Helen Lederer's secret weapon for beating the lockdown blues

'Professional but genuine friendly service combined with glorious water immersion, elegance and… fluffy towels' - Andrew Crowley
'Professional but genuine friendly service combined with glorious water immersion, elegance and… fluffy towels' - Andrew Crowley

Comedian Helen Lederer learns the power of relaxation at Gainsborough Bath Spa

My Czech grandmother spent many summers with her best friend, while they were both in their 80s, immersing themselves in the healing waters of Switzerland or Austria. They always came back feeling refreshed, having “taken the waters”. Or so they claimed.

I wanted to have what my grandmother had. Six months of waking up at five in the morning, worrying if I’d upset people (I had, mostly) while running a literary prize, most of it in lockdown, had been making me anxious. I’d tried to manage it from my desk, but the Ted talk on YouTube felt smug, and a self-help book on gratitude came with too many instructions. I was stuck.

If “taking the waters” was a way to reconnect with my humour and love of people by way of a reboot and a refresh, then – I supposed – I had to get wet.

With the current travel uncertainties, a spa cure in the UK made a lot more sense than one in the Alps, and since the mineral waters flowing from the Mendip hills are the only hot springs in England, Bath was the place to be.

These springs have pedigree: dating back to around 863BC, they are said to relieve anyone of “all ills and discomforts, including leprosy”.

I decided to take my partner, if only to get him away from the lockdown jigsaw, and find an alternative to watching the news and worrying. Also, I’m bad at breakfasts on my own. I had no idea what to expect but even on a rainy afternoon in winter, the grandeur of Bath’s Georgian and Victorian facades shone out with superior charm.

The Gainsborough Hotel opened in 2015 and was constructed from two Grade II listed buildings in the heart of the World Heritage Site. But it wasn’t until we’d got inside the rather regal reception area that I remembered my somewhat inferior wheelie. Would this matter? The Gainsborough was a very smart hotel and I’d already spotted another guest with a nice, shiny, gliding, upright model. Worse, our car was still parked in the loading bay outside the grand entrance: the anxious brain fog was making it difficult to focus on finding the nearest city car park, especially without an umbrella or a map.

Guests are required to book their spa visits in advance to avoid overcrowding - the gainsborough
Guests are required to book their spa visits in advance to avoid overcrowding - the gainsborough

Then something happened to snap me out of my mood. Two very cheerful and smiley gentlemen called Matthew and Mark took command of our bags (my nylon wheelie was stowed without comment), produced a map for the car park (three minutes away) and genuinely made us feel welcome.

Restrictions had put paid to certain services such as valet parking and in-house dining, but their easy enthusiasm about what was still on offer reminded me of a time gone by, when people talked to each other with apparent ease.

I’d forgotten what it was like to interact with people who appeared to like their jobs and were also jolly. The Gainsborough vibe was calm and quietly confident. And personal. It reminded me that a decent welcome should be everyone’s secret weapon… especially now.

The black and white tiled floor, and the huge stairwell with modern “pop” of black and brown carpeting, reminded me of the mix of old and new money coming together. This wasn’t a coincidence. Gainsborough had worked in Bath during its heyday of high society at the same time his American contemporary, Henry James, wrote The Europeans, which showcased the difference between “old” money and “new”.

In fact, opposite the reception desk was a shiny treasure trove of actual old money, glinting inside a glass case, along with an excited explanatory booklet commissioned by the British Museum. The “Beau Street hoard” comprised 17,500 Roman coins discovered in 2007 during excavations on the site.

As I sat in the Gainsborough bar with my pisco sour, served with just the right amount of finesse, I began to see the value in such old-fashioned splendour mixed with modern connectivity. The owners had been bold enough to commandeer Bath’s hot springs so that they are exclusively redirected into the hotel’s bespoke spa village. I could see the floodlit courtyard, full of the redirected hot springs, pulsing nicely around a few late-night bathers.

The Gainsborough
The Gainsborough

The next morning, I was more than ready to take the waters. Guests are required to book their spa visits ahead of time to avoid overcrowding and I particularly liked this rule. If I’m ever alone in a jacuzzi and a stranger gets in, I tend to wait a beat, out of politeness, and then get out. Before bathing, I was invited to sniff some oils to choose one that would best sum up my needs. I went for two: Destress and Focus. The practitioner duly sprinkled the correct oils over two bags of salt crystals and suggested I might like to smell them throughout the day.

Placing my bag of curatives in my pocket, I bravely derobed for my first bath circuit. Two pools were nicely warm at 35C (95F), while the third was a bit warmer at a sensual 40C (104F). I went for the sensual one.

Within seconds, I found myself drifting off into a trance and must have remained bobbing gently and staring into nothing for ages. I was finally able to stop thinking. Maybe this was like being in the womb. I felt protected and buoyed at the same time. No wonder babies cry when it’s time to come out. But it wasn’t over. I settled back on a daybed on the terrace, to be collected like a child, for my signature “renew and refresh” massage using rosemary, lavender and pine. I only came to with a gentle nudge of a glass of water, followed by a hibiscus tea.

The rest of the stay was spent hunkering down in the hotel room, wearing a cosy dressing gown, on top of a bed dressed with crisp white sheets. When the bed got turned down in the evening, I was given a copy of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LXI”. Since my mind was starting to calm down, I read it.

I didn’t feel over-indulged, but nor did I feel undeserving either. The Gainsborough offers a unique quality that money can’t buy. Professional but genuine friendly service combined with glorious water immersion, elegance and… fluffy towels.

The Gainsborough Bath Spa (thegainsboroughbathspa.co.uk) offers doubles from £290 per night on a room-only basis. To book, contact reservations@ytlhotels.co.uk. Read our expert review of the hotel.