This was our first review about our inaugural Mamaheaven back in 2005, where Amy Raphael joined us on retreat with her young daughter Bonny. Since then over 300 mothers and babies have ventured to our retreats to enjoy the Mamaheaven experience.
If life was fair, Mamaheaven would be offered on the NHS. As it is, this country’s first weekend retreat for mums with babies up to the age of 18 months doesn’t come cheap. But it’s worth it for a myriad of reasons, not least because it offers a chance to relax and reflect on motherhood. And although it’s all about organic food, yoga, massage and taking a holistic approach to your body (and your child’s), Mamaheaven isn’t run by dippy new age hippies. Rather, these are smart, interesting women who have trained in such areas as massage and craniosacral therapy, McTimoney chiropractice and Montessori childcare.
In fact, my fear wasn’t really the new agers at all, but the possibility of the weekend being full of Notting Hill yummy mummies – you know, women such as Jools Oliver. I was wrong. At the inaugural Mamaheaven weekend earlier this year, there were 10 of us and we were all pretty ordinary mums. Most weren’t even from London, though maybe this was because of the location. Penrhos Court is an old manor farm on the Welsh borders, a good four hours’ drive from the capital.
A girlfriend and I drove from Brighton, and although we were a bit grumpy about the number of nappy, food and milk stops involved, as soon as we arrived our moods lifted. Penrhos Court itself is a kind of utopia. With the first hotel restaurant to be awarded Soil Association certification in 1997, it was opened 25 years ago by pioneering organic nutritionist and chef Daphne Lambert and her husband Martin Griffiths. It feels like home, only better: there are bright, airy rooms with views over the Herefordshire countryside, Neal’s Yard soap to use in big bathtubs, huge communal areas with grand fireplaces and, outside, a pond in the middle of a calm, grassy courtyard.
When I arrived, I was pretty much a yoga virgin, had never left my seven-month-old daughter Bonnie with anyone who wasn’t family or a close friend and thought I was fed up with talking to other mothers. The first session made me nervous. We had to sit on the floor in a circle with our babies at our feet, talk to one of the other mums for five minutes and then tell the group what we had learnt. I did that classic mum thing of remembering only the baby’s name and not its mother’s when the whole point of the exercise was to learn to listen.
But any sense of shyness soon faded. After fresh beetroot and fennel juice on the grass (which Bonnie gulped down), we had our first yoga session. I took a deep breath and left Bonnie in the makeshift crèche, a beautiful beamed room with stained-glass windows and what seemed like the contents of a large toy shop. In a quiet room across the courtyard, I tried not to feel separation anxiety. Instead I felt stiff and more than a bit blobby.
I secretly glanced at the other women, who all seemed incredibly flexible and lithe. Finally, I forgot to feel self-conscious. For the first time since I had given birth, I really let go. And at the end of the session I burst into tears. I felt ridiculously happy and madly in love with my baby; when one of the carers appeared at the door with Bonnie smiling in her arms, I felt elated.
On the other days, we did baby yoga, which I’d heard could improve sleep patterns and ease gas pains. We warmed aromatherapy oil in our hands and gently massaged the babies’ limbs before carefully moving their sumo wrestler-like legs into strange positions. Bonnie gave me quizzical looks but appeared untroubled. We also did a ‘sing and sign’ class to help babies communicate before they learn to speak and a session dancing with our babies. My friend Corinna danced with her son Orlando to Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and couldn’t hold back the tears.
If this all sounds a bit soppy and slushy, it really wasn’t; it was simply a release of the emotion of childbirth and being a first-time mum, a release which was only possible because Mamaheaven felt so … safe. Between yoga sessions and an incredible massage we ate Daphne’s fantastic food. In an approach that is highly fashionable now but old hat to her, she uses only organic, local and seasonal food. We had salads garnished with nettles, lentils flavoured with garlic and herbs, delicately flavoured fish, smoothies, homemade bread and cakes.
Our babies ate breakfast and lunch with us – although Daphne would appear with puréed delights for them at any time of the day – but in the evenings we sat in a formidable, dark medieval hall at a long dining table with a row of baby monitors flickering in the background. We shared our experiences of childbirth, of early motherhood and the spectre of going back to work.
Returning to my room long before midnight, I dipped into Mamaheaven’s goodie bag and ran a bath scented with Dr Hauschka’s rose oil as Bonnie slept. It was paradise.