My first solo trip to Ragdale Hall, a place I enjoyed for years with my mother, was a bittersweet experience.
Every year since 2010, my mother and I have taken a 4-day spa break at the wonderful Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa, tucked away in the Leicestershire countryside. I blogged about my 2016 visit here.
When my mother fell ill in February 2017, our April trip to Ragdale had been in the diary for several months. I rang to cancel, promising myself that I would return in due course, even though it was clear by then that we had made our last visit.
The months that followed were intense and exhausting. For several weeks I spent hours almost every day at her bedside in hospital. Then, when she was considered sufficiently stable to return home, I stayed with her, spending every day and many nights helping to keep her comfortable, and making her feel safe, secure and loved. After she died, a different kind of work began; firstly the organisation of her funeral, the management of her correspondence, and advising friends all over the world; then, and for the last four months, my brother, sister-in-law and I have faced the almost overwhelming task of clearing her house of the stuff of a long and busy life, that of a woman who came from a generation who never threw anything away in case it might come in handy later; that of a woman who wanted to be known, and for whom recording history, activities and accomplishments, and accounting for life and all its significances and insignificances was paramount.
There were cupboards so tightly packed you could hardly imagine the quantity of things which emerged from them. There was paperwork going back decades; important archive material, the history of a family caught up in every aspect of the Holocaust, requiring careful and responsible handling; a mass of writings – published and unpublished articles, accounts of trips and holidays, study output from numerous courses, personal and emotional, factual and fictional pieces – dating back to the 1970’s, letters dating back to the 1950’s, thousands of photographs, greetings cards and postcards. There were brochures, maps and guide books, cruise, exhibition, festival, event, theatre and concert programmes; all records of a life spent travelling, absorbing history, art, music and culture around the world. And books, books, books… and more books. And there was more – our battered old toys, shelves of unwanted gifts, oddments and ephemera, souvenir trinkets and costume dolls from far-flung places. And on it went…
From the outset we took the approach that we would minimise what went to landfill, so we’ve been diligent in rehoming, recycling and donating the kinds of things which would otherwise end up in a skip. That has meant a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, calling and emailing, lifting, carrying and hauling about, to say nothing of the hours and hours spent shredding, whilst carefully checking each file to ensure we weren’t inadvertently disposing of anything of significance. It’s not over either. There’s the house to sell, and the auctionable ‘house clearance’ stuff to see to in due course. Oh, and because it’s been summer, we’ve been trying to keep the gardens looking tidy too (nowhere near the way mum used to do, but passable).
So… it’s been a hectic time, respectful and conscientious too. A doing time, rather more than a thinking time. And I confess, I was beginning to feel that I hadn’t done nearly enough thinking about my mum.
I had the idea that Ragdale Hall might be a good place to make the time and space to do a little thinking, as well as afford me the opportunity to release my weary body from some of the tension that had built up over recent months. So a month ago, I called and made my booking. I knew exactly what to expect – care, comfort and service, experienced professional therapists, restful lounges and conservatories, yummylicious food, and the combined indulgences of sublime treatments and a multi-zoned spa and pool area. What I didn’t know, and feared just a little, was how it would feel to be there without my mother.
Ragdale had been our break. It was intended as a one-off, and it was an inspired suggestion – my mother’s, I should add – back in 2010 when she was about to turn 75, and I was heading for my 50th birthday. Our activities and interests were generally quite disparate, and it would be hard to envisage a holiday that could meet both her needs and mine. The idea of a spa break, where we could spend personal time indulging ourselves with therapies, exercise classes, swimming, relaxing and reading, and yet come together for lunch and dinner, evenings and a lovely, companionable walk each day, was just about the perfect solution. And we enjoyed our 4-day break so much that we booked for the following year. And the next, and the next…
The lump rose in my throat as I pulled up outside the main entrance and the porter came out to pick up my luggage and park my car. The warm smile and friendly recognition I received at reception very nearly finished me off. I checked in, filled in my breakfast menu card, slurped my welcome coffee and high-tailed it to my room, to regroup.
Mum and I had stayed in every one of the spa’s small number of single rooms over the years. When I called this time around, none was available, so I booked a double room for single occupancy on the floor above. It was a very different experience, quite a bit more luxurious if I’m honest. I was, I confess, relieved that I wouldn’t be sleeping in a room previously occupied by either of us. Even the décor was different – and very pleasing.
At dinner on my first evening, I began to wonder if I’d made the best decision for myself. It was very, very hard, sitting across the table from an empty chair. I’d chosen not to join what Ragdale calls its ‘social table’, as I didn’t want to chat with fellow guests. Nevertheless, that empty chair was very… empty.
I don’t know if it was anxiety or what, but I’d developed a tight knot in my stomach on the drive up to Ragdale. The result was a nasty bout of acid reflux across the next couple of nights, something that hasn’t troubled me since I started eating more healthily. I slept fitfully and uncomfortably as my stomach twisted and ached. More than once I wondered if I should call it a day and return home.
But the intense soothment of the Ragdale experience eventually worked its way in. I swam and steamed myself… I enjoyed what was intended to be a gentle massage, where the therapist, noticing the crunchy tension across my neck and shoulders, offered to apply her skills more vigorously to the task of un-knotting me, to my delight and appreciation. The next day I had a lovely reflexology session with a kind and compassionate therapist, who didn’t mind in the least that I burst into tears as I tried to explain what had brought me to the session. Later, Jon, Ragdale’s exceptional shiatsu therapist was subjected to the same tearfulness, and he too delivered a superbly effective treatment to, apparently, liberate my gallbladder meridian. The expert pressure-point massage and stretching did wonders for my taut, twisty frame. That evening, the restaurant manager, on duty for the first time since I had arrived, recognised me and noticed the absence of my usual companion, which resulted in a gentle conversation as he took my order. I was struck by his kindness and his thoughtful yet unsentimental words. It meant something me that he had noticed my mother’s absence and taken the time to stop and talk in a very hectic service.
The next day, I received an extraordinary deep-tissue massage, and made time for more swimming and steaming. By the end of that day, I was significantly unwound, relaxed both physically and emotionally, and firmly persuaded that in making this visit to Ragdale Hall at this point in time, I had done a very good thing for myself. I’d also given myself some much-needed time to simply be still and remember my mother. On my last day, I let more thoughts and tears come, in Ragdale’s dry flotation tank in a semi-darkened room. By then, I was ready to be home again – just as well, as all that remained was an indulgent buffet lunch, before I packed my bag and got on my way.
When it comes to death and bereavement, it’s easy to be busy – because there’s so much to do. It’s easy to fill the hours and days with must-do’s, dutiful activities and responsibilities. It’s all too easy to let them clutter the space where silence and stillness has an important healing role to play. By the time I went to Ragdale Hall, my mind and body were clamouring for the silence and stillness and my tears were very close to the surface. Now that I’m home, I feel a calm that wasn’t there before, and I know my mother would have been proud of me, that I took myself away to do this, for both of us.