Travel doesn’t always have to be a hangover-inducing romp. There’s much to be said in favour of a restorative break that boosts one’s health profile and trims the waistline. With that philosophy in mind, I was thrilled when my annual trip to the Wigtown Book Festival enabled me to pay a visit to Penninghame House, an amazing retreat located in Newton Stewart regularly raved about by the holistic cognoscenti.
My jaw dropped when I caught sight of the huge, beautiful 19th-century Scottish manor house (built in 1869 for the Stopford-Blair family) and fell further when my taxi driver told me it was an open prison from 1954 until 2000. The estate comprises 80 acres covered in woods and verdant, rolling lawns, with the Cree running along one of its boundaries. There is a large, beautiful Victorian-era walled garden, where much of the organic produce for Penninghame’s kitchens is grown.
London-born Ray, and Swedish-born Marie Butler, keen to leave the English capital, had been hunting for a Scottish site where they could create a retreat devoted to health and wellbeing. After buying Penninghame, they spent four years renovating it – doing everything from restoring the Victorian drawing room to splendour, to creating sleek new accommodation and dining areas decked out with beautiful Gustavian furniture from Scandinavia.
Not that they rest on their laurels – improvements are always underway, and they’ve recently built a brand new macrobiotic cookery school with rooms above. Or guests can stay in the main house, its annex, or a number of well-appointed self-contained cottages dotted around the property.
The programmes to choose from range from three-day mini-breaks with lectures about food and sessions with macrobiotic health consultants, to longer macrobiotic cookery courses. The Natural Woman course is designed to address women’s unique health and hormonal issues, which can lead to weight gain, emotional imbalance and stress. For those keen to explore their psyches at an even deeper level, there are courses such as Truth and Consequences, designed to help you break dysfunctional sabotaging patterns of behaviour, while the Penninghame Process, is aimed at achieving deep, personal healing by focusing on patterns that were established in childhood. All these courses are run by experts with many years’ experience, and the student to teacher ratio is kept low, to ensure that participants receive whatever support they require around the clock.
There is also a week-long Ultimate Health programme where participants can work on their bodies and minds simultaneously, learning how to balance their nutritional intake, improve the quality of their life, and move toward emotional and spiritual stability. It promises to leave you feeling detoxed, slimmer, and healthier.
As a guest of Ray and Marie – whose hospitality is boundless – I had an amazing multi-course dinner, and can report, hand on heart, that their macrobiotic fare is so delicious you’ll quickly forget it’s “healthy” and will simply call it “gourmet”. A visit to their website’s recipe section proves that it’s easy to achieve at home, as well.
The quality of the food is surely down to the fact that both the Butlers spent years working in the restaurant business, and firmly believe in food’s restorative healing powers. Marie cured her chronic eczema by cutting out dairy products, and helped Ray defeat both gout and snoring by altering his diet. Over the years visitors to Penninghame have found relief from a range of ailments, including Type II Diabetes, allergies, sleep difficulties and obesity.
Macrobiotic, by the way, shouldn’t be a scary term, and you don’t have to go to Japan to get the hang of it. Marie explains that at its most fundamental level, it simply means eating food local to where you live, and according to what’s in season. Scientific study bears out the wisdom of this, demonstrating that many health problems clear up when one adopts a diet high in wholegrains, pulses, vegetables, fruit and nuts.
In addition to course lectures and exercises, there are evening health talks and sometimes films. There’s an on-site gym, sauna and steam room, and morning sessions of yoga, chi ball and Nordic walking. Or lace up your trainers and take a walk around the grounds, whose wealth of pathways invites exploration and rewards the intrepid with beautiful views.
Anyone who’s committed to changing their life for the better, for good, would be wise to explore the possibilities on offer at Penninghame. Go for the enlightenment, stay for the serene surroundings and an opportunity to discover this exquisite corner of Scotland.
• The Facts Penninghame House, Penninghame, Newton Stewart, Dumfries & Galloway, DG8 6RD; tel: 01671 401414, visit www.penninghame.org Prices vary depending on the programme and the accommodation. For example the Natural Woman Health Programme from 23-29 March is priced from £1,250.