As the Telegraph Travel team embraced our Great Escape, trying out the 'new normal' and travelling to hotels, guest houses and campsites in the furthest reaches of the UK, my own started a little closer to home.
Saturday July 4 saw me venture beyond my doorstep to the local pub, where landlord Ivan saw in his new social distancing measures with a surprise party for locals. And then, this weekend, with a backlog of lockdown birthdays to celebrate and a wedding anniversary for straight-out-of-isolation Granny and Grandad, we finally made it out of the shire… to a hotel half an hour down the road.
The Ickworth in Bury St Edmunds has long been on my hit list. Located on a sprawling estate in lush Suffolk countryside, with an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, miles of off-road cycling and walking, and infused with a relaxed sense of luxury, it’s exactly the kind of place time-pressed parents dream of taking their children. The best thing: it was geographically close to home. The catch: for a travel editor, almost too close. Friends went, liked and returned, so I didn’t need to. Post-Covid, however, it seemed to present the perfect weekend getaway for a special occasion. But how would a venue whose success has long rested on togetherness fare with new measures designed to keep us all at a distance?
Crunching up the long, picturesque drive to the hotel itself, social distancing does not seem to present a problem. Set in acres of grassland, the house is an Italianate palace of impossible grandeur and has rooms of an according height and scale.
The welcome, however, is anything but ceremonious; the team, under sunny GM Faye Kelly, all of a disarmingly warm and approachable disposition and all apparently delighted to see you, your small people, and even your dog (Faye’s cockapoo Peaches is a resident delight for guests of all ages). The interiors are just grand enough to do their setting justice but without presenting parents with any tense ‘hands off’ moments, and all social distancing measures in public areas (plexi-glass screens at reception, hand sanitiser everywhere, reminders to wash hands, laminated menus) so discreet as to feel perfectly normal. Not even ‘new’ normal.
In fact, other measures could even be said to improve the family experience: pre-booking for all mealtimes, cycle rides, and, when it reopens, the swimming pool, mean there’s no queues, and no disappointment if the equipment is being used when you want it. We aren’t scheduled holidayers by nature, but having decisions ready-made actually seemed to make each day more relaxing. I’m not averse to a buffet, but table service without the constant yo-yo of up and down made for a much more relaxing – and less gluttonous – breakfast, with less waste guilt, too. Accompanied by grandparents straight out of isolation too, this meant another relaxed mealtime we could spend reconnecting, rather than needlessly refilling our plates.
That Ickworth is not more widely renowned as a foodie destination is an oversight by the South East. Head chef Lee Cooper has created that culinary thing of beauty, a diverse lunch and dinner menu – comprising perfectly cooked family favourites such as ribeye steak with crisp and fluffy triple-cooked chips, plus exciting specials like creamy, tangy tagliatelle with fat freshly caught prawns or pork tonkatsu ramen in salty broth and perfectly al dente pak choi – from which you want to eat everything. The kids' menu even eclipses the grown-up’s in mouthwatering range (Mummy, what’s a knickerbocker glory? You’ll find out, your father’s going to have it). A well considered wine list made for some interesting choices and a continuing talking point throughout our stay. Lockdown has seen some kitchen garden shoots appear, which with Lee’s commitment to farm to fork cooking seems a no-brainer. The pretty and expansive walled garden elsewhere on the estate begs planting up to serve more than aesthetics; here’s hoping the National Trust sees fit to grant use to the hotel.
The picnic experience in the Paddock was unforgettable and made quite the impression on Insta (reader, I may have overshared), with every element grammable, but more importantly, exquisitely delicious. Thankfully my phone was off and no more pics possible by the time the hubby and I napped on the blankets while the children explored the multitude of magic ready to be discovered by curious mini-adventurers: slides and swings in the fairy garden, wooden giraffe in the Walled Garden, deer on the estate as well as dens to build and woodland trails to investigate. Once we’d come around, there were other delights to discover: the stumpery in the Italianate garden, complete with tree root dragon, the Albana walk, frisbee on the front lawn and even a fitness trail further into the woods.
We left the latter for next time. But maybe before lunch.... Either way, we’ll be back. It’s practically round the corner, after all.
Rooms from £109, breakfast included. (0208 0765555; luxuryfamilyhotels.co.uk)