Two nights at the Dower House apartments at Ickworth with two six year old boys left us with a rare feeling of having relaxed and completely enjoyed ourselves. Over the course of two days we swam, played tennis, table tennis, badminton, walked on the estate and watched deer, played on the adventure playground, cycled, and had a very good neck untangling massage in the spa while the kids had some rare indoor playtime in the nanny supervised den.
Ickworth is a stupendously comfortable environment for adult and kids. In the main hotel the grand double cube reception rooms are furnished with lived in twentieth century design classics you can put your feet up on to read the Conde Nast magazine collection (Beanos for the kids). In fact the furniture is spot on throughout. Our two bedroom apartment in the Dower house (Holm) had a dainty French sofa and chairs in the living room but also three big squashy floor cushions. The bedrooms were furnished with high soft French beds and wardrobes and luxurious contemporary textiles (and yes there was a hairdryer in the wardrobe). The kids had z beds and the apartment would have accommodated two couples and two children, or a couple and four children.
We ate breakfast in the conservatory overlooking the lawn - a good selection of fresh fruit and child friendly cereals and juices, (with highchairs, disposable bibs, plastic plates and toddler cutlery available without asking). After eating the boys took themselves off through the french doors into the very attractive walled garden (complete with stylish and very comfortable, doze-inducing sun loungers). From the conservatory we could see them letting off steam (chasing around the animal sculptures and playing on the suitable for toddlers climbing frame) while we read the papers over coffee. Lunch is also available in the conservatory which provides good sandwiches all day and traditional afternoon teas, and in good weather tables and chairs are set out on the lawns of the garden.
Evening meals were particularly well organised to allow maximum enjoyment potential for all ages, including the grown ups. We all ate at Inferno one evening - salads, pasta and pizzas and a good wine list by the glass. The boys ate the two course children's menu - salmon or chicken kebabs with rice and fresh vegetables, pasta or pizza, followed by ice cream or jelly with berries. After their meal the boys took themselves off to the unsupervised CLUB/BLU playroom which is 20 yards up the passage from Inferno to play on the Playstation, We finished our wine and joined them for some seriously competitive after dinner table tennis. Many families with smaller children ate from the earlier children's buffet, a limited choice from which is also available in the 4 Bears Den - handy for very little children who don't want the formality of sitting up to a café table every night. The timing of the different menus at Inferno meant we could eat there together at 6-8pm without the baby and toddler atmosphere, and on our second night we could feed the children and get them back to the Dower House in time for a very civilised dressed up fine dinner at Fredericks at 8.00pm. The hotel arranged an experienced babysitter at 24 hours notice, who phoned reception to tell us the kids had drunk all the juice and milk in the fridge. (The very friendly reception staff provided fresh supplies as we left after dinner).
The Dower House is about three quarters of a mile from the main hotel, set in its own beautiful gardens - including a vast lawn with mini football nets, so acres of space for children to run and let off steam. For families the extra space and flexibility that the simple self catering facilities (microwave, dishwasher, sink, plenty of crockery and cutlery) the apartments offer is a real boon. It means you can make breakfast immediately without having to get everyone up and dressed, prepare snacks or meals whenever you want, and have plenty of room to relax in - with adults and children able to have their own space, or to share real 'living space'. To eat at the hotel and make use of the facilities, you can either cycle, drive or walk. The route back to the hotel is along a broad gravelled drive which is completely flat - ideal for using the bikes and tow-alongs which are provided for guests' use in outbuildings adjacent to the main hotel and the Dower House. It is a ten minute child speed cycle or a fifteen minute walk (which can take a very pleasant meander via the deer enclosure and the adventure playground). At the hotel and the Dower House you can pick up fresh transport and there were sufficient permutations of adult bikes, kids bikes, bikes with rear childseats and bikes with tow alongs that we could pick up what we needed when we needed it. If you want to eat dinner at the hotel and leave the children in bed however, you'll need to book a babysitter. This was arranged for us effortlessly at around £6 per hour.
Coming from a city the best aspect of the trip for my son was the freedom of the large enclosed gardens and making the journey back and forth from hotel to Dower House under his own steam. It was a great confidence building weekend for him and his friend who had both just learned to ride a bike without stabilisers. (Bikes with stabilisers were also provided for smaller kids still learning - kids' bike helmets provided too.)
Indoor and outdoor activities were well balanced with all sports equipment readily available in child and adult sizes. It was a big hit with the kids having a playstation and games library downstairs in a cushioned communal area and integral TV/DVD players in each bedroom of the apartment as well as the living area . (Their desire to watch Power Rangers versus ours to watch Bridget Jones the Edge of Reason therefore presented no conflict). Both children were also particularly taken with Sam the Dower house housekeeper's very well exercised black Labrador who can be taken for walks around the estate. The indoor swimming pool was very popular, as was the tennis and the extensive outdoor playground. The spa - which offers a wide range of treatments and a very soothing atmosphere was a big hit with the grown ups.
We packed as many activities as possible into our two days yet came away relaxed after our massage and completely adult dinner out, thinking we could easily have spent a fortnight there without us or the kids getting bored. We had not begun to explore the lovely Capability Brown grounds (family 4 wheel drive tours available for those not up to the 8 mile circular walk around the estate and hacking from the estate stables). Not had we toured the National Trust house of which the hotel is just one wing.
The trick that Ickworth pulls off so well, is to be at once exclusive and friendly, to have plenty of space and facilities and yet feel intimate, and to be stylish and yet relaxed. You feel pampered and very welcome. It's a genuinely child friendly hotel which isn't totally child oriented - I accompanied my son to the loo, and as he made use of the thoughtfully placed child step so that he could wash his own hands and peer in the mirror he observed that ' wow, they think of children everywhere here'. Utterly relaxed from an hour's massage and a chilled glass of wine, I observed in turn that they pretty much had adults covered too. We will definitely be back.
Karen Johnston April 2005
Special offer: 20% off midweek bedroom rates throughout August.
A large deluxe room sleeping a family of 4/5 costs £312.00 including dinner
and breakfast, per room,per night - usually £390.00, so a saving of £78 per night, ! (Children's meals are extra)
Please call Reception on (01284) 735350 for full details and quote"Babygoes2" to guarantee the best rooms available.