Stretched and strong on a Yoga on a Shoestring weekend at Poundon House in Oxfordshire
Jane Dunford reviews a Yoga on a Shoestring weekend at a gorgeous manor house in the Oxfordshire countryside and finds all she needs to return to her life calm, clear and strong
“Close your eyes and I’ll tell you when to open them,” says my taxi driver. A slightly strange request as we approach Poundon House – a short ride from North Bicester station in Oxfordshire – but the big reveal makes sense. There at the end of a long drive bordered by snowdrops and bare-branched lime trees stands a striking country pile, the Oxford sandstone glowing gold in the late afternoon winter sun.
A popular wedding venue – there’s a vast marquee in the gardens – Poundon is also rented out for retreats. I’m here for a weekend with Yoga on a Shoestring (who run a full programme around the UK and abroad), led by south London yoga teacher Tania Brown.
Built in 1908, Poundon House isn’t short on wow factor inside as well as out. Behind the imposing front door lies a grand hallway with black and white tiled floor and sweeping wooden staircase. I’m shown to my room on the second floor, its mullioned windows overlooking landscaped gardens, and instantly sense that this is a place where you can really relax in style.
The house has been owned by the Roscoe family for almost 40 years and it feels like a much-loved home (mother Gabrielle still lives in the main building but spends four months a year in Goa, children Esmond and Alicia live in separate wings with their families). Family photos abound, huge paintings hang on the walls, bookshelves are crammed with well-thumbed tomes and the antique furniture is the kind that is passed down through generations. The Edwardian country house vibe is strong – it’s not hard to imagine colourful balls and glamorous soirées taking place here.
My aim for the weekend is to leave the busy-ness of a full-on London week behind without having to travel far (it’s only 45 minutes on the train from Marylebone) and my mission kicks off at 5pm as we gather for our first class in a lovely wooden floored room with big windows onto the grounds. Tania Brown is something of a legend in south London and she encourages everyone to leave their journeys behind as we start our first flow class. Her strong but light-hearted approach is welcoming yet professional – and inclusive of everyone.
There are 20 of us here, mainly women in their mid-thirties and up, except for a father and teenage daughter. Most have come with a friend, some alone, several are from London and practise with Tania regularly, others have travelled from all around the UK.
Over dinner we find out more – it’s a varied, laidback bunch, from computer programmers and lawyers to Pilates instructors and yoga teachers. Evening meals are served in a beautiful, yellow-walled dining room – the table laid so prettily it looks like a wedding scene. Caterers vary on each retreat (as do yoga teachers) and we’re lucky to have Elspeth Humm on board who has whipped up a tasty vegetarian feast of dahl, spicy cauliflower and roast cauliflower leaves. Best of all is dessert (Elspeth makes vegan, sugar free cakes for restaurants) – the chocolate and walnut pudding is simply delicious.
There are two drawing rooms with open fires (one with a piano), huge paintings, sculptures and cabinets of curiosities, where people lounge before bed. For those who want one there’s the option of a lazy bath – rooms aren’t ensuite but there are six bathrooms (plus two shower rooms), beautifully tiled and wallpapered and inviting for a long soak. The nine bedrooms are all different, spacious and super-comfortable, with antique furniture, great beds and lovely linen (bathrobes and towels are provided) – and it’s so quiet at night that sleep comes easily.
The next morning we wake to a frosty landscape and pinky-gold sunrise, with a dynamic 8am yoga class. It’s perfectly balanced and a great start to the day. Breakfast is served in the kitchen – a huge room, warmed by the AGA, which is always open for teas and coffee. Each morning there’s a different spread: homemade breads and nut butters, cereals and porridge, fruits, yoghurts and eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes.
To work it off, Esmond takes us for a walk – beyond the six-acre garden (with its orchard, meadows and croquet lawn), across a railway track and muddy fields and up to Windmill Hill for sweeping views of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire countryside. It’s interesting to learn more about the history of the house (it was requisitioned by the government and used by Churchill’s crack espionage unit during World War II, and later used for intelligence gathering during the Cold War).
The afternoon passes quickly. There’s plenty of time and space in the house for holing up with a book or having a massage with Jessica Lambert (to be recommend – she’s also a yoga teacher and runs retreats herself with Elspeth). Some of the group couldn’t resist the lure of Bicester Village – the discount shopping centre just down the road – and nipped out to pick up some big name brand at cut prices.
Tania’s more restorative early evening class irons out residue tension and I’m feeling physically and mentally more relaxed come dinner on day two. Unlike some retreats, this isn’t a strict ‘no-alcohol’ type weekend – some guests bring wine and the atmosphere is jolly and fun, the conversation flowing easily.
Although the retreat ends at 2pm after lunch on Sunday, Tania still squeezes in two more yoga classes – an energetic session first thing, with a more yin practice, pranayama and yoga nidra (‘sleep yoga’) to round off. As I pack up to return to London I decide it’s mission accomplished – I feel calm and clear-headed, stretched and strong. This weekend may have been run by Yoga on a ‘Shoestring’, but nothing feels ‘budget’ about it – it’s a cosseted world of country manor living with top-notch yoga and cuisine to match.