It’s fair to say that if I hadn’t already been sleep deprived and emotionally frazzled prior to setting off for my retreat, the day leading up to it tipped me over the edge. A surprise Donald Trump election victory meant I’d been up half the night worrying about the future for my 14-week-old son, while the combination of bad weather, a grizzly baby and packing for a few days away left me anxious and grumpy.
Quite frankly, I needed to step back and take a few deep breaths. As an experienced parenting journalist, I felt I’d gone into motherhood with my eyes very much open to the physical and emotional toll it would take. What I hadn’t expected was the crisis of identity it would present. It was this sense of being all at sea that drove new mum Clio Wood to create &Breathe. The concept was to offer mums a holiday with gentle exercise, nutritious food and mood-boosting sessions, while still being able to enjoy quality family time. A reboot rather than a boot camp, if you will.
Clio launched her week-long postnatal retreats at her French home in Limousin in January 2015 to much success, picking up a silver Junior Design Award 2016 for best family travel brand . But she realised that not everyone could take that much time away from real life and decided to offer a 24-hour break in the UK, giving mums a taster of her Fit, Food and Feel philosophy.
Woolley Grange is a Jacobean Manor House near Bradford-on-Avon on the edge of the Cotswolds, set in 14 idyllic acres. It’s a two-hour drive from London and 20 minutes from Bath. As part of the Luxury Family Hotels group, guests with children are not only welcomed but actively encouraged to visit, with everything from a bottle sterilising service to spare bibs in the restaurant. The décor is opulent, with squashy velvet sofas and roaring fires, but children are free to roam (and the flames all behind safety gates). My son Ralph had experienced something of a 'poonami' en route so we bustled into reception under a stressed and smelly cloud. But the welcoming staff quickly showed us to an elegant loo where a change mat and nappy bin awaited, and we could freshen ourselves up before joining other retreat attendees in The Orangery for an informal buffet lunch of meats and fish, with delicious salads and breads.
Fed and watered, our attention turned to an afternoon of &Breathe workshops, focusing on fitness and wellbeing. Mums can attend the retreat with or without partners (or indeed, their children if they prefer), and the hotel’s fantastic Ofsted-registered crèche is available for babies of 12 weeks and older during the workshops, giving plenty of options to ensure your charge is safely cared for and your mind clear.
I thought it was important for my husband to get a little ‘me time’ at the pool so Ralph was dropped off at Woolley’s Den for a couple of hours before Thom picked up him for a walk. I nipped out to feed him during a break but other mums brought their babies in with them. It was all very laid back.
Our three-hour session kicked off with a topic of vital importance – pelvic floor. Physio Amanda Savage of Supported Mums (herself three weeks postnatal) chatted us through the ins and outs (or should that be ups and downs?) of this crucial muscle, from what to look out for to how to do those exercises correctly. I’d done my pregnancy pilates classes religiously but was unaware that posture and even sitting incorrectly can impact on how effectively you clench. Her talk was a great ice breaker too, as we looked at gadgets to help with this intimate area and discussed lubes.
Minds active, next it was time to get the body moving. Caroline Bragg, &Breathe’s fabulously fun and down-to-earth personal trainer (and trained actress with a sideline in children’s parties), led us through a special high intensity but low impact workout tailored to those daily exertions that afflict new mums – back and shoulder pain from breastfeeding, leaning over changing mats and picking up babies. Cue lots of getting up and down, stretching and using Waitrose tinned beans to strengthen those arms! It all felt very manageable, especially the four-minute routine, and great to feel that heart race and sweat rise. We ended her section with some pilates – lots of stretching and breathing, plus some practice of those all-important pelvic floor exercises.
Feeling proud of ourselves for doing something more active than jiggling a crying baby, it was time to grab an infused water and healthy snack bar, take a chair and focus on the final session with Happiness Coach, Olivia Horne who dedicates her time to supporting mums as they navigate the scary world of parenthood. Olivia, a mum-of-two, oozed compassion and kindness – and was there to, quite literally, teach us to breathe. We take this life-giving action for granted but after a baby has squashed your lungs during pregnancy, you often need a nudge to ensure you are doing it correctly.
After guiding us through various techniques you could use to help with good breathing (my preferred was the fingers on tummy method), Olivia shared some positive affirmations and handed out notebooks and pens, urging us to write down one good thing that happens to us each day. I confess I can focus on the failures rather than successes sometimes and it was simple but great advice.
While the mums while older babies were reunited for Children’s High Tea from 5pm (the hotel offers an impressive menu of purees and kids’ meals), I went to find my two in our room, which boasted a spectacular bed and vast bathroom. Not only that, but a travel cot was waiting, complete with mattress and bedding, plus a change mat and nappy bin. Staff had also installed a mini fridge to store my expressed milk, plus a steriliser for the bottle and a warmer in case we needed it.
Once upon a time, I would have taken full advantage of the bed for a pre-dinner nap but instead I busied myself feeding and bathing Ralph ready for the babysitter. Woolley Grange offers a free baby listening service but with our little man best described as ‘unpredictable’ of an evening, we opted for human help in the form of fabulous Caroline, one of the creche’s fully qualified staff. She seemed to ooze love for babies and we confidently joined the others for a pre-dinner cocktail.
Dinner was served at a candlelit banquet table in a private room, and with Thom the only dad dining, we took seats at the end. It meant we could have a rare bit of time to chat as well as speak to the other attendees. I’m blessed to have a great network of existing mum friends and new NCT group around me, but there’s always room for more support, as far as I’m concerned. What was striking was the mix of mums in attendance. I’d wrongly assumed it would be a yummy mummy, blogger crowd, or lots of fitness freaks with fabulous figures. Yet they had come from all over the country and for various reasons. One working mum of three had brought her two youngest and told me she booked it after a summer of colds and sniffles, needing a boost for herself and a bit of quality time with the kids.
Midway through dinner, a check on Ralph revealed he could do with a feed from his mum and I duly obliged. I couldn’t believe how smoothly things had all gone – until I stood up with him and he projectile vomited down my back and onto the carpet… Thankfully cool as a cucumber Caroline grabbed a muslin and Ralph, I made a quick change and returned in time for dessert. The food was delicious by the way – I enjoyed a pork and apricot terrine with a tasty chutney, perfectly cooked cod fillet with chorizo and greens, followed by a fantastic cheese board. Healthy yet indulgent, using a lot of produce grown on the hotel grounds, but most importantly a) not biscuits, b) not cooked by us. After three hours of freedom, we returned to Ralph, who proceeded to keep us up most of the night. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted!
Bleary-eyed, we joined everyone else for a relaxed breakfast downstairs – a buffet of pastries, cereals and fruit, plus a menu of hot options, from a cold old bacon sandwich to full English. All the children were made to feel welcome, with place settings and no judgement if they dropped food on the floor or cried. Clio was on hand to check how nights had been, give sympathy over lost sleep and hold babies so you could eat with two hands – what bliss! She even kept smiling when Ralph was sick all over her and him...
The rest of the morning was equally relaxed, with each mum enjoying a 30 minute treatment at the hotel spa. Facials, pedicure and manicures are available, but I opted for a massage to tackle those lower back and shoulder knots motherhood had exacerbated. To be honest, after nine months of pregnancy and 14 weeks of breastfeeding a rather large baby, my therapist had a big job facing her but she certainly eased the aches and let me bliss out for a luxurious half hour. The crèche was available again but Thom took Ralph for a walk in the glorious grounds (which include a walled garden and orchard), before we took full advantage of the calm and quiet 30C indoor pool for his first taste of swimming. It was a wonderful end to our retreat and summed up Clio’s ethos of creating a little space for both quality mum time and family time.
With heavy hearts and an even heavier goody bag of lovely treats (including a funky You Got This Mama mug from Scandiborn), we said our goodbyes to Woolley Grange. A day was not enough to fully restore my mum mojo, but I most definitely benefited from the breather.
>> &Breathe (+44 7739 413 835; http://www.andbreathepostnatal.com/ ) offers 24hr retreats at luxury family hotels throughout the UK from £259 for mum and baby (under 18 months) including one night’s full board accommodation, wellbeing, pelvic floor health and fitness classes, childcare and a 30-minute spa treatment. Bring dad for an additional £84. There are also week-long retreats in Limousin, France, from £1,850 per family full board.