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.
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 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,
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.
Sarah Montgomery & Alastair Wilson 28/02/01