Annabel Heseltine is restored by an ancient forest and an auspicious visitor
According to Buddhism teachings the feathers of a peacock can heal a person looking to find harmony and achieve balance in their life; a visit from one is considered auspicious which was why I was so happy to see that Mountjoy, a perfect specimen with outrageously beautiful plumage had taken up residence on the balcony outside my treehouse.
The stilted wooden house with its vaulted yurt-style round interior with shower and little kitchen was surrounded by leaves, not perched in the trees so much as nestled into a forest as ancient as the hills around it. This was to be my home while I was staying at the award-winning Fair Oak Farm in East Sussex for their ‘reset’ retreat. After caring for four teenagers throughout lock-down, I was, like many mothers, on my knees and much in need of sustenance and re-balance, which is where Fair Oak excels.
Fair Oak’s owner, Ian Ledger, who in another life displayed his not inconsiderable design talents refitting places like All Bar One and the Ministry of Sound night club, has been running the beautiful old 16-century Sussex farmhouse, with its imaginatively restored outbuildings, shepherd huts and treehouses for guests to stay in, as a retreat centre for the past 15 years.
Until recently he has been letting it out to yoga teachers and health gurus from across the world who book up months in advance to run their own retreats here, but now he has decided to take some time back in hand and, with the help of Mary, is running themed retreats four times a year. I was lucky enough to be one of their guinea pigs.
The plan was that over three days and two nights, 15 of us would be given yoga sessions, physical training, nutritional talks, a treatment of our choice and fed with delicious nurturing food all designed to help the guests, an array of women, young and old, and one brave man, to relax and rebuild a sense of wellbeing.
It was quite a drive from West Wiltshire to East Sussex, however, and I wasn’t sure whether three days would be long enough to ‘reset’. Usually, it takes me at least three days to relax and longer to recharge but almost immediately I noticed that Fair Oak had an unique quality about it.
On closer investigation, I discovered that the map of ancient forests and pastures had been set literally thousands of years ago and that there was a magic about the place which infiltrated my nervous system so that I slept more profoundly on my first night than I had in months, nay years.
Mary wasted no time in settling us in. The essence of laid-back nurturing was set by lunch cooked by renowned and very sought-after chef Lottie Brook whose food was a sensual delight; healthy, beautifully presented, a riot of gorgeous colours and just completely delicious.
I was struck by the red-veined sorrel, green avocado in lettuce parcels, the yellow lentils, aubergine with bright pink pomegranate seeds in tahini and made a mental note not to expect to lose weight on this culinary retreat.
Indeed, it was something of a relief to discover that there was nothing draconian here at all, no rules and no expectations. The message was come, enjoy what we have and take from it what you want. Yoga lessons given by Kiri in the sunshine on a grassy platform overlooking a luxurious valley inhabited by curious and cuddly alpacas were both yin and yang, the nutritionist was understanding and non-judgemental so that everyone felt completely at ease and able to confess quickly to bottled-up sins and lockdown weight gains.
Mary made us feel so much at home that when I confessed to a pathological hatred of physical training stemming from memories of awful Jane Fonda 20th-century workouts when I was ordered to ‘feel the burn’ and was always behind, going in the wrong direction, and red-faced from both exertion and embarrassment, she immediately sympathised, reassuring me that I really didn’t need to do it.
She was so kind and unthreatening that I felt emboldened to have one more try. Without an ounce of spare flesh on her, Rosie was inspirational and I got to the end of the class rather pleased with myself for stepping outside my comfort zone! So good for one’s mental health.
But I was glad to retreat back to my yoga where I felt much more comfortable and to the teak and thatched Balinese hut which I had also found snuggled away in the woods, overlooking the valley and where, in the burning heat of a mini-heatwave, serenaded by Mountjoy, secluded in meditative peace and healing bird song, I rediscovered my mojo.
Fair Oak Retreat prices from £565pp. The treehouse is £975 s/o. Retreat dates: 2-5 December and 19-21 January 2022. Themes include yoga, fitness, nutrition, wellbeing. fairoakfarm.co.uk
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