The spa hotel to which my daughter and I owe our sanity

·6-min read
Judith Woods and her daughter Lily at Champneys in Tring - John Lawrence
Judith Woods and her daughter Lily at Champneys in Tring - John Lawrence

Mother-daughter bonding. It’s a rare and beautiful thing. Arguably it’s so beautiful on account of being so vanishingly rare, but either way these are precious moments to be treasured.

Take last weekend, which I spent up close and personal in a deluxe dressing gown and flip-flops with my eldest daughter, who is 19 and just about to start university.

“You must promise to go easy on the alcohol. Don’t drink every night! If you take up smoking I will kill you – and remember, if you feel lonely and miserable you can call me day or night but it’s always better to text first,” she told me, firmly.

I nodded obediently, feeling I really ought to impart some life advice of my own. This, to my great surprise, came out as: “Don’t get a tattoo anywhere it might damage your career prospects,” and “You can take my leather jacket as long as you bring it back at Christmas. You will be back for Christmas? Swear?” Lily swore and pinkie-promised too, by way of extra reassurance. See how bonding benefits both ways?

But such heartfelt scenarios seldom happen by chance. The ideal occasion must be a little fancy, associated expenditure a given. For my girl and me our special place is an oasis of tranquillity that has proved to be a lifesaver – certainly a sanity saver – through troubled times: Champneys, at Tring in Hertfordshire.

I realise it’s not the most chi-chi destination that springs to mind for a teenager in need of TLC. One of my more sophisticated friends witheringly describes it as “a bit suburban”. I think of it more as old school, traditional – a blessed sanctuary rather than a sybaritic pleasure palace.

Two people playing table tennis at Champneys Tring - Steve Lancefield
Two people playing table tennis at Champneys Tring - Steve Lancefield

We first came before her GCSEs in 2018, when stress was visibly weighing her down. Lily had no idea what to expect; in her own words “wonderland” is what she got: thick pile carpets and crisp snowy towels, a grand sitting room with plump velvet cushions, acres of outdoor space – and limitless headspace.

She was struggling with French so I brought along her textbooks and fastidiously laid them out on her bedside table. They went gloriously unread as we swam and walked and smiled across the outdoor hot tub, revelling in each other’s company for the first time in many months. Then, buoyed, refreshed and raving about the wonderful food, she got through her exams. Even French.

The next time we went to Champneys was in 2020, shortly before her A-levels. Despite grafting for her mocks she was nevertheless anxious, but a bigger shadow loomed as the world was waking up to the horror of a new virus from a Chinese megacity we’d never heard of.

While infections in Britain shockingly rose into double figures (if only we had known – but perhaps it’s as well we didn’t) and politicians spoke of quarantine, we idled on the waterbeds and she hopefully wondered if we might be locked down at Champneys.

As it was just a few months shy of her 18th birthday, I wondered if she’d like to celebrate early with a treatment. Hot stone reflexology, perhaps?

“No, I’d rather just sit and breathe in the Champneys air,” was her response. “And enjoy watching you sit still for a change.”

Judith and her daughter at Champneys Tring - John Lawrence
Judith and her daughter at Champneys Tring - John Lawrence

So we had a leisurely afternoon tea instead. Nothing we couldn’t have done back in London, but somehow there is never the time.

Back then, we spoke about her future plans with no grasp of how life was going to change. In reality, she would end up not sitting her exams, and her gap year would not be spent travelling around South America but making coffee and sandwiches for exhausted staff at the café by our local hospital.

It was a gruelling slog for everyone. But at least for the young, their dreams were merely deferred, not dashed.

She managed two months’ island-hopping around Greece as Europe opened up. Then we had a family fortnight in Scotland.

But in the days before her departure for university, it seemed only natural to go away for a last weekend together. I suspected she might prefer a bougie (young-person speak for ritzy) upgrade: to Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire, or maybe an ultra-chic hotel day spa, with more influencers and fewer, dare I say it, mums?

“Oh noo! How dare you even use the word ‘upgrade’? I love the fact there are so many mums at Champneys,” she protested fiercely. “It makes me feel so looked after. Everyone smiles at me and there’s no judgment; you have no idea what a relief that is.”

Two people walking the gardens at Champneys Tring - steve lancefield
Two people walking the gardens at Champneys Tring - steve lancefield

To be honest, I wholeheartedly share her sentiments. At Champneys, the keynote is laid-back informality and comfort rather than the dernier cri of design. Its pool scarcely bears comparison with the Instagram-ready competition such as Chewton Glen in Hampshire.

But it feels like home. Albeit home after the cleaner has been, new sofas have been delivered and MasterChef has co-opted the kitchen (seared scallops with curried cauliflower purée, pickled raisins and parsnip crisps, anyone?). The food really is magical; three meals a day and I still lost weight.

Above all, there’s something incontrovertibly comforting about the lack of pretension; there is surely no greater leveller than wearing a capacious robe and flip-flops from dawn until dusk.

We played several hilariously bad rounds of badminton in ours, followed by a wander through the woods, Lily looking like she was on a photo shoot for Hygge magazine, me like an escapee from Cocoon.

After a fabulous full-body massage each, we even made it for several yoga sessions on the lawn. I say “made it” quite advisedly, because we observed the class from the sunloungers on our balcony and discovered it’s just as relaxing (possibly more so) to watch sun salutations than do them.

And so we drove home rested, relaxed and sharing the sort of companionable silence that speaks volumes. Already missing Champneys. Already missing each other.

How to do it

The ‘Stay at Champneys’ package includes all meals, accommodation, robe hire and flip-flops to keep, and full access to Champneys’ range of fitness classes, and spa and relaxation experiences; from £480 based on two sharing (champneys.com). Read the full review here.

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