Combe Grove: A Pioneering UK Retreat Changing the Face of Metabolic Health

Written By: Karen Hockney

If you’re in search of the ultimate in medi-spas complete with alpine views, sparse clinical interiors and men and women in white coats where you can lose 10kg on a diet of watery soup, then Combe Grove is probably not for you. 

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However, if the idea of feasting on the good stuff nutritionally, physically and emotionally while also dialling down your risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia, depression, cancer and fertility issues appeals (you’ll also shed at least a kilo or two), then the UK’s first metabolic health retreat is where it all begins. 

Set in 70 glorious acres of rolling Somerset countryside, a mere hop and a skip from the centre of Bath, Combe Grove has recently launched a pioneering Metabolic Health Programme for Optimum Health, the first of its kind in the UK. Devised and led by doctors, health experts and dieticians, it looks likely to give the Lanserhofs, VIVAMAYRs and Buchingers a real run for their money. 

Here though, it’s about far more than simply shedding weight to look good at Paris Fashion Week or the Oscars; indeed, Hippocrates’ motto “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”, emphasising the importance of nutrition in preventing and curing disease, has never rung more true especially given that poor metabolic health has become a 21st century plague. 

Up to 31% of the global population is estimated to have metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions that together raise your risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other serious health problems) according to the European Society of Cardiology. 

The brainchild of Bath-based entrepreneur and philanthropist Helen Aylward-Smith, Combe Grove’s journey from Georgian manor house hotel and country club to Britain’s trail-blazing centre for metabolic health is an intriguing and necessary concept given the additional statistics from The Health Survey for England, which found that 35.3% of adults in the UK have prediabetes, with around five to ten per cent progressing to Type 2 diabetes. 

The estate is no stranger to new incarnations. This ancient site, where Celtic and Roman artefacts have been recovered, was gifted by Henry VIII to a local landowner and later evolved from a family home into desirable apartments for “ladies and gentlemen who declined to housekeep”, including composer Ivor Novello and actor Rex Harrison, before becoming a hotel. 

Combe Grove also has a social conscience in the form of The Elmhurst Foundation Charitable Trust, creating apprenticeships in the fields of health and wellbeing for local people, with facilities and expertise shared among the surrounding community. 

Preparations for my six-night stay begin a few weeks before arrival when I fill in an online questionnaire about my five roots of metabolic health - nutrition, movement, sleep, mindset and environment - all of which need to function optimally to lower the risk of heart disease, strokes, prediabetes and Type 2. 

Arrival day sees a flurry of activity as my fellow retreaters and I are shown to our rooms – my beautiful minimalist yet cosy Scandi-inspired Orchard Room is sustainably decorated in calming Zen neutrals, with sisal carpets, light wood fixtures, blackout drapes and low pendant bedside lighting. Even the coasters for the never-ending minibar supply of Pukka teas (Combe Grove is alcohol-free) are carved out of wood. 

Japanese-influenced ensuite bathrooms feature stone flooring, intelligent sensor-operated taps and lighting systems and refreshingly, the suites are TV-free. Perhaps my favourite aspect, aside from the spectacular views across the gardens, was the indulgently soft British woollen mattress topper, pillows and duvet, which can be plumped up with extra wool or reduced to bespoke them specifically to each client’s desires, pretty much guaranteeing a blissful night’s sleep.  

An in-house line up of 12 holistic practitioners at the top of their game is impressive too. During my stay, I experience acupuncture with New Zealander Brian, an incredibly healing two hour reflexology treatment with Rosalind, who vastly improves my ongoing upper back and tech neck pain, and a liberating cranial sacral osteopathy session thanks to Bella’s healing hands. 

The variety of treatments includes emotional freedom technique, counselling, psychotherapy, homeopathy, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine, myofascial release, Kinesiology, Bach Flower Remedies, naturopathic sessions, shiatsu and massage. 

But it’s metabolic health we’re really here for. Oliver Platt leads the nutrition workshops, covering how to choose optimal portions of protein, carbs and vegetables on our plates and the dangers of too much refined sugar, and there’s a team of instructors ready to take us through everything from challenging HIIT sessions to sleep-inducing candlelit yoga nidra. 

We’re introduced to Dr Campbell Murdoch, who is highly respected for his work on metabolic health, and in charge of blood testing us all to determine our insulin resistance. 

My levels of glucose, triglycerides, HDL - good cholesterol - and blood pressure are thankfully normal but the same can’t be said for a few of the others (who will see life-changing results in the space of this week). 

A body composition Accuniq test assesses everything from muscle mass and BMI to visceral and subcutaneous fat levels as well as body fat percentage – in other words, an all-encompassing obesity risk analysis. 

We are put on low carb TRE - time-restricted eating, an ideal way to control blood sugar while also improving energy, appetite regulation, mood and sleep patterns. Brunch is timed for 11am and supper at 6pm to ensure a 16/8 intermittent fasting period. 

If this sounds restrictive, you only need to lay eyes each morning on the groaning table of wholesome home-made muesli, mixed nuts and seeds, dairy and non-dairy yoghurts and berries followed by delicious chickpea flour pancakes with roasted vegetables, or tofu and poached egg with chilli, garlic and tahini dressing or even kippers with horseradish and estate-grown cavolo nero to know that you won’t go hungry here. 

A two-course supper kicks off with a different salad each evening (highly effective at lowering sugar spikes and crashes when eaten just before a main meal) followed by a tempting array of locally sourced meat, fish, veggie and vegan options. 

I’ve experienced the hardcore broth-only retreats of heath farm legend which quickly reduce you to desperately searching through your bag for a long-forgotten Mars Bar, so this generous and largely organic spread was a joy to behold. 

You’ll struggle not to swoon over home-grown squash bake with celeriac, red onion and chick peas dressed with garlic, rose harissa, chestnuts and pomegranate and grilled hake accompanied by sea vegetables, crab sauce and winter greens. Carnivores will delight in the excellent venison haunch served with beetroot, juniper and quinoa. And while Combe Grove might be alcohol-free, fun-free it most definitely is not, with delicately flavoured Pentire botanical blends happily standing in for a G&T.  

Thanks to the preparation, which includes a webinar and one-to-one with a nutrition expert, a week-long residential stay and an impressive 48-week follow up with expert remote guidance and support to continue your transformation, this year-long process has the potential to radically reshape your health outcomes, increase your vitality and restore calm to an overworked mind.

That was certainly my experience, with energising gym sessions, restorative yoga classes, outdoor pool dips and woodland walks (or forest bathing as it’s now known) adding to a growing sense of wellbeing and inner peace day by day, as well as deeper sleep. 

Witnessing the relief and happiness a couple of my fellow retreaters experienced towards the end of the week on seeing their dangerously high blood test results dip to lower, much safer levels in a matter of days was also hugely rewarding. 

I marvelled at how effectively Combe Grove’s clever integration of information age medical science and curated nutrition, movement and body balance was able to readjust the five key principles of human wellness, literally changing lives, and long-term goals and intentions, that week. 

The centre now offers additional specialist retreats on menopause, fertility, food and sugar addiction, type 1 diabetes, pre-op and men’s health throughout the year.  

Several months on, I am still practising the principles of TRE whenever I can, as well as daily body movement and making mindful choices about my nutrition and environment in a bid to future-proof my health and inner happiness. 

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  • Six day all-inclusive retreats start from £2,900

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