A weekend in Ipswich

Donna and I spent the weekend in Ipswich visiting Mary and Martin and their two kids, Laurence and William. My grandmother looked after Mary when she was very young and she became part of the family. They’re about an hour away from London in a village called Otley. The striking thing about going from London to their home is the lack of traffic around the house. They live down a quiet lane, surrounded by fields and you really only hear the rumble of a tractor every now and then. In comparison, you always hear trains and cars and buses in London.

We arrived at about 2pm and Mary and Laurence met us at the station. I can’t quite figure out the British school system so was surprised to hear that Laurence still has another year of high school to go (thought he’d be finished now) but we had a chat about future plans for university and the like. We met Martin back at the house and sat and chatted, catching up on the news (Donna has much more to tell than me having been to 21 countries in the past eight months).

In the evening we went to the pub which is a short two minute walk away and sat down to dinner. William was away at camp but soon after ordering Mary received a phone call to say he’d bumped his head, had passed out at some point and wasn’t feeling well. Martin headed off to collect him from Bury-St Edmunds, a 45-minute drive away. We continued with our meals, sneaking in a dessert (though we really shouldn’t have) and then met William and Martin back at home.

We wouldn’t have seen William until Sunday evening so, despite the mild concussion, we were lucky to see him earlier than expected.

Sunday Mary took us and the boys to Ickworth House, a large estate that was now operated by the National Trust. I’d bought Donna a National Trust card for Christmas so it was good that she was able to use it (most of the places you can use the card are so out of the way that if you don’t own a car, it can be tricky to get full use of it).

Ickworth House is a large Italianate building with a large rotunda, walled gardens, and a church on the property. Upon arrival, we went in search of the bee keeper who was giving a demonstration between 11 and 12. We were directed to the Walled Gardens but despite walked around it all and heading off in another direction, we never found him. What we did find was a whole garden of English wildflowers in bloom. The National Trust is planning to turn the walled garden back into a functioning kitchen garden. Big job but should be really impressive once done.

We walked around the pond, got hissed at by geese, looked inside the 13th or 14th century church then headed into the house itself to get a drink and a snack. I’m going to have a grumble about customer service now. You have been warned.

We joined the queue to get into the restaurant. We didn’t want a proper meal and we told them this, but with five people needing to sit down, it made it a bit tricky for them. So they began sitting the groups of two people who were behind us. After about the third lot went through, I asked if we couldn’t just sit at a four person table and add a chair. This response to this was, “We tried it before but it didn’t end well.”

Was there a fire? Did a fight for territory break out between servers and customers? Was blood spilled?

So the waiter, all of about 17, apologised again and disappeared. Now the restaurant is inside the house but just outside this area were some outdoor table and chairs, perfect for sitting and watching the garden, and perhaps even, if you want to be risky, sitting and having some food. In the middle of one of the longest stretches of good weather this country has seen for nearly a decade, you’d think they’d want to encourage people to sit outside.

I asked if we could sit outside to which the waiter responded that we could order takeaway and it would be brought to us outside. I don’t quite see why we should be punished with disposable cutlery, plates and cups just because we want to sit outside, not more than 20 feet from the restaurant. Anyway, we take that option, pay and sit outside.

The drinks and food arrive and then we’re, oh so politely asked told to bring the tray in when we’re done. I am actually not sure why I complied to this order in the end, especially after later seeing trays left on tables when we walked back through the garden. Oh, and the cake was dry.

Now, if you were a good manager of a fine restaurant, wouldn’t you think to spread a couple of your staff around (and there seemed to be way too many in there for the size of the place) and encourage people to enjoy the English sunshine? Anyway, despite this, the rest of our time at Ickworth House was enjoyable.

We’d come on a “Living History” day where they had actors in costume working as servants in a few rooms downstairs. There were two cooks in the kitchen, a couple of maids, someone’s valet having a snooze, and a few other people. You don’t interact with them, they’re really like moving bits of furniture. The volunteer guides then come up to you and discuss what they were doing. There were a lot of guides in that place. I wonder why they don’t let the actors interact with the visitors instead of them pretending the visitors aren’t there.

We checked out the downstairs quarters before heading upstairs into the posh part of the house. I’d read a few of the stories about the previous lords of the estate, a family called Hervey. Of the seven important Herveys who owned the estate, only about two of them would have been what you’d call reputable characters.

The first was bisexual and though he had a wife, lived openly with his gay lover. The second was a philanderer and though married in England, had affairs with women all around the world. He was quite the randy sailor. The third was a career bishop who spent most of his time in Italy and didn’t really care for the church. The fourth, I think, was all right, as was the fifth (most of the stories they tell in the house are from these two ‘venerable’ Herveys) and then the sixth and seventh were criminals who had been to prison. The sixth lived in Monaco as a tax exile, and the seventh was the one to finally sell up all the family possessions and move out of the house.

The Trust took over the house in the 50s I believe as money against death duties so it’s been in their hands a while. They went to a lot of trouble to find all the sold off artwork and furniture etc, so that now the place is just stuffed full of stuff. It’s quite a collection. The visit to Ickworth House was well worth it.

We left at about quarter to three as William had band practice at their house in the afternoon (they’re playing for the village fair next weekend). Donna and I watched Snatch with Laurence and Martin, then in the evening we ate in the garden (so much food) before watching Despicable Me (which Donna hadn’t seen).

The boys went off to school the next morning. It’s their last week so William’s doing an animations course for four days and Laurence has university challenge (and I’m still not sure I know what it’s about). Mary took us to the station and we left at 10am to get back to London. It was a lovely weekend out of the city and, like every visit with people on this trip, was all too brief.

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