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Most Famous Guests: Winston Churchill, John Profumo, Christine Keeler, Mahatma Gandhi. (Though not on the same weekend!)
From April to October on Thursdays and Sundays the doors of, at least part of, Cliveden House in Berkshire, near London, are open to the admiring gaze of the public, while all year round its beautifully manicured grounds are also on display until evening. It’s a National Trust property after all, and one that attracts visitors from all around England and indeed the world but, unlike most other National Trust properties, Cliveden also has overnight guests in its other incarnation as a 5 star luxury hotel.
It also possesses the sort of dubious glamour that is irresistible to many, for you can not mention Clivedon House without making reference to one of the most famous ever scandals in British Political history, the so called Profumo affair of the 1960s, an affair which ended the career of John Profumo and ultimately Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. It was by the swimming pool at Cliveden in 1961 that the two main protagonists of the story, Profumo and Christine Keeler, first met and the rest, as they say, is history.
Such is the notoriety of Cliveden for this story alone that it tends to overshadow its enormous success as a luxury castle hotel. Since opening its doors to the public in 1985 it regularly appears in lists of the world’s best hotels and has a wealth of facilities to compliment its consistently high levels of service and comfort. And of course the whole property oozes the kind of style and class that they don’t make much of anymore.
There is a choice of 38 rooms and suites that range from classic double rooms to deluxe honeymoon suites. And they also have a three bedroom self catering cottage by the river Thames which was originally built as a rather opulent tea room for the Countess of Orkney in 1813. It is beautifully maintained and decorated in retro style, lending itself more to the nineteen forties to sixties than the 1810s.
The rooms and suites in the main building are all individually themed and styled (you can see detailed photos of each one on the booking page before you choose), and echo different elements of the history of the house, from almost medieval and Victorian styles to 50s and 60s. All of them are lavish though and extremely comfortable with seating areas and all modern facilities. Some also come with a balcony or terrace with garden views.
You can of course expect all the accommodation and the service to be of exceptional high quality. There cannot be a building in the country which has seen so many important guests, even before it became a paying hotel. The breakfasts are incredibly good and later in the day you have two excellent restaurants to choose from; the 3 AA Rosette winning André Garrett Restaurant offers inventive fine dining in grand surroundings, where its three course à la carte and eight course tasting menus showcase seasonal English ingredients.
Then there is the more American style Astor Grill in the old stable houses, named of course after its infamous former owners. It is a more laid back venue with a hint of retro diner about it. It does a popular line of ‘classic British and American dishes’. You can also enjoy some very opulent afternoon tea served in the great hall and a drink in the cosy surrounds of the Library Bar. None of the food or drink on offer could remotely be described as cheap though, you may not be surprised to hear.
Britain’s most famous swimming pool is still in use and a popular focus, with the adjoining, and very excellent, spa facilities and indoor pool also very much in demand. The estate itself, all 376 acres of it, is now looked after by the National Trust and is a joy to explore; there are beautifully landscaped gardens and old stretches of woodland all around.
There are tennis courts on site, a classic maze, various garden games, interesting sculptures and art works, and beautiful buildings; the Pavilion, the Octagonal Temple and the Amphitheatre where the world’s first recital of ‘Rule Britannia’ took place for example. The estate also runs down to the banks of the River Thames and there are various boat trips that you can arrange at Cliveden, from luxury champagne cruises to more informal picnic trips in vintage boats.
In rural Berkshire, roughly between the M4 and M40 motorways, Cliveden House has easy access to London, and especially to Heathrow Airport, just 15 miles away. If you get lucky with the traffic you can be there in less than 45 minutes from the very centre of London, with the quickest route being to take the A40/M40 towards Oxford before turning off to the west just before Beaconsfield and the A355.
The surroundings, and not just Cliveden House, have long been something of a playground for the upper classes, the gorgeous Chiltern Hills with Britain’s oldest road, the Ridgeway National Trail, to the north, Henley on Thames with its famous boat race to the west and of course the infamous Windsor and Eton with their impeccable Royal connections to the south.
The original Cleveden House was built in 1666 as a home for George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham a roguish character, whose fortunes ebbed and flowed over the years but who had, within two years of moving into to his new house, already embroiled himself in scandal. During that time Married George had found himself a mistress, Anna, Countess of Shrewsbury, then found himself in a sword duel with her irate husband Lord Shrewsbury. The venue for this was unclear, some accounts give it as being on the lawn at Cleveden House while others say it was in Barn Elms, London.
The duel though resulted in the death of Shrewsbury and with that George would comfort the widow he had created by moving her into Cleveden to live alongside himself and his wife. The whole affair, just under 300 years before the Profumo shenanigans, caused quite the scandal at the time, with the story finding its way into writings of the famous London socialite diarist Samuel Pepys.
Buckingham died in 1687 and Cliveden would remain empty until 1696 when it was bought by George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney. The Earl spruced the place up quite a bit, adding two new wings to the building with the help of architect Thomas Archer, and commissioning most of the garden landscaping we see today.
The Earl himself died in 1737 and the house came into the hands of his daughter Anne, the second Countess of Orkney and was passed along in turn to his grand daughter and great grand daughter. During that time, from 1737 to 1751, the house would be leased to Frederick Prince of Wales, son of George II and father of George III, and it was in Cliveden, on the 1st of August, 1749, where the first ever public performance of Rule, Britannia, the infamous nationalist aria by the composer Thomas Arne, would take place. In 1751 the Prince died and his family almost immediately returned the house to the Orkneys.
The next time Cliveden would make headlines was in 1795 when, it is alleged, a clumsy servant knocked over a candle one night and the entire house ended up in flames. That put the place out of action until 1824 when, with the house still in ruins, the estate was bought up by 4th Baronet, Sir George Warrender, who decided Cliveden needed its house back and he set about the reconstruction. The famous Scottish architect William Burn was commissioned to do the job, and the result was one of the finest mansion houses in 19th century England.
When Warrender died in 1849 the estate, and the house, was sold on to the Second Duke of Sutherland. Upon possession he was seemingly quite anxious to put his own mark on the place and immediately set about a major internal redecoration. He was indeed to put his own mark on the place when, only a few months in, one of his decorators managed to set off another fire that would, once again, burn the entire house to the ground.
The Duke didn’t spend much time mourning though and immediately started reconstruction, with the plan that the house would be more in the style of an Italianite villa. The architect he commissioned was perhaps England’s most renowned, Charles Barry, whose main claim to fame was being the architect of none other than the U.K. parliament, the House of Commons. By the start of 1852 the work was completed and though the interiors have been modified somewhat over the years, the exteriors you see today have changed very little since then.
Cliveden would remain with the Duke and his descendants until 1893 when what became known as the Astor era began. William Waldorf Astor, owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York amongst many other notable properties, was a wealthy American businessman who bought the Clivedon in that year and made big changes to both the gardens and the interiors.
Upon the marriage of his son Waldorf, William moved out of Cliveden, leaving it to the, by all reports hyper social, younger generation to turn Cliveden into a sort of lavish private entertainment club. Unofficial of course, it was never an actual business, but the Astors were extremely well connected in high society at the time and it became a huge honour to be invited to Cliveden for absolutely anything at all. To give you an idea, some guests of the time included such heavyweight political names as Winston Churchill, F.D. Roosevelt, and Mahatma Gandhi, and from the arts the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw.
In 1942 the Astors gifted Cliveden to the National Trust and allowed some level of public access with the proviso that they be allowed to live their themselves relatively unhindered. Their parties and entertaining continued of course and in 1961 Bill Astor installed a swimming pool that within six months would become possibly Britain’s most famous ever swimming pool. For it was by the pool in the same year, that a Government minister with the ominous title of Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, met and started an affair with Christine Keeler, a nineteen year old social climber who also happened to be in a relationship with a Soviet spy.
The national security implications destroyed Profumo’s career and provided enormous salacious intrigue to a country uncomfortably coming to terms with both the sexual revolution and the nebulous threat of the Soviet Union. Thus from then on Cliveden House became inextricably linked with that scandal and the birth of Britain’s notorious tabloid culture. The celebrity guests still came and went of course, maybe even more so than before, with the Beatles for example filming some of the video for the song Help at Cliveden.
The Astors remained on until 1969 when it was acquired by Stanford University as an overseas campus. It thus lived a quiet life in the seventies and though in the Astor era it might very well have seemed like something of a high society hotel it wasn’t actually until 1984 when the Blakeney Hotel Group took it over that it actually became as such. Former Prime minister, and frequent guest, Harold Macmillan upon hearing it was to be a 5 star hotel remarked “My dear boy, it always has been.”
The hotel’s motto was chosen to be: “Nothing ordinary ever happened here, nor could it.”
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