Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Spa Experience

I have always been a little nervous, not to say suspicious, of spas. Is it something about the ubiquitous eerie musak, the battery operated flickering nightlights in frosted glass candle holders, the nod to all things Asian with giant fake orchids, bamboo sticks artfully arranged in large black vases and polished stones in bowls? Or is it just the crepuscular nature of it all with people creeping around in the semi-darkness in sandals, mysteriously disappearing and reappearing from behind closed doors? With all that flame and water and silent figures lurking in dark corridors, the 'Spa Experience' seems less to me a haven for restoration and relaxation and more a personal vision of Hades.

That said, I am a bit of a sucker for a good massage, so when my chiropractor suggested a pummelling before I next saw him to help with a particularly stubborn adjustment to my pelvic girdle, I immediately thought of the Devonshire Spa on our doorstep here in the High Peak. It is a training ground for students from the University of Buxton and, as such, is singularly less expensive than most spas - and therefore all the more appealing for an old cynic and skinflint like me. Thus, the other week, I arrived (five minutes late, of course), clutching a bag containing swimsuit, flip-flops and pound coin as instructed when I made the booking. They were doing a special promotion that day on Hot Stone Massages so, ever curious and with an eye to a bargain, I signed up for a 45 minute hot stone back massage, having never tried this particular little number before. The massage came with a complimentary hour in the spa so I was ushered off to the changing rooms and invited to slip on my cozzie and flipflops and put my belongings in the locker (cue pound coin) before enrobing myself in white towelling to return to reception, past a lady having a manicure, so that I could be shown around the spa facilities. These included an aromatherapy room, steam room, sauna, drench shower, ice for exfoliating hot bodies, a foot spa and a large spa pool for splashing elegantly around in and enjoying water massages from jets coming out of steel contraptions reminiscent of Victorian mental asylums. While alarming at first glance, they proved to be surprisingly user-friendly and in the end I wallowed, happily, for some time, clinging to the various bits of smooth shiny metal.

But first of all, having claimed one of the appealing looking bamboo loungers with my towel and robe, I ensconced myself in the steam room as the other three people in the spa had just exited it (I am always wary of sharing small spaces with strangers). When hot and steamy enough I released myself and headed for the crushed ice machine and rubbed handfuls of it enthusiastically on my scaly limbs. It melted, of course, before any chance of exfoliation had occurred, but it was a pleasant enough experience even if mildly useless. From here to the sauna, to get myself hot again; then out and under the 'drench' shower which 'spat' rather than 'drenched' at somewhat awkward angles. I abandoned this in favour of the large pool, which my companions had just exited (I followed them around as if in a theme park), where I did my frothy wallowing before climbing out and pouring myself an orange juice from one of the complimentary jugs. I followed this by pomegranate juice, due to my embarrassing urge to make the most of anything free, while idly fingering the collections of beautifying goods which were laid out temptingly for purchase.

Next I decided to give my poor arthritic feet some TLC and filled the foot massage bath with warm water and pressed the button to start the jets. Leaning back on the ceramic bench I was delighted to find that it was heated and wondered, for reasons best known to myself, whether this was done by hot water pipes or electric wires. I'm sure I shall never know. The foot spa, meanwhile proved more pleasing than expected and I found myself going back to it a couple more times and even explaining its workings in a chatty sort of manner to the only male in the room. 

My final stop before setting my sights on the lounger and a copy of Cosmo (there was no other choice), was the 'aromatherapy room' which was warm and sort of nice smelling (but not that nice) with little LED coloured lights in the ceiling. A couple of newcomers soon joined me (clearly not having read the sign that suggested this room should be your final experience) which gave me good enough reason to escape to the lounger. Unfortunately, before I'd even raised my bottom from the (heated) ceramic bench, the glass door was opened and a sandally young girl in a brown tunic called me to my hot stone massage. And thus I will never know what the March issue of Cosmo had to say about tantric sex and week-long orgasms...

Instead I padded back to the changing rooms where I was advised to exchange damp cozzie for dry underwear. I wondered if this meant bra too, though that seemed counter-intuitive when about to have a back massage, but put it diligently on anyway. Three minutes later I was if course removing it again in the gloomy privacy of the treatment room, feeling faintly foolish. Next vexing issue is which bit of coloured cloth you are meant to be climbing under on the massage bench. Clearly I am not alone in finding this confusing as my masseuse was careful to point out very exactly how to do it. Either that or she'd already clocked the rising panic in my eyes. 

And so I was left to arrange my self appropriately before she knocked on the door and slipped silently back in to commence the much-anticipated treatment. Lying face down in a white towel, attempting to look relaxed, I could hear the clunking of granite above the (slightly irritating) ubiquitous spa music attempting to send me off to some Balinese paradise or other. (A tall order when you know you will soon be stepping out once more onto the wind and rain-lashed streets of Buxton.) My feet were unexpectedly wrapped in a warm towel which was a very pleasing sensation before copious amounts of warm oil were rubbed into my back before the application of the first hot stones. And hot they certainly were! I almost flinched, but not being one to complain, I imagined that they would cool down soon enough. But I have to say that it was a thoroughly lovely massage and the sensation of the smooth hot stones, under firm pressure, sweeping over my back and neck and shoulders was one I can heartily recommend.

Inevitably the 45 minutes away from the world passed all too quickly and soon I was alone again with the music, my masseuse having slipped silently out of the room to allow me to rest for a moment before gathering myself together again. As ever, I could have happily lain there for the rest of the day, but instead had to desist from dropping off and ease myself back into the real world. Before that, however, I was invited to have a drink of something cleansing in the 'rest room'. I chose peppermint tea and stretched myself out on the alluring lounger, reaching for the copy of Cosmo. Before a page had even been turned my companion in the room - the only male in the spa - picked up cheerily from where we had left off in the foot spa and my time was no longer my own. I did, however, learn a lot about his life-long career as a BT engineer, the secrets of the week-long orgasm clearly destined to elude me.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Chamonix and the Argentiere Glacier

I had my skiing 'renaissance' in Argentiere when I was 16 years old. I went with my family and a dear school friend. My ski instructor was attractive enough - not much older than ourselves - with the inevitable dark face tan, a packet of biscuits permanently in his pocket and a relentless regime of teaching us the 'stem christie' (the backbone of good skiing technique and now, sadly, usually overlooked by most instructors) while plying us with encouraging Petits Lu. I had a brand new pair of state of the art Dynastar 'Pulsar' skis (worlds apart from the skis I'd last grappled with age 11 in Val d'Isere) procured by my ski journalist father, and the sun shone every day for a week. It was a rite of passage in so many ways, and a holiday I will remember and cherish till my dying day.

I have been back a number of times over the years that have slipped by since, and every time I think of that first time, glancing across to the apartment blocks at the base of the lifts in which we stayed, their 1970s modernism looking as jaded now as my own good self, ageing in tandem! 

It is a glacier, as is so much of the Chamonix Valley (to wit the famous Vallee Blanche) and makes for reliable snow and, most times of the year, a flexible expanse of piste, off-piste - and a large proportion of moguls! Given that I frequently ski in Italy where the pistes are bashed to within an inch of their life (the Italians keener on 'Bella Figura' (looking good) than thrashing inelegantly down a mogul run full of sweat and swear words) it made a welcome change. It is not the place for beginners but it makes an excellent weekend destination for skiers who like a bit of a challenge amid stunning glacial landscapes. The lifts are shamefully old these days (though a new main cable car is about to be installed - not before time) but still managed to absorb the large numbers of weekenders like ourselves. 

We stayed in a hotel in the centre of town, the Grand Hotel des Alpes, which, last time I was in Chamonix, was sitting in a state of disuse and disrepair. I remember noticing it and thinking how nice it would be if only someone was prepared to take on the project. Well, sure enough, about five years ago, an Italian firm bought it and completely refurbished it turning it into the very attractive four star hotel it is today. It was great to be on top of the shops and restaurants but less great to be woken up all through the night by marauding drunk hoards of exuberant 'yoof'. (Note to self: book a room with the view of Mont Blanc next time). There is an attractive indoor pool and spa and a restaurant for breakfast only - but they put out a tempting array of free canap├ęs and sweet treats in the late afternoon and evening. Since it wasn't cheap (but with the only room still available in town), I'd advise you get stuck into the free stuff...!

Being cheapskates, we chose to eat breakfast in the sunshine at a cafe on the main drag each morning (considerably cheaper and more 'authentic' than eating in the essentially underground hotel breakfast room) and dined in two sister restaurants, the one offering more traditional mountain fare while the other had more of a modern European/Asian fusion sort of thing going on. Both were excellent and the environments matched the style of food - the first, La Caleche, was (attractively) full of old skis and stuffed marmosets; the second, Le Cap-Horn, had skins, furs and pendant lights. Oh, and a DJ in the adjoining wine bar (Les Caves du Pele). You get the picture. I'm still wondering if the group of three blonde English women of a certain age, dressed to kill, ended up with the English guys, also of a certain age (though balder) and on the pull, at the table next to them. The waiter was getting actively stuck in too, we noted, as were two adjacent Dutch guys. As a sad old married couple we decided to skip the wine bar and leave them to it. It was way past our bedtime anyway after a hard day on the moguls! Ah yes, how the years have changed us...

Our hotel:

The Argentiere Glacier which we skied down (with sublime view from the top of the cable car):

A well-earned final pit-stop (and a refuge you can stay the night in - stunning...):

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Solitary Ramblings

The other day I desperately needed some time to myself, out of the house, for some quiet contemplation of things in my life. The day was notable for its dank dreariness but I pressed on with my plan in spite of the weather. It suited my mood anyway. 

So I got in the old Land Rover, anticipating a wet, muddy dog on my return, and drove to the Goyt valley, just 15 minutes away. I headed for the spot I had always driven past saying 'I must walk there one day'. That day had finally come. 

I parked up next to a small (very deep - according to the warning signs) pond, perched on the hillside, surrounded by sweeping moors and deep valleys. Thanks to the simultaneous arrival of a woman with two collies and a ball, I decided to take a different footpath to the one I had imagined - in order not to get mixed up with her and her dogs. I desperately wanted to be alone, just me and Lil. And so it was that instead of following the path of a one-time rail track, I plunged down through the winter grass and heather towards a bubbling moorland brook nestled in the folds of the hills. 

From here I crossed a wooden bridge and shortly afterwards was rewarded with a beautiful glimpse of the Errwood Reservoir from an angle I'd not seen it from in 10 years of living up here. It made me contemplate the time before they flooded the valley to form the reservoir, when the moorland streams that feed it joined instead to form the upper Goyt river weaving its way through a hamlet nestled in the valley, the sacrificial lamb for this reflective vista. 

The path took me to a gate with a pleasing sign on it saying no bikes, walkers only - the last thing I wanted was to be harried by cyclists. And so I continued on my solitary way up a track with a gentle gradient while more vistas of the lake opened up as I turned, still gently climbing, towards the south, following the curve of the hillside. The wide path from the bridge narrowed now into a muddy track studded with chunks of gritstone and edged by beautifully undulating drystone walls, complete and handsome for the most part, collapsed or broken in others. 

A few grouse burst out of the heather in a flurry with their instantly recognisable squawky call as I wound my way across the hillside. After about half an hour of walking I had a view up the valley, away from the reservoir, towards Goytsclough Quarry, the end point of the track. I would have loved to carry on but I had some jobs to do in Buxton before heading back to pick up the girls from school. 

So I turned reluctantly round and headed back along the route I had just taken. I am always surprised at the same path can look so different from the opposite direction and I wasn't disappointed today. I glanced down at the ground at one point and my eye was caught by a dark bronze coloured circle pressed into the mud. I picked it up and, after much peering, realised it was actually a pound coin, much weathered (not unlike myself!). I slipped it into my pocket. My lucky pound. Maybe someone loved me after all. 

Climbing back up towards the car park was more challenging than coming down, so I paced myself by stopping to admire a bird of prey hovering high above the hillside, its tail and wing tip feathers spread wide like fingers against the grey sky. A light drizzle began to fall and I was pleased I had my hat and waterproofs to keep me dry and warm. Lily was unbothered, a sheepdog in her element, loving every second, pausing only when I stopped, just to check I was ok. A girl's best friend for sure.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

New Posts

Just to let you know that I have stirred myself from hibernation to write and publish two new posts - one on Fridge Food, another on The Gardening Habit - sunshine in the dark days of winter. Enjoy. (God, I hate that phrase!)

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

6th January 2014

I have just been listening to what I consider to be one of the saddest, most poignant, most beautiful pieces of music in the world: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. I first came across it while watching a documentary when the Titanic was first found, after so many long years in the dark, at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

As the camera panned across the remains and decay of this once extraordinarily lavish and beautiful boat through the murky green depths, the marriage of mood, image and emotion was exquisitely captured as the strings, so laconic at first, climbed towards their achingly taught, high-pitched climax and hung there momentarily, suspended in time, before the slow descent towards resolution and, finally, an equally suspended silence.

I played this often during my pregnancy with E, my firstborn daughter, though I could never get through it without feeling deeply weighed down by the responsibility of carrying an unborn life and what that life would bring. There is just something in those combination of notes and perfect phrasing which speaks of uncertainty, fragility and, perhaps, a little fear of the unknown. There is a tension in them between peace and disquiet before that gentle resolution is finally found. It could not be a more perfect expression of the emotions of an expectant first-time mother - for me, at least.

I remember stepping out onto the terrace of our top floor apartment in Milan on the night of 5th January 1999 to feel the snowflakes falling on my face. My baby was due in two days and I was contemplating my last few moments of pre-motherhood, when my life was just my own to do as I pleased with. All that changed the following morning when Elena Carah Francesca came suddenly into the world. And now, that little 2.5kg baby girl, not much larger than a toy doll, is a strapping 15 year old trying to come to terms with her own independence, at once both thrilled and rather scared - feeling just as I did 15 years ago today. That little creature, so utterly helpless, was wheeled into my room for her first feed and I have never felt more inadequate.

This evening, as I listened to her talking to her grandmother on the phone, she spoke of her alarm that in twice her age she would be 30 and how she wished she could be six again. She felt that being a teenager wasn't all it was cracked up to be. And with these words I remembered my own thoughts at her age and how they ran along a similar vein. When you looked at it like that, life seemed very short.

And so, today, I couldn't help thinking how, in her adult life, my poor daughter is destined to have to take her Christmas decorations down on her birthday with all the heavy nostalgia which can come with it: that strange bridge between (for the lucky ones) those happy, comforting times just had with friends and family as the culmination of the previous year, and the start of yet another new year as the clock ticks inexorably on and the blank pages of the diary hold unknown treasures or horrors.

The best any of us can wish for, with so much left to chance, is health and happiness, together with a mindfulness that every moment is precious and should be savoured whenever and wherever possible. The gift of life is a remarkable thing and should never be squandered or treated casually. My only resolution for this year was for my own little family to be kind to each other. It is all too easy to take one another for granted when one lives together every day. With that in mind, I gave my first born angel an extra special hug and kiss and actually felt closer to her than I have done in ages, transported back to the initially fragile relationship we began 15 years ago. We have struggled a bit over the last year or so as she has tugged hard at the strings of childhood, desperate to go her own way, and I was constantly reminded of the ABBA song, 'Slipping through my Fingers' which would make me cry even back when I held her as a baby in my arms, thinking ahead to those inevitable times. Yet I think just recently she has come to some resolutions within herself which will hopefully make her life a little more peaceful, just like that beautiful piece of classical music I would play to her all those years ago, alone in an apartment in Italy.

Happy Birthday Elena B


Monday, 11 November 2013

Armistice Day

I always find the 11th hour of the 11the day of the 11th month a very moving two minutes. 120 seconds when, in theory, the world stands still and remembers those who lived in decidedly more difficult times than we do now, where the future was uncertain and how it played out was literally a matter of life or death.

Armistice Day marks the end of World War 1 where approximately 16 million people lost their lives and a further 20 million were wounded. These are staggering statistics the like of which the world, one can only hope, will never see again.

As I stood on Chapel-en-le Frith market place, in glorious sharp autumn sunshine yesterday morning, I thought of the key difference between the wars of the last century and those we are fighting today. Namely that, certainly in World War 2, young men were obliged to sign up whereas today it is a choice - albeit a courageous and noble one - to serve one's country. It is always the very young men that I think of during that precious silence: those that either signed up with glorified ideas of the concept of war, or those that simply had no choice. I think of those who died alone, cold and petrified, in wood or field, trench, sea or sky. 

As we remember those poor souls who 'gave their tomorrow for our today' I wonder if we have done them proud. I fear not. The very absence of such immense and intense conflict has spawned a generation who does not know the meaning of suffering, or perhaps, more specifically, sufferance - and we are all guilty of this. Of course we all have our tragedies and crosses to bear, some, sadly, so much heavier than others. But when it comes to the Collective, we are all, relatively, blessed. 

The two minute silence, in the middle of a working morning, is, for me, the most powerful show of common humanity that we have in the modern world. If the rush of our broadly consumer driven, comfortable lives pauses for just this tiny amount of time, it is a momentous thing. The silence of a crowded department store or a busy railway station for these sacred minutes is something to behold. It is a moment where strangers metaphorically hold hands and are, briefly, united. 

I was angry to learn that not all the teachers at the girls school wore poppies today and that the silence was not observed across the whole school at 11am, despite there having been an assembly on the subject. Whatever your personal standpoint, all sentimentality aside, I feel that the basic lesson of thoughtfulness and respect that this simple ritual engenders should be upheld in, of all places, a school.

My journey home earlier this evening was marked by two extremely serious road accidents: an upturned car on a dangerous corner and a crushed motorbike at an equally dangerous junction. The news, too, is full of the enormity of the natural disaster in the Philippines where thousands of lives have been swept away by the wild and unpredictable forces of nature.  Life is precious and oh-so-fragile. There is no time for needless loss of life through war. To reach the end of every normal day safely is, surely, a blessing in itself. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Buzz About Buxton

Monday 9th September

The sun was shining and Buxton was buzzing - two potentially rare events in this frontier town of the High Peak. Yet today the vibe was good, the sun was hot and - cue drum roll - I actually had to take my coat off! But, more importantly, I have a feeling that in the next few years Buxton is going to go from strength to strength.

Work is well underway on the regeneration of The Crescent - a small scale rival to the famous landmark in Bath - which will hopefully attract and accommodate even more visitors as a quality hotel and spa so that people will, once again, be able to come to Buxton to 'take the waters'. For decades all the therapeutic offerings of this spa town, whose origins go back to Roman times, had no longer been available beyond coming to collect water from the well that flows freely just opposite The Crescent and which is celebrated in the annual well-dressing ceremony every summer. Besides this new development there is also a very good spa to be found at the Dome complex (formerly the stables to the Duke of Devonshire) which is now home to the University of Derby and as such the spa is a training ground for students. Do not let this put you off - I have enjoyed two superb body massages there for a fraction of the price of your average spa, so no complaints from me.

The Cavendish Arcade has always been my favourite part of Buxton, ever since I first arrived in the High Peak a decade ago. It is flanked by the green of the Slopes on one side and by the attractive Pavilion Gardens and Opera House on another. The building was Buxton's original Thermal Baths built in 1854 (the original stained glass vaulted ceiling and plunge bath remain) and, for me, represents the heart of Buxton. During the boom years of the early 2,000s, the owner of the Arcade doubled his rental prices overnight. Sadly many shops were forced out of business and the Arcade lost its positive vibe. Looking around me today, I do believe that things are looking up. 

The old stalwarts of Unique Feet, Minimo, Atticus Boo, Jantar and Charlotte's chocolates are still going strong and some interesting newcomers have moved in. Take Wild Olive, a small family run company making handmade soaps, candles and body products in Derbyshire, which has just opened a flagship store in the Arcade. It is super modern, super stylish with its clean displays and smooth white, wood and glass interior, bringing a dash of Harvey Nichols to this old lady of a spa town! Then there is Makepiece whose strap line is 'from sheep to chic'. They make beautiful clothes using natural yarns from sustainable farming. Their website goes on to say 'Undyed and natural dyed options. Low impact manufacture. Fair employment. Working to be carbon neutral.' You can't get much more green than that. And on the subject of which, their neighbours both have Eco credentials too: first there is Eco Republic - another interesting store offering a host of eco and fair trade products; and then there is Minibugs Boutique which makes claims to have 'fun things for fun kids'. Their window certainly looks very appealing and they have stylish one-off brands such as Frugi, Aya Naya, Childs Farm and Green People. Worth a look I think.

And then, when all this rather tempting shopping has been explored, you can sit down and watch the world go by with an excellent cappuccino and a handmade chocolate or two at Charlotte's - just as you find me now. Ah yes, and with a couple of groovy new bars round the back of the Cavendish also hotting up Buxton's nightlife, I feel that this Grande Dame of the High Peak has finally picked up her skirts and is running again. How nice.

Charlotte's Chocolatiers...


Forget-Me-Not interiors...

Entrance to the historic arcade...

Pretty floral displays....

And yet more green credentials...

The stunning stained-glass roof...

Unique Feet...

Minimo for designer clothes...

The inviting threshold of Wild-Olive...

Jantar's jewellery and polish pottery...

Atticus Boo's present heaven...

Restoration and renovation is underway for The Crescent Hotel and Spa...

The thermal waters for which Buxton is famous...

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