Destinations

"No longer afraid to show my scars" – coming to terms with a life-long back condition at an English retreat

Exercise at Fair Oak Farm, East Sussex
Exercise at Fair Oak Farm, East Sussex, with Restore and Reform, a new operator that offers rehabilitation holidays Credit: DEBBIE WALPOLE

Did you know that Princess Eugenie has scoliosis? Before her wedding last year, I mean, when she wore that dress with a deep V at the back to show her scar. No, me neither, and nor was I expecting to react the way I did. I was speechless and thrilled, then sad. How brave, I thought, and how I wish I’d been that brave on my wedding day.

I have scoliosis too, which is why I’ve just been on a back retreat with Restore and Reform, a new operator offering rehabilitation holidays. And I’ve got the scars – from two hefty operations to straighten my spine when I was 14, like Eugenie. But when I got married a decade ago, my wedding dress completely covered my back. Weddings are for looking beautiful, I thought, and scars aren’t beautiful. There was beauty in what Eugenie did, though, because she reminded me that there’s nothing terrible about having a wonky back and big scars; if anything, it shows that we went through something painful and horrible and got through it – and isn’t that something to be proud of?

I used to be as tough as anything. My reaction to going through something like that at a young age was a big f--- you. I wasn’t going to let a spinal fusion and a titanium rod stop me from doing anything, and it didn’t, really. I spent my late teens and 20s trekking around various bits of the globe with a heavy backpack. I went scuba diving and skiing and brazenly wore bikinis and cropped tops that showed off my scars. When it hurt, which it sometimes did, I relied on ibuprofen and wine. If boys (it was always boys) asked about the scars, I’d make up outrageous stories about terrible car crashes or being attacked by sharks. It was none of their business, and they usually believed me, the fools. Tough as nails, me, I thought.

Writer Francisca Kellet at her Sussex retreat

In my 30s, though, I became more self-conscious. Maybe because the pain was creeping up. It wasn’t just my wedding. When I was the travel editor at Tatler, I often hosted glamorous parties. If the designer dresses that the fashion girls called in for me showed my scars, I wouldn’t wear them. Then came babies, and I started to worry. After two longish stints in hospital, off my head on morphine (not as much fun as it sounds), where only epidurals gave me some relief, a stern physiotherapist told me it was time to shape up. I could no longer get away with ignoring my back. There followed bouts of fervent Pilates and physio, doing bridges and side planks in front of the TV every night. The difference was miraculous. The pain became manageable, and popping pills became the exception, not the rule. I was toughening up.

But humans are lazy, and exercises get boring. My fervour faded to the odd class and a lunge or two in the evenings. The painkillers crept back up. It was time for a reset.

That’s the word used by Lucy Nifontova, co-founder of Restore and Reform. “We help our clients press the reset button,” she says. Together with physiotherapist Michelle Lewis she treats clients in the sunshine at the five-star Anantara Vilamoura in the Algarve and, launching this month, at a villa in Burgundy, an intense week of Pilates, physio and massages.

There are 10 of us here at Fair Oak Farm in East Sussex for the launch of these retreats (the UK programme is still to be confirmed). Over a glass of wine on the first evening, we compare notes on slipped discs and spinal screws, as if they are the most normal things in the world. It’s cathartic, even if the chat is only a sideshow to the main event – sorting out our backs.

Various sessions of Pilates, soft-tissue therapy and classes on stretching and mobility are part of Restore and Retreat's programme

The world's most incredible spa breaks

They are not, frankly, what you’d expect from rehab experts. “When I first met them, I thought: ‘What are these gorgeous young girls going to know?’” says Clara, a returning client. It turns out they know rather a lot. Clara arrived on her first Restore and Reform retreat on crutches and in horrible pain. She left walking tall, free of the crutches – and the pain.

Nothing like this exists in the UK. On the Continent, it is usual for post-operative or accident patients to be sent on rehabilitation retreats, where a team of doctors and physios gently piece them back together, sending them home with a programme to keep them fit. 

The approach is clever, starting with a “triage” call from Michelle a week in advance, to talk through my back saga and any current niggles. This means she knows just what to expect when we meet on day one for “soft tissue therapy” – all sorts of stretching of limbs and pushing of muscles.

Days are filled with group classes and solo soft-tissue sessions, broken up with cheerful, communal meals and time off to read and potter. There are classes with Lucy, where she uses a clever “reformer” – a contraption of pulleys and springs – to stretch me out and build me up. There are mat Pilates classes with Michelle, and she updates my tired (boring) regime. There are stretching classes with Abi and more soft-tissue work, including a scar massage, said to improve their appearance and, more importantly, make them feel less sensitive.

The other clients include those recovering from accidents or post-cancer treatment, as well as wanting a quick tune-up, and even some, like Paul, who are about to go under the knife. One of our group is an orthopaedic surgeon at London Bridge hospital who thinks the “reset” on offer will benefit his patients. “An intense blast for a few days is helpful,” he says. Another repeat client, Clare, tells me how a week in the Algarve with the team helped her to avoid spinal surgery. She’s back for a refresh.

I leave worn out but optimistic. You can still be tough as you get older, but it takes a lot more work – and the odd reset. Next time, I’ll head to the charms of Burgundy instead. Top of my packing list: a dress with a deep V at the back. If Eugenie can do it, so can I. And if anyone asks me about my scars, I’ll tell them the truth this time. Tough as nails, me.

• Restore and Reform (020 3620 6820; ) offers three and seven-night retreats at Anantara Vilamoura in Portugal and La Maison du Chateau in Burgundy, from £750 and £1,300 respectively, including B&B accommodation, physiotherapy assessment and session, soft-tissue therapy, Pilates and posture essentials class, two 2:1 reformer Pilates classes, two physio-led mat Pilates classes, stretch class and mobility class.