Saturday, 12 July 2014


Champneys sent me an e-mail this week encouraging me to watch this programme, since it was a documentary all about them. I am not sure if they had seen an advance copy, since it hardly showed the place in a favourable light. But then Champneys have been on fly-on-the-wall telly before, many moons ago, and while I didn't see any of that series (The Health Farm), my understanding is that it should have been equally bad for business, yet the business has continued to thrive.

Champneys is a health resort near Tring in Hertfordshire, and I was lucky enough to go there for the day as a 40th birthday present from my family. I had a fabulous few hours of pampering and deep relaxation, but I wasn't too surprised to learn that everything isn't quite so idyllic behind the scenes.
A souvenir from my day, recently worn to paint our gate
(hence the black splodges).

The documentary was focusing on a recent refurbishment. I can see where the need for some reinvention had arisen. Traditionally, Champneys was exactly what the first documentary was called, a health farm, "a simple resort" where clients went for therapeutic care that involved a strict regime, a change of lifestyle, low-fat cuisine, and lots of exercise. Guests went to bed "with hot water and lemon". But then it became more of a relaxation-based spa. And the trend these days is for all luxury hotels to have a luxury spa. And so once Champneys developed as a big name luxury spa, it was expected to be a luxury hotel as well. And, if reports are to be believed, its accommodation lets it down. Hence a truckload of new managers being brought in to turn things around.

I didn't see any of the bedrooms during my daytime visit so I couldn't possibly comment. But I would agree with the other problem area identified - reception. People have to spend far too long hanging around on arrival, waiting for one of only two welcome desks to become free. Everyone is desperate to get on with the main business of the day - pampering and relaxation - and a tiresome queue is exactly the sort of thing that people have come here to escape. I don't quite know why the new specially imported "reception expert" couldn't just see that a couple of extra people behind a couple of extra desks would have solved the majority of problems. But instead the receptionists (I accidentally typed "receptionits" there, somewhat appropriately) have to undergo compulsory retraining to "Champnify" their language (the word "hi" is henceforth banned), and builders hurtle in to strip the wallpaper and lay a new carpet, at massive inconvenience to the guests. The furniture is apparently all replaced, but it all ends up looking exactly the same as when they started.

The managing director is clearly an outdated fool who is difficult to work for, shuffling along being unpleasant to everybody. He also believes that all the people wandering around in dressing gowns make it look like something out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Hmm, not really the sort of atmosphere I'd be endeavouring to create at a health resort.

The two ladies in charge of housekeeping bitch and snarl and go behind each other's backs, trying to lay the blame for various issues at one another's door. They clearly resent each other so intensely that the atmosphere between them is possibly fuelling the Jacuzzi. Meanwhile, staff are forgetting to clean the bedrooms and put fruit in the appropriate places, and a large rip in a cushion is ignored on camera. A German manager is brought in to oversee the refurbishment and he starts talking about shooting people, which doesn't bode well.

The guests, apart from the disruption caused by the building work, thankfully all appear to be having the lovely time that I did. They are mostly women of a certain age, but there are some elderly gents too, who seem slightly bemused by the place. There are celebs, both minor and major. Samantha Bond at a do, Bobby Davro on a treadmill, Greg Rutherford in "recovery", someone from Girls Aloud with her mum, a memory of Diana, and talk of Daniel Craig, and Peter Andre excited about being in the queue with Daniel Craig.  There's a photo of Judi Dench on the wall. There was a nice painting above the fireplace in one of the lounges, but a visiting member of an Arab royal family (staying at Champneys for several months, at an extortionate price) has requisitioned that for her room, at no extra charge. Though the manager did get forensics to check "it wasn't a Rembrandt or a Picasso" first. You would have liked to think he might have been able to tell the difference between the two, even if he couldn't detect a genuine piece of art from a forgery.

Ladies are shown luxuriating in the outdoor Jacuzzi (I can recommend it, even in the rain) and snoring on massage tables. Some are complaining about the low-fat menu, and the unavailability of chocolate gateau for dessert, alcohol at lunchtime and cream for their coffee. One lady refers to the sauna as a "drying cabinet". Another has ended up groping somebody by mistake in the very dark Quiet Room. (I can understand how this happened.) They all flirt outrageously with the waiter Charles, whose one trick appears to be jumping over his own leg, which he gaily does from dawn until dusk.

The mansion that houses Champneys was built by the Rothschild family for a dowager who never actually moved in. Nonetheless it was kept fully staffed and waiting for her for 15 years. There are photos of another Lord Rothschild, who - instead of being a banker - opened a zoo. The photos show him riding a giant tortoise and using zebras to pull his carriages. Which makes all of Champneys' flotation and kryotherapy suites, thalassotherapy pools and "seafood wraps" (as one guest calls them) look a little less bizarre in comparison. What there is no doubt about is that the place is huge - when you visit you spend hours trailing up and down corridors without even the vaguest sense of direction. But it was nice to see some of the 200 acres of grounds on this programme, since they were entirely shrouded in wet mist when I was there. (You can see Lord Rothschild's now deceased pets and taxidermy collection at the incredible Natural History Museum in Tring, which we visited with our daughter last year. There are more stuffed animals behind glass than you could possibly imagine.)

The last port of call for most visitors is the Champneys shop, run by a gruff lady who says of the products, "They all wash you. They all nourish you. They all exfoliate you. Pick the one you like the smell and the colour of!" She's probably right. What she doesn't mention is that you can usually get them on a 3 for 2 offer at Boots.

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