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Spa Hotels|Spa Resorts|Wellness Retreats

Review – Forest Bathing at South Lodge, West Sussex

De-stress in England’s green and pleasant countryside with a Japanese practice that encourages you to touch, smell and even taste nature’s surroundings.

Review - Forest Bathing at South Lodge, West Sussex

To herald the first week of spring, country house spa hotel South Lodge in West Sussex ran an inspirational one-day wellness retreat last weekend (16 March) to mark the changing seasons and allow the world-weary to recharge by immersing themselves in nature.

Harnessing the power of shinrin yoku, or the Japanese practice of forest bathing, guests were invited to switch off from the everyday and switch on their senses in beautiful ancient woodland, while also enjoying the luxury and comfort of a stay at the five-star hotel.

I know, because I was one of the lucky participants – and I’m now a forest bathing convert.

Proven to help combat anxiety, depression and tension, forest bathing is becoming increasingly popular as people increasingly seek out the power of being at one with the great outdoors, and here, the session was led by expert Helena Skoog.

Review - Forest Bathing at South Lodge, West Sussex

The Victorian splendour of South Lodge, a former private home, sits proudly within 92 acres of beautiful countryside. After checking in, I was directed over to the hotel’s 44,000 sq ft luxury spa, complete with environmentally friendly grass roof, for 10am welcome tea and coffees at the spa’s attractive Botanica eatery and to meet the others in my small group who’d come to experience shinrin yoku too. 

After being advised to turn off our phones for complete disconnection from the outside world, we had a brief introduction from Helena about what we could expect, then it was back over to the main hotel for a session of the ancient Chinese art of Qigong, which involves body posture, movement and breathing exercises.

These include shaking movements to release any trauma that may have been bottled up inside us for years (emulating how bodies that suffer trauma tend to shake). Don’t be alarmed, it was very gentle, super relaxing and tailed with meditation; not to mention an excellent primer for the rest of the nature immersion experience.

Review - Forest Bathing at South Lodge, West Sussex

Then it was time for a delicious lunch back in Botanica (think dairy free, sustainable and healthy Mediterranean-inspired food, with dishes like roasted squash with spiced chickpeas, grilled chicken caesar salad with crispy kale or sauteed wild mushroom and spinach bruschetta), before it was time to wander into the woods. 

Replenished, we headed outside and immerse ourselves into the landscape. With twigs cracking under foot and colourful shoots of spring all around, Helena invited us to embrace the magic that being in nature can offer. When life gets hectic, it’s too easy sometimes to forget how calming the outdoors can be. I found myself receptive not only to the sounds and the textures of the woodland but willingly accepting Helen’s invitation to enter the forest through a ‘portal’. In reality it was a clearing of three trees but her enthusiasm for nature is contagious that I you can’t but help let the magical feeling of nature wash over you.

We slowly ambled to focus attention again on the breath as we journeyed further under a canopy beginning to sprout with new growth. We were also encouraged to give everyone else in the group some space so we could have a more individual experience and room to get lost in our own thoughts, as we walked. 

Review - Forest Bathing at South Lodge, West Sussex

And then, in the middle of a chilly but at least dry day in March, it was time to lie on a mat and get even closer to nature. Helena told us to touch the forest floor, smell it and even taste it to really connect, as birdsong surrounded us. 

It was so completely relaxing. At one point I might have enjoyed a little mediative snooze, woken only by the gentle sound of a horse’s hooves thumping the soil nearby, its rider possibly oblivious to this group of bodies lapping up nature’s presence.

In fact, I switched off so much, I had no idea how long we’d been there until the session ended. It turned out we’d been there for three hours.

Helena was excellent and without being too airy-fairy, encouraged us to reconnect with our childlike wonder as well as with nature. It might sound obvious, but it was good to be reminded that like trees, we are of the Earth, mainly water and have branches inside us too.

The session culminated with the opportunity to share our experiences. There was a relaxed innocence to it all, free of judgment. I recalled how much I had giggled when hearing a massive, muddy squelch under foot earlier. It had truly brought out the fun in me.

Review - Forest Bathing at South Lodge, West Sussex

Forest bathing finished, it was time for some more conventional bathing in the spa’s beautiful naturally heated outdoor wild swimming pool. The spa also has a botanical sauna, marble lined salt steam room, a massage in one of the spa’s 14 nature-themed treatment rooms and their state-of-the-art fitness centre too. 

Treatments on offer (for a supplement) include the signature grapevine face and body glow in partnership with Pelegrims, which features grape leaf extract from the estate’s own vineyard. I also noted the 60-minute tranquillity pro-sleep treatment and a mud room experience to exfoliate and moisturise the skin.

As it was, I was so relaxed, it was just dinner at Botanica, then bed – I slept so well, and woke up the next day feeling utterly zen-like and totally reset. 

Forest bathing at South Lodge really is a breath of fresh air on so many levels. I’d love to come back and experience what the other seasons have to offer – though maybe not winter…

Words: Deborah Peters

The next Nature Immersion Spa Experience dates include Saturday 15 June 2024 for summer and Saturday 19 October 2024 for autumn.

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