A House in the Round: Ickworth House
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Ickworth House, with its surrounding gardens and parkland, is a regular weekend retreat for us. We have been countless times over the last few years, for anything from long country walks around the perimeter of the estate – which is large enough that at times the house itself is just a speck on the horizon – to quick visits to the (often excellent) second-hand bookshop, followed-up with a cream tea.
Through the Seasons
Our first visit to Ickworth House was actually to attend a ball – the annual Bury St Edmunds Hockey Ball – that was hosted in the west wing of the building; an evening that seemed to consist primarily of (very long) speeches, followed by (very strong) drinks, the result of which I remember little except having misjudged the dress-code.
Since then, however, our visits to Ickworth have been regular. We always try to get one walk in when the snowdrops are out. While the snowdrop displays may not be as impressive as those at nearby Anglesey Abbey, the crowds are significantly more manageable!
Depending on timing, this visit often coincides with Elle’s Birthday, for which an Ickworth House trip has become something of a ritual. More often than not, however, the daffodils, those early heralds of the spring, are already in full flower when we make this celebratory visit around this time of year.
In the summer, the gardens make perfect picnic territory. Henry James – quoted in Edith Wharton’s autobiography A Backward Glance – commented that the words “summer afternoon” had to him “always been the two most beautiful words in the English language” and I have to say he probably makes a good point.
The long, leisurely afternoons picnicking on the lawns at Ickworth, with nothing more important to do than watch the clouds crawl lethargically across the sky or the bees blunder from flower to flower like drunkards, are some of those perfect moments.
As the leaves begin to change, we turn our attention from the gardens to the wider parkland. We are both autumnal people, and our preferred long walks are beneath a canopy of red-orange-brown leaves looking for mushrooms.
There are a number of different walking routes possible around the park at Ickworth, from the light stroll around Lady Geraldine’s Walk – perfect snowdrop-spotting territory, and close to the car park and Porter's Lodge café – to much longer routes for which you'll probably want sensible footwear – the Albana Walk and River Linnet Trail. You can see all the walking routes at Ickworth on their handy map.
The longest walk at Ickworth – the Monument Trail – is an almost 10km loop, past the house, across the River Linnet, up the opposite of the valley, and then following a wide loop around the edge of the property. Most of the walk is through woodland, though occasional breaks offer phenomenal views back across the Linnet towards the house, where the distinctive Rotunda is always just above the horizon.
Inside the House
Assuming you have the right layers, these walks can be just as enjoyable in the winter, but cold weather offers a good excuse to explore the inside of Ickworth House.
Despite its symmetrical appearance from the outside, on the inside the house is anything but: the central Rotunda and part of the East Wing constitute the residence, while the rest of the East Wing is now a luxury hotel. The West Wing, which had originally only been built to give the building it’s pleasing symmetry, was an empty shell when the National Trust took ownership, but now contains a shop, café and that second-hand bookshop I mentioned earlier.
Once inside the main residence, the main attraction is the artwork. Alongside a large number of oil and pastel paintings of the Hervey family, the standout piece is a self-portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who was a regular painter for Marie-Antoinette.
In the painting, a very young painter (Vigée Le Brun was in fact in her late 30s when she painted this, but what was one supposed to do before the invention of Photoshop?) looks openly and unreservedly out at the viewer, paused in the act of painting: a skilled artist caught as though unexpectedly. It is a painting of brightness and vigorous life, the eye drawn upwards to the face, surrounded by delicate white lace collar, a knotted turban and a profusion of tight light-brown ringlets, strikingly offset by the crimson satin sash tied at the back of the waist.
We stumbled on Vigée Le Brun’s striking self-portrait at the Ickworth Uncovered exhibition in early 2020, when the house’s vast rotunda was cocooned inside 270 miles of scaffolding, and the inside of the house was left in darkness. Only a handful of the most stunning pieces – including this painting – were left illuminated. The overall experience was like sneaking through a museum at night.
There are regular tours of both upstairs and the well-preserved downstairs, though you'll need to arrive early if you want to join, as all indoor tours begin between 11am and 11:30am. We invariably arrive just minutes after the 'downstairs' tour has begun! Check the tours page before you visit if you're interested.
After all that walking and art, we almost always treat ourselves to a a pot of tea, scones and clotted cream, ideally sitting in the glorious orangery, looking out across the neoclassical facade and the Italianate Garden's pristine lawns.
And did we mention the bookshop?