Returning to our warrior state at Yeotown health retreat in North Devon

Tom Sylger Jones reviews a Yeotox health retreat at Yeotown in North Devon and revels in perfectly designed spaces, moorish food and the chance to shake off his competitive streak

I arrive at Yeotown late one Thursday evening, and after a warm welcome from Amy, am guided through a fragrant, floral courtyard where I pause to take in gorgeous country views through an open door. I’m here for a 3 night Weekend Warrior version of the Yeotox health and fitness breaks on offer at Yeotown year round. Amy takes me into a spotless and unoccupied kitchen, where I gaze hungrily on two home-cooked meals, plated up and waiting. They remind me of the times in the long summer holidays of my youth when my brother and I would come home late to our mum’s home cooking after a day spent wandering our local fields. 

There are a few people here already, but my fellow ‘weekend warrior’ has yet to arrive, so when I have finished eating the aptly described ‘delicious Courgette and Pepper Coconut Curry with fabulous Brinjal Bhaji’, cooked by Yeotown’s chef Julia, I contemplate devouring his helping. It wouldn’t be a good start, and I note that I had better get used to eating less, or rather, refrain from the gluttony with which pretty much all English males seem terminally afflicted. Later in the weekend I find that eating becomes my most frequent, almost obsessive, topic of conversation, as I eagerly anticipate more of Julia’s fantastic meals.

I settle into my room. It is the smallest of all the rooms, but comfortable, airy and impeccably kept. I am not surprised to learn that Simon Sieff, co-founder of Yeotown, also runs an art and design gallery – the unfussy and perfectly designed spaces, furnishings and fittings here make for a rapid transition from restless traveller to feeling at home and settled, despite the fact that I am sharing the place with several strangers. My room has a view onto an open field at the back of the property, to which I am later drawn, fennel tea in hand. Tomorrow, I will observe two deer grazing serenely as I sit in the dappled morning sun, but this evening I walk to the river I can spy from the window and contemplate three days of detoxing and fitness training.

Before bed I have a sauna and meet Emma, a fellow guest. We don’t talk, each of us savouring the peace. I retire to read and sleep safe in the knowledge that there will be no imperative to quizz or be quizzed by my weekend companions. Momentarily in the night I awake to the shock of absolute darkness and quiet.

For our first morning I am straight into the routine: tea (or rather a herbal infusion) followed by a grounding yoga session where I feel the aches my bad work posture has caused begin to unravel. ‘Ride it like you stole it’ it says on yoga teacher Molly’s t-shirt. I feel energised, and savour a delicious and nutritious berry smoothie afterwards. We are soon on our way for the first of three 10k (ish) hikes over the amazing coastal terrain of North Devon and Exmoor. I walk mostly in silence, in the warm sun, through the lush, inspiring countryside, stopping to gaze at the still and vast ocean, the wondrous geology and the quiet villages. Our guide, Davy, is erudite, with just enough of the Irish gift of embellishing stories to hold the attention. As time goes by I learn that this guy really has led several lifetimes in my measly one.

We reach the beach and follow the smugglers route, Davy adding colour to the stark but magnificent scenery with stories of contraband and the corrupt but zealous customs patrol of years gone by. We gaze back at the most stunning landscape – stark and bare triangular peaks rising from the sandy beach. We sit on a vast expanse of broken down and worn smooth slates, like lizards absorbing the sun rays, and I am mesmerised by the splashes of pink quartz as we hydrate with some much-coveted slices of melon.

That afternoon we return to the Yeotown base and are put through an aerobic session with Heidi. We’re encouraged to push ourselves with faster, heavier weights, but to not be ‘driven’. As Davy says, you have to be motivated from within, otherwise exercise is simply unpleasant. More tea, then we have a session of Tai chi, which lifts the energy a little.

Dinner is a delicious aubergine dish with dahl, a spicy soup with noodles and salad and some carrot juice. I challenge others to finish their plate before me; I can’t bear the idea of watching someone else eat when all that lies before me is a warm infusion of fennel and bed. The day concludes with a massage though – the therapist, at my request, focuses on my back, manipulating my overstretched child-carrying muscles back into their rightful and comfortable place. I once again enjoy the silence and fall easily asleep.

‘I don’t think I can remember being so enthusiastic about eating as I am on this retreat. Sure, the steak at Icebergs on Bondi Beach in Australia on my honeymoon were fantastic, but the delight a seriously delicious and healthy meal each evening at Yeotox really does feel wonderful’

On the second full day the morning starts with a purple-coloured berry porridge. I sneakily take a glimpse of the Ashes score in the sports pages, but it doesn’t feel right for me to break the spell by slumping on the invitingly sumptuous sofa, so I stay present with the gentle conversation. We ease back into action with a yoga session – Molly’s steady, gentle stretches allow my mind to ruminate on matters stirred the day before. It sinks home that a typically male way of being is to push things till they break, then apply some overly protective and highly visible bandages. Whereas a more conscious approach to fitness – one that’s strenuous, but not masochistic, with yoga, exercise and massage – helps identify weaknesses and put you on a course to strengthen them.

Not heeding this advice, I launch into the AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) session with Ross, secretly determined to do the most repetitions in the group. It is difficult to keep tabs on everyone, but I identify my main rivals and, unknown to them, push myself to an uncelebrated victory. I am the Warrior! Later I realise I have overdone it. But a few days on, I am pleased with the effect eating less and vigorous exercise has had on my physique. I am on the path – but also fully aware that I’ve a long way to go before I can shake off my vanity and ego.

The inclement weather delays our second hike. To my delight, we are whisked into the studio instead to belt out a few rousing tunes with singing teacher Kate. We try a bit of Carole King and Emilie Sande, artists not frequently heard on my car sound system, but thoroughly enjoyable to sing – as we all, after an initial shyness, do. When the weather clears, the walk takes in the breathtaking scenery of the Valley of Rocks from Lynmouth. I live in South Devon, but vow to return to Exmoor just because of these amazing views. Feeling in need of more of a challenge, I run ahead and walk back, as Davy advises. I get a profound moment of joy today from a dried apricot. Having been ‘restricted’ to normal size portions of food with no meat and nothing sweet, I make haste with the thrill of eating this morsel when I get to the half-way point.

In yoga later we work mainly sitting on the floor, and I get to work on my ‘pigeon’ pose, an excruciating hip and thigh stretch. Later I enjoy another very good massage, with the masseuse intuitively feeling what my body needs. These are a major highlight of the weekend for me – they stop me getting cramp, and are supremely soothing every evening.

The weekend ends with a talk on food – how to get the nutrition you need and to detoxify. Feeling rejuvenated and light from not overeating, I am eager to absorb the detail that will help me understand what the food I eat does to or for me. I don’t think I can remember being so enthusiastic about eating as I am on this retreat. Sure, the steak at Icebergs on Bondi Beach in Australia on my honeymoon were fantastic and I’ve had some superb meals in my life, but the delight at getting an unexpected edible treat and the anticipation of a delicious and healthy meal each evening at Yeotox really does feel wonderful.

The verdict? I am very impressed by the top quality staff and their attention to detail. A shower near the sauna would be nice – but this is a tiny gripe. Days later, back at home, where my old routines are familiar, I feel energised, lighter and enjoying running more – even if I’m not quite ready to run in the hills in full armour wielding a sabre. The idea of quickly refuelling with refined and sugar-soaked foods is less appealing too, and I am surprised by my lack of enthusiasm to retox. I think this is key – by understanding what having a negative relationship with the wrong food can do, I am less inclined to be tempted by the temporary comfort – most especially of a piece of cake.

When we retreat we regress to some extent into a child-parent relationship with our hosts, guides and therapists. But at Yeotox it strikes me that we can also behave like children in our daily lives, overeating because we can or because we are bored, or thinking we are indestructible and not taking care of and listening to our bodies. If men haven’t got the good sense to come here of their own volition then their wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, neighbours should send them so that they can enjoy the return of their warrior.