Passing through the large gates and along the drive through the vast estate, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the car. We drew up to the imposing honey-coloured building, which we had only just glimpsed through the trees, hearing a satisfying sound of tyre on gravel as we turned and parked.
“It’s Downton Abbey!” I gasped.
“Do you think Carson will come out to greet us?” Dougie replied.
“It’s huge!” muttered Rory from the back seat, having only just unplugged himself from his iPod and joined the land of the living.
Carson wasn’t there to meet us but Robert certainly was, with a welcoming smile and a hearty handshake. With little fuss we were handed an envelope containing all the important information we needed and two proper keys attached to a large leather fob with the word ‘Hillieri’ engraved on the side.
|The Ickworth Hotel|
We had arrived at the Ickworth Hotel, the East Wing of Ickworth House, a National Trust property just outside Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. A neo-classical country house, Ickworth was the home of the Hervey family from 1702 to 1996 and stands in 1800 acres of parkland just waiting to be explored.
We weren’t the only family set to enjoy a weekend in such sumptuous surroundings. The Ickworth Hotel is part of the Luxury Family Hotels group, which offers affordable family breaks to some of England’s finest country house hotels. Everything a parent might want to find in a hotel, this group have already provided…and then some. At Ickworth, families have access to a creche (complimentary 2 hour stay each day in the Four Bears Den), an adventure playground, cinema, swimming pool, bikes, DVDs and cupboards full of games. Baby in tow? No problem. Changing mats, bottle warmers, sterilisers and all the paraphernalia you would normally expect to bring with you is available, even a Bugaboo for those long country walks. Older children? Let them loose in Club Blu, their own room with PlayStation, Wii, air hockey, table tennis and table football.
Adults aren’t forgotten in this vast children’s playground. While the kids are being entertained in the den or the club, on the same corridor is The Spa where you can relax with a massage or facial, confident that you’re in expert hands. Mind you, even in the spa they haven’t forgotten the younger generation. There are special facials for teenagers and even a 20 minute nail treatment for girls.
Accommodation in the hotel is either in the main house, where connecting rooms are available, or in an apartment in The Lodge, a separate building which is a 10 minute walk or short bike ride away in the grounds. Our apartment in The Lodge consisted of a long hall with writing table and sofa, leading to a large room with double bed and seating area at one end and kitchen facilities with a dining table at the other. Rory had his own room off ours and we all shared the bathroom. The apartments differ in size but all are traditionally furnished. Having recently been given a make-over, the rooms have retained the well-loved furniture but have been freshened up with new carpets and upholstery. Hillieri, where we stayed, is probably not the most appropriate if you have anyone around 6′ tall in your group as the light fittings hang low and you’ll need thighs of steel to hunker down under the shower. That aside, it was a pretty, charming room and we felt as if we were staying in someone’s beautiful country home, which, I suppose, when you realise The Lodge was home to the 1st Earl of Bristol and subsequent family members, we were.
|Hillieri apartment in The Lodge|
Families staying in The Lodge have their own breakfast room at weekends and school holidays: a delightfully sunny place with scrubbed wooden tables and comfy sofas in front of a large fireplace. Hot and cold buffet breakfast is provided and parents have access to high chairs, bibs, sippy cups and brightly coloured plates for their little ones.
Lunch and dinner is taken in the main hotel. Family dining in the wonderfully light Conservatory is served from 12 noon to 7.30 in the evening (although this seemed to be extended to allow later diners when we were there). The food choices are simple and portions are large: battered haddock and chips, pasta, curry and steaks. The children’s menu included fish, chicken and pasta. Service was attentive yet relaxed and friendly.
Fancy a more adult affair, to get some time away from the children? Arrange for a babysitter or use the Baby Listening Service if you have a room in the main hotel to take advantage of fine dining in Frederick’s. Over 16s only allowed in this restaurant so our 17 year old was allowed to accompany us. We ordered our drinks from the comfort of the Drawing Room, sinking into large comfortable sofas then making a bee-line, once they were free, for the two original leather Eames chairs by the window. Frederick’s restaurant consisted of two smart, comfortable rooms and the food was beautifully presented. The highlights for me were the starters (try the Seared Cromer Scallops with tempura cauliflower, apple and caviar) and the puds (a heavenly Hot Chocolate Fondant with pistachio ice cream and praline dust).
What makes a stay at The Ickworth different from other UK breaks we have experienced, is the feeling that you are a world away from real life. Knowing that children aren’t just tolerated but are positively welcomed makes a huge difference to any parent, allowing them to truly relax and enjoy the experience. With bikes to hire, numerous walks to choose from and free access to the National Trust property on site, there isn’t any need to leave the confines of the estate if you want to pretend that you’re the Crawleys for a few days.
On our second evening, as we were walking from The Lodge to the main hotel, Dougie decided to nip back to the room to fetch a jacket. Rory and I continued to amble along when suddenly we spotted a herd of deer running across the park. The light was dim and there was a mist adding a thin veil over the scene. We stopped walking, held our breath and our eyes followed the graceful young animals as they galloped across the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods.
A minute or so later Dougie caught up with us.
“You missed the deer,” Rory said to his dad.
“Deer? What deer?” Dougie replied.
“About a dozen of them just ran across our path.”
“Oh Yeah? And where are they now?”
“You can’t see them, they’ve disappeared into the wood.”
“Ha! How convenient! I leave you for a minute and apparently I’ve missed a herd of galloping deer? Pull the other one!”
Good food, space to play, free WiFi, attentive yet informal service from cheerful staff and a herd of deer to entertain you. The Ickworth ticks many boxes and is well worth considering if you fancy a 21st century Downton experience.
|Top Row: Front door of The Lodge, Wellies of all sizes, ‘Icky Bear’
Middle Row: Children’s bedroom in The Lodge, Toy cupboard, The Lodge gardens
Bottom Row: Chest full of toys, Bathroom toiletries, Hallway in Hillieri apartment.
We stayed at The Ickworth Hotel as guests of Luxury Family Hotels.
One of the current special offers, running until 19 December 2013 (excluding October half-term and Friday/Saturday nights) – two nights from £249 per room for two nights B&B, including a three course dinner on one night. Children under 16 stay for free in parents’ room. The offer is available in seven of the Luxury Family Hotel properties, excluding Thornbury Castle.
For further details of all hotels in the group visit www.luxuryfamilyhotels.co.uk. You can also find them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/luxuryfamilyhotels) and Twitter @LFHotels to receive news of special offers.
The first photo and the final montage are my own. All others are courtesy of Luxury Family Hotels.