When Robin Clifford’s wife found an organisation that seemed to help her deal with the death of her parents, he was relieved.
Granted, the advice Universal Medicine gave was sometimes bizarre, but at least it appeared to bring solace to the woman he loved. So Robin turned a blind eye when Anita stirred her food anti-clockwise to get rid of what she called ‘entities.’ He tolerated her waking at 3am and burping to banish ‘evil spirits’. But Anita’s devotion to Universal Medicine (UM) began to take its toll on their marriage.
Meals out became an ordeal — ‘students’ of UM, as devotees are called, don’t drink
A simple hug became something Robin had to seek permission for. ‘It drove a wedge between us. When I questioned her she accused me of being “abusive”,’ recalls Robin.
The Lighthouse facility (pictured above) in Tytherington near Frome in Somerset, the UK headquarters of the organisation Universal Medicine
Anita had heard about UM after joining a music group run by a charity affiliated to it. Both are based in tiny Tytherington, near Frome, Somerset — an unlikely location for the UK Headquarters of what was exposed as a cult when a BBC documentary about it aired this week.
Around 2,000 people worldwide are thought to be ‘students’ of UM, 200 of which are in the UK.
Actor Robin, 69, realised his 17-year marriage was over five years after his wife discovered UM, when he asked Anita, 61, if she really believed its Australian founder Serge Benhayon’s claim that he was the reincarnation of painter Leonardo da Vinci and his daughter Simone, who is also part of UM, the reincarnation of Winston Churchill.
‘She replied with a sad, smug smile. I thought: “This is the end.” How can I get past that? The stupidity is off the scale.’
Serge Benhayon owns the business, is a former tennis coach and twice-married father of four
Little wonder, given a court recently found UM to be a ‘socially harmful cult’ and dubbed Serge Benhayon, 55, a ‘charlatan’.
The former tennis coach and twice-married father of four founded UM in 1999 after apparently having a spiritual epiphany while sitting on the toilet.
According to his philosophy, a garbled blend of science, new age thought and religion, humans have a negative energy.
Alternative therapies such as breast massage are claimed to help people ‘connect’ with their bodies, while negative energy can be treated by attending his (lucrative) lectures and retreats.
Some UM rules sound as harmless as they are ridiculous. For example, followers are told to rise at 3am and go to bed at 9pm.
Simon Williams (pictured above) is a shareholder and managing director of The Lighthouse in Frome
Others, such as its belief disabled children have been evil in a former life, that drinking alcohol can release an evil spirit and that women who exercise vigorously risk ruining their fertility, are more concerning.
There’s been much criticism of Benhayon and his sect, which he’s been determined to quell. When Australian blogger Esther Rockett wrote in 2014 that he had indecently touched her at a healing session, and done the same to others, he sued for defamation.
His decision backfired, however, when a Supreme Court jury ruled that Rockett’s claims were substantially true — that Benhayon, who has no medical training and whose second wife Miranda started living with him and his family when she was 14 and he her 31-year-old tennis coach, ‘makes fraudulent medical claims’, ‘preys on cancer patients’ and has an ‘indecent interest in girls as young as ten’.
Simone Benhayon runs classes at the facility and is the daughter of the owner Serge Benhayon
Australian authorities reportedly banned Benhayon — who denies wrongdoing — from treating children and a judge ordered him to pay Rockett’s legal costs. This damning indictment might have gone largely unnoticed in Britain were it not for the BBC documentary that revealed Universal Medicine has a substantial UK headquarters called The Lighthouse, which doubles up as a B&B.
While Benhayon is based in Australia, daughter Simone, from his first marriage, is based here. So too is The Lighthouse’s managing director Simon Williams, 46, an Old Etonian accountant whose family is said to be ‘appalled’ by his affiliation to the cult.
Williams, however, told BBC Inside Out West the court findings against Benhayon were ‘untrue.’ And he is not the only wealthy local supporter who appears unperturbed by the court’s assessment of him.
The sprawling network of local UM students includes a film director and viscount’s son, and the scion of a tobacco dynasty.
One local, who asked not to be named, said: ‘We try to have as little as possible to do with them. They are all odd. Some say they are like zombies. I think they are more like robots — strangely disconnected with the real world. They give me the creeps.’
This week a sign daubed with ‘Cult B&B’ appeared nearby and on Tuesday Williams resigned from his position as President of Frome’s Chamber of Commerce, along with fellow committee member Hannah Morden, a UM student and the second wife of Simone Benhayon’s ex-husband.
The Chamber of Commerce said Williams had decided to stand down ‘in order that the Chamber is not dragged into the current adverse Press reporting.’
A spokesperson added that the chamber ‘strongly disapproves of the activities and beliefs attributed to Mr Benhayon’.
So how on earth have so many Somerset residents become converts? And is Simon Williams himself a victim?
An immaculately renovated listed building with pristine courtyard, marble floors and a gleaming reception lobby, The Lighthouse, which Benhayon visits to hold workshops twice a year, doesn’t look much different to any other four-star B&B.
It is surrounded by buildings affiliated to UM, including a studio and a centre where Simone Benhayon — who owns a house nearby — teaches swimming.
On the day I arrive, having booked accommodation, a ‘UniMed’ courtesy bus is in the car park, along with a white Audi (Benhayon believes Audis are the only ‘energetically balanced’ car in the world). Alcohol is forbidden and guests are asked to refrain from noise after 9pm.
There are incense sticks in the rooms and guests are urged to enjoy the sacred stones in the Japanese Garden which provide a ‘simple and constant connection with heaven throughout the day’.
Given Benhayon and Williams have called the police when approached by journalists, I am not surprised when, on announcing my profession at reception, general manager Rowena Stewart appears within seconds.
Furious I have ‘sprung’ my visit on her, myself and the Mail’s photographer are ushered out of reception. Around 15 minutes later she says we can stay in the rooms we have booked provided we sign a disclaimer promising we won’t ask Lighthouse staff or guests questions. We decline.
According to her online testimonial Stewart, 53, a former marijuana smoker married to a fellow UM devotee, discovered UM in 2006 after attending a healing course run by Benhayon. He taught her that the key reason people eat dairy is to avoid childhood hurts.
Stewart gave up dairy and gluten (another UM no-go), lost 2st 7lbs and has been attending workshops ever since.
Today, slender and immaculately groomed, she tells me she has got ‘immense’ health benefits from the organisation, which she insists isn’t a cult. Defensive at what she calls a ‘misrepresentation’ of UM, she says this week’s furore has left the B&B ‘poised to crumble’ as a business.
She has written that Benhayon is ‘always there’ for her and insists she doesn’t know the ‘ins and outs’ of his court case and that it is ‘nothing to do’ with the Lighthouse. ‘They’re questions we’re not able to answer,’ she says.
Surely Simon Williams, at least, should try? But I am repeatedly told he is ‘unavailable’ and he doesn’t answer the intercom to the house where he lives just a few metres away. Said to be a personable man who worked as an accountant in London, Williams was, according to a friend the Mail spoke to, the last person you’d expect to join a cult: ‘He was clever and normal. He liked to drink pints and watch football. There was no obvious flaw in his character.’
Yet, like most cult recruits, Williams says in an online testimonial he was feeling ‘hurt by life’ when he met Benhayon at a massage appointment in 2002 while on holiday in Australia. Benhayon, he later recalled, told him he’d be the best friend he ever had.
It is not clear whose idea it was to create a UM base in the UK, but in 2006 Williams set up a company called The Lighthouse Property Estates with £1,000. The following year his company paid £1.8 million for The Lighthouse.
It is not known where this money came from, although Williams’ family appears wealthy. After his mother — initially a joint director of Lighthouse Property Estates (but not a UM student) — died of cancer two years ago, the six-bed family home in Surrey was put on the market for several million.
Meanwhile, Lighthouse Property Estates has flourished. By 2015, there were £2.7 million of shares in the firm, with Williams owning almost £1 million of that stake. The share value is now almost £3.5 million, with most held by a firm in the Channel Islands and the rest with a UK-registered company.
But while Benhayon appears motivated by money — in 2012 he said his business turned over £1 million a year and he reportedly persuaded a dying cancer patient to leave him £750,000 — a friend insists Williams’ motivation with The Lighthouse is not financial.
‘His motivation is not about money-making. He’s not flash. He believes in it. In my view he’s a victim of Serge Benhayon, although he’d dispute that hotly. Serge has Simon hooked.’ Williams is not the only local entrenched in UM ideology. Another devotee is film director Otto Bathurst, who won a Bafta for his work on BBC drama Peaky Blinders, and whose father was the late Christopher Bathurst, 3rd Viscount Bledisloe.
Otto — whose wife Lucinda works with Simone — has called Serge his ‘greatest friend.’ I wonder whether Otto feels the same in light of the court case proclaiming Benhayon a ‘charlatan’, but when I visit his home on the outskirts of Bath there is nobody home.
A neighbour believes he is in Vietnam, where I discover there’s a £1,000 four-day UM retreat called The Way of the Livingness.
Similarly loyal is Tricia Nicholson, the great granddaughter of tobacconist Alfred Dunhill, who was inspired to open a five-star B&B nearby as a place of ‘deep rest’ with her husband Michael after they met Benhayon in 2003. I was told the couple, whose son David was married to Simone and who still declare a ‘lifelong family friendship’ with Benhayon on their website, were also away.
An acquaintance described them as a lovely couple who don’t ram their beliefs down others’ throats — yet others express disquiet that UM occupies so much of this small community, not least because a new ‘wellness centre’ is being built at Frome Business Park, of which Hannah Morden and David Nicholson are directors.
Feeling less than welcome, I don’t stay the night at The Lighthouse. I am warned as I leave to consider the many livelihoods that depend on the business before I ‘trash’ it.
When I try to speak to Simone I am told she is unavailable and that there will be no comment ‘because of the accusations’ against UM.
To students, the enemy is not Benhayon, but the media which they feel has misrepresented their idol. Stewart says there is enough ‘true information’ about UM online, in the form of testimonials, without her needing to add more.
But none of the UM propaganda I have read reveals how it can drive relationships apart. Robin Clifford insists he tried to be open minded about Anita’s interest in UM, even accompanying her to a £30-a-head workshop held by Benhayon.
‘I thought maybe I’d get some insight but you wouldn’t understand how awful it was unless you were there,’ he says.
‘I was so angry at the stupidity. Anita was becoming increasingly difficult to live with. The students are smug; they feel superior to everyone else, as if everything they say and do is right.’
Anita spent her £200,000 inheritance on a house within walking distance of The Lighthouse and divorced Robin in 2014.
Their daughter, now a 20-year-old graphic designer who has described Benhayon as a ‘monster,’ decided to stay with Robin.
Anita, now remarried to a fellow UM student and living in Westbury, Somerset, told the Mail: ‘Everything anyone involved with UM says just seems to get twisted around and I don’t believe the media is interested in the truth.
‘I’m aware what my ex-husband has said but it wouldn’t sit well with me airing things publicly.’
Ultimately, Robin says he feels sorry for the vulnerable people caught up in the cult. ‘But the people who run it — these are people who should know better.’
Additional reporting: Simon Trump and Stephanie Condron