresh soft garlic cloves plus the likes of sweet potato soup, mushroom broth, poached chicken and sea bream – all were turned into tasty creations in the chef’s masterful hands. We were less convinced by the fruit-focused detox breakfasts, and would have preferred something more vegetable or porridge-based (plans are afoot for an additional chia porridge as a second option). There are tasty juices and smoothies on offer at The Hub (plus cake if you’re not detoxing), where the unfailingly smiley Hayley served us unfailingly sweetly each time, and didn’t baulk (or indeed tell) when we asked for an extra hemp protein smoothie more than once.
What’s queenly: In a spa world which is getting increasingly expensive and beyond the reach of too many people, The Lifehouse is doing something refreshingly different, and making decent spa and wellbeing breaks affordable and accessible. Yes you can come and drink champagne alternatives and have little more than a light steam and a facial. But you can also try juice fasting, energy healing, meditation, bootcamp workouts and decent holistic massage. If more spa companies did this, we might just have a healthier nation on our hands.
What’s lowly: This is a hotel as well as a spa, so you could have canoodling couples in the steam room at times, a couple larding it up next to you in the restaurant, and a group of exuberant girls on a hen break talking too loudly in the hot tub while you try to relax. If you’re a retreat goer who needs total peace and cosseting, this isn’t the place for you. And do bear in mind that because it’s so affordable, the white towels in the bedrooms are of the slightly hard, not fluffy, kind, and you will inevitably get given product cards after your treatment encouraging you to spend money in the ‘retail therapy’ shop.
Insider tip: We visited in February, when the corridors were a little chilly – bring layers, and ask for an extra heater in your room if you need it. The spa’s wet area is extensive and yet curiously, the only slippers provided are of the tawdry, cheap white fluffy kind. Do yourself a favour and bring a pair of flip flops.
Price with a companion: From £49.50 per person per night midweek (based on £99 per room per night based on 2 sharing a room), and from £100 per person per night at the weekend (based on £200 per room per night at the weekend) for B&B and use of the spa.
Price going solo: From £99 per room per night midweek, and from £200 per room per night at the weekend, for B&B and use of the spa.
Value for money: Extremely good value for money indeed – especially if you come on an off-season spa deal, when you can sometimes get an overnight break with a short treatment and dinner, bed and breakfast for £99. What’s not to love?
Reviewed by Caroline Sylger Jones
© Queen of Retreats