28th February 2019
Everything at The Ickworth country house hotel has been designed with tiny travellers in mind, which is great news for Amy Hopkins and her 11-month old daughter, Annie
I had a good feeling about The Ickworth before I’d even set foot inside. As my husband and I pulled up to the country mansion, I noticed the front door was flanked by a doggie water bowl and a collection of wellies ranging in size from dinky toddler boots to great big daddy-sized ones. The Ickworth seemed to be saying ‘dogs and kids welcome!’, which was a relief given that we had brought both.
Surrounded by rolling Suffolk countryside, the hotel is the east wing of The Ickworth, a Georgian palace that was once home to the Marquess of Bristol and is now jointly owned by the National Trust. Inside, it’s every bit as grand as you’d expect an 18th century ancestral home to be, with high ceilings, log fires and mahogany furniture, offset by impressive modern art. This hardly sounds like a place that’s going to appreciate clumsy little legs and sticky fingers, like the ones belonging to our 11-month old daughter Annie, but the atmosphere is reassuringly relaxed. In fact, children (especially those under ten) are not just tolerated, they are encouraged. Yes, the period decor is grand, but it is clearly used to being clambered on. Bibs and sippy cups wait in the restaurants and toy chests containing teddies, building bricks and books line the stately corridors. This is a lived-in, laidback grandeur.
For me, the stand-out feature of this hotel is its childcare. For a £150 deposit, the hotel provides a baby monitor (visual and audio) and a smartphone, allowing parents to spy on their (hopefully) sleeping tots from anywhere in the hotel. For us, this was a revelation. We could enjoy grown-up dinners after Annie had gone to bed. In other hotels, we’ve had to resort to room service dinners, eaten silently in the semi-darkness of our room so as not to wake the baby. ‘Child’ care at The Ickworth even extends to dogs – the obliging reception staff were falling over themselves to look after Flint whenever we wanted, even braving the February cold to take him on evening walks. As well as charming hotel staff, Flint also found a four-legged friend in Peaches, the bouncy ball of canine fluff who lives at The Ickworth.
As well as baby monitors, all guests receive two hours of complementary childcare per day. Although we only chose to use one of our sessions, I was impressed to find that the daily two hours even extended to the day we checked out. The Ofsted-registered creche, Four Bears Den, is a spacious paradise for kids, brimming with games, toys and books. The five-year-old me would have made a beeline for the fancy dress costumes (which, speaking as a mum, looked immaculate). We dropped off Annie on our first afternoon and she didn’t look back. I indulged in a gentle Elemis facial in one of The Ickworth’s treatment rooms, before returning to the creche to find Annie snuggled up asleep on the supervisor’s lap.
Each of the hotel’s 27 rooms is named after the history and people associated with the former owners, the Hervey Family. We were in Grand Tour, so-named because the Hervey family amassed a large collection of artefacts from their tours of Europe. The period suite is vast. Even allowing for the giant eight-foot bed and separate seating area with its lavish three-piece suite, there was plenty of floor space for our inquisitive crawler. As well as as cot, a further three children’s beds can be set up in the room on request. The hotel had liaised with us before arrival, as they do with all guests, to find out what we’d need. As well as a cot, we were also provided with a changing mat, nappy bin, baby towels, bottle warmer, steriliser and the all-important baby monitor. For older kids, bed guards, potties and other paraphernalia are available.
From the three large window seats in our suite (if you count the one in the bathroom) we gazed out over the Capability Brown designed grounds. The parkland is shared by the National Trust and the hotel and it’s impeccably groomed (how do they get the shrubs so round?) but with enough wildness – wild snowdrops, sheep, secret gardens and ancient trees to climb – to still be fun. On warmer days, there’s a fairy garden to explore, with a wendy house and trampoline. The Georgian rotunda, free to visit for hotel guests, was built to house the Harvey family’s artifacts, predominantly the large selection of Italianate statues and a collection of fine art, the like of Kauffman, Reynolds and Gainsborough.
Breakfast is served in the light and elegant glass-roofed orangerie, where there’s a menu to order from as well as a buffet of cereal, fruits and pastries. Lunch and dinner are locally sourced options, think high-end gastro pub fare. Dining options are flexible – more good news for parents. Children’s High Tea is served from 5pm-6pm and there’s a family restaurant complete with colourful table cloths, highchairs and a ‘Younger Ones’ menu (including pasta with ‘hidden veg’). Both nights we ate in Frederick’s, the candle-lit adults’ only restaurant. At least half of the couples had baby monitor smart phones propped up against the salt and pepper. When one dad disappeared upstairs to tend to a squawking baby, his wife (left alone) was invited to join another couple at their table. How about that for parental solidarity!
We met several families at The Ickworth who were on their second or third visit and I can see why. For parents in need of a refresh, especially those living in London, it’s an easy escape where everything – food, babysitting and entertainment – are at your fingertips. As we left I glanced again at the wellies by the door. Next time we’re here, I expect Annie will be borrowing a pair.
The Ickworth is part of the Luxury Family Hotels group, a carefully curated collection of five family-centred hotels in idyllic English settings. Luxury Family Hotels is celebrating its 30th birthday this year.
Where: Horringer, Bury Saint Edmunds IP29 5QE
Price: Rooms start at £130 per night based on two adults sharing. Under 16s can stay in parents’ room free of charge. Rates also include complimentary childcare in the hotel’s OFSTED registered crèche which is available in two-hour sessions.