The Ickworth is beautiful, by any standards. It's housed in the east wing of Ickworth House, an elegant Palladian mansion which was family seat of the Earls of Bristol from the 18th century till the 50s, when it was sold to the National Trust (though they kindly kept a wing free for the famously louche Marquess of Bristol until 1998).
It's now been leased to the Luxury Family Hotel Group, who have turned it into that rare thing - a family hotel which aims to delight both adults and children, and succeeds.
Friendly staff are waiting to greet you on arrival in the rather grand entrance hall, and that perfectly sets the tone of our stay - two days of the kind of really personal but genuinely relaxed service that puts you totally at ease, and sloughs off the tensions of real life within twenty minutes of arrival.
Decor is... properly cool. A striking mixture of country posh and modernist style, it stands defiantly apart from the run of the mill Home Counties hotels with their ubiquitous swags and tails. Here it's clever midcentury chandeliers and fabulous contemporary art; there are rafts of comfy sofas, but they're the kind that you fantasise about having in your own home, if only you had the room.
And yet somehow, it's all completely child-friendly - and there's no real sense of division between 'the kids' bit' and the stuff that's aimed at grown-ups. There's a large family lounge with funky seats and loads of lego, games and toys (all of which can be borrowed during your stay), but also a glamorous drawing room - and children seem quite as welcome in the latter as the former.
Rooms are luxurious and stylish, with a free (full-size!) Elemis gift waiting in our rooms. Bathrooms are top notch with deep tubs to wallow in, and beds are squishy in just the right way.
The swimming pool, a two-minute walk from the main building, has unisex changing rooms (so dads can do their share of wriggler-wrangling), lockers, hairdryers and handy bags for your wet swimmies. During the day it's flooded with natural light, due to the ENORMOUS windows - but at night, it's a glamorous underwater-lit pool surrounded by tropical foliage - so if you get the chance (or your children are a bit older) try and slip away for an after-dark swim.
Which brings us to childcare, for which the Ickworth is justly famous. There's a brilliant and fun-looking creche which is free for 2 hours for every day that you stay. There kids can be left to pootle about, dressing up or doing tactile play, carefully watched over by the friendly and genuinely warm creche staff. Babies can be left from 3 months, and the staff member who was looking after the smallest member of our party (14 weeks' old) inspired absolute confidence that he would be cuddled non-stop while his mother grabbed a bit of downtime (there's an in-house, well-appointed spa with lovely stuff to pamper yourself with - and a manicure can really do a lot to revive a new-ish parent!)
In the evening, the Ickworth's listening service allows parents to head downstairs for a drink on one of the giant sofas, and a properly posh meal at Frederick's, the Ickworth's stylish 'grown-up' restaurant. The food here was really good - creative but not crazy, and absolutely delicious. There's a new menu for Spring '17 and between us we tasted three-quarters of it - all excellent (and the best twice-cooked giant chips you will ever have, chip-lovers).
To work it off the following morning we headed down to the bike shed, where bikes of all sizes (including ones for littlies who need stabilisers) are available - just sign them out when you fancy heading off around the ground. It's amazing how much more likely you are to actually go on a family bike ride when you don't have to faff around with expensive rental or deposits, we discovered. And it's worth it: the grounds are stunning - remember that the rest of the house, and the many, many acres in which it sits are owned by the National Trust, and consequently impressively landscaped and beautifully kept. We freewheeled around for an hour or so, and fantasised about having access to this kind of 'outside' every day (unlikely to happen any time soon - so we made the most of it.)
Back at The Ickworth, there's more outside fun; a walled ‘Fairy Garden’ houses swings, slides, and a big old trampoline, along with ride-ons and scooters - and there's an adventure playground too, with a zip wire and lots to climb and swing from (aimed at over-5s, but find for younger ones with adult supervision.)
We wound down that evening with a cinema screening - there's one every night at 6pm in the cinema room, where you can slouch on giant beanbags - and there's a games room too, with air hockey, table football and ping pong (grown ups enjoy these too, it turns out.)
When dining with the kids, we headed for The Conservatory, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a sunny and cheerful room. Breakfast was a massive hit with both kids (show me a five-year-old who doesn't want waffles for breakfast) and adults (show me a 35-year old who doesn't want waffles etc). Throughout the day there are baby food pouches to grab, and pretty much everything you need to make feeding babies and small children as pain-free as possible - including a clever veg-hiding pasta dish which went down a storm.
We were all very sad to leave (especially after an encounter with the hotel's truly adorable cockapoo puppy - joy with a tail). The Ickworth really is pretty special, and effortlessly combines a pretty sophisticated luxury with a genuine welcome to families big and small. It's ace, and if you get the chance you should really go.