Throughout my stay at the rather fabulous Cliveden House Hotel, there was one burning question which I found almost impossible to answer.
Would Cliveden still be as fabulous if it wasn’t, well, Cliveden?
Would it seem as special if it were just a very nice 17th century country house in which Winston Churchill and Noel Coward hadn’t stayed, for example?
Would its gardens still be as pretty if you weren’t thinking that Lady Astor had strolled these very grounds with George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin, perhaps?
And would the beautiful outdoor swimming pool in the walled garden still be quite as marvellous to swim in if – well, you get the idea.
The thing about Cliveden is that it is almost impossible to judge it on its own merits by separating it from its quite incredible past. The Great Hall with its portraits and grand fireplace is stunning, but it feels even more so because you know that some of the most accomplished people in recent history have discussed art and politics over cocktails exactly where you are sitting.
The swimming pool would be a talking point in its own right, but it is particularly amazing to swim in because you know it is where John Profumo met Christine Keeler and precipitated a whole chain of events which scandalised the nation and eventually led to the fall of the Government.
The gardens and the drive leading up to the house are spectacular enough anyway without the backdrop of history to set them off, but there is a thrill which sparkles through the very air at Cliveden which makes a visit there seem far more than just a night away in just any old stately home.
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I arrived one balmy summer’s evening, tyres crunching up the gravel drive to the house where a footman – Sebastian – was waving me in. He sped away to park my yellow Fiat, which looked somewhat out of place in such a grand setting, and I was shown to my room, or more accurately, set of rooms.
We had been given the £1,500-a-night Prince of Wales suite, named after Frederick, the eldest son of George II and it was, as you’d expect, incredibly grand.
There was a huge entrance hall, in which a bottle of champagne was cheerfully chilling, a vast lounge with a spectacular view of the gardens, a bedroom ante-chamber, the bedroom itself and then a dark red bathroom decorated with intricate frescoes.
There was an antique writing desk, a dozen oil paintings on the walls, a decanter of port next to the tea-making facilities, endless robes and fluffy towels and best of all, it actually felt like genuine, lived-in room in a country house, rather than a brand-new but rather soulless room in a posh hotel.
If you like grand country house hotels then you’ll love:
Luton Hoo: a classic country house (with Hollywood glamour)
Lucknam Park: my very own Palladian mansion for the night
Hartwell House: a luxury stay with the Downton Abbey factor
As I walked around and around thinking that this really was the life, I flicked the radio on and the song playing happened to be the theme tune to Brideshead Revisited. It seemed extremely appropriate.
My mother was my plus one for the night, and she was practically speechless. I wasn’t much more eloquent, wandering around saying things like ‘Wow!’ and ‘Look at this!’ until I decided to open the champagne and really get settled into the good life.
Downstairs in the Great Hall we drank gin and tonics with Cliveden’s general manager Sue Williams and, surrounded by portraits and tapestries, discussed Cliveden’s amazing history. It was built in 1666 by George Villiers, the Second Duke of Buckingham, and passed down the line before being sold by the Duke of Westminster in 1893 to William Waldorf Astor, a wealthy American who had decided to make England his home.
He later gave Cliveden to his son, the Second Viscount Astor, when he married Nancy Langhorne. It was thanks to Lady Astor and her love of gathering intellectuals and artists around her such as Lawrence of Arabia, Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, Amelia Earhart and the most notable politicians of the day such as Churchill and Macmillan that Cliveden became known for its parties and the Cliveden ‘set’.
After the Profumo scandal which saw the Cliveden name dragged through the mud, the Astors decided it was time to depart. The house, which they had previously given to the National Trust on condition they could still live there, rather incongruously became on overseas campus for Stanford University, and students still return nowadays to check out their old digs.
In the late 1980s it was converted into a hotel and after several years languishing in obscurity, it was leased two years ago by property developers Ian and Richard Livingstone who are spending £20 million on restoring it to its former glory.
After a quick tour of the house, including a newly-refurbished bust-lined hall, Lady Astor’s boudoir and the totally over-the-top French Dining Room based on Madame de Pompadour’s own, it was time for dinner in the terrace dining room. This is a light and airy long room overlooking the gardens – or parterre, as it is known – and has three chandeliers.
We started with the seared Isle of Skye scallops with pea shoot veloute, and crab with a basil bisque, coppa and melon, both of which were delicious.
The same applied to the main course of new season Devon lamb which came with lettuce, young garlic and an onion puree and boulangere potatoes, and it was all washed down by a very nice Portuguese red wine recommended by the sommelier. We finished off with mille-feuille with passion fruit, mango, fromage frais sorbet and I devoured most of the vast cheese board.
It was all rather sumptuous, but to be honest, sitting in the Cliveden dining room looking out onto acres of beautifully-kept gardens while the sun set over the Berkshire countryside, we could have eaten almost anything and been happy. There is something very calm and tranquil about Cliveden which makes you feel as if you have been transported back a century or two.
We finished the wine and some petit fours back in the Great Hall before retiring to our sumptuous suite, where we stayed up until 2am playing Scrabble, unwilling to waste our stay here on something as dull as sleeping. The twin beds (there is usually a double there) were extremely comfortable, and I snoozed on till past eight. However my mother, too excited to sleep, was up and out at six, exploring the grounds and the rest of the house as I slept.
I had just one plan for the morning – a swim in the pool. I was the only one in there and the refreshing dip in the morning sunshine was the perfect start to the day. Would it have been as good if it had been just any old pool? Probably – but the knowledge that I was swimming in one of the most famous pools in the country certainly gave it an edge.
Breakfast back in the grand dining hall was very nice except for a rare mistake, some rather below-par scrambled eggs (but apologies and a replacement were swiftly offered). There was time just for a stroll across the terrace and around the grounds where the National Trust day trippers were already roaming, and then, extremely reluctantly, we said farewell.