Nestled in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, surrounded by acres of protected woodland within a National Trust landscape, The Ickworth is a sumptuous family retreat like no other. It’s been a difficult year for all, living through a global pandemic, and an especially confusing time for our younger generation. If there’s one proven remedy that’s always worked for my children it’s getting them outside, enjoying the countryside and exploring the great outdoors.
The simple pleasure little ones receive from splashing in muddy puddles, clambering up ancient trees, being in nature and breathing in the crisp clean air – it’s both therapy and family-time at its best.
Set in an unrivalled location, 1,800 acres of beautiful parkland and rolling Suffolk countryside, there’s no better place to spend quality time than this exquisite country house. The Ickworth Hotel, which dates back to the Domesday book (when it was merely one of hundreds of assets belonging to the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds), is not only one of the Luxury Family Hotels’ five stunning hotels, renowned for their individual character and exceptional family-focused hospitality – but it’s also one of just three independently-owned British hotels that are also National Trust properties (the other two being Cliveden House, Berkshire and The Causeway Hotel, County Antrim).
The National Trust, who own just five hotels themselves, (The Causeway Hotel, Northern Ireland, Hunter’s Inn, Exmoor National Park and the Historic House trio, Bodysgallen Hall, North Wales, Hartwell House Hotel, Buckinghamshire and Middlethorpe Hall Hotel, North Yorkshire) is Europe’s largest conservation charity. The trust – which celebrated its 125-year anniversary in 2020 – care for hundreds of historic buildings and miles of coastline, woodlands, countryside, gardens and precious collections throughout the British Isles.
The Ickworth, just two hours from London, is a preserved masterpiece of Italian-inspired architecture, and said to be one of the first of its kind in the UK. Its most distinguishing feature, over 100 feet high, is its very own grand Italianate Rotunda. The long straight driveway leading you directly to it only enhances the wow-factor, watch the kids’ excitement grow as it gets seemingly larger as you edge your way closer on arrival.
This impressive building was the brainchild of Frederick Augustus, 4th Earl of Bristol and the Bishop of Derry (also known as the Earl-Bishop) who wanted to create a house for his family and provide galleries for his art collection. The East Wing of the house is today the hotel, while the West Wing is a visitor centre and café.
There are daily tours exploring the magnificent Italianate palace while uncovering the stories behind Ickworth, and the flamboyant pride of the 4th Earl of Bristol. A multi-million-pound major conservation project mending the Rotunda roof was in progress during our stay, and we were, unfortunately, unable to delve into the Hervey family’s legacy, but will be sure to return at a time when we can see the Rotunda back to its original glory.
The parkland and gardens at Ickworth proved more than enough to keep us occupied. Maps are available from reception providing routes ranging from a sedate stroll along the half-mile Lady Geraldine walk to an energetic seven-mile bike ride along Grand Tour. Armed with a GPS device you can even try geocaching here (basically a modern-day treasure hunt around the parkland!) Worried you don’t have a pushchair designed for countryside walks? Don’t worry, iCandy’s are available for complimentary hire from the hotel.
We hired bikes (stabilisers and toddler seats available if required), and began our journey through Deer Park, where Ickworth’s resident herd of deer roam free. Look out for Parson’s Pond on your right before passing rows of old oak trees and St. Mary’s Church on your left, the oldest building on the estate. Recently restored, here you can see a 13th century altar and 14th century wall painting of the Annunciation of Angel Gabriel. Take some time to explore The Walled Garden and canal lake, the 1st Earl’s ‘springe’ garden, whose son John so eloquently describes “lavish Nature’s favourite Blessings flow, and all the seasons all their Sweets bestow”. Discover the Earl’s Summer House and look out for the tin man scarecrow made from recycled objects. There’s an abundance of flowers, wildlife, apple trees, and other fruits and vegetables growing – it’s the perfect picnic spot.
Carry on along the river and pick up the Monument Trail, passing grazing sheep and miles of beautiful woodland. If you’re lucky you might see deer as you glide through Stoney Hill and Lownde Wood. Pass the Round House to your left, a mini cottage resembling a folky version of the rotunda before heading over Fairy Lake bridge. From here you can choose to turn left along the River Linnet back towards The Walled Garden, or pick up another trail – Lady Hervey’s Walk which takes you through Fontainebleau Grove and Adkins Wood then back to the hotel entrance.
As a guest staying at the hotel you are welcomed to explore the estate and discover the house both by day, (with free access to the Ickworth National Trust site), and, as night falls, with exclusive after-hours access to the wonderful Italianate Gardens (from 6pm until 9pm) via a gate behind the house.
Spend your time in this magnificent landscape gently strolling the neat pathways, lined with manicured hedges, lush lawns, beautiful borders and towering cypress trees. Walking in the footsteps of aristocratic ladies and gentlemen, who in the gardens’ heyday, would spend their leisure time here playing croquet or promenading on the raised terrace, will leave you feeling invigorated. And as Lady Mary MacRae, granddaughter of the 4th Marquess remarked, wandering through the blossomed trees in the gardens in spring is “like walking through lace”.
The children will enjoy playing ‘find the giraffe sculptures’, and if they still have energy left to burn, there’s a slide and swing in the fairy garden, cars, trampolines, sandpit, scooters and scavenger hunts. We opted for the indoor heated swimming pool, which is well stocked with floats, foam noodles, and everything else your little ones might need.
And this is certainly what sets Luxury Family Hotels apart from other great British hotels, being family-focused is at the heart of ‘everything’ they do. Their attention to detail is unsurpassed. From every item of baby equipment you could possibly need, including cots, nappy bins and bottle warmers, fresh morning and evening milk delivered to your room, free childcare each day, to collecting your children and entertaining them with a Sunday morning breakfast club, so that you can enjoy a lie-in. When dinner time comes, there’s a baby-monitoring system available in the room – the option for an earlier Children’s High Tea, ‘Younger Ones’ menus, together with ‘mocktails’, and a chef on hand to provide puréed food. Older children will love making friends in the Games Room, watching the latest blockbusters in the cinema room (daily at 6pm) or challenging themselves to a game of tennis.
As this is a hotel that makes couple time easy, be sure to book yourself a table for two at Frederick’s – the hotel’s two rosette fine dining restaurant. Spend a romantic evening for two dining by candlelight, sipping vintages recommended by an expert sommelier, sampling cuisine based on seasonal ingredients from local and artisan suppliers. The À la carte menu is every bit as sensational as the setting, overlooking the Italianate Gardens, including tandoori spiced scallops, truffle and parmesan chips, King oysters, Shakshuka and decadent desserts – the Hedgerow Bakewell tart with vanilla ice cream, toasted marzipan and sour cherry was divine!
Another highlight of our stay was our bedroom ‘Grand Tour’ – decorated exquisitely in period style, complete with an 8ft bed and views (also overlooking the Italianate Gardens), we felt like the Lord and Lady of the manor! The hotel boasts 27 family suites and interconnecting bedrooms, or for something more private book The Lodge – the former Dower house set on the estate just half a mile from the main hotel, with eight further apartments and three double rooms set amongst four acres of gardens.
Rooms from £199 per night B&B basis +44 (0)208 0765555
Jessica Way is an award-winning travel journalist, Editor of British Travel Journal and Dream Escape Magazine. She spends most of her time visiting extraordinary cityscapes, countryside and coastlines across the British Isles