15 MAY 2004, Page 48

Hot, cold and lukewarm

James Leith

The intended heading for this piece was to have been 'Spa Wars', since the demand for luxury pampering in countryhouse-hotel surroundings seems insatiable. Three country-house-hotel spas have opened within half an hour's drive of here (on the Wiltshire/Gloucestershire borders) in the last 18 months, and no expense spared. Even if you knew what thalassotherapy was, would you pay a pound a minute to get it? Or the same amount to reap the benefits of the Hammam bed? Apparently this last, being a sort of solid massage table, is butch enough to get men to agree to a pampering massage without feeling even a little bit gay.

But who are these customers? Who pays for a weekend in an incredibly luxurious hotel and never leaves the premises? Tim Haigh at Barnsley House says some of his customers stay in their rooms throughout, except for meals, and watch DVDs on the plasma screens and listen to CDs on the uber sound systems provided. Now he's going to put in a spa, too.

In terms of top-end luxury, it doesn't get much topper than Whatley (formerly Twhatley — no kidding) Manor, near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. Here the Swiss family LandoIt are rumoured to have spent 23 million quid developing a country-house hotel that has 23 rooms and an `Aquarias Spa' providing one of the largest hydrotherapy pools (whirl tub, body jets, neck massage fountain, underwater recliner) in Europe. Based more on Baden Baden than Scandinavia, you can wander from tepidarium (complete with internally heated stone mosaic loungers) to laconium (dry) and caldarium (steam) hot rooms or the Serail mud chamber before finishing up in the camomile steam grotto and the maracujascented 'experience shower'. This is all before you even consider the treatments available. You could take the VIP suite for three hours for the Aquarias La Prairie Signature Experience, at £495 for two of you, and that's before your retail therapy, where 3.4 oz of La Prairie face cream can set you back £300. 'Retailing is a core activity for spa operators,' Jill Goodman, the spa manager, points out. I'm gobsmacked. 'Who buys all this stuff?'

'Ladies with money! A customer will frequently spend between £700 and £800 on cosmetic products alone on a single visit.'

OK ...1 think I'm getting there. We're talking footballers' wives, right?

The credo at Whatley is that they would rather be half-full of the right people than completely full of the wrong ones. They're talking international jet-set, here — high rollers looking for elegant peace and quiet and discreet service without any gawping from hoi polloi. And this leads to confusion. Curious locals booking into the brasserie for supper have found themselves frogmarched out of the most sensational loos with the words, 'These lavatories are for residents only.' Similarly, in summer last year, non-residents lunching in the 'fine-dining-room' were told they couldn't have drinks on the terrace because 'the gardens are reserved for hotel guests'.

When I was shown round a few weeks ago, it was suggested that the owners were intending to lock the gates between the brasserie bit and the hotel courtyard, presumably to keep out prying non-residents. This is a bit tough on the guest who wants to slum it in the brasserie as a change from the hotel dining-room tasting menu (£75 a head for three courses without wine). There is still some confusion over what to do with non-residents who want to book into the hotel dining-room.

The bedrooms are all individually decorated and staggeringly furnished in a way that suggests that a lot of European antique-dealers had a very good couple of years. Curiously, the decor in the diningroom attracted such adverse comment that it has been entirely redone less than a year after opening. The public rooms and gardens are simply sensational, and yet . .. and yet the 40-million-dollar question remains: where are these customers? In the past year I have been to the brasserie twice (the food's very good and the decor, all varnished pine and black wrought-iron wall lamps, is strictly Tyroler Hut 1970), and on both occasions there were only two other occupied tables.

Several weeks ago a friend and I visited at 6.30 on a Friday evening for an end-of-week drink. Walking from the car park at the back (residents only in the car park at the front: two cars) through the stable courtyard (where the lawn made Wembley before the Cup Final look like a badly topped paddock), we passed the spa. I peeked. No staff, no customers. On past the brasserie — no staff, no customers — into the bar — no staff, no customers. We went to the pub up the road instead. And no, the air was not filled with the clatter of landing helicopters, either.

I spent 40 minutes being shown round the spa at lunchtime on a Wednesday and saw one customer. I looked into the brasserie at 1.45 — one table, the bar empty. Recently I went on Badminton Saturday, when they really had to be full, and I suspect they were, but the brasserie wasn't, and the service in the bar was dreadful. In fact, the staff looked in that state of panic that only too many customers and too little experience can induce. Managers holding intense sotto voce conversations with barmen while neither of them will catch your eye do not inspire confidence. Nor does waiting 15 minutes for a drink.

Those Spectator readers (any Takirs?) considering a country-house-hotel spa night out might bear this in mind. A 'nothing but the best' night at Whatley Manor, including a bottle of Krug 'Clos de Mesnil' 1983 on arrival, the tasting menu washed-down with La Tache 1993 and the best suite, followed by an hour per couple in the treatment rooms. would set you back more than £2,000.

But let's not be silly. House champagne, standard room, dining-room menu with half of house white and a bottle of inexpensive red and an hour's treatment in the spa, and you're out for £500. Taking this as the gold standard at 100 per cent, you could go to Cowley Manor near Cheltenham (off-the-wall interior decor, very trendy 25-45 London clientele, very relaxed and informal, indoor and outdoor pools, great grounds and comfort food — 'no drizzle, no jus') for 90 per cent of that. Calcot Manor near Tetbury (the most athletic of the spas, with highest use of the gym, cycle paths, tennis courts) has a seriously caring attitude to children. Not only do they run a creche with Ofsted-certified staff, but they spare your cool 12-year-old the ignominy of going through the nursery: there's a separate stairway to the mini-cinema, PlayStations and X-Boxes). They have a new conservatory dining-room and their very own pub, the Gumstool Inn. Calcot's index comes in at 80 per cent.

Bishopstrow House near Warminster is part of the von Essen collection of hotels. Easily the most traditional, Bishopstrow feels like a country house, with its library and its 27 acres through which runs the Wylye river. The Ragdale spa is run by Michaeljohn. Clientele mostly 25-55 (not many with children), conferences and visiting guests of the MoD. Scores 77 per cent of the Whatley cost.

Most of these punters sign up for a weekend of indulgence, and I guess Whatley Manor indulges the parts other spa hotels cannot reach. On their tasting menu you get a ballotine of foie gras followed by squab pigeon with foie gras. If they are as busy as they say, I hope the helipad's in constant use, because at £23 million you'd think they'd have put in a drive wide enough for two cars to pass each other.