GUARDIAN I have seen another world; perhaps I’ve touched a place that belongs to the future. Women in white tunics whisper softly and streams of faint music attempt to soothe troubled souls. I’ve visited sanctuaries where guests act elderly regardless of their age. Everyone’s reality changes when surrendered at a health farm. You’re not allowed to think for yourself anymore.
Powerscourt, my first port of call, is set in the gentle hills of County Wicklow, an hour’s drive from Dublin. I was the only man in a room full of women awaiting therapy. Scented air wafted with the piped music – a classical tinnitus that haunted the building. Talk was hushed, increasing the sense that we were residents in a futuristic old folk’s home. “Nurse” came in and, sotto voce, called for an absentee Mary. The truant returned, spoke with “nurse” and looked confused because she wasn’t needed after all. “Nurse” had whispered May, not Mary. Another patient was on the missing list; either she’d gone off the idea of having her treatment or quite forgotten it – it’s easily done. “But I’m here for a polish,” piped up someone else quite independently. It is official; dermatological dementia is catching.
Ten past five was the optimum time for therapy, when the room vacated en masse for pedicures and the like. I let the stampede of terry towelling pass, following slowly in its wake to a treatment room. Lights were dimmed and I was given an elaborate and invigorating salt scrub before a comforting film of warm mud was trowelled across my back. Then I was trussed up in clingfilm and left to suppurate in the diffused room. My mind emptied and I nodded off into a peculiar dream world until the therapist returned and removed the slurry. I was told that the mud used in my massage had been dredged from a seabed in the south of France and contained all sorts of wonderful minerals. The mulch of fish poo and bio-organics did me the power of good.
In another clinical room, I lay prone on a surgical bed while my feet were seen to and I was given Now magazine to read. But I snapped out of the delirium brought on by Atomic Kitten’s fashion secrets and watched with interest as my feet were plunged into hot paraffin wax, which cooled to become opaque. My extremities looked plastic, or worse, stone dead, as if the first six inches of me had been embalmed. After an interlude spent contemplating pastoral Muzak and Liz Hurley, the wax was removed and my newly soft feet revealed.
I escaped down a corridor, and on the spur of the moment decided to relax in the Tranquillity Room. In adjusting my eyes to the sudden darkness, I accidentally knocked a switch and plunged the becalmed inmates into a sudden fury of light. I fumbled for the switch and eventually found my way to a daybed besieged by the taped crashing of a distant ocean. It’s not easy doing nothing.
The next day I joined two women dressed in pink tracksuits, stout boots and all-weather anoraks for a guided walk. We meandered along curling lanes, catching sight of huge vistas and bigger skies through the hedgerows. We had regularly been told to be aware in case a car should approach. (Our guide was touchingly overprotective – perhaps his wages were docked if he carelessly lost or killed a guest.) I asked my pink companions if they were enjoying themselves – they were, very much. They had been, they said, on a detox programme, but after three bottles of wine with dinner last night, they were now feeling thoroughly re-toxed. We parted company and two happy, hungover women roamed around the glens while I found a bus to take me on the two-hour trip to Horseleap.
Westmeath County gets so cold that the trees have to wear thick winter coats of poison ivy, and country walls shiver under meagre blankets of moss. I was sensibly kitted out in a dense shearling coat, the camp luxuriance of also made me feel like a transvestite in civvies and which seemed to attract disapproving bleats from its chillier, living cousins on the other side of the hedge.
Along a pretty lane stood Temple Spa, an 18th-century converted farmhouse tucked into an elemental landscape strewn with clumps of gorse and larger barrows. Staff here dressed as nurses, too, and I began to feel geriatric again.
This time I asked for frivolous beauty treatments rather than the holistic procedures on offer. My search for outer beauty wouldn’t be thwarted by a righteous quest for inner peace. The Optimiser Facial is said to lift everything. My face was scrubbed and atomised with a mist of essential oils. Then, after much pleasurable rubbing and an in-depth session spent removing all the blackheads from my nose, I was slathered with a firming mask. Gauze was anchored about my face and tightened until I looked like a bank robber engaging in a skincare routine.
Next was yoga. On entering the room, I discovered the teacher standing nonchalantly on her head. She said, with the calming computerised tone of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Allow the floor to accept your back,” and I did. We performed an exercise that shaped our bodies into right angles; and I was told, with the conviction of a livestock auctioneer, that I was in possession of an “intelligent spine”. I took that as a compliment.
Temple Spa was clearly prone to music, too, but instead of a constant classical drone, we were treated to The Ocarina Quartet of Connemara, Tooting on the Bolivian Nose Pipes of Peace Volume 6. This was the strict preserve of the yoga room, an otherwise quiet place that captured the sun when it shone. I did not feel so soothed, however, when I caught sight of a scalp on the floor. I feared the mess of tangled hair was the result of a sudden attack of alopecia brought on by too stressful a stretching session, but I was reassured when the hirsute scrunchy was reclaimed and reattached by its owner.
On leaving the changing room, crano-sacral therapy awaited me -“a gentle non-invasive manipulative technique”, according to my therapist. She then went on to chatter gently about blocked chakras and the like. I presumed the idea was to put me into a trance because her purling voice made me comatose. In my insensible state, I grunted approvingly when she seemed to expect an answer. In return she tweaked my feet, dowsed my head and tinkered with every other part of my body. This was fine to begin with, very relaxing, but after a while the novelty began to pall. In fact, I felt as if I was under her non-invasive hands for hours; my back stiffened and I got bored – a reflection on me rather than her.
But I got the feeling they were used to folk getting bewildered around here because they escorted me to the next session: a seaweed wrap. I asked if swimming trunks were suitable attire and was shown the alternative – disposable incontinence pants. I resisted.
I was scruffed, scuffed, scroffed and exfoliated with salt, then mummified in the slightly whiffy seaweed glue. Like the mud at Powerscourt, the seaweed here had a French pedigree. Apparently, the Irish equivalent had a rancid smell and blocked the drains; a case of Gaul winning over Erin in the beauty product stakes. I was left to perspire on a heated bed, under a nylon duvet.
When my therapist started telling me that “the best celebrities are the Beckhams” it struck me that Now magazine must be pretty big in this part of the world, too. I showered off the green gunge and salty residue and felt good.
Then it was back to the treatment rooms for a final session, this time an LA stone massage. This involves being rubbed with hot basalt rocks and cold marble pebbles. But it is a noisy process because the lubricated stones inevitably shoot out of oily hands and crash on to the shelf as the masseuse tries to dispose of them carefully. I wasn’t wholly convinced by the nature of this rub with a rock, but have to admit the experience was wonderful. I got totally stoned.