Review: Mike Atkins
This charming manor house has a friendly vibe, casual elegance and plenty of pampering opportunities…
In a nutshell
The setting here is fantastic, with the charming manor house perched on the side of a pretty lake and surrounded by 160 acres of the South Downs. Long established as a health farm, Forest Mere was taken over by Champneys in the mid-1990s and turned into a destination spa retreat. This is a big operation, with 87 bedrooms and plenty of day guests, ensuring a constant stream of robed and slippered pamperees shuffling along the corridors. Charming from the outside, the building is quite functional inside with extensive renovations and extensions creating a rather homogeneous look.
What’s it like?
If not the absolute height of luxury, Forest Mere is a slick set-up run by people who know exactly what they’re doing. It would be a tall order to get bored here. On arrival you are presented with a 20-page brochure listing all the activities and classes on offer — Aqua Fit, Latin dance, some weird tennis thing called “pickleball” — and there are regular talks given in the seminar room. (I may return to “learn about the reading of angel cards and connecting with angelic energies”.) However, I’m not a pickleball kinda guy, so the two things that really stood out for me were the countryside setting and the spa’s Thermal Suite, with its snow cabin (yes, snow cabin), hot tub and fabulous 25m indoor pool. I grabbed a map from reception and headed out on a gentle three-mile hike through pretty woods and past a neighbouring golf course — heroically resisting the temptation to investigate a country pub on the way. Afterwards, I did a few laps of the pool before lolling around on waterbeds and dipping in and out of the whirlpool and salt and oxygen room.
The thalassotherapy (seawater) pool and Serail Rasul mud treatments were tempting, but instead I went for the gentleman’s grooming experience. I was collected from a cosy, discreet waiting room where I had been admiring the signed celebrity pictures (“Thanks for everything. John Cleese”) and led past the myriad treatment rooms. My own room was pretty standard — dim lighting, wood tones, wretched rainforest music — but I spent the next hour and a half in absolute heaven. I was covered in Elemis and Champneys products and expertly skin-buffed and hot-stoned and scalp-massaged and facially cleansed until I woke myself up with my own snoring. Classy. I left feeling light, springy and a little bit embarrassed; an excellent treatment.
Most of the people I spoke to were young couples and small groups of friends who had come for a weekend of tennis, massage and exploring the grounds. There were also plenty of people from the nearby towns (Guildford is half an hour away) who weren’t staying the night, but had come to take fitness classes and enjoy the pool area.
What are the rooms like?
There are ten bedrooms in the old manor house, all recently refurbished but still with a traditional feel. One of the better rooms is the George Best Suite with its balcony overlooking the lake; presumably the football icon was a fan of the resort’s cucumber, apple and mint juice. The other rooms — standard, superior and premier — are perfectly comfortable, if a little meh. It’s definitely worth spending a little more to get some outdoor space so you can look out over the lake and the funky outdoor swimming pool.
What about the food?
There’s a nice casual vibe at breakfast and lunch in the main restaurant, with guests dining in their robes and slippers and helping themselves to a buffet. There’s an emphasis on healthy, locally sourced food, but you’re not limited to carrot sticks and prune juice — there was a cook-to-order station whipping up stir-fry when I visited. In the evenings, there’s the option to dine in the more formal Mere Restaurant. The food here is excellent and I successfully managed to avoid the superfoods and steamed chicken, chomping my way through a delicious steak and a serviceable cheeseboard, accompanied by a smoky South African pinotage. (Wine is available with the evening meal, but there’s no actual bar and they definitely aren’t aiming for the party crowd.) Be prepared to pay extra for premium, naughty menu items such as, er, steak, cheese and wine.
Overnight stays start at £135pp, including breakfast and lunch buffets and a three-course dinner. Day passes start at £59. The 85-minute men’s grooming experience costs £90, while an aromatherapy back massage costs £38 for 25 minutes (0843 316 2222, champneys.com).