The pound of flesh that the school inspectors extracted from my wife, Poula, should have been enough. But a few days after the OFSTED team packed away their clipboards she donated a pint of blood.
I'm sure it was her way of expressing gratitude for a successful inspection of her Buckinghamshire first school, but she would probably laugh at my cod psychology. No matter, the fact is that the blood-letting left her at a low ebb because the four-day inspection had been followed by several late nights reading end-of-year reports and a gruelling two-day financial audit. "I'm going to grade you on a scale of 1 to 3," the young Amazon auditor had told my now anaemic-looking spouse. "But you can get your own back. You can also grade me."
The offer of a 24-hour stress-busting stay at Inglewood House, a health hydro near Newbury, was more tempting. Our 12-year-old was quickly despatched to mother-in-law's (his 17-year-old brother comes and goes through his own "cat flap") and we headed off into the Friday evening rush-hour traffic to top up Poula's stress level so that the Inglewood staff had a decent challenge. We were an hour late in arriving at the hydro, an 18th-century house set in 50 acres of the Berkshire Downs. But there were no clocks to remind us and no recriminations.
It's said that we can combat stress in a huge range of ways, from humming in the bath to playing the bagpipes. As long as the activity helps to block or redirect the adrenalin surge and releases some endorphins it does not matter what you do. Poula finds tranquillity pottering in the garden or listening to The Archers on Sunday mornings. But if you have a choice between, say, some stretching exercises, another excellent antidote for stress, or a weekend in a surreal world like Inglewood you should leave the stretching to the cat.
Many teachers have evidently reached that conclusion already because Inglewood is at its busiest in the half-terms and at Easter. It is not as smart as premier-league health hydros. A few carpets need to be replaced and some rooms would benefit from several licks of paint, but it is homely, if one can use that expression of a building that was once a Roman Catholic seminary. And by comparison with some other hydros it represents value for money. Hence its popularity with teachers, most of whom are women aged 35 to 55.
The staff say that they can often identify the teachers without asking. They are the ones sitting round the pool with only a book for company. "They'll put their book down to have a massage and say 'I'm sorry I've been so anti-social but I just needed to be on my own for a bit'," said one of Inglewood's white-uniformed therapists. "I've also noticed that they tend to check out earlier than the other guests. They always have lessons to prepare for the next week."
June Pinder, a nurse who has worked at Inglewood for years, confirms that many teachers are stressed when they arrive. "I check their blood pressure and it is often high," she said. "But it drops during their stay."
Thankfully, Poula's blood pressure wasn't high, despite the fraught car journey and the Amazon auditor. But it dropped further when she saw pheasants pecking their way placidly across the Inglewood lawns and reached a new low when she stretched out on a 6ft-wide bed.
One of her customary stress-removers, a gin and tonic, isn't available at Inglewood though it is possible to buy wine at mealtimes provided you haven't opted for the 700 calories-a-day dining room (Sunday dinner was a bowl of lentil soup and a piece of fruit).
Apart from that restriction, Inglewood has few rules and the main one appears to be "lie back and enjoy it". Almost all the therapies, such as massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, peat baths, shiatsu, anti-cellulite treatments, and exfoliating body gommage (better known as dead skin removal), are offered in the rooms leading off the pool. Guests sit around in swimsuits or dressing-gowns until they are called in for some serious one-to-one pampering.
The peat bath was a disappointment - the muddy water retains its heat and is said to ease the pains of arthritis and rheumatism - but the bath was a standard size and as uncomfortable as an economy-class airline seat. Poula's Decleor "facial", accompanied by New Age music, was much more successful, however, largely because it began with a head-to-coccyx back massage.
The language that the Decleor cosmetics company uses to describe its treatments is laughably overblown and might be challenged by many doctors: "Digitopressure techniquesIhelp to liberate, stimulate and disperse inner energyIusing a technique called phytodrainage the therapist applies light strokes and decongests your facial tissues."
But after only a few minutes of dolphin sounds and phytodrainage Poula was floating far out in the Pacific with not an OFSTED thought in her head. Any treatment that can achieve that without the use of illegal substances must be worth trying. "I've always found it hard to relax," Poula said as she clambered back on to land again. "But I think I achieved it that time."
The reflexology session cured any cynicism she might have about this alternative therapy, too. Brenda Hinson, Inglewood's reflexologist, didn't sound all that convincing as she rubbed in the lavender and lime oil and explained that the body's main organs and glands are represented on the soles of the feet. But she impressed us both by correctly identifying a sciatic problem that Poula has suffered from for years.
"My fingers are my eyes," she said as she sat straight-backed like a harpist playing Poula's toes. "I'm working on your wife's lymphatic system and breaking up any crystallisation I find. I'm also stimulating the blood circulation and helping to eliminate toxins. I find a lot of teachers have neck and shoulder pains and bowel problems. It's all because of stress."
After her 24 hours in Inglewood, however, Poula didn't have a twinge, let alone a pain. She was so laid back she could cope with almost anything. Even the drive back to London.
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Inglewood offers a number of packages. The cheapest day costs Pounds 55 and includes body exfoliation with massage, lunch, aroma bath and afternoon tea. A three-day stay in a standard room costs from Pounds 310, but week-long stays can cost up to Pounds 885. Further information from Inglewood, Kintbury, Hungerford, Berkshire RG 17 9SW (tel. 01488 682022).