In Depth

Yeotown fitness retreat review: sound mind and body in southwest England

With hiking, dieting and meditation, this award-winning detox programme in Devon is the perfect energising summer routine

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In the dead of winter last year, I got an email from an editor asking me to write a brief piece on “a wild weekend in Britain”. Dark memories of childhood camping holidays sprang to mind – fighting to pitch leaky tents in icy rain, choking on sawdusty lumps in poorly reconstituted freeze-dried stews, baring my bum to sleet and snow and angry adders above trowel-dug moorland latrines. Not my cup of tea, darling, ran my draft reply. Thanks but no thanks.

But pity gave me pause. The editor must have been desperate if she had turned to me, of all people, for this job. Was there not some way I could help out – some kind of “wild weekend” in wintry Britain that I might find palatable or even – dare to whisper it – pleasurable? There would have to be complimentary champagne. Artisanal chocolate truffles. A hot tub, under the stars. Massages. Hmm… suddenly it was starting to sound attractive, and I realised that adding in a gentle country stroll might even enhance the appeal, in a picturesque, Marie Antoinette-ish sort of way.

My Facebook network was quick to tell me where I could realise my vision: Yeotown, an eighteenth-century farmhouse in Devon whose owners promised guests something between a “detox”, a fitness holiday and a yoga retreat. Its website looked scary at first – there was obviously no champagne or chocolate, which should have ruled it out... but somehow the whole aesthetic of the place appealed enough to compensate. There was a gobsmackingly huge beach, towering sea cliffs, and lots of sunshine, and the rooms had a kind of pared-back rustic-boutique look with which I instantly vibrated. The food, though alarmingly healthy, seemed pretty and colourful, and there was a sauna, a hot tub, and the promise of massages. Daily massages.

A very strange thing happened in my soul as I browsed. Marie Antoinette morphed into Wordsworth, Wordsworth into Thoreau, Thoreau into Bear Grylls. I suddenly needed this place. To hell with the truffles. Something deeper was calling to me within. Perhaps it was the past few years of family stress, or perhaps some more primal wound entirely, crying out to be healed – but in any case a “wild weekend in Britain” (with all the boutique-luxe trimmings) was quite suddenly my only thirst, my only hunger, my heart’s desire.

In the end, it took me months to get to Yeotown – I had to let the poor editor down for other reasons – but in the last week of October I found myself climbing into a minibus at Tiverton Parkway station and barrelling down blazingly autumnal north-Devon lanes towards the promised farmhouse. In the meantime, I had subconsciously contrived to put on more than a stone in weight, to discover that I had astronomically high levels of bad cholesterol, and to avoid physical exertion so completely that my being was now screaming for a hardcore detox-fitness-holiday-yoga-retreat experience on earthier levels than ever before. Nothing could be further from my mind than chocolate and champagne: for the first time since my eighth or ninth year on Earth, I felt myself primed, even bound, to take the worst that wild Britain could throw at me. 

That turned out, at least at first, to be a kind of devilishly complex and surprisingly scrumptious fruit-and-vegetable smoothie, proffered to me on a silver platter at the very moment of debouchment from minibus into farmyard. Ingredients were reeled off by the profferer for the benefit of everyone and no one, like the titles of a new arrival at court, wafting past me as I surveyed my new surroundings – “Countess of Hempseed, Princess of Cucumber and Acai…” Incense burned in one corner of the yard, where doves cooed from the cutest of cotes, and the giant head of a stone Buddha gazed benignly out and up to the crisp blue sky and its yellowing woodland fringe. 

Yeotown is the baby of Mercedes and Simon Sieff, a handsome metropolitan couple who decamped to this corner of Devon a decade or so ago to found their dream retreat. It was a task to which their unique combination of gifts – yoga teaching, surfing instruction, art dealing, interior design, business administration, and on and on – seems to have been peculiarly well suited. Both exude a kind of friendly efficiency in person, as does the large and talented team of cooks, masseurs, fitness instructors and so on they have assembled around them. It’s a very smooth operation – relaxed without being flaky, warm and encouraging but never intrusive or hectoring.

The programme has evolved over the years and now lasts nearly five days, from Wednesday lunchtimes to Sunday lunchtimes, most weeks of the year – somewhere in between a wild weekend and a wild week in Britain, in fact. At its heart are daily yoga classes, daily hikes, and a menu that Simon describes as “pescetarian” – essentially vegan, but with the option of occasional fish dishes, plus eggs at breakfast for those who want them. Added to that are a couple of other exercise classes, an introduction to meditation, the daily massages, and a smattering of general lifestyle advice. Everything apart from the massages is done in consort with the other guests, who numbered seven when I was there, and never number more than 14. 

Described so baldly, it sounds like hell, a kind of voluntary boarding school for overmoneyed, overgrown prigs. But somehow it manages to be quite heavenly. The hikes are key. We were marched out on one an hour after arriving – driven in the minibuses to Croyde beach, a truly immense stretch of sand across which Mo, our guide, struck out at a pace to which I might aspire if surprised upon the Serengeti by a lion less than five metres away from the safety of the nearest safari jeep. Rumour had it he spent decades training SAS men in Snowdonia. My nerve threatened to fail. Gradually, inevitably, I slipped towards the back of the group, inwardly rehearsing my part in the confrontation that might later ensue should I peel off unnoticed to down half a bottle of corner-shop whisky in the car park while awaiting my fellow guests’ return. 

And then, at the very back of the back, some way behind the most serene senior citizen in the group, I stumbled upon a beautiful young man called Bertie. He was tracksuited and astonishingly muscular and seemed to be heading in the same direction as us, but for some reason he was going at a snail’s pace. Even I could walk faster than Bertie.

Chest puffed with pride at my athletic prowess, I struck up a conversation about local property prices. After only 20 minutes’ walking, it was quite clear that north-west Devon is simply the most gorgeous bit of England there is, and that I needed to move there. It’s not just the stunning beaches (and they are, for once, really worthy of the estate agents’ favourite epithet) nor even the wild moorland and beetling cliffs. It’s also, as I would later discover, the ancient woodland – whole valleys full of primal temperate rainforest of the kind that I imagine once blanketed this entire island, teeming with bears and wolves, but which I had never seen before on anything like this scale. Walking through it for the first time on a cold autumn day is a near-mystical experience, at least for an Englishman with highly strained nerves and a Romantic disposition – like returning to the source of things.

After Bertie had followed me at no less than three junctions in the path, I became suspicious, and at the fourth, steeled my nerve and confronted him at last over this peculiar carrying on. He is, of course, a Yeotown employee, retained in order to keep up the rear, mopping up stragglers just as the urge to drop out and reach for the corner-shop Scotch thickens to its blackest intensity. I was seized by a great access of love, for Bertie, for Yeotown, for humanity. This couldn’t be less like boarding school. There were no geography masters to hurl mud and scream homophobic slurs at the weeds. Everyone was nice and chilled and went on at his own pace for as long or as little as he liked, and everyone felt good about it. It would later transpire that yoga and fitness classes are doubled too – there’s always one for the pretzels and lionkillers, and one for the highly sensitive artistic types and the snails.

The result of not being bullied is that at some point you find yourself trying a little harder than you might otherwise. On the third hike, for instance, I actually managed to keep up with Mo over a distance of at least 50 metres, and found him to be as reassuringly personable and laid back as Bertie and the rest. And the extra effort brought with it its own satisfactions. Rambling the hills of Britain as a kid always seemed like a doddle, but as a middle-aged man, I found it was fantastic exercise – quite as intense as running, if you push yourself even slightly on the uphill stretches. 

Doing yourself good while communing with nature at its most transplendent turns out to be addictive – an effect felt less during the walks themselves, and more on your return to your gigantic eco-lodge afterwards – when luxuriating for several ecstatic eternities in the warm embrace of the enormous rainshower or diving into the deliciously snoozy depths of the immense freestanding bath, before collapsing on the mile-high super-kingsize mattress to zone out with a skullful of nothing but sea and rocks and trees. These thrice-daily hour-long post-activity breaks were the real heart of my Yeotown experience – exercise-induced high after exercise-induced high (if you’ve ever run hard for half an hour, you’ll know just how wonderful the neurochemical hit can be) played out at indulgent length in the most soothingly fragrant of boutique-luxe surroundings. 

Gastronomical arrangements are similarly daunting at first, but equally likely to leave you feeling at once wildly virtuous and thoroughly satisfied. I was asked to give up caffeine, refined sugar, gluten, alcohol, dairy products and meat a few days in advance of the retreat, which left little for me to reach for in my fridge but cardboard and air. I hated myself enough in my pre-Yeotown incarnation to commit to this pre-detox detox anyway – and in fact there’s plenty of roughage and a curiously moreish, gluey sort of flavour in the packaging of a Waitrose chocolate fudge cake. Nonetheless, things instantly improved on arrival at the farmhouse, with food so toothsome, varied and filling that even a lifelong sugar-and-pork-pie fiend like me didn’t notice anything missing. The Asian-fusion dishes tended to be best – there was a great Thai fish curry, for instance, and some Vietnamese summer rolls with a fabulously zingy nutty-spicy sauce. But none were less than tasty, nor ostentatiously wholesome except in the case of a single rather too-stodgy vegan scone, and even that was just one factor in a much bigger meal, and materialised conveniently at a moment when my entire frame was quivering for just such a dense calorific jolt.

As with the hiking, my sense of virtue around food derived, I think, from the feeling of freedom we were given to be as slobbish as we liked. Though portion sizes were dietlike, Simon and Mercedes made it abundantly clear that we were all expected to ask for second, third, fourth helpings whenever we wanted, and on occasion I happily did. Yeotown is marketed as a chance to enjoy living healthily for a while, not as a weight-loss retreat. Nonetheless, I usually found the initial servings quite adequate, and every time I realised that I was feeling good without pigging out – and was bound, in fact, to be shedding pounds in the process – I was momentarily very, very pleased with myself, a sort of steady accumulation of narcissistic brownie points that amounted to a gargantuan jackpot of secret self-satisfaction by the end of the trip. I left convinced that healthy eating is easy and enjoyable when you have two superb private cooks at your disposal – and more of a logistical challenge in ordinary life, therefore, than a gustatory one.

Yoga classes followed the dictates of the “Vinyasa flow” school, which means they were amusingly fast and furious, but also relaxed and relaxing – the best I’ve had in 20 years of skittish sampling from Birmingham to Bogota. And the other fitness sessions – targeting core and upper body, to give our hiked-out hamstrings a break – were similarly challenging and similarly fun, at least when you realised no one would object too vocally if you gave up in exhaustion after the second mangled attempt at an inverted bicycle-kicking triceps V-up and focused on guffawing at the other guests’ efforts instead. There was an enjoyable cookery class, a helpful talk on nutrition (I never knew how much those of us without a daily algae habit were missing out), the aforementioned introduction to meditation, and – nicest surprise of all – a singing sesh during which we all belted out old spirituals and Bruno Mars hits in astonishingly convincing harmony and left feeling markedly more loved-up than before.

Simon and Mercedes keep the schedule to themselves, with a couple of desirable consequences. Managing guest expectations is easier, no doubt, if guests have no expectations. But it’s also just more fun for guests to treat the break as a delectably mindless magical mystery tour than to spend the entire time worrying about the cycle race or the naked full-body ocean-ice-breaking event or whatever it is you know the bosses have in store for you on the final day. In general, I managed to go with the flow, and proved myself, I think, a model student. Still, in such an institutional setting, everyone must find they have points of resistance. One guest – a veteran returning for her second time to Yeotown – confessed on the last day to a secret stash of coffee in her suitcase. Another did all the hiking but none of the yoga. My own anxieties – once primal fears about fitness and food had been assuaged – were more inchoate and correspondingly more haunting.

Deep down inside, I really don’t like peculiar things. I grew up in a narrowminded, conservative community in rural east Shropshire, and my sanity depends on toast being done just so, prayers being said in this way, stockings being arranged laterally and vertically in the north-western quadrant of the lower-right wardrobe drawer precisely thus. Yeotown had seduced me with its homely air – the promise of English country hiking that, however blighted by leaky tents and poor lavatorial arrangements in memory, was essentially deeply familiar, and of food that looked very much like what Mummy might cook, if with a bit less bacon and clotted cream on top. I had bought into something a little alternative, a little “right on”, had even persuaded myself to brave the blasting winds and spouting hurricanoes of the wild British weekend for the first time in decades, but I still hoped that I had not put my spiritual sock-drawer arrangements, as it were, at risk – that the group dynamics wouldn’t go all Lord of the Flies on me, that no literature would be handed out, that no “chakras” would be activated in unexpected or queasy ways.

As it happened, the Unknown only threatened me thrice during my stay, and only got the better of me once. First was the unexpected acupuncture event, during which I opted merely to observe – and was let off the needle, as it were, with surpassing grace (pointy metal objects are phobia 229b). Second was the sort-of-Shiatsu massage of which everyone at supper beforehand said it was so powerful it made you cry (I haven’t cried since Nanny sacrificed Hollingsworth the teddy bear to Satan with the pruning shears in 1978). I lived to regret turning that down, though, as the other two massages I had were wonderful, and I subsequently met the lady who would have induced the tears and she seemed ever so amiable and down-to-earth. Perhaps it was semi-conscious regret over that moment of cowardice or perhaps just the vast sense of ease about existence that settled in mid-way through the programme, but in any case on the penultimate day I did the first and only really peculiar thing of the week, casually gobbling down an entire saucer-full of the queer little seeds, presumably intended for sprinkling on smoothies and salads, that had sat next to my place at breakfast since the very first morning but which I had hitherto left untouched. 

It was roughly one hour through the hike that day – a route along a precipitous sylvan shore more sublime, if such a thing were possible, than any we had walked to date – that my struggle with my bowels began. It intensified by the minute, and soon the ancient horror of the shallow moorland latrine loomed, infinitely aggravated by the need to explain any prolonged detour to my companions, by a grim certainty that bum-biting vipers are more abundant in this corner of England – warmed as it is by the Gulf Stream and by relative proximity to the Equator – than anywhere else in wild Britain, and by my idiotic failure to pack a trowel. As it happened, there was a very decent public convenience waiting at the end of the walk, and – with a wild prayer to the chthonic powers, an awkward cough, a sudden strange little hop and a stiff-legged sprint across the car park – I made it just in time. For a while I blamed the entire episode on the vegan diet in general – the whole funny foreign notion of it – and began pining for freeze-dried cheesy beef-and-pasta stews, but later googling revealed the sole culprit to have been those enigmatic seeds – flax, apparently a wickedly effective laxative when gobbled with gusto.

The hype is that Yeotown is “transformative”, and in a subtle but significant way, I think perhaps it can be. Apart from anything else, it’s a lovely holiday in a beautiful small hotel in the prettiest corner of England. And then, for stressed people looking to get fit and lose some weight, it’s a luxurious way to break old habits and start making new ones. Two weeks since leaving, I’m still sugar- and caffeine-free and not feeling any the worse for it, and have been exercising every day – not something I could possibly have summoned the will-power to do a month ago. It’s also bound to teach you some useful lessons – in my case, that occasional hikes in the hills are likely to do me a power of good, that flax seeds clear the pipes like nothing else, that Pukka herbal teas can provide endless, calorie-free oral comfort for the inadequately weaned, that the pains in my shoulders might be healed by stretching my chest (a top tip from masseuse number two), and on and on.

But it did something a bit simpler and deeper too. The fresh air, the exercise, the healthy yet flavoursome food, but also the yoga and the rainshower and the sheer gorgeousness of the surroundings – all this made me relax more deeply than nine-day booze-and-sushi-fuelled luxury jaunts in the Maldives and the Caribbean ever have. There was a moment in the big freestanding bath on day three when I stared at the ceiling and suddenly thought, goodness me, this is how I’m meant to be. This is what my body should feel like. This is how life is supposed to happen. Even when everyone disappears or disappoints, it doesn’t have to feel like an emergency – my body doesn’t have to subsist in that state – or at least not for this long. And all my priorities momentarily shifted, cascading down into a fresh formation like the whirring, clattering letters on the old timetable board at the Gare de l’Est, announcing new departures through the night to unknown places whole continents away. Yeotown isn’t, of course, the sole purveyor of such intimations, and nor are their remedial effects guaranteed to last. But as wild weekends in Britain go, it’s surely up there with the best, complimentary champagne or no – and as for enduring wisdom, I can only sip my herbal tea and hope.

The Yeotox is a five-day health and fitness detox programme that runs each week from Wednesday to Sunday at the Yeotown retreat in Devon. It costs from £1,950 per person for a Classic room, including transfers to and from Tiverton Parkway station. See yeotown.com or phone 01271 328581 for more information.

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