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India Pt 2: the Taj, a fort and one evil monkey

28 Dec
The evil monkey sits and waits...

The evil monkey sits and waits…

It was a stand-off to rival the best of the Westerns.

The boy vs a monkey.

Perched confidently on a window ledge was contestant number one – the monkey.

And behind the table, grasping his Coke tightly, the boy.

And me? I was at the back of the room, squealing.

We’d arrived a few minutes before this scene began, trudging our way up the rickety stairs of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Agra’s main drag, Miyan Nazir Road. We were hot, dusty and thirsty, and decided to go upstairs to see some views of the Taj and experience greater airflow.

After our drinks (a Coke and a banana lassi so filled with unblended banana chunks it was rendered undrinkable) arrived, we sat back in squeaking, metal chairs to have a moment of peace.

And then the monkey swung into the scene.

At first, he simply stared at us, long arms hanging on the grate of the fencing around the rooftop’s perimeter. But then, after a scratch of his belly, he inched forwards…and then further forwards…until a few seconds later,  he was sat on the chair opposite us, looking very determined.

I switched into “flight” mode while the boy chose “fight”. Clutching his Coke, the boy and the monkey eyed each other up fiercely while I took to the back stage. The monkey then turned to me with a look that almost seemed to say: “That’s a bit rude. I’m just here for a visit.”

Feeling I’d hurt the monkey’s emotions, I edged a bit closer. But then he glared, gave a hiss and looked terribly evil.

At that second, the owner came back up for a smoke and chased the monkey away. But not before the monkey had peed all over the table, as if to say: “That’s what I think of you all.”

Agra Cantt station.

Agra Cantt station.

We had arrived in Agra that morning after a very early train journey from Delhi, which we almost didn’t make due to the fact a scam train worker wouldn’t let us through the gates, telling us our journey had been cancelled. This was despite the fact our train was clearly showing on the departure board and matched our ticket numbers. Yet another scam we had to deal with. We ended up sneaking onto the platform via the exit, just to avoid him but I noticed him trying the same thing on with many other confused looking tourists.

Luckily, the journey on the Shatabdi Express was very pleasant and – as it was 6am – we were able to watch the hazy colours of sunrise filter over yellow and green fields, casting a perfect pale light on the surroundings.

Taj4

After arriving at Agra Cantt, and taking a quick tuk-tuk ride into the main part of Agra (where the Taj is) we had a light breakfast, getting our first views of the astounding structure from a beautiful rooftop restaurant (this earlier one, without monkeys). Even from afar, it was magnificent.

The Taj in all its glory.

The Taj in all its glory.

As we were there on Eid, we discovered entry to the Taj was free before 10am so we headed quickly to the entrance to make it on time.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

The day was perfect weather wise – an azure sky and pounding sun made it hot even by 9am but we were more than chuffed with the temperature change from rainy London to not mind a bit of potential sunburn.

And, of course, the view was even better. While the Taj Mahal is one of those images most of us have seen umpteen times, nothing beats experiencing it in its marbly flesh. The waterways leading up to the structure are crystal clear and reflect its towering lines, while the gardens are hushed and delightfully cool. We wandered around for an hour, taking in every inch of this 17th century wonder. My favourite part was taking off my shoes (a rule when you walk onto the main section) and feeling the solid, icy marble beneath my feet. I saw dozens of tour groups wearing special socks over their shoes but I wouldn’t have missed getting my soles dirty for anything.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

After a long walk around and inside all of the parts we could visit, the boy and I took our leave feeling a delightful calm within us that only a structure of such beauty, spirituality and grandeur could create.

And then we met the monkey – so much for relaxation!

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

We continued on our journey of Agra’s sights by visiting Agra Fort, about two miles away from the Taj Mahal. This red walled fort dates back to 11th century. It acted as the seat of the Sultan of Delhi in the 15th century, but became more famous when seized by the Mughal empire in the 16th century, then becoming a walled city and the seat of Shah Jahan (the creator of the Taj). You can see the Taj from from the Fort, and it was here that he was eventually imprisoned by his son – Aurangzeb – and put in a cell with a tortuous view of his precious Taj, bound to never enter its marble surroundings again. While it is not half as famous as the Taj, it is well worth visiting if you have the time.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort

When finally we departed Agra for the journey back to Delhi, it was with a feeling of accomplishment. Seeing these incredible structures in person was a highlight of our trip to India. And knowing we survived our encounter with the evil monkey made it all the more pleasurable.

In Part 3, I succumb to ‘Delhi Belly’ and the boy and I find peace in chaotic Varanasi.

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India Pt 1: Learning Lessons

21 Dec
A tuk-tuk on a very quiet roadway in Delhi.

A tuk-tuk on a very quiet roadway in Delhi.

Rahul seemed like a nice chap when we met him.

The b0y and I were standing at a roundabout near Connaught Place in Delhi having freshly arrived from London. We had been standing there a while watching the throngs of never-ending traffic with frustration, wondering when we might be able to cross.

“Be careful,” said Rahul, appearing suddenly by my side. “The traffic is a bit crazy here.”

Smiling at us, the boy and I followed him as he weaved his way through the traffic while it paused for a second.

“England?” he asked, when we got to the other side, having felt we’d played a real-life game of Frogger.

“Yes, England,” the boy responded.

“Ah, I lived in London, is that where you’re from?” he continued.

“Yes, we’re from there,” I said.

I wouldn’t normally open up about my life to strangers but Rahul seemed a nice enough chap – well dressed with baseball cap on and a comfortable grasp of English, we spent another ten minutes walking around the beaten up and excavated Connaught Place, speaking about England, Bollywood and his movie date. We asked if he knew of any good restaurants nearby and, saying he didn’t, he added he knew a local tourist information office that would be able to provide us needed information. As we approached it, I instantly felt slightly wary – the outside was all falling apart and was obviously being renovated. Rahul went in for us and, emerging a minute later, said it was no problem – it was simply being redone.

Rahul headed off to his movie and girlfriend and we thanked him and wished him well. Inside, we met Rahim who said he’d tell us about Delhi’s sights. It wasn’t long before we started to get the hard sell about what tours we could do with his tour agency. Declining most, we said we’d return after a meal to discuss a potential quick jaunt out to Rajasthan.

Heading out into the warm evening, the boy and I felt unsure if we could trust the tourist agency – but we equally felt that with jet lag we were possibly being slightly harsh on what could just be nice people.

Connaught Place as it used to look pre-"renovation" (photo credit: delhitravel.org)

Connaught Place as it used to look pre-“renovation”        (photo credit: delhitravel.org)

We wandered around Connaught Place, surprised at its dereliction. Our guide book (the Lonely Planet 30th anniversary edition) had told us it was the most upmarket area with lots of nice restaurants and shopping areas. As it was our first night, we’d taken the tuk-tuk up specifically because it seemed an easy first choice and we were exhausted. Instead, we found ripped up streets, excavators on every corner, hazardous holes with no signage and (later on) many people doing crack in the alleyways.

We read menus at a few restaurants finally choosing United Coffee House – a more up-market locale with suited waiters, a doorman and lovely, Raj-era interior decor. It was pricy but we decided to treat ourselves for our first night in the city until we became more acquainted with it.

And I’m ever so glad we did – it was definitely one of our best meals in Delhi. I recall little (given the waves of jet lag washing over me at the time meant I wasn’t up for making notes) but we had some gorgeous chickpeas in a rich, spicy sauce, lovely lamb and fresh cold beers. It was expensive – around £23 for the meal – but we were so happy to finally be in India that we couldn’t have cared less.

After our huge meal, we wandered back over to the tourist office to check in with Rahim. Seeing us return, his eyes lit up and he was soon trying to talk us into going to Rajasthan. I wouldn’t have minded – in fact, it was an area I was sad we hadn’t planned on going to – but the fact he was really trying to hard sell us made me keep my guard up. Another 20 minute conversation followed after which – with me giving “I don’t know about this” starey signals to the boy – we said we’d be back the next day to finally make our plans.

I'm usually pretty intuitive when it comes to scames, unlike Dilbert.

I’m usually pretty intuitive when it comes to scams, unlike Dilbert.

A tuk-tuk ride back to the place we were staying – a shared apartment in the nice Nizamuddin East area found through my favourite accommodation site, airbnb – followed and, in eagerness, I opened up my Lonely Planet book to see if it talked of any scams. Sure enough, it warned of friendly looking, English speaking, young men who direct tourists to travel agencies and get a referral fee.

Trying to keep my cynicism at bay, I left it in my mind that maybe it was just coincidence. Until the next night that is when – unsure where else to go for a late night dinner – we headed back to Connaught Place and, outside of a bar, saw both the Rahul and Rahim drinking beers.

“Hey Englishman,” they yelled to us, laughing.

It was a lesson all around (and a bit of a sad one at that). But at least Lonely Planet was right for once – something we did not find so frequently in the weeks to come.

In Part 2, the boy and I head to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and get accosted by both a “security guard” and a monkey.

A tipple of apple

12 Dec
Domaine du Coquerel

Domaine du Coquerel

Before I discovered Calvados, I thought the main way to have apples alcoholised was in cider.

I enjoy cider a lot, having family in Herefordshire – one of the main cider producing regions of the UK. I can even remember taking illicit sips from a cup of the sweet staple Strongbow as a kid. My taste buds have moved on from the very sugary brand onto drier, more farmhouse style ciders, like those from Gwatkin.

But during a recent trip to France with the boy, I discovered I quite like what happens when apples get much more alcoholised and turn into calvados.

Luckily, the boy’s family live in Normandy – the region where calvados has been produced for centuries. We headed off to award-winning Domaine du Coquerel, a small independent producer in France. It was started in 1937 by Rene Gilbert and was, at one stage, owned by the Guinness group, before Jean Francois Martin, the owner, gave up his job working at Diageo to buy out the company in 1996.

Casks with aging calvados.

Casks with aging calvados.

Everything is done on-site at Domaine du Coquerel as we discovered during a walk around the premises, which features a huge, stone chateau and large sweeping grounds looking out to the countryside of Normandy. Each year, between 5,000-6,000 tonnes of 55 different varieties of apples are brought to the distillery, all collected within 15km, making it truly a local business.

The apples are then fermented (pips and all) in vats for at least one month, after which it can be called cider. Afterwords, that fermented juice is distilled in copper column stills, allowing for a much more alcoholic spirit. The spirit is reduced to 40-42% before it is put into white oak ex-Cognac casks for aging which are managed by the distillery’s cellar master who has worked for the company for 30 years.

Jean Francois Martin, the owner.

Jean Francois Martin, the owner.

Like Cognac, Calvados is bottled at varying ages with different ‘age statements’. In its case, the ‘Fine’ label indicates it’s two years at least, the ‘Vieux’ is a minimum of three years, while the ‘VSOP’ label equates to four years of aging and the ‘XO’ to eight years (although it will include a blend of 8, 10 and 15 year old Calvados).

A tipple of apple.

A tipple of apple.

Domaine du Coquerel is considered a small, independent producer, but still makes around one million bottles a year, 50% of which is exported. It has recently been given a gold medal at the World Spirit Awards for both its ‘Fine’ and ‘XO’ bottlings.

We tried a variety after our tour and during our discussion with Jean. My favourite was the youngest one, the Fine. While the others were very tasty, they verged too much into whisky territory, with loads of vanilla and oak influence. I preferred the slightly more acidic, heavy apple end of the younger style. The boy agreed, and we ended up with a bottle for our drinks shelf. And a realisation that highly alcoholised apples are rather pleasurable to sip on!

Sampling Sambrook’s & Cheese

30 Nov

Sambrook's 1
One thing I love about food is finding out what different flavour combinations people enjoy. It is for this reason that I am particularly interested in food and alcohol pairings.

Recently, the boy and I headed off south of the river to the Sambrook’s brewery to do just this – sample food and beer matches.
As background, Sambrook’s was started in 2008 by Duncan Sambrook, a former accountant for Deloitte who decided to quit the financial world. It became one of the first breweries in (fairly) central London and recently won the coveted award of World’s Best Pale Bitter for its Wandle brand at the World Beer Awards.

The night the boy and I visited was all about celebrating the win for Wandle and recognising some other great beers that took top honors in this year’s awards. It all took place in the brewery’s Boadicea Bar, a newly opened in-brewery bar where patrons can sample some of the great beers being made on the premises. To make things even more appealing, each beer was matched with a different cheese, provided by specialist cheese monger, Hamish Johnston.

Sambrook's 3And this was where things got really interesting as everyone on my table had a different viewpoint of what worked and what didn’t.

On the night, we sampled the Wandle, paired with a Gorwydd Caerphilly; a Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier with a Wigmore (from Ann Wigmore); a Thornbridge Raven Black IPA paired with a Stichelton from Joe Schneider; a Keersmaeker Kriek with an Ossau-Iraty; and, a Keersmaeker Gueze with a Lanark Blue from Selina and Andrew Cairns.

Each was distinctly different. I loved the Weissbier – a sparky orange, clove and nut beer – paired with the Wigmore, which was an ewe’s milk cheese that was more delicate than a goat’s cheese but with enough backbone to stand up to the beer. My other powerhouse winner of the night was the Thornbridge Raven Black IPA, which was a soothing dark beer with notes of umami, wood and wet grass. When paired with the fantastic Stichelton, a real sweetness emerged on my palate that heightened the beer even more for me.

But, the other five people at my table all had a different opinion. Some preferred the sharper, acidic-sweet note of the Kriek, and others ate up the Wandle and Caerphilly. The boy loved the Keersmaeker Gueze – a Lambic based beer with soft fleshy fruit and citrus notes – paired with the super-sharp, ammonia laden Lanark Blue. I thought the two together was really off putting (although, I liked each separately).

And so, it just goes to show – the only way to find out if you like something is to try it. So, as always, I encourage you to sit down with a group of friends, grab a few varied pints and some cheeses and see what you like. You never know what pleasures you’ll discover!

Thanks to Sambrook’s Brewery for inviting the boy and I down to try some fantastic drinks. For more information on the brewery and its beers, visit: http://www.sambrooksbrewery.co.uk

Surviving boot camp – Part 3: Talking crisps and the GL diet

16 Nov

A word to the wise: arriving at boot camp with a bag of crisps in your luggage is a bad idea.

At first, I forgot they were even stowed away in my rucksack. But then three nights in, I found myself sat in my room at 8pm – absolutely starving! And the crisps suddenly started speaking to me – trying to lure me into eating them.

I called the boy. He counseled me to find anything possible to distract me since I would only feel guilty the next day. And he was right, but it wasn’t easy. The fruit tea just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.

When I arrived at NuBeginnings I was quite worried about the food situation – mainly because I’ve cooked for myself for years now and the idea of having someone else cater to me on strict regulations with no control on my end was slightly off-putting.

The boot camp ascribes to the GL (Glycemic Load) diet. To give a quick rundown, this basically focuses on glucose and how it affects the body.

Unlike the GI (Glycemic Index) diet – which became very popular a few years ago – the GL diet doesn’t only focus on the sugars in foods and how our body absorbs them, but also at how much glucose is in each portion size.

A nut burger with beetroot salad.

The reason glucose is the focused on is because it is the key thing that gives our body energy – but ‘good’ carbs on this diet are ones that release slowly so our body’s insulin levels don’t jump up and down as the body tries to adjust to that incoming energy.

The idea is to eat smaller amounts, more frequently so our body doesn’t ever ‘crash’ and we don’t lose energy. As Jennie said: “We make poor food choices (ie: junk food) because our blood sugar levels are low.” We just want to eat something quickly to give our body’s blood sugar a boost.

The theory with GL is if you keep your blood sugars in check, you’ll feel less hungry, get fewer cravings and the body won’t store the excess sugars as fats. There is also a big focus on eating meals slowly to allow time for digestion, staying hydrated and being ‘mindful’ of what you’re putting in your body.

Thai curry for lunch.

What I enjoyed most about this diet (and that’s a big statement for me since I don’t like ‘diets’) is that almost nothing is restricted. Okay, you can’t sit around eating chocolate bars, but you can eat loads of good things like almonds, olive oil, coconut milk, goat’s cheese, fish and avocados. Yum! It’s also about getting the most out of those carbs you are eating. So, if you eat a piece of fruit, for instance, you’re always meant to eat it with some raw nuts (like almonds or Brazils) because the protein helps slow down the release of sugar to the bloodstream.

At NuBeginnings, however, the focus is on weight loss so the portion sizes are even smaller than a person would normally eat. When you combine that with four or five hours of exercise a day, it means things like the crisp incident start occurring. And no one wants to face talking potatoes when they’re at boot camp.

My only other major difficulty with it was the lack of caffeine. Getting off of it was tricky – there was no tea or coffee, only fruit tea, which after a while does get rather repetitive.

Luckily, while there were restrictions, there was also Gary, the retreat’s chef. He’s been at NuBeginnings for two and a half years, having previously opened his own restaurant in Dorchester and spent time traveling the world to learn about varied cuisines. He is highly influenced by Mexican and North African flavours, both of which featured highly in his meals. According to Gary, guests “are not there to suffer by my hands.”

Chef Gary whips up a crisp sea bass with couscous and asparagus.

But he wasn’t always so convinced. When a recruitment firm told him of the job, he says he could only think: “You’re having a laugh.” He has since come around to it fully, finding interesting recipes that work within the restricted ingredient space. “I’m developing recipes all the time. But they change, depending on who walks through the door so I don’t work to set recipes,” he told me.

While I was there, food ranged from Thai coconut chicken with crispy vegetables, to baked figs with goat’s cheese and Asian sesame noodles with prawns and salad. There were delicious, there was no doubting that.

Gary admitted he’s not entirely a convert when he’s cooking for himself, but added he loves cooking to this diet because it not only challenges himself as a chef, but also because he sees real changes amongst many guests.

A pepper roasts for use in couscous.

“The satisfaction is something else, it is something I was never expecting. I see people who really need to change their lives around and I feel I’m in a very privileged position to help them. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in it. I just couldn’t,” he explained.

And I did feel satisfied for most of the trip. While the portion sizes were small, they were filling – the only time I found difficult was in the evening when we were eating at 6pm and then not again until the next morning. I also didn’t stick to one of the ‘mindful’ eating tactics of leaving a bit of food behind on the plate – I was a clean plate gal myself. But, otherwise, I liked the GL diet because it seemed quite logical really – don’t overeat, don’t eat processed foods, don’t let yourself go long between meals and listen to your body.

In the end, the bag of crisps stayed unopened until I arrived back home. But I did, admittedly, have a few secretive mints when I was starving! But, I also survived…boot camp, exercise, food plans, the whole kit and caboodle. And knowing that was ever so pleasurable!

I was a guest of NuBeginnings. For more information on the boot camp, visit: http://www.nubeginnings.co.uk

Surviving boot camp – Part 2: the never-ending exercise

9 Nov

As I attempted feebly to gather my breath at the top of a rather unfriendly sand dune, I looked down at the surrounding Woolacombe beach and took it in, in all its splendor.

“Well, at least if I collapse here, I will have a nice last view of things and an easy roll down this hill,” I thought feebly.

And then I contemplated simply rolling down the sand dune instead of lugging my tired calves through it squishy wake. A quick sight of Shane – one of the personal trainers – changed that for me; I knew he’d just make me do the climb a few extra times if I took any shortcuts.

It was day three of my trip to NuBeginnings, a boot camp in North Devon. We’d gotten up at the crack of dawn (okay – it was 7am but that’s still pretty early) to lug our exhausted limbs over to Woolacombe beach for a morning of circuit training in the sand. The previous day, Sunday, I had hiked for 10 miles, while on the Saturday, I’d climbed the seemingly never-ending, steep Torrs, a killer on the thighs, calves and butt. Even two deep tissue massages hadn’t cured the pain, so by the time I found myself perched at the top of a cresting sand dune, I was nearly ready to collapse in a pile of aching grumpiness.

However, I’m rarely one to give up on a challenge so, instead, I lifted up the heavy exercise ball I’d climbed the hill to collect, and shifted my way down the sand dune. Once at the bottom, I gathered up all my will power and started up again – there were two more balls to collect.

While this might all sound like torture, it was actually rather satisfying – once all the activity had been completed for the day, of course. That day we were put through our paces, doing push ups on logs on the beach and playing quasi rugby while throwing heavy medicine balls to each other. Later, we’d head back to Westwell Hall – our place of residence for the week – and partake in a boxercise class, and after lunch go on an hour long jog with Kieran. On other days, long hikes took us winding over valleys and up to steep cliffs for miles on end, while sessions of pilates and circuits kept our muscles in check.

A sight from a hike, at Woolacombe.

Luckily, while both the personal trainers – Kieran and Shane – kept each of us moving as much as our individual fitness levels could handle, they also got to know us, joked, chatted and kept us motivated. There was no screaming, just banter – all of which I found much more inviting than a screaming army instructor.

As I’d not done much exercise for a long while (other than walking, which I do constantly in London) I was surprised at how quickly my body rebounded into enjoying the workouts. I may have been aching and ever so slightly whiny from time to time, but I also felt hungry for more.

We also learned a lot about exercise in general – Kieran and Shane are the perfect double act and made lectures on the topic interesting and the information easy to absorb. From teaching us the ‘four pillars’ of healthy living (nutrition, activity, sleep and hydration, all of which need to be balanced out to keep a healthy foundation) to getting us to better understand each of our body’s limitations, the guys know their stuff and workouts with them were some of the most engaging I’ve had ever.

Hiking guide Cap talks about the countryside to NuBeginnings guests.

Outside of the workouts on the beach and in the gym, we also spent much time hiking. My guide – Cap – was a former fireman who, while retired, looks much younger than his age. Years of hiking the local area has made him incredibly knowledgeable about the local area, so hikes were filled with facts about everything from the coastline, to the birds and local history.

And while there were many times in the evening after a day’s exercise when I’d ring the boy to tell him I didn’t think I could possibly do any more, I still found myself getting up every morning, stretching my aching limbs and craving more.

By the end of the trip – six days of exercise – I’d lost four pounds and two inches off my waist. But more than that, I felt fresh and buzzing with energy, something I’d not experienced in a long time. And my shoes were looking considerably more scuffed than they were upon arrival. I can only say I was left surprised by how pleasurable I found this whole exercise malarkey – who knew it could be so much fun?

In my final NuBeginnings post, I battle cravings for caffeine, find myself sneakily eating mints and avoiding a secret bag of crisps, and meet Gary, the chef behind the pleasurable food at the retreat.

I was a guest of NuBeginnings. For more information on the boot camp, visit: http://www.nubeginnings.co.uk

Surviving boot camp: Part 1 – the arrival

2 Nov

When I was 18, I bought myself a shiny new pair of Canadian made Saucony running shoes. I had dreams of going off to uni, clad with these shoes, with the full intention of becoming ridiculously fit and healthy.

Nine years later, they’re still in rather good shape. I’ve not, actually, worn them much. Oh, there was a brief period in uni when I joined the gym, played a couple of rounds of squash and did some work on the cross trainer. And another few months when Fitness First roped me into its web when I first moved to England. My shoes got a good workout then.

It’s not, I should mention, that I intend to be lazy. It’s more that I find myself getting too caught up in work or distractions like refiling my paperwork or drinking whisky to actually get around to going to the gym.

So when I was recently invited to attend the UK’s only ’boutique boot camp’ it was with slight concern – mostly over whether my body would cope with repeated bouts of exercise. It also didn’t sound terribly ‘pleasurable’, which tends to be the focus of my posts on here.

But, I decided I couldn’t be seen to be a wimp – and I had, after all, been attempting to ‘get fit’ for nearly a decade (ugh, I hate when things can be calculated in near double-digit terms).

After reassuring my friends I would likely survive, packing my rucksack with lots of ‘sporty clothes’ and waving goodbye to the boy (who, I should mention, is much better at the ‘attending the gym’ thing than I am), I hopped on a train westwards – I was Devon bound.

The ‘bootcamp’ destination is a place called NuBeginnings, which finds itself tucked away in a small village called Ilfracombe in North Devon. It’s an hour away from the nearest train station, so I was picked up by Dave, one of the managers. During our trip, he told me about what I was likely to experience during the week long retreat, from the hikes and personal training, through to the psychological side of things, which is looked at through hypnotherapy and acupuncture sessions, among other things.

As background, NuBeginnings was set up by a woman named Victoria Wills in 2008. Wills had experienced issues with her weight for many years, bouncing from one crazy diet to the next. After quitting her job, she spent time traveling to different ‘boot camps’ around the world, finding interesting angles in places as diverse as Canada and Hawaii. Through those, she learned that a combination of sensible exercise routines, streamlined nutrition plans and psychological treatments (to get to the root cause of any potential food dilemmas) worked a treat. When she returned to the UK, she realised there were no ’boutique’ boot camps over here – unlike the US, where there are many more. So, she worked to find a space (Westwell Hall in Ilfracombe) and set up the business with partner Frank. It focuses on teaching guests about all three arenas (exercise, nutrition and mental health) to help them get into a healthier frame of mind and lose up to one stone in a week.

Now, I have to admit – I was a bit skeptical. I was expecting for this to be, either, a bit of an ‘alternative lifestyle’ place with crystals and hypnotism tapes to set you to sleep to, or a crazy, military style boot camp where you find yourself squirming through the mud at some ungodly hour. Luckily, I soon learned, NuBeginnings was neither.

Upon arrival at the listed mansion, I was greeted by Dave’s partner Jennie who manages the retreat with him. Both are former teachers who have a wealth of experience dealing with a range of attitudes and life backgrounds, and both were unendingly friendly in helping each guest pursuit his or her ambitions.

I was shown up to my room – an oasis of welcoming calm, and asked to get changed and be downstairs as quickly as possible for my weigh-ins and personal training assessment. I was loath to leave, however, as the plump feather bed, and large cushioned window seat both looked terribly welcoming after my long journey.

However, in keeping with the plans, I headed down to meet Kieran, one of the personal trainers who would be working with me throughout the week. He tested my blood pressure, asked me about my goals for the week (at that point: not collapsing from the strain of exercise) and weighed me (something I’d not done in a rather long while, since I tend to eschew caring about all things weight loss in favour of eating whatever the hell I want, when I want). It was clear from the start that he was not there to kill me, nor to make me do push-ups in the mud – a fact I was grateful of. He very clearly accentuated the fact I would be working just above my skill level to maximise my heart rate and get the most out of the workouts.

After our chat, and my ‘measurements’ with Jennie, I met the other guests (who ranged from a 64-year old with a recent hip replacement, to a younger City worker keen to get fit again after a bad ankle injury, and a photographer who was focused on getting back into the fitness swing of things) ate a very small dinner ascribing to the GL diet (something I’ll come onto in a later post), partook in some meditation and finally fell down into the soothing comfort of a feather bed.

But the relaxation was not to last long…by 6:30am, I would need to be getting dressed to face the first day of workouts…would I survive?

In my next post, I find myself lugging heavy exercise balls up and down sand dunes, going hiking at 8am on a Sunday morning, and seeing if all the exercise made any difference at all.

I was a guest of NuBeginnings. For more information on the boot camp, visit: http://www.nubeginnings.co.uk

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