I've been away for the weekend indulging myself and being pleasantly pampered at various Spars in mid-Wales and the Western Marches. Lucky cow, you think, until you knit your brow with puzzlement and check my spelling more closely. Yes, that's right - SpaRs.
Much more up my street, a Spar, than a Spa. They provide all those delightful necessities for a leisurely weekend away with The Husband. Not hot stones, massages and pedicures. Cold milk, Weetabix and sausages. The branch where The Rural Retreat (built on the very outermost edge of a market town in mid-Wales) is situated stays open until 11.00pm, like most of its chums, so it doesn't really matter what happens en route on a Friday evening between The Northern Home Counties and The Rural Retreat, provided we are just IN the log-jam and not the cause of it, it'll still be open when we get there. They may be mopping the floor and providing the last straggle of locals with their post-pub booze and fags to take home or to a party, but they still welcome us and serve us cheerfully a minute before closing time. It's balm to the soul for a weary weekend sojouner, a glimmer of heaven achieved on earth, and not a thick white fluffy towelling bathrobe to be had in the place.
I've never been to a Spa without an R, mind you, so I can't make a direct comparison. Except on price. A basketful of commestibles at a Spar is mere pounds and pence, virtually never over £20. An afternoon of treatments at a Spa, never less than £100. And at the end of it one is still hungry. And stone-cold sober (to be expected, I suppose, if they will insist in faffing about with hot stones). There is dinner and drinks to fork out for, probably at a country house hotel miles from anywhere, so that's another &*$%ing £££ per person to eat, quaff and sleep.
They are the bane of many a hen weekend, spa junkets, and witheringly expensive next to the cost of attending the wedding itself. Whereas a good Spar can probably sell you gadding about girls some yummy nibbles, pre-night-out cocktails AND saucy matching tinsel-trimmed costume items for £15-£25 a head. Absolute MAX.
I've managed to get through our wedding in 2003 with no Spa treatments (whereas the Spar provided all the sliced cooked meats for the evening's sandwiches), also my cancer op and adjuvant therapy (but the Spar put the S-P-A-R in many a bottle of sparkling wine) and even my fiftieth birthday. So this last birthday (53rd) The Husband offered to bankroll a few hours' personal pampering as a special treat, which was starting to seem a delightful prospect until I got the printed prospectus from our local day spa here in Herts, and my heart went out of it. The cost was eye-watering. It made me open and close my mouth like a goldfish perilously low on water in its bowl.
I asked for (and got) posh, easy to mop, fitted lino in the hall instead.
On the way back from the leisurely weekend with The Husband the weather was so mild and bright we meandered through mid-Wales and Middle England taking in the sights at two or three charming Georgian gems, market towns and county towns with a precious heritage of domestic architecture and mediaeval street plans which have evolved, matured and grown diginified through centuries of human endeavour and loving conservation. Montgomery was admired first, but Bishops Castle had to be side-stepped as it was blocked off to through traffic and thronging with people attending its Michaelmas Fair. Cop a load of how quaint that is - Michaelmas. Our next objective, Clun Castle, was clothed in scaffolding and blue plastic sheeting - encouragingly for it, somewhat sadly for us. But - just a few miles further on - Ludlow greeted us with wide open arms and free parking on Sundays.
It was just on 5.00pm, the market stalls were empty and being taken down and stowed away, but aha! There was the Spar in prime position on the broad, elegant C18th thoroughfare. The Husband held The Dog's lead and I dove in to scoop up the wherewithal for a picnic.
I netted an armful of knock-down price items; 99p each for two packs of sandwiches, 70p for sell-by-date hand-cooked crisps, a bottle of orange juice from the fridge, 25ml of chilled chardonnay colombard, £1 for the ripest imaginable lipstick red strawberries and £3-odd for a quarter bottle of own-brand vodka to add a kick to non-driver's orange juice. A perfectly adequate picnic for two, with booze left over at the end, all for £10.51.
Try getting anything in a Spa for a measly tenner. It wouldn't even get you a one-handed manicure. The swift whisking away with wax of a pair of eyebrows maybe (but legs and anywhere else still as hirsuit as ever), the barest beginnings of a backrub. The same money in a Spar was a delicious light meal for Two Humans and tempting left-over corners for The Dog, who were all rendered so cheerfully contented by it we all shone with bonhomie for the rest of the journey.
So easily pleased, so pleasantly eased, are we. Try it, you might like it. Instead of lining the pockets of the purveyors of guilt-inducing sybarism (which might be temporarily soothing for the body, but lastingly ruinous on a wallet) go away on a Spar Weekend. If you say it quickly enough when switching off your computer of a Friday evening and dashing out of the workplace your colleagues will still sigh enviously.
Which is half the joy right there, isn't it?