Willows Leisure Club
Four Pillars Hotel, Abingdon Road


Oxford is rather poorly-endowed with swimming pools, which consist mainly of cold, uninviting municipal baths in need of renovation. The only users these successfully cater to are those who swim purely for fitness, and not much thought is put into making the experience a pleasant one.

The Four Pillars Hotel chain, however, has a different approach, and the new Oxford Spires hotel encompasses the 'Willows Leisure Club', which contains a gym (thankfully, not compulsory), sauna, steam room, jacuzzi and of course a luxurious, heated, pool. Also available is the Beauty Consultant's room - inhabited a few days every week by a qualified aromatherapy masseuse. We ventured down the Abingdon Road to investigate further.
We were ushered in on arrival, presented with fluffy white towels and set free to be pampered. The highlight of our visit was to be a full 'Massage with Essential Oils', about which I was somewhat apprehensive, having never experienced anything of the kind before. I needn't have worried, as they were very welcoming, and used to coping with absolute beginners. It's not exactly difficult, after all, to lie and have aromatic oil (in our case, Lavender, Geranium and Neroli) rubbed into your legs, back and upper arms. It's a fascinating experience, as tensions you didn't know you had are gently teased out, and the powerful-smelling oils have a hypnotic effect. The only downside is it's over far too soon, and at £21 for half an hour, is probably only really affordable for the many corporate clients of the hotel.

None of the other facilities of the club are charged for over and above the membership fee, so we were free to explore them at our leisure, choosing to begin with the Scandinavian sanctity of the sauna. Naturism doesn't seem to be encouraged, so we were spared the truly authentic touch, but everything else is in place: pine, steaming coals, and more sweat than you believed possible. It is a fantastic experience. You can actually feel yourself being purified, as your pores open and release the excesses of weeks, probably years; it is also deeply relaxing. Soft, steamy and lobster-pink we emerged, and plunged into the pool.

The overall effect is of a classical, possibly Doric scene. A mural depicts a rustic Mediterranean grove, ivy climbs over the walls and a collection of terracotta pots spill water into the pool. The water is bath warm, underlit and altogether wonderful. The jacuzzi is also a thing of joy : it feels intensely decadent to lie and be massaged and titillated by the jets of water. For keen swimmers, the size of the pool may be frustrating, especially at popular times; for the majority of us who are more interested in relaxation than fitness, it's near-ideal.

The last aid to beautification and betterment we tried was the steam room. White moulded chairs and a glass door all create a 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, and the atmosphere within is suitably other-worldly. At 80-100% humidity, it doesn't feel like you're breathing air at all. Not to everyone's taste perhaps (a 'medical' smell was commented on), but an ideal spot for an out-of-body experience.
This whole experience leaves one feeling just fantastic; radiant with good health and beatified by an inner glow. A sense of calm pervades the Willows, and we found that a large and leisurely afternoon tea in the hotel lounge (the scones in particular were of world beating class and distinction) was a perfect way to draw our afternoon to a conclusion.

Sarah Montgomery & Alastair Wilson 28/02/01

Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel, Abingdon Rd, ½ mile from Folly Bridge. Tel: 324324. Annual memberships: Full £620, Midweek £495, Daytime £365, Children £180. Joining fee currently £60 (half price). Members are entitled to full use of pool and gym facilities. Water temperature 32 degrees C. Open 7am-10pm daily. Really good Cream Tea £7.95, 3-5pm.