Lunchtime at Yeotown, the award winning spa in North Devon. It’s day one of the five day Yeotox programme and the new guests are revealing how they got on with the preliminary detox (supposedly cutting out caffeine, alcohol, meat and dairy 7 days before arrival).
“I had a bacon sandwich at the station this morning,” confesses one guiltily. “Did you wash it down with a double espresso?” asks Yeotown's Simon Sieff laughing. It’s a typical response from a retreat which focuses on health and good living without a hint of worthiness. Everyone I meet from chef Julia to Davy, the ex-military hiking instructor to cofounders Simon and Mercedes are unanimously upbeat and lighthearted. If this is a bootcamp it certainly doesn’t feel like one. The vibe here is inspirational and fun and it’s easy to see why, just 18 months after launch, Yeotown was voted UK Spa Retreat of the year by Conde Naste Traveller magazine. Let’s start with the location, a mix of old and new buildings in an idyllic North Devon valley surrounded by rolling green hills. It’s a home from home, if say, your home was immaculately decorated with beautiful furniture and stunning art on the walls (Simon is an avid collector). There are two sitting rooms, both with log fires burning, on this sharply cold January day, gorgeous rugs to curl up under and good looking books to dip into. But that’s for later.
The Yeotox programme promises to re-educate body and mind through a combination of intense physical activity (think bracing 3 hour hikes), yoga, meditation and good nutrition (the food is delicious, again not a trace of bootcamp here). Simon Sieff and his partner Mercedes Ngoh, a UK Vinyasa Flow yoga star (she teaches at the hipster Trigoya studio in North London) set up Yeotown 3 years ago with the aspiration of showing the real appeal of holistic, healthy living. The idea is that the Yeotox will kickstart good habits for life and you'll leave with a clutch of Julia's fabulous recipes, ideas on how to eat healthily in restaurants and a body that has become attuned to a proper cardiovascular workout. Guests are encouraged to go on a digital detox while at Yeotown (WiFi kicks in during the evenings) and the daily activities are only unveiled at the last minute, the idea being that you relax into the moment during your stay. 'Giving up control of their own schedule is the thing that is hardest for most people,' says Simon. 'But by the end they love it." On day one we are welcomed with a juice - rosehip and mint - and then taken off one by one to be weighed and measured. Inches and pounds will almost certainly be shed during the Yeotox programme but through vigorous exercise and considered eating rather than any kind of hardship. Apart from anything you're going to be too busy to think about food - days run from 7 to 7 with a packed (though secret) itinerary. Lunch in the airy, modern kitchen is delicious (vegetable soup with flaxseed crackers and a quinoa salad) and relaxed. Yeotown restricts numbers of guests to a maximum of 10 per retreat to keep it small and personalised. It's an easy place to come on your own, during lunch the conversation includes everyone and there's an infectious, holidayish atmosphere. Then we're into hiking gear and off in a mini bus for the 30 minute drive through spectacular scenery to Croyde beach. The hike is led by Davy, ex-army, funny and always gently encouraging so that this 2 and a half hour walk across beaches and cliffs seems to pass in no time. The coastal scenery is mindblowing and Davy, like everyone else I met at Yeotown, effortlessly entertains and motivates so that the long walk feels much more pleasure than chore.
Back at the base there's a delicious Yeotini to drink (a bright green juice) and a short time to relax by the fire or in your bedroom before yoga with Mercedes. The bedrooms and bathrooms at Yeotown are seriously luxurious in a pared back kind of way - high thread count bed linen, organic bath oils, fluffy towels, uber comfortable beds.
On day one the yoga is relatively simple, focusing on stretching out muscles unaccustomed to hiking and it becomes more challenging as the week progresses. You can tell instantly that Mercedes is a great teacher, she's warm and encouraging and quick to reassure beginners that they needn't attempt anything they find difficult. Again it's that 'anything goes' spirit and complete lack of judgement that I notice everywhere at Yeotown. It's very relaxing. At the end of the session we are given blankets to wrap up in while we focus on our breathing and from the intense quiet, I'd say the whole room is seconds from comatose. Mercedes skilfully brings us back to the land of the living and then it's time for supper and Julia's Ottolenghi inspired salmon and asparagus. Yeotown feels like the perfect antidote to our stressed and sedentary lifestyles. The emphasis is on enjoyment with exhilarating exercise and delicious food that's good for you, a crash course in true wellbeing. It's not prescriptive - Simon, a surf fanatic will take anyone surfing instead of hiking and in good weather there's cycling and kayaking.
The evenings are spent having deep-tissue massages, hanging out in the sauna or chilling by the fire. There's herbal tea on tap, of course, and one of our group mentions that she has a couple of hot off the press BAFTA-nominated movies with her. This is definitely my kind of retreat - the hardest thing at Yeotown is going to be leaving it behind.