We are sitting for breakfast in the pretty conservatory of our hotel, when the unthinkable happens … my daughter’s bouncy ball escapes her and goes hopping across the floor towards the next table, coming to rest beside someone’s foot. Ah. Ok. Nobody panic. What do we do? What’s the protocol here? Such are the anxieties of family holidays this summer.
Incorporating social distancing into a hotel is tricky anywhere, but even harder in a property specifically aimed at families with young children. How do you work it when kids are running around, rolling on the floor and putting their hands all over everything?
As we drive through manicured parkland towards Suffolk’s Ickworth Hotel, my two kids – aged four and six – are beside themselves with excitement after four months locked down at home. We are the third guests to arrive at the hotel, a wing of a grand Italianate stately home owned by the National Trust. General manager Faye Kelly is on the steps greeting everyone like it’s Christmas morning: “It’s going to be hard not to hug everyone!” she says, overjoyed after months without guests. She’s been living at the hotel three nights a week, trying to ignore the clips of The Shining sent to her by her siblings.
The first indication of our brave new sanitised world is a sign on the front door requesting guests frequently wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. Inside, we are directed to the first of numerous hand-gel stations for a welcome squirt.
British hotels seem to be adopting differing approaches to how visible their new safety procedures should be. At Chewton Glen in Hampshire, for example, a masked staff member comes to your car to take your temperature before you’re allowed any further – but the Ickworth is going for what, at least on the outside, seems a more-relaxed regime. Staff are not wearing masks or gloves – Faye just doesn’t think it would feel right – and things look and feel relatively normal.
There’s a narrow plastic screen across the reception desk (though the receptionist seems to always stand to one side). We are told the key has been left in the room, to reduce contact, but it isn’t quite ready – due to the extra anti-viral spraying necessary on the day of arrival (a procedure that avoids the need to strip out soft furnishings and paintings).
While we wait, we stroll through high, glamorous corridors to the conservatory – where a fabulous hoya plant covers a pink wall – and settle in for afternoon tea, thrilled to be eating something I hadn’t made myself for the first time since March. My kids are wowed by their Beatrix Potter-themed trays featuring an edible garden and mini wheelbarrows full of chocolate eggs, dashing outside to play in the walled “fairy garden”. There, kids mix and share toys and climbing frames, which are deep-cleaned three times a day, while signs tell parents to ensure they wash hands before and afterwards.
The conservatory now has six tables instead of the usual 13, and two more formal dining rooms have four, each spaced two metres apart. Only one other family and two couples share our grand dining room in the evening, but noisy kids, lovely waitresses and background music create enough of an atmosphere for us to really relax and enjoy fantastic plates of ricotta-stuffed tempura courgette flowers, baked halibut and a bottle of wine.
All seems almost-normal to us, but for staff there’s a tension: the difficulty of standing back at dinner after a career of fussing over guests. Some guests will feel it odd that wine is left in the bucket rather than poured, others will see it as a sign of extra thought, and care.
For now, the creche, swimming pool and spa remain closed, but a games room with table-tennis and table football is open, and cleaned hourly; a cinema room with well-spaced seats shows films. Kids’ activities twice a day are now largely outdoors, though ours try a play dough-making session inside, with doors open to promote air flow, and the tutor standing well back, leaving supplies on tables.
Guests can easily avoid others, spending their days in the surrounding 728 hectares (1,800 acres) of National Trust parkland, exploring a glorious network of woodland bike trails on borrowed bikes, and get free access to the stately home’s beautiful gardens. The hotel has its own lovely gardens too, where we encounter a baby deer among the roses after breakfast.
There are tables spread out on the lawn for lunch, but we go one better, ordering one of the hotel’s pre-prepared picnics. We find it laid out in an adjacent field: blankets and cushions on the grass, a proper wicker basket of plates and glasses, mounds of sandwiches, strawberries and cream, even a baked camembert. Best of all, we have the field – bordered with ancient oaks to climb – to ourselves. Socially distanced dining at its most indulgent.
•The trip was provided by The Ickworth (doubles from £109 B&B). This week 18 rooms are available but from next week all 28 are open, still with availability this summer and autumn