I've just been on a 3 day fitness weekend at Ockenden Manor in Haywards Heath, Sussex. It was precisely what I needed to kick-start a summer fitness regime. Ok, I know that summer bodies are made in the winter but it's never too late to pick up better habits. Attributing my lazy lifestyle to work... a freelance lifestyle equals a freelance approach to everything else in my life, I needed a literal kick up the backside to reboot this otherwise lazy late 30 year old.
Ockenden Manor sits in the heart of Hayward’s Heath, a cutesy little village not too far from Brighton. The hotel itself is old world, not old fashioned, and not stuffy, but it does sit within the stately home category of hotel. Just round the corner is its funkier, younger brother; all bright orange wood in a modernist style building, housing the spa and spa bedrooms. It's early June and we’re experiencing some glorious weather, so my first HIIT training session was outside. I didn't think 30 minutes of intense training would be so, well, intense and never did I want something to end so soon. Bradley, the hotel's resident whipper-snapper of a personal trainer will fire encouraging shouts of motivation at you, and don’t think you’re going to get away with a quick 5 seconds' rest, because this isn’t a group session where you can hope to go unnoticed. Nope, you’re on your own and totally exposed but without the prying eyes of other guests. Even so, I was quick to ridicule my own not-so-sprint sprinting and was a beetroot-red sweaty mess after just 5 minutes. A mixture of very do-able yet totally exhausting moves using steps nearby, boxing gloves and body weight moves, I was pleased to note the other two ladies on this retreat also felt exhausted afterwards too.
Next up was a Pilates session like I've never had before with the brilliant Liz, an inspiring, sprightly 64 year old who didn't look a day over 50; her beaming smile showing perfect teeth plus posture and physique to die for. We went through some Pilates moves that would rival the hardest yoga class; this wasn’t just a simple case of lying on your back doing pelvic floors... oh no! There was ball-lifting and strength training with a partner and well, it was relentless but brilliant. I wanted to take her home but too many locals would notice her disappearance!
Exhausted, but slightly exhilarated from the serotonin release, I was happy to lounge in my huge, egg-shaped bath back in the spa room. I flung open the patio doors to reveal a pretty little terrace garden just for me. It's a perfect spot to watch and hear the gentle movement of the meadow flowers and trees but it's also great for TV watching as the bathroom opens up into the main room so instead, I indulged my aching limbs.
Dinner can be had either by yourself or with the other people doing the course. As we’d already started to bond over complaining about how difficult the HIIT session was, the other two girls and I decided to dine together in the main hotel. Now, don’t think it’s all rabbit food and calorie-controlled portions here. Ockenden Manor has a rather fabulous restaurant and we all decided to indulge. By the end of the evening, after a dinner of sweet scallops, tender beef and a passion fruit torte - one of the best puddings I’ve had in a long time - we were firm friends and I really enjoyed getting to know my two dining companions. Coming away to something like this, you’re bound to meet like-minded people to share the experience with. I discovered my new friends both regularly like to indulge themselves in something restorative, whether it be a yoga retreat or a relaxing spa day, although neither had done anything like this before. Two bottles of water down (no alcohol for us fitness freaks!) we decided the hotel had had enough of our riotous laughter and took to our rooms, ready for the next day of movement.
Luckily, not up with the larks, we dined like kings at breakfast, swam like old ladies and tried to ease achy muscles in the steam room before exploring the local area - equipped with walking poles - and the hotel’s fun General Manager for a Nordic walk. We traipsed through local vineyards, gorgeous gardens and shaded woodland. As we were all talking so much, we didn’t realise we’d walked almost 10k. It took us just under 2 hours. Nordic walking uses 46% more of your body and gives the upper body a great workout and I hadn’t managed to stab my toe, or that of my walking partners, so I’ve decided to buy some sticks for my weekend romps along the seafront where I live. Ending up in a vineyard, we were disappointed not to finish our hard work off with a glass of wine but I think, in reality, we all really just wanted some nice cold water.
After a healthy lunch, it was time for a little rest using the swimming pool, steam room, sauna and whirlpool. There’s an outdoor pool accessed through the indoor pool as well as space to sunbathe by an outdoor whirlpool. I was struck by how busy the spa was, there never really seemed to be a quiet moment but it’s a fairly large space so you don’t feel claustrophobic. The afternoon consisted of a personal training session in which Bradley continued to push me. I had to throw in the towel at squats though. My legs just couldn’t bear the movement. I think he saw my pain! After another sprawl in the steam room and my glorious bath that I was becoming rather attached to, we staggered (in slight pain...not drunkenly, I should add) for a final dinner and, knowing I’d probably burnt off more calories in one day than I had in an entire month, had a thoroughly enjoyable meal once more, complete with brilliant company. I’m going to miss these girls.
Our final punishment was a circuit training class first thing in the morning before breakfast. On our individual consultations we all expressed a wish to be able to rock a workout wherever we might be. Bradley devised a do-able yet exhausting kind of HIIT session we could do anywhere. We went through the moves, worked up a sweat and within 30 minutes, we were done. My final activity before leaving was an Isopod salt bath that looked like it came straight from the set of Cocoon. Once inside this giant womb-like pod, I put on the meditation music, turned the lights onto colour-change (then felt like I was at a rave) before finally settling on pitch black. Ear plugs firmly in (to stop salt build up in your ears) I floated amongst the dense Epsom salts and, despite not being able to completely switch off, I still relaxed. You’re essentially left alone for a whole hour, which is a bit too long, but this was broken up when I managed to get salt water in my eye so had to scramble about trying to let myself out. I was dubious about the salt water treatment but I can firmly report that my aching muscles (and I mean REALLY aching) were miraculously cured. I would recommend a soak in a pod any day.
I was dubious about a 3 day fitness kick-starter; I wasn’t sure if would be enough. But having gone through the (forced) motions of early morning workouts before breakfast and not being afraid to push myself, I would say it was the perfect kickstart. Upon returning, I’ve taken up jogging again and done some of the HIIT circuit training which I actually found enjoyable. Staying at a place that has brilliant facilities, a great pool and room for relaxation... without the rabbit food, was perfect. Does it work? Yes... but you need to throw caution to the wind and have some kind of plan to follow when you leave the comfort of your surroundings.
• Two nights accommodation in a superior room, including full English and Continental breakfast
• A private consultation and extensive programme of one-to-one personal training sessions with our in-house fitness expert
• Nordic walking, Power Plate session and circuits class
• Isopod floatation session
• Award-winning healthy spa lunches
• Enjoy delicious dinners in our hotel restaurant on both nights
• Full use of our fabulous spa including in-and-outdoor swimming pool
Single occupancy starts from £485 for two nights
Double occupancy starts from £575 for two nights (with second guest staying on dinner, bed and breakfast basis)