There’s been a house on the site where Armathwaite Hall now stands since the 11th century. Over the years it has gone through countless iterations, alterations, extensions, refurbishments and changes in fortune, and it is now a four-star country house hotel set in 400 acres of deer park and woodland within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Lake District.
We’re here to try the hotel’s new Forest Bathing spa break, so our first morning at Armathwaite Hall sees us breakfast early before heading to the spa to meet our instructor, who will be guiding us through a private Pranayama Forest Bathing yoga session. We’re not sure what to expect from this – but have at least done enough research to know not to bring our swimming gear along (which some people apparently do).
We start in an airy studio above the spa, on a yoga mat each, with breathing exercises and what our instructor refers to as ‘yoga 101’. It’s a real beginners’ guide, and teaches us the basic principles of breathing and energy flow which are so important in this Eastern style of yoga. The point, we’re told, is to do it, not necessarily to feel it. However, a few minutes in, we’re both certainly feeling some difference, even if we don’t fully understand why. We also do some breathing exercises which are supposed to help us overcome the reptile parts of our brains, as well as expelling the excess carbon dioxide in our blood – slightly discomforting at first, but not unenjoyable once you get into the swing of it.
Once we’re in the zone, so to speak, we head outside and enjoy a sedate stroll down to the shore of Bassenthwaite – this is the Forest Bathing part of the experience. Based on the ancient Japanese practice of ‘Shinrin-yoku’, which literally translates as ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’, it involves spending time immersed in nature to help heal the mind, body and soul. According to clinical studies, Forest Bathing can help reduce blood pressure, increase serotonin levels and bring balance to the emotions. Such are the beneficial effects on wellbeing that Forest Bathing is actually part of the public health programme in Japan.
We end our session in front of the castle-like house, all crenellations and towers. It’s set above pristine lawns which slope down to green fields, drawing the eye to the water beyond. Following the session we don’t feel like going back inside, so we explore the grounds – both formal gardens and winding woodland paths – and the lake is ever-present, catching your eye at unexpected moments and looking generally fabulous even on a slightly overcast morning.
We have lunch in the hotel’s casual Courtyard Bar & Brasserie – sharing a plate of spicy chilli nachos to start, followed by a caesar salad and a crisp-based pizza topped with fresh basil, onions and parma ham. Service is quick and friendly, and we have plenty of time to head back to our room and get ready for our afternoon in the spa.
Our room is in a building adjacent to the main house, accessed via a long, straight corridor which eventually leads to the spa. We have a spacious living area with sofas, armchairs and a fireplace, a dressing room, a luxuriously-marbled ensuite bathroom and a huge bed, as well as four windows from which we have a view over the manicured grounds, gardens, and woodland. The space is furnished in jewel-bright velvets with soft accessories of green, pink and marble, dark blue walls and metallic accents. It’s also furnished with all the little touches you need for a relaxing weekend – from fluffy dressing gowns to Temple Spa toiletries.
The spa here is extensive, with a thermal experience suite, 16-metre infinity edge pool and an outdoor hot tub as well as treatment rooms, a hydrotherapy pool and an exercise suite. We start with the thermal experience. I love the aroma room and the sauna, but choose to duck out of the steam room and tropical showers – instead spending some time in the hydrotherapy pool while my partner sweats it out in the steam room.
Before long it’s time for our treatments. I’ve chosen Go Figure – a firming and toning body detox treatment. It begins with body brushing to stimulate lymphatic flow, before my hips, thighs and stomach are given a firm, detoxifying massage and I’m wrapped in a mineral-rich mud. While I’m tightly wrapped up I’m given a seriously relaxing scalp massage (I’m not completely sure I didn’t fall asleep), and finally (wrappings off) the mud is removed and the treatment ends with a soothing gel being applied to my skin.
My partner has chosen a Work It Out massage – a deep and detoxifying treatment which works on tired, aching muscles, knots, tensions and tightness. Despite it being a deep tissue massage and starting rather intensely, he tells me he thinks he also fell asleep during part of the treatment.
Thoroughly relaxed, we have time before dinner to enjoy a drink in the contemporary cocktail bar, where the knowledgeable bar staff are happy to make recommendations. We peruse the restaurant menu and choose a bottle of wine, before being escorted into the hotel’s fine dining, oak-panelled Lake View Restaurant.
Our table is right in the window of the restaurant, with a clear view over the still-sunlit lawns to the glittering lake. It truly is an idyllic spot, but we don’t have too long to take in the view. We’re quickly presented with a delicate dish of pickled and powdered beetroot with goats’ cheese, as well as small thyme bread rolls with butter. To start, I’ve chosen beetroot-cured salmon with fennel, horseradish, lime and cucumber – it’s a fresh-tasting dish, and the salmon is delicately flavoured – while across the table my partner has a rich dish of pork belly, baby carrot and sultanas.
He’s chosen a main course I would simply never order, but he raves about his Herdwick hogget with lamb belly, aubergine, mint and broad beans, which comes with a dish of the creamiest mashed potato. My own dish consists of juicy Cumbrian chicken with a crispy skin, served with lovage, baby turnip, baby leek and dauphinoise potato.
We’re then treated to an unnecessary but welcome pre-dessert – a swirl of sweet peanut butter cheesecake – before our final courses arrive. I’ve chosen the local cheese selection, which is served with chutney, crackers, celery and fruit cake, and whose stand-outs include a fabulous blue buffalo cheese (Shipston Blue) and a creamy Eden Valley Brie. Across the table, an artfully-presented plate of smooth strawberry and vanilla panna cotta with meringue, sorbet and delicious strawberry crisps quickly disappears.
Afterwards we retire to the lounge, to another seat overlooking the lake, and finish things off with a large gin and tonic (for him) and a perfectly-made espresso martini (for me).
In the morning, after a breakfast of pastries, cheese, meat, scrambled eggs and toast, we go back to the spa. It’s still early, and we have the 16-metre pool to ourselves for a while before we head out into the bright sunshine for a dip in the outdoor hot tub. If only it wasn’t 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, this would be the perfect spot for a glass of fizz to celebrate a weekend well spent.
Armathwaite Hall Hotel & SpaBassenthwaite Lake, Cumbria
A two-night Forest Bathing spa break includes two nights bed & breakfast, dinner in the Lake View Restaurant and a two-course spa lunch, 55-minute massage, Pranayama session and full use of the spa facilities, and starts from £650 per room. For full details please go to www.armathwaite-hall.com