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.