Ah Italia! Land of gelato, Vespas and frescoes – I’ve pined for the place so many times over the last year that it’s difficult to know which I love more: Italy itself or the idea of Italy.
The joy of travel is always sparked in part by imagination: the anticipation of a place before you arrive; the memory of it once you leave. And it's not without reason that we love to recreate the places we admire back home. The Chinese have even gone so far as to enshrine their nostalgia for England through Shanghai’s mock English suburb Thames Town. It’s a riot of British stereotypes – from phone boxes to village greens.
We too love to indulge in our own make believe versions of the countries that have captured our hearts. Nowhere is this more true than our passion for Italy. Indeed, Britain has the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio to thank for the wave of Italian-inspired designs that swept across Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Suffolk’s Italian fantasia
Seeking out a slice of Italy without going abroad is not as far fetched as it sounds. English gentlemen returning from their Grand Tours of Europe frequently sought to find ways to conjure up the Stivale back home. Frederick Hervey, Suffolk's Earl-Bishop, was so struck by Italy’s villa Borghese that he commissioned a giant Rotunda to be built in the heart of Suffolk – the likes of which had never been seen in Britain. There, he housed all the art and antiques he had collected on his Italian travels. He based his design on plans by Italian architect Antonio Asprucci and the result was the breathtaking Ickworth House: towering above the Suffolk fields, it is reminiscent of Florence’s famous Duomo, only fashioned out of local stone. Taking 47 years to complete, his wife dubbed it a ‘stupendous monument of folly’ – an 18th century slap down to rival even the most acerbic TripAdvisor review.
Giant folly or not, there’s arguably no better place in Britain to embrace la dolce vita. Not only does this part of Suffolk tot up an enviable number of annual sunshine hours, the Ickworth estate is a short drive from Cambridge, with its 40-minute train link into King’s Cross. And best of all, you can visit for more than a day by staying on the estate. Forget expensive testing kits and quarantine – this is a slice of Tuscany right on your doorstep.
1,800 acres of parkland surround the house with an intoxicating medley of Italianate gardens and over 10 kilometres of wooded walking trails. Although the house itself is owned by the National Trust, the West Wing is home to The Ickworth hotel, giving you a chance to fully immerse yourself in this epic piece of Italian fantasia on holiday. You can even stay in a Grand Tour themed suite which is decorated in period style and overlooks the Italianate gardens.
Daydreaming of San Gimignano while napping under the cypress trees wasn’t a stretch. Having so much space to roam in, with no crowds or burdensome airport check ins, was almost enough to satiate my deepest Tuscan longings. It wasn't for nothing that the grand daughter of the 4th Marquess described a stroll through the avenues of blossom trees as 'like walking through lace'.
I’ll admit my appreciation for Italy has sky-rocketed since having children. Anybody who has tried in vain to chorale their raucous offspring through a three course dinner at a stiff-lipped French restaurant will know that Italy’s all-embracing attitudes to bambini is balm to the soul for holidaying families.
This relaxed attitude is replicated in spades at the Ickworth, which boasts a walled play garden, an on-site creche, bike hire and a swimming pool. There are family friendly dining times, an adults only dining room and a basement cinema to boot. All this makes it very tempting to spend your entire stay on site.
Authentic gelato in Aldeburgh
Plenty more Italian delights lie in store for those who do venture out, not least to the East of Suffolk in Aldeburgh. Here, you'll not only find the best fish and chips in England but a tiny Italian ice cream kiosk next to the miniature boating lake whose scoops rival Florence for flavour. Watching children sail toy ships in front of Aldeburgh's colourful seaside façade conjured up thoughts of Positano. The town manages to be both archetypically British and fey. Each seafront house playfully battles to be different from its neighbour, with a new pastel shade, a sundial or porthole door. This being Suffolk, there's not a Tuscan-style hill in sight. Instead, the town slowly frays into the quiet marshes of the Haven nature reserve. It’s not hard to see what drew artist Maggie Hambling back to the town, or composer Benjamin Britten who lived and died here.
Britain’s answer to Venice
Ickworth may boast its own original Titian portrait but nearby Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum will also supply you with a treasure trove of Italian art from Domenico Veneziano’s The Annunciation to more works by Titian and Veronese. The Bridge of Sighs, the river Cam's most iconic crossing point, takes its name – and its enclosed structure – from Venice’s ‘Ponte dei sospiri’ which was built to ferry captees from Venice's ducal palace to the city's prison. Casanova was famously held here and Venice's many tourists are known to kiss as they pass underneath it. Tickets into St John's College, where you can cross Cambridge's version of the bridge, are available at the Porter's Lodge on St John's Street.
Continue the Italian theme with lunch at La Margherita, a family-run Italian restaurant on Magdalen Street. This stalwart of the Cambridge dining scene boasts authentic dishes that are made from scratch and a mouth-watering gelato menu. Before you know it you’ll be hopping on a punt, cone in hand, and belting out ‘Just one Cornetto’. Indeed, punting down the Cam and admiring the college quads and bridges is about as close to Venice as you can get this side of the English Channel.
So much for the Green List; if the weather's on your side, Britain's Italian gems are a worthy substitute.
Visit The Ickworth for summer availability and room rates