Family Holiday at Ickworth, England

A short cry from Cambridge and the wild Suffolk coastline, close to the medieval town of Bury St Edmunds, a new concept for happy family holidays has emerged, where ‘child friendly’ no longer means that parents have to compromise on their creature comforts. The present house at Ickworth was begun in 1795, the dream of the famously eccentric Fourth Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. He enlisted an Italian architect who never even visited the site, to design the house. Ickworth’s extraordinary central rotunda and curving wings were intended to house the treasures the Earl Bishop collected from all over Europe – but his wife condemned it as a ‘stupendous monument of folly’. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see it completed and exhausted relatives finally gave up, leaving the west wing in shell form to this day.

Gifted to the National Trust in the 1950s, Ickworth remained the family seat of the Hervey family until 1999, when the colourful Seventh Marquis of Bristol died. It was with great vision and guts that Nigel Chapman and Nicholas Dickinson eventually won the bid to renovate the east wing. It took three years of tireless work to bring it back to life and transform it into a unique, luxury, child-friendly hotel, accommodating up to thirty families. The current owners decided early on not to recreate the interior according to the traditional layout used by the family for centuries. So the rooms no longer hark back to days long gone but are refreshingly contemporary. Style and comfort are uppermost in keeping with its grand stature, but the new policy makes everywhere sticky-finger friendly. Children are encouraged not to feel obliged to be on best behaviour, and can skip or sprint down the galleries without compunction. Arriving is dramatic. The driveway leads through miles of open parkland up to the stepped main entrance of the house into the vaulted stone cloister on the ground floor. This is dominated by a billboard-size icon of a lady in a red ballgown – where you’ll probably be greeted by tail-wagging Truffle, the hotel’s black Labrador.

Within the hotel there are twenty-seven rooms, each named after a previous guest or family member. Twenty-one of these are decorated in a semi-traditional style with original chandeliers, deep window cushions and long silk drapes in rich tones of burgundy, topaz and turquoise. In addition there are six very contemporary rooms lit with spotlights and furnished with Muldini beds and King’s Road designer fabrics. Whether you want to lord it in the Marquis’s bedchamber or snuggle up in the butler’s cosy retreat, the choices are equally comfortable. Children are allowed to stay for free when sharing their parents’ room but there are also five inter-connecting rooms if you’d rather enjoy your own space. Bathrooms are hugely spacious and fabulously warm with piles of fluffy white towels and luxurious Aquae Sulis bath products. In a secluded corner of the estate, 80 metres from the hotel, is the Dower House which contains a further eleven apartments ideal for large families or groups of friends. A specially converted dresser base with a convection/microwave oven, fridge, and dishwasher enables you to make an easy meal or snack. To ease the carload, families with young children are provided with a nappy bucket, changing mat, sterilisers, kettles and bottle warmers on request. Manager Peter Lord, together with his wife Jane and their sons Christopher and William, are the perfect family hosts. Peter’s desire to allow adults and children alike a sense of adventure and freedom is self-evident. As far as he is concerned, Ickworth is an escape from ‘don’ts’ and actively encourages plenty of ‘do do dos’. Guests express their delight in the book of ‘firsts’ lying open on the hallway table. It is filled with joyful entries such as ‘James and Daddy caught their first frog – it survived’, ‘Daddy had his first facial’, and an amusing ‘the first and last time I will ever eat Roquefort ice-cream’. All over the hotel you’ll encounter friendly faces happy to stop and chat – the genuinely warm welcome and relaxing atmosphere enable every member of the family to chill out and feel totally at home. The original cellar, known as ‘The Street’, is a huge passage connecting the east wing to the rotunda – so huge that in times gone by butlers had to speed along on bikes to keep the food warm on its way to the dining table. Now the cellar is home to the Four Bears’ Den, a safe haven for babies and young children to play in while parents take a break. The Den is open each day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m, followed by high tea. It’s stocked full of toys and art materials, and a daily list of activities is offered but certainly not forced. Children may be left for two-hour stints as many times as they wish during their stay but for older children, there is the semi-supervised Club Blu, complete with table football, table tennis and computer games, is an appealing option. The old kitchens in the cellar are buzzing with life again too – as the Café Inferno – ideal for a quick homemade pizza for the children’s supper while you enjoy caffè latte and biscotti. At the other end of the day, a full English breakfast is best taken in the light and spacious conservatory where kids can help themselves to pancakes and maple syrup, sausages, beans and cornflakes – all on one plate if they so desire! Renowned for their lavish hospitality throughout the centuries, the Herveys entertained in style and the former family dining rooms continue to serve fine menus. After the children have gone to bed, treat yourself to a meal in Frederick’s. A sophisticated babylistening system operated from reception means you don’t have to go running up to check every five minutes, and the food is as good as in any London dining club.

Back in that enormous cellar, there’s also room for the Aquae Sulis Spa, inspired by the thermal mineral waters in Bath. The Spa offers a menu of therapeutic treatments for tired mothers and fathers looking for a little relaxation and pampering. The three treatment rooms are popular venues and managed by helpful therapists suggesting you opt for a slave to your skin’ facial coupled with a shoulder and arm massage, ‘handsome hands’ men’s manicure or ‘TLC for Mums to be’ – which includes an appropriately-named
‘can’t reach your feet’ treat.
One of the main attractions of the Ickworth estate is the extensive 1,800 acres of wooded parkland, created in part by Capability Brown– a living landscape rich in native plant and animal life. While some parts have been cultivated and grazed; most of the glorious English parkland can be explored and enjoyed on foot or by bicycle. Surrounding the hotel are formal gardens created in the early nineteenth century by the First Marquis of Bristol. Beyond the

Beyond the church, are the remains of an eighteenth century garden created by the First Earl, and the original summerhouse and canal still survive. The kitchen garden, protected by a high brick wall, is today a vineyard producing Ickworth wines.

Outside the conservatory children are bemused to see a three-metre-high giraffe named ‘Kilimanjaro’ and three flamingos made from old bicycle parts. Ickworth has something for everybody –a stunning house with a fascinating history and exquisite collections, an excellent restaurant, superb spa, plus professional and accommodating child-care. You’ll also find enchanting gardens, woodland walks, a family cycle route, jogging trail, adventure playground area, riding, plant centre and a well-stocked shop for mementoes.

With all its facilities, it’s an ideal retreat for children and adults of any age, epitomising great style without standing on ceremony. Adventure abounds if you have the yen for it.

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Venice, Palazzo Vendramin at the Cipriani

As a young girl, I once turned a corner and stepped into the Piazza San Marco unprepared for what was there. The impact of what I saw will stay with me forever. It was ‘Vivaldi Week’ and two huge speakers, attached to the Byzantine basilica and bell tower, were throwing out the wondrous ‘Four Seasons’ while young ballerinas dressed in pastel chiffon floated across the square. Man had created something as beautiful as nature, and the contagious energy in the air and the utter enchantment of the scene left an indelible mark.

The wonder that strikes you when visiting this city for the first, second or umpteenth time never fails to inspire your innermost self.

Its beauty speaks a language that men and women of any race and nationality are able to grasp immediately. Venice is filled with a unique mixture of sounds: bells ringing out from the dozens of church towers, water splashing at the sides of the canals as gondolas and water taxis pass, violinists practising from third-floor windows, and men walking along the small canal alleyways suddenly breaking into delicious song.

The timeless Rialto is a living ‘Diagon Alley’, lined with narrow shops selling everything: leather-bound books, herbs, traditional masks, scented candles, soaps, Murano glass and Burano lace, ornately decorated paper and hundreds of other delights, alongside Italy’s favourite fashion houses. Across the Giudecca Canal lies one of my favourite hotels in the world. When they first opened the doors of the Cipriani in 1958, the restaurateur extraordinaire, Commendator Giuseppe Cipriani, and the enthusiastic Guinness sisters realised their dream come true: peace and privacy in Venice. The Palazzo Vendramin, a fifteenth-century residence sold to the Cipriani by the Duchess of Manchester while retaining a number of rooms for herself, is connected to the Cipriani through the beautiful Casanova Gardens via a sweet smelling rose loggia. Situated on the Giudecca Island on the lagoon side of Venice, it is only five minutes from the Piazza San Marco by the hotel’s private launch.

With its lush gardens, it is best described as an oasis in the heart of Venice, boasting the only swimming pool and tennis court in the city.

Here, the seven butler-serviced suites are the perfect escape from the brouhaha beyond. Three of them benefit from the most spectacular views in Venice, across the Laguna towards Santa Maria della Salute and the Piazza San Marco – this has to be IT for anyone searching for the ultimate ‘room with a view’. Vendramin rooms are individually decorated with priceless Murano glass appliqués and chandeliers, and the pastel walls are uncrowded, so as not to distract from the exquisite setting or clutter the space. 

Each morning the arousing aroma of coffee is mixed with the smell of jasmine blooms, old-fashioned scented roses and freshly cut grass wafting through the huge window overlooking the gardens. Each day afternoon tea is served at five o’clock, and cocktails from six o’clock in the palazzo’s private salon, in addition to all the dining facilities of the Cipriani. Meals are generally served al fresco in one of the three terraces around the hotel. The newest and most contemporary restaurant is Cip’s, located on the ground floor of the Palazetto Nani Barbaro, adjacent to the Palazzo, with an outdoor terraced pontoon

that has a panoramic view overlooking the Grand Canal – the perfect place to sip the best Bellini in town and watch the sunset as the reflections in the Laguna fade. 

Renato Piccolotto insists on fresh market produce each day, maintaining that in the art of good cuisine there is no need to disguise the naturally robust flavours of good food.

To work off some of that good food, try the huge salt-water swimming pool. If you can tear yourself away from that, the hotel also has a red clay tennis court set in the rear of the gardens, a small gym, Turkish bath, sauna, massage and hydro system.

Uncontested as Europe’s most romantic city, the genius of the architecture hosts some of the world’s greatest treasures. There’s just so much of Venice to see – the Doge’s Palace and San Marco, the Academia, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, San Salute, San
Maria dei Frari, San Giorgio Maggiore, the Rialto… and never enough time in just one trip. The streets and canals are best enjoyed at a meandering pace, wandering in and out of the dozens of churches, museums, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants. Guide books aplenty will point out the renowned, but you’ll have more fun and get a greater taste of the city if you allow yourself to get lost in the maze of back streets and canals, knowing that you’re never far from a square where someone can point you back in the right direction.

A day trip to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello is a relaxing way to escape the hubbub and enjoy another aspect of the city’s famous reputation. Although you can’t walk down a street without glancing at a window of Venetian glass, it’s best to visit the island of Murano where most of the glass is made. The island’s history dates back to 1291 when all the glassmakers’ furnaces were moved there in an attempt to eliminate medieval espionage. The skills and secrets have been passed down from father to son throughout the centuries and, amazingly, many of the families of master craftsmen trading during the Renaissance continue today. Take a trip to the factory of Signoretti, where unprotected hands blow and roll molten glass on rods at 900°C. 

From Murano, it’s a short boat ride to the island of Burano, where the dying art of lace making will exist for maybe only another decade. The skill takes years to master, and then each lacemaker specialises in just one of seven different intricate stitches. Twenty years ago, you would have encountered a black-clad widow in every doorway, sitting with her white cotton string. Today, they are far less ubiquitous, and the shops now supplement their sales with imported machine-made goods. Film stars are buying up the brightly painted residences, taking the place of the artisans of previous centuries. The atmospheric restaurant ‘Da Romano’ on Burano, where pictures of Venice cover every square inch of the walls, has remained unchanged and is the perfect stop for a bowl of the house special, ‘Risotto Romano’, served plain or with shrimp or cuttlefish – delicious.

From here you can see the island of Torcello and finish the day with a visit to the church of Santa Fosca and the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta with its magnificent mosaics.

Whatever activities your busy day involves, the retreat of the Palazzo Vendramin at the Cipriani is truly heaven on earth.

The Month
These days Venice is busy all year round, and June, July, and August are heaving with day trip tourists from cruise ships the size of towns. Apart from the famous masked carnival in February, the winter months are calmer. The best time to visit, however, is in September, when the intense summer heat has abated and the clear autumn light transforms the water and brick into a kaleidoscope of Turneresque tones. The historic regatta held on the first Sunday in September, when vessels of all sizes parade along the Grand Canal carrying passengers dressed in ancient costumes, is a true Venetian affair – and an event not to be missed.