A hotel that thinks it is a playground
We find that learning to cycle in Suffolk was an uphill adventure.
Playtime is like falling off a log at the 1,800 acres of National Trust parkland of Ickworth Hotel (Photo: Sam Pearce)
Suffolk is not as flat as you might think. From the road, the undulations seem gentle but if, for example, you should find yourself at the bottom of one of these undulations with two small children - both learning how to ride bikes - the hill can appear as daunting as the north face of Everest.
Unfortunately, it had just started raining; worse still, my eight-year-old daughter Lucy had just fallen off her bike and her demeanour was, to put it delicately, less than stoical. However, as Hillary and Tenzing would no doubt have confirmed, when confronted with a steep gradient, motivation is everything.
And at the summit was Ickworth Hotel, a luxurious, child-friendly place to which Lucy and her five-year-old brother, Alex, were very keen to return - rain or no rain, hill or no hill.
Ickworth, a National Trust Property, is the ancestral seat of the Hervey dynasty and the hotel occupies the east wing - it manages to be both grand and intimate in equal measure which is not a bad trick to pull off.
The children loved it from the moment they saw their room - or to be more accurate from the moment they saw their room had a plateful of cookies in it.
However, once the cookies had gone, they were also won over by its sheer grandeur; by the cushioned window seats, by the bathroom which featured a tub the size of a Royal Navy Frigate and by the robes, in which they luxuriated as if to the manor born.
The exterior was impressive too. My partner, Sam, and I were confused by the fact that the satnav indicated we still had more than a mile to our destination as we drove through the front gates of the property.
Let's just say that Ickworth has substantial gardens and parkland, designed by Capability Brown, most of which we could see through the bedroom window, along with a surprising number of sheep.
As we ventured outside on a glorious early spring afternoon, the children discovered the adventure playground, sympathetically crafted from local timber. This proved diverting but not nearly as exciting as a felled, slightly rotting tree which offered ample opportunities for climbing over and into.
Lucy and Alex, plus a fellow visitor of a similar age, wasted no time in beginning to hollow out the structure using whichever tools came to hand. They were so absorbed that they were almost disappointed when I told them that it was time to go swimming.
But they got over it when they saw the indoor swimming pool. Unlike his older sister, Alex is not yet a confident swimmer. He decided he was not going to take any chances and loaded himself up with so many buoyancy aids that, as Sam commented, he was practically levitating. As the boy floated around the pool like, well, a buoy, the rest of us splashed away happily.
Back at the hotel for the children's high tea, a quick glance at our fellow residents confirmed that they belonged predominantly to a particular demographic, namely families with pre-school children.
A quick wander around the basement confirmed why. There is a fully staffed playroom and crèche which means that overworked parents can avail themselves of that most elusive of commodities - rest - in the knowledge that the children are being well looked after
My two were more interested in the games room which featured table tennis, pool table football and computer games including a Nintendo Wii.
The hotel's ethos, and that of its sister establishments in Dorset, Worcestershire and Cornwall, is that you need not sacrifice your creature comforts just because you have toddlers in tow.
This was particularly apparent in the evening when the little ones were in bed (there is a baby monitoring service and babysitters are available as an optional extra).
The adults-only restaurant offered plenty of fish and vegetarian options. If you prefer, there is also a self catering option, with apartments only a short walk from the main hotel.
For those who are tempted to venture out there is plenty to see in the immediate area
In season Ickworth House is open to the public (it was closed during our visit) and apparently worth checking out, not least for an art collection which includes paintings by artists including Gainsborough and Titian.
Historic Bury St Edmunds is nearby and Cambridge is no more then half an hour's drive away.
However, we decided that, despite the fact the weather had deteriorated somewhat since the previous day, we would hire bikes (also available from the hotel) on the basis that a. the landscape looked as flat as a pancake and b. it almost certainly was not going to rain before lunchtime. We were wrong on both counts.
Still, the downhill section of the journey went fairly smoothly, the landscape was lovely (if a bit more rolling than we expected) and there were plenty of adorable spring lambs gambolling around as lambs do, plus local horse-riders and walkers - plenty in fact to take Lucy's mind off the fact that the skies were darkening and we were beginning to get rather wet.
But once she had dried off (and calmed down) Lucy was delighted with her new cycling skills and both she and Alex enjoyed the afternoon tea. In fact, of the four of us, only Alex left slightly disappointed - and then just because the weather meant that he would have to wait for another weekend to return to his favourite log.
A standard double room at the Ickworth Hotel, suitable for two adults and one child, is from £215 per night on a bed and breakfast basis in April.
The Ickworth Hotel and Apartments, Horringer, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, IP29 5QE, Tel: 01284 735350