100 years of health at Champneys spas

PUBLISHED: 13:41 15 January 2019 | UPDATED: 13:41 15 January 2019

Yoga at the Tring resort. Furniture had to pushed out of the way (photo: Champneys)

Yoga at the Tring resort. Furniture had to pushed out of the way (photo: Champneys)


It’s nearly a century since the foundations of what would become Champneys spas were created in Tring. Julie Lucas talks to two remarkable women at its heart

Way before Jane Fonda was giving us the ‘killer stretch’, ‘beginner’s buttocks’ – and let’s not forget those unforgiving leotards and ’80s essential, the legwarmers – there was a fitness movement in England that had been going for decades. Now known as Champneys, the name is synonymous with Hertfordshire and health and beauty.

The original Tring site was the brainchild of Stanley Lief, who opened it in 1925 as the Nature Cure Resort. Born in Latvia, he was diagnosed with an incurable heart condition as a child. Undeterred, he sought treatment using osteopathy and diet and by 16 had cured himself. After studying naturopathy he bought the Tring estate from the Rothschild family and began offering holistic health treatments and naturopathy.

Its success was rapid and his pioneering ideas, particularly in how stress affects the body, are as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago.

Tanya Wheway, now 73, managed the health spa in the former Rothschild mansion with her husband Allan for 16 years and says she fell in love with it, but not at first. She describes the place in 1972 when they took it over as antiquated and dilapidated after years of neglect. It had been taken over by Allied Investments, one of five owners during the couple’s time. Despite the shifting ownership, the couple had a vision and set about transforming the facilities and attracting new clientele. Tanya’s objective was to treat the individual – to provide them with a healthy holiday and to teach as well as treat. ‘We believed that every guest was special and once they left their accommodation they should all be treated to the same high level of respect and standard of service.’

Champneys Tring - pioneering health treatments since the 1920s (photo: Jack Hardy)Champneys Tring - pioneering health treatments since the 1920s (photo: Jack Hardy)

While the service was first-class the facilities were not quite what they are today. ‘There was no gym in those days,’ Tanya explains. ‘On introducing exercise classes we used to have to push the furniture to one side in the drawing room, do a class and then put the furniture back.’

In the ’70s treatments included salt rubs, seaweed baths, enemas and colonic irrigation, now known as colonic hydrotherapy. If this wasn’t enough of a shock to the system the majority of guests were put on fasts. ‘It was four glasses of water a day, often for many days and sometimes a few weeks. There were two dining areas, one of which was called the light diet room where guests were on a strictly-controlled diet of 200 calories a day.

‘I found an old article written about Champneys in a national newspaper and the heading was “starved, irrigated and beaten, but in a good cause!”’

They approached companies to send their top executives to the spa – a ground-breaking concept at the time. On one occasion two men dressed in the requisite towelling robes were overheard talking, one asked the other what he did. ‘Oh I just have a few shops,’ he replied. He was Lord Marcus Sieff, chairman of M&S.

The wax bath. 'You would be covered head to toe' (photo: Champneys)The wax bath. 'You would be covered head to toe' (photo: Champneys)

Another woman with a vision, the powerhouse behind today’s Champneys, is Dorothy Purdew. Now ‘86-and-a-half’, she bought her first resort, Henlow Grange (then a small spa) in neighbouring Bedfordshire in 1981, followed by Springs in Leicestershire and Forest Mere in Hampshire in the 1990s before acquiring the Tring resort in 2002 and rebranding them all Champneys (the name of the Tring estate). Still chairman of the company, she says the industry has changed for the better. ‘Therapists receive a much more in depth training and have greater understanding of how the body works,’ she explains.

Early treatments at Henlow included massages and simple facials but the speciality was the wax bath. ‘We were famous for it,’ says Dorothy. ‘In the old days the wax would be melted then whisked up in a bucket and you would be covered from head to toe.’ The treatment was good for removing toxins and she assures me you didn’t end up totally hairless. ‘The skin used to feel like a baby’s bottom. I’m really sorry we don’t do it anymore.’

Therapies also included a treatment called G5 – a massage via a machine. ‘Quite alarming looking back,’ Dorothy admits. ‘And I really can’t believe that at that time we let our 16-year-old juniors give these treatments. They were quite effective but a bit dangerous. We never had any problems except the occasional bruising. I wouldn’t do them now.’

Over the years Champneys has become a haven for celebrities away from prying paparazzi. Kylie Minogue, Dame Judy Dench and Brad Pitt have all stayed. Cherie Blair is described by Dorothy as ‘the most delightful person’. However it’s most famous guest was Princess Diana; ‘extremely gracious and lovely’.

The pool at Henlow Grange (photo: Jack Hardy)The pool at Henlow Grange (photo: Jack Hardy)

Has Dorothy had any particularly demanding guests? ‘At 2am when I was acting night porter a guest came and demanded I turn off the waterfall on the river, as the noise was keeping her awake. It was April the first and I really thought she was trying to be the first to catch me but she was deadly serious.’

Today there are five Champney resorts in the UK, renowned for their grand buildings and lovely parkland, including Tring and Henlow (recently undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment), as well as six ‘city spas’ (one is in St Albans), a range of beauty products and the respected Champneys Beauty College at Tring and Holborn.

The company has remained close to its roots with nutrition and fitness top of the agenda, but these days you won’t be put on just water – much to the relief of clientele, you can order wine with dinner. And there is still a focus on pioneering beauty treatments with more than 100 to choose from. Dorothy’s favourite is the body scrub.

Fitness fads have come and gone and Champneys has seen them all, from simple stretches and star jumps in the ’30s to vibrating belts in the ’50s said to break down fat (the modern version is the power plate), hula hooping in the ’60s (having something of a revival) and those ’80s aerobics. These days there’s meditative yoga, barre fusion – a kind of cardio ballet, and the latest thing Jumpga - a mixture of high intensity training and yoga.

Still full of vitality, both Tanya and Dorothy are an advert for looking after our bodies and minds. Dorothy has passed on the day-to-day running of Champneys to her son Stephen, so has more time to do the things she loves – including cycling, albeit she recently swapped two wheels for three. Tanya returned to Champneys in 2012, after creating award-winning spas around the world, and she now runs an ‘Attitude is all’ retreat at Tring. After a lifetime in the industry, what has she learnt? ‘Your health, your relationships and your time are your most precious assets – take the greatest care of all three.’

Latest from the Hertfordshire Life