New baby? Welcome to the mother of all health retreats
&Breathe combines r&r with fitness and healthy eating for steam-rolled parents and their gurgling newborns
The grounds of Manoir la Croix de La Jugie.
New mums feel the burn.
Clio Wood chats with a young guest.
Nick Ashe is put through his paces by personal trainer Caroline Bragg.
Trying to steal a couple of minutes here and there to actually sit down and apply my Vaseline-filled baby brain to write this piece was a monumental challenge in itself. Just a few short months ago, a laid-back baby Robert strolled into our world and, although not one to cause a fuss, he has skilfully managed to slip into a position of significant power.
Put it this way: the dynamics of our home are not dissimilar to those we envisage in the Oval Office. We had no idea he would be able to assume the role of a little dictator in such a short space of time.
As any parent will tell you, those first few weeks with a newborn are merely lifelike, a haze filled with awe, love and sleepless nights. Normal life as you know it ceases to exist and your new, very short-sighted existence is fuelled by a combination of diminishing adrenaline and, in our case, a never-ending supply of flapjacks. All of this can take its toll.
When still in the haze of Robert’s first six weeks, our new family was given the opportunity to experience a week-long postnatal retreat in Limousin, in central France. Here the 18th-century Manoir la Croix de La Jugie is the warm and welcoming home of Clio Wood and her award-winning &Breathe. These retreats, for parents of babies and toddlers up to 18 months, combine rest, recuperation, tips on fitness, wellbeing and healthy eating in a relaxed group setting.
Nick had recently returned to work after two weeks’ paternity leave. It soon became apparent that family time going forward would be primarily restricted to weekends. Having had a constant flow of visitors during the early weeks, we had had little opportunity to experience life as just the three of us.
Now is the time
What &Breathe offered us was time. Time was suddenly everything. It is a time of firsts: nap times, feeding times, not enough time, time’s up and, of course, the luxury of some time out. The retreat offers frazzled new parents and their little ones not only precious time together, but a safe and comfortable environment to come up for air and focus on some essential self-care, in the company of other families going through the same changes.
As the mini-dictators depend on us for everything, Clio Wood points out that, as you “cannot drink from an empty cup”, self-care is more important than ever before.
And so, with our meticulously packed bags, including at least 100 nappies too many and an equal oversupply of baby wipes, we boarded our first flight with unjustified trepidation. Robert surpassed our expectations, thankfully unaware of the plane taking off and landing.
Driving in our tiny rental from Bordeaux Airport through the countryside of the Parc Naturel Régional Périgord Limousin to the to Manoir la Croix de la Jugie, we wondered what was in store for us. By arriving sans catastrophe, I think we graduated to a new level of parenthood at some point during that car journey.
We felt an instant sense of calm waking up in the Long Room, one of five family suites, on a wintery Monday morning. Blue skies and the grounds of a 6-acre traditional French manor awaited us outside, while a terrifyingly healthy breakfast awaited us downstairs.
We were greeted by Wood, fitness expert Caroline Bragg and four other families gathered around a communal breakfast table eating food we thankfully recognised. As very new parents, the obvious novelty was the automatic focus on each other’s children, the most effective little icebreakers. This was our first opportunity since we’d become parents to sit down and chat with others going through the same transition. After being cooped up in our home in Dublin, indifferent to whether it was night or day, we did not expect how relaxing this community feel would be.
For the rest of the week the retreat, which sets aside any sort of strict routine, struck a good balance between group and family time. Mealtimes were a relaxed affair, particularly the suppers, as we all dealt with new bedtime routines. Wood organised delicious meals for the week from the family-style kitchen, centring around wholesome and uncomplicated ingredients. Nick and I were steered away from flapjacks and towards healthier options that we could easily reproduce at home.
Much to the dismay of my good intentions, Wood baked the most delicious bread for breakfast and lunch and I discovered how good it tasted with a lavish spread of almond butter. I was breastfeeding, after all, so one slice for me, another slice for Robert. Other favourites included butternut squash ravioli and a clever little chocolate mousse made using avocado and dates, which I’ve since whipped up often enough at home to keep my sweet tooth on the straight and narrow.
To combat my over-eagerness in the bread department, Caroline Bragg was on hand with an enthusiastic smile, pointing me in the direction of the studio.
One on one
With childbirth still such a recent event, I gently squeezed myself into my gym gear for an initial one-to-one session with the fitness guru, a personal trainer as well as an expert in postnatal fitness and toning. As I approached the converted outbuilding, I envied Nick his unchanged body – my own body felt like a stranger. Bragg must have sensed my unease while we chatted about my experience, and she was quick to remind me that my body had been through the workout of its life.
The trainer combined stretching, pilates, TRX and high-intensity cardio training to create a bespoke plan for each guest, all with a contagious enthusiasm to match her bright leggings. Bragg reminded me that it wasn’t just about getting my body back – it was about getting outside and enjoying the road to recovery. Using the grounds of the manor, two group classes were held a day.
Bragg took a mercilessly different tack with the dads. Nick, who would consider himself pretty fit, stumbled back to Robert after each of his hour-long intense circuit sessions and found himself unable to walk to breakfast every day like anyone other than John Wayne.
To justify the expense of renting our car, halfway through our stay we spent an afternoon in the small city of Limoges and grabbed supper on the way home. It was a nice little adventure, but looking back we probably should have stayed put to enjoy the comforts of the manor. Driving back that evening, we realised that the secret ingredient of the magical, laid-back and warm vibe of the retreat, that feeling of total relaxation, was the warm and genuine style of hosting.
This trip to &Breathe certainly wouldn’t have been our normal pre-baby sort of adventure. But sometimes you don’t need an adventure. In fact, nowadays our adventures tend to be small and precious – and, where possible, include sleep.
Seven nights’ full board costs £1,850 (€2,173) per family (two adults and one baby under 18 months). The cost includes food and drink, fitness classes, a private training session for each adult, childcare sessions and one evening’s babysitting, plus transfers from Limoges. Dates for 2017: April 8th-15th, May 27th- June 3rd, July 15th-22nd, September 16th-23rd. Next year retreats will also be held at luxury homes around Britain. See andbreathepostnatal.com.