This is the first of my properties that I had visited before, once in the late 1970s as a child and once with a friend who lives locally. On the first occasion I was too young to remember much about the house, while on the second I only wandered around the grounds and didn’t go inside. So, it still felt a bit like I was visiting for the first time.
Arriving about ten minutes after 11am, by the time I got up to the house I had just missed the first guided tour of the State Rooms so I signed up for the 12.15 tour instead. I have to give a mention to the staff and volunteers who were all extremely helpful and explained what was available in the way of tours and how to go about signing on for one. For those so inclined, there are also below-stairs tours available as well as special tours. The day I was there, the special tour was called ‘Meet the Herveys’ (pronounced Harveys), which having learnt more about them over the course of my visit would probably have been highly entertaining. But I opted for the more general talk about the State Rooms, which gave info on both the family and the building. I later went back into the house to see the other rooms not covered by the tour and to get a closer look at some of the better sights.
With almost an hour to wait for the tour, though, I headed out into the Italianate Gardens at the back of the Rotunda. I must apologise for the fact that my photo of the house is taken from this angle rather than from the front, where there is a nice columned portico. This is not really my fault, though, as there were archery demonstrations on the lawn in front of the house so my picture would have included bright green tents in the foreground. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for opting instead for a rather more respectful picture of the rotunda from the rear.
I had a very pleasant walk around the Italianate Gardens and along the terrace. From the terrace, you can see an obelisk monument to the Earl-Bishop (more of him later) in the distance, while the gardens themselves comprise several separate garden ‘rooms’ enclosed by neatly clipped box hedges. My favourite ‘room’ was the Stumpery. I’d never heard of this before, but it’s basically a fern garden where dead tree stumps are dotted around for the ferns to grow up. In true NT fashion, the stumps are also environmentally friendly as they are home to a variety of bugs and beasties.
Speaking of beasties, there is also a network of dark cells below the Orangery where many of Ickworth’s resident bats roost. Visitors aren’t allowed inside, although I’m not sure many visitors would want to venture in… personally, I would only give it a go if there was some kind of guano head protection available! This underground area is called a bat hibernaculum, a great word but someone said to me afterwards that it should be called a battery and I quite like that too.
Wandering back to the house for my tour, I passed the Orangery restaurant, which has a lot of information posters about various members of the Hervey family hanging outside. And this was where I first got a taste of just how interesting this clan has been. In fact, the history of the family is one of the most interesting aspects of Ickworth. They certainly had their fair share of pleasure-seekers, rakes and miscreants.
The first infamous Hervey was John, Lord Hervey, a favourite of Queen Caroline who married for love but soon left his wife at Ickworth while he pursued various affairs – with both men and women – in London society. Yet he still found time to father eight children with his wife… a busy man.
The Earl-Bishop who was so instrumental in planning the Ickworth house as we know it today also had his fair share of faults. As a third son, he opted for the Church as a profession, even though it was doubtful he even believed in God and rarely attended Church! Rising the ranks to become Bishop of Derry in Ireland, he then used the money that came with this position to fund his travels around Europe and his collection of artworks.
Another notable Hervey was Elizabeth, one of the Earl-Bishop’s daughters, who left her unhappy marriage to become part of a love triangle with the Duke of Devonshire and his wife Georgiana (as shown in the film ‘The Duchess’). Prior to this, the 3rd Earl of Bristol’s wife, another Elizabeth, conveniently forgot she had married him and then bigamously married the Duke of Kingston, leading to a scandal and court case. Even among the more recent Herveys, several have drifted to the wrong side of the law. The 6th Marquess of Bristol was declared bankrupt at the age of 21 and then sentenced to three years in prison after taking part in an attempted jewel robbery. His son, the 7th Marquess, fared little better, spending time in prison twice for drug possession during the 1980s and 1990s. So, bisexual affairs, threesomes, bigamy, bankruptcy, theft and drugs… between them the Herveys have done it all.
But in between all of that, they somehow found time to create a beautiful home in the Suffolk countryside. To try to cut what is a very long story as short as possible, the Earl-Bishop first planned the house with the Italian-style rotunda but saw very little of its construction while he was gallivanting around Europe building up an art collection to house there. Unfortunately, the collection was later confiscated by Napoleon in Rome before it ever found its way home and only a few pieces have made it to these shores, most notably, the dramatic marble statue, ‘The Fury of Athamas’, in the Entrance Hall, which was bought back by the Earl-Bishop’s son and eventually installed in its planned spot. It shows Athamas about to smash his child to death against a rock with his wife and other child begging him to stop. The very nice volunteer lady says she dreads it when a family with young children stop and ask her to ‘tell us about the statue’. What can you say?
It was the 5th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bristol to whom Ickworth perhaps owes the most. On his father’s death in Italy (where else?), only the rotunda was completed but the son continued the building work slowly but surely when funds allowed, although the West Wing was left as a shell and has only really flourished recently under NT ownership, having now been turned into a restaurant, shop and visitor reception. The Earl-Bishop’s plan was for the family to live in the rotunda, leaving the wings for his art collection but the opposite was the case once the house was finished, with the family living in the East Wing, which has now been converted into the 27-room Ickworth Hotel (currently available at a price of between £145 and £285 per night for those who might be interested!)
The next important Bristol was the 4th Marquess, Frederick William Hervey, who inherited a virtually insolvent estate from his uncle. Fortunately for Ickworth, however, he had been either very shrewd or very lucky in his choice of life partner, his wife Theodora being a railway heiress who had ample funds to invest in the estate. The two of them did a lot of work on the house, installing electricity and other up-to-date equipment and services.
Some of these family tales were told to me during my 45-minute tour of the State Rooms, but there is so much to learn that I was glad of the £5 I spent on a guide book. It seemed a lot at first but 64 pages and a wealth of information later, it felt like a good deal.
The tour of the State Rooms also introduced me to some of the fantastic pieces of furniture and paintings that the Herveys had acquired over the years. Much of it came from the 5th Earl/1st Marquess who had something of his father’s love of European art and spent several years touring to build up a second collection his father would have been proud of, even if he appeared to be less than proud of his son, leaving him little inheritance after he refused to give up his engagement and marry a wealthy widow. So it would seem at least some of the Herveys were decent folk. In fact, my tour guide made a distinct point of mentioning the various good apples in the Hervey clan.
My favourite pieces on display include ‘The Fury of Athamas’ statue (what? It’s impressive whatever the subject matter) and two tall stands to either side of the fireplace in the library, which each comprise three gilt feathered birds as the legs with small round tops. That’s my animal thing again! I looked them up on the National Trust Collections website and after a lot (and I mean a lot) of searching I finally found them. They’re called torcheres – hence my difficulty in pinning them down – and are gilded wood with marble tops. Hopefully I’ll learn more of the antiques terminology as I go along. I thought I knew a fair bit but I would never have thought to look for a torchere! Also in the library is a painting of Prince Balthasar Carlos of Spain by Velazquez, which is interestingly balanced by the less celebrated ‘Portrait of a Boy with Dog’ by an unknown artist of the Spanish school. Call me a philistine, but I actually prefer the second. Meanwhile, in the Silver Room upstairs, there’s a great collection of silver fish… no, fish made of silver not the creepy crawlies! They were made as scent bottles and vinaigrettes and are well worth a look.
I’m aware that this review is going on a bit but for those of you still with me, there are just a few more things to mention. The free-flow tours of the house start in the basement and if anyone goes down there and doesn’t instantly think of Downton Abbey, they must be completely out of touch with modern television. On a related theme, a mother down there was telling her children that the servants didn’t have television as there was no such thing as television, to which her son replied that he’d cry if there was no television… I had to agree.
Another interesting fact is that the top of the rotunda is said to be the highest point in Suffolk. I know, I know, it’s not exactly Everest but still it’s a claim to fame of sorts. What’s more, the house is 180 metres from end to end so Usain Bolt could probably cover it in 18 seconds or so… as long as all the doors were open and the hotel was amenable to someone sprinting through.
I must just conclude with a thank you to the two Suffolk ladies who were happy to have me share their table in the full-service Orangery Restaurant. I was flying solo and the restaurant was busy so the maitre d’ asked if we would mind sharing and they were happy to do so. We had a nice chat about Suffolk, Surrey, London and the joys of retirement – they strongly recommend it – so it made my soup break a little more enjoyable. I didn’t catch their names nor they mine, but as we were on table 11, I became 11A and I left to a cheerful ‘nice to meet you, 11A’. It was nice to meet you too, 11s.
PS: I promise I will try to keep these reviews a little shorter in future, there was just so much to say this time, which I guess is an advert for Ickworth in itself!
Highlights: State Rooms
Refreshments: Celery, potato and thyme soup; organic pear juice; chocolate Rice Krispie cake with sultanas and cherries (the latter from the Porter’s Lodge kiosk with tables outside where dogs are ‘very welcome’).
Purchase(s): Guidebook, fridge magnet, ‘The Key to Rebecca’ by Ken Follett (from secondhand bookshop)
NT Connections: Quebec House (Ickworth displays the famous painting of the ‘Death of General Wolfe’, copies of which are displayed at Quebec House)