Annabel Heseltine found her feet on the north coast of Devon at Yeotown, a very clever health and wellbeing retreat
Standing on the edge of a steep slope, sweeping down over brown bracken to a blue sea, glittering in a cold wintry sun, I suddenly realised how different I felt from the exhausted woman who had arrived at Yeotown in north Devon four days ago. Below me was the beautiful Valley of the Rocks. It felt good to be alive and I was happy. It sounds corny, but I had just remembered that there was a me.
When a friend mentioned Yeotown, a health and wellbeing retreat in my favourite part of the country, north Devon, I didn’t hesitate. It was all rather last minute so I didn’t have time to do the recommended week’s preparation – aka detox – for the retreat, meaning I was going cold turkey on alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes.
Battling my way on day one through gale force winds and hail along the north Devon Atlantic coastal path at a challenging six kilometres an hour, designed to raise the heart beat, I wish I had done. I was woefully ill-equipped without gloves, hat or decent socks, and my stiff, 20-year-old hiking boots needed wearing in. I was puffing heavily and in a very bad mood. All my competitive, judgemental and uncharitable inclinations were coming to the fore as I watched the other, more professionally clad hikers, striding ahead of me. And I was feeling weak. Seven brazil nuts and an apple – coined by one guest ‘as a little bag of disappointment’ – as a mid-hike snack definitely didn’t do it for me. I didn’t know it then, but I was in fact a classic Yeotown guest; stressed and out of sorts.
Every week, Simon and Mercedes Sieff, who set up the holistic healthy lifestyle retreat ten years ago, welcome an handful of people from all over the world to spend five days at their beautifully designed 300-year-old farmhouse. Simon, a keen surfer, was a furniture designer in another lifetime and has filled the elegant eco-lodges and bedrooms with beautiful artefacts collected on his travels chasing the wave. There are actors, writers, TV presenters, stressed city types and a spate of Middle Eastern Royalty after a Kuwaiti Princess’s Snapchat was vlogged all over the Middle East. One client arrives by helicopter and on my week there was an interesting and eclectic mix of guests, aged 30 to 55, including a Russian couple who were on their third retreat, an American living in London, an English actor (it’s not the Yeotown way to tell), a couple of city types and several women looking to relax, get healthy, lose weight or remind ourselves of who we are. It’s been littered with presitigious spa awards, but let’s be clear about one thing: it is not a spa, nor is it a boot camp or a yoga retreat for that matter. In fact, it’s refreshingly individual.
The walk was strenuous and demanding, but there smiling in the rain on our satisfied – albeit drenched return – was the lovely Lauren, who acts as front of house manager, as well as de-facto counsellor, handholder and hanky supplier to emotional guests who are letting go. On our return she was holding a tray with cups of warming hot chocolate, aka organic raw cacao. A hot bath and 45 minutes later we were in the yoga studio. Dinner was at six. Nine of us sat around a communal table to eat a delicious vegan curry and equally yummy blue spirulina pannacotta, while Simon explained a little bit about Yeotown, although he remained vague about the schedule. Apparently we were not allowed to know in advance what we were doing. Now I sat up.
Something was going on here. It was clever and subtle. All we were allowed to know was that we would have a massage every night and those who had booked extra treatments like reiki, kinesiology and TRE (more of that later) would have them worked around the evening meal.
The not knowing was deliberate. Stressed city types who thrive on control, routine and predictability just had to let go and be guided, this being part of the practice. Mindfulness and breathing awareness, designed to ground us, were cleverly woven through the entire day, whether it was the early morning yoga practice at 7.15, or the different experiences laid in our path throughout the rest of the day when we weren’t hiking. Even the walking was meditative, requiring grounding focus as we climbed over rocky paths running alongside steep slopes in high winds.
Mercedes – a dynamic Canadian credited with bringing vinyasa flow to the UK in the 1990s and now spends much of her time training yoga teachers – took us for our first morning session. ‘Yoga,’ she said, ‘is not what happens in this room. You are just doing asanas [positions] here and learning to observe your breathing. Yoga happens when something goes wrong and you get angry or frustrated. You will still get angry or frustrated but if you learn to observe your breathing in this room you will be able to observe your behaviour out of the room and try to catch it. And even if you lose it, as I very definitely can sometimes,’ she admitted, honestly and very likeably, ‘at least you know you are doing it and can observe it.’
I have been practising yoga for over 20 years, but never have I heard a teacher explain it so clearly. ‘When we started there wasn’t much going on here in the UK, and yet there seemed to be an interest,’ explained Mercedes. ‘We invited friends down from London for a few weekends and it grew and evolved as we learned what people were looking for.’
And now they are keen to share their knowledge and help others to find a healthier, more grounded way of living, which their clients can take home with them (a vegan detox goody bag is given to London-bound guests to sustain them for the journey home so they don’t get tempted). They have just opened their first Yeotown restaurant in Paddington where guests can order vegan food and meditate in meditation pods while they wait for it to arrive. ‘Everyone says they struggle to find the time but there’s no excuse at our restaurant,’ says Simon, with a wicked grin. A good sense of humour is echoed around the kitchen on a shelf cluttered with some rather good wine bottles. ‘We are not saying never have a glass of wine or a caffe latte, but it’s about balance and finding grounding in your life,’ says Simon, who was out surfing the Devonshire waves at six am the following day.
Most of the talking was done over meals of unbelievably delicious vegan food with some fish thrown in – think Thai curries with salmon and coriander, delicious loaves made from seeds and nuts, creamy chocolatey puddings – I would never have guessed it was avocado giving it the creaminess. ‘Nutrition,’ says Simon, ‘is the foundation of a healthy life. Without that nothing else works.’
Their formula is based upon some simple tenets that if you look after your diet and exercise you will lead a better life. ‘Stress is the number one precursor of the four big killers; cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes,’ explains Simon. ‘There is so much scientific research now to show the advantages of wellness, which is why it’s the fastest growing industry worldwide.’
Yeotown offers a combination of fresh air exercise, yoga, nurturing and nutrition: ‘we ask everyone to give up seven food groups when they come here, but it’s not too extreme and focuses on exercise, movement and getting the heart going,’ says Simon. Hence the daily hikes, with a mid-week bicycle ride thrown in along the beautiful Torridge estuary with the lovely Jo who looks like a much younger Jenny Agutter and, rather reassuringly, is a member of the Exmoor search and rescue team. They also offer collaborative weeks when they invite in guest retreat leaders; Mariella Frostrup is doing two for women facing mid-life challenges. There are also two Yeo-man retreats planned to encourage men to come and unwind, and in the summer, their first designated retreat for parents and children.
I am not going to spoil their mystery tour, but the day is divided between two daily sessions of yoga, one fast and one restorative, a couple of hours of exercise. Nothing is ever too taxing, as they can split the yoga, bike-riding and walking classes according to ability, and some wonderful pampering sessions given by a caring team of dedicated practitioners, many of whom divide their time between London and Yeotown, pulling together like oarsmen in a long boat. There’s Theresa, a deep tissue masseuse who teaches at the local sport college; Amber the kinesiologist; Naomi who does reiki and teaches meditation practices; and Georgie and Julia in the kitchen. Amanda does amazing shiatsu and works in London as well, and then there’s Natasha, who introduced me to TRE – tension and trauma releasing exercises. I took this with her in a beautiful old barn with a heated floor, a crackling fire and candles all around. As with all the therapists, part of the session is spent chatting while they get to know you a bit better and then tailored to help you in the way you need. Few of us have escaped trauma and with a nasty divorce, three failed pregnancies and a few war zones to boot, I have had my fair share.
A pattern was emerging in the diagnoses of the various therapists and it didn’t come as any surprise when I was told that I was running on empty and needed to look after myself, but standing on that hill, looking down to a sapphire ocean sublime in the morning sun, I was immensely grateful to the friend who had showed me the way to Yeotown. When I texted her later to thank her she replied, ‘Yes, Yeotown is pretty amazing. I would go back in a heartbeat.’ Suffice to say, I have paid my deposit for a return visit. With my life it’s good to know that there’s a place I can go to when I need to feel nurtured and get my feet planted firmly back on the ground – and, oh yes, I got the meditation practice back too.
Are mindfulness lessons enough? Read Sir Anthony Seldon’s view here