Kicking out behind me, I sail through cool water as I look ahead – through the glass pyramid of the spa and up, up, up, to a sky that looks more like a Renaissance painting than a real backdrop, bedecked with luminous, peach-hued clouds that are lit by the waning sun as it makes its way behind the horizon.
It is quiet and still: I am the only swimmer in the outdoor pool at Lower Mill Estate this evening. It’s a day of firsts – my first dip after lockdown, my first overnight stay, my first time out of London (discounting several fruitless house-hunting trips) and my first holiday of 2021.
Well, I say holiday; technically this falls under that unholiest of portmanteaus, “workation”. By day, I will be tapping out travel stories from one of this Cotswolds estate’s numerous self-contained luxury lakeside holiday homes. By night – and indeed by lunchtime and early morning – I am free to explore, going on bike rides around the extensive nature trails, jogging by the water, and, of course, swimming in one of the three onsite pools.
After months of staying put, my first feeling upon setting off for my staycay-slash-workay was, unexpectedly, anxiety. I couldn’t remember what to pack; I worried about how long it would take to get to Paddington station; I fretted over which taxi firm to use.
But seven hours later, as I embark on my sunset swim, I finally exhale. The feeling of calm seeps through my bones; the background audio of constant chirruping birdsong slows my pulse with every breath.
Things only get more relaxed from there. I pad back up the lane to my resting place, Spinney Falls House – a five-bedroom, three-storey house, with floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor that slide open, teflon-smooth, to access the wrap-around deck. It seems a little extravagant for my party of one: a last-minute cancellation is the only reason I’m here rather than still stuck in my cramped north London flat.
To warm up from my swim, I pick my preferred bathroom (there are three to choose from so it’s far from an easy decision) and clamber into the tub to experience the deepest bath I’ve had in at least six months. Accompanied by Line of Duty and a hefty glass of white wine, you’d be hard to pressed to make me any happier.
I tumble into bed and sleep the deep slumber of someone who is used to living directly underneath upstairs neighbours with bare wooden floors who enjoy moving furniture around at 12am each night. Here, amid the Cotswold Water Park in rural Gloucestershire, nothing stirs.
The next morning, after another invigorating swim in the open air, I get to work. Setting up on the extensive dining table – a table that might just be bigger than my entire kitchen at home – I feel more energised than I have in months. I fly through stories, pausing every now and then to admire the pretty view of a stone bridge straddling reed-framed water. At various points, an actual heron swoops down and wades in, and I lose my cool every single time.
The feeling of calm seeps through my bones; the background audio of constant chirruping birdsong slows my pulse with every breath
After unseasonal snow, the weather has finally remembered it’s spring; weak April sun turns the surrounding lakes mirror-like, reflecting the powder blue sky above, during my lunchtime run. That night I feel I’ve earned the final component of any great holiday, whether domestic or far-flung: a decadent meal. It arrives at my door bang-on 7.30pm, hand delivered from the onsite restaurant Ballihoo. Inside multiple containers lies a feast fit for several other imaginary guests but, since there’s no one else here, I guess I’ll have to take one for the team.
Arancini; grilled Norfolk asparagus; Cerney goat’s cheese croquettes; Cornish sea bream… On and on it goes, each mouthful better than the last. The gnocchi with truffle and hazelnut pesto has me audibly swooning; I save half of the dessert – a double chocolate brownie with thyme caramel and banana and peanut fool – for the next day, in order to truly do it justice.
The next day it will be time to return to reality. I will have to learn how to be productive once more without regular heron-watching breaks, daily lone swims and a nature reserve on my doorstep. But as I drift off to sleep cloaked in silence for my final night, I reflect that my first trip back in the game was damn-near perfect. It’s eased me in, helped me find my holiday groove. Going abroad again once it’s allowed will be exhilarating, sure – but, for now, I’m more than happy to weave the “stay local” mantra into my travel plans.
The real post-lockdown luxury, as it turns out, is simply waking up somewhere new.
Habitat Escapes is the official holiday company for Lower Mill Estate. Rates for a four night stay in Spinney Falls House start from £1,317. The five-bedroom property sleeps up to 10 guests and is offered on a self-catering basis.