Cliveden House and Spa – just 45 minutes west of London – is the perfect luxury hotel for a weekend birthday getaway
Power, politics and parties: three words that define the louche legacy of Cliveden. This grand Grade I Italianate mansion has provided a stately backdrop to Sixties Government scandals and Beatles movies; and entertained royalty and aristos, writers and movie stars, politicians and rock stars.
Both the original Cliveden, built in 1666 for the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and its replacement, built in 1824, were sadly destroyed by fire. The present mansion was built in 1851 by the architect Charles Barry and later bought by the Duke of Westminster. His decision to sell Cliveden to the American billionaire Astor family in 1893 famously displeased Queen Victoria.
In 1942, the family bequeathed Cliveden to the National Trust who leases the property to the current owners, the billionaire Livingstone brothers. The property developers have turned the fortunes of Cliveden, spending millions on a successful refurbishment programme, coupled with a post-Downton marketing drive to attract a larger American clientele. They also own the rather gorgeous Chewton Glen Hotel and Spa in the New Forest.
Commandeering an elevated position on chalk cliffs above the River Thames in Berkshire, Cliveden is the jewel in the crown of a stunning 376-acre estate, now managed by the National Trust and a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group. I’m in celebratory mood as my taxi crunches along the long gravel drive towards the entrance, passing by the beautiful Fountain of Love, while either side I catch glimpses of the beguiling formal gardens and woodlands.
On arrival, – greeted warmly and professionally by everyone at front of house – the massive Great Hall takes my breath away. It is, quite simply, the most impressive and awe-inspiring ‘reception area’ of any hotel I’ve had the pleasure to visit. Originally two rooms, it is now a cavernous yet richly warm and inviting lounge area replete with velvet sofas – perfect for afternoon tea and pre-dinner cocktails.
A triptych of medieval tapestries hang royally above shiny suits of armour. Ancestral portraits peer down from the grand staircase and medieval fireplace, most notably that of Lady Astor – the American-born socialite and first woman MP to enter Parliament in 1919.
“It’s the Astors of course who are most associated with Cliveden,” General Manager Sue Williams tells later. “They owned the house from the early 1900s. William Waldorf Astor, America’s richest citizen, then gave the house to his son and daughter in-law, Nancy Astor, in 1906, and Cliveden became a vibrant social hub.
“Guests have included every British monarch since George I as well as Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, President Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Profumo, and of course Christine Keeler.”
Keeler’s double involvement with John Profumo the Secretary of State for War in the Sixties – and a Russian agent – arguably brought down the Conservative Government and the scandal became known as the Profumo Affair.
Pondering that fateful summer in 1961, I head out to explore the beautiful grounds and find some poolside excitement for myself.
Owned, managed and lovingly cared for by the National Trust, the gardens feature the celebrated Parterre, season-long floral displays, distinctive topiary and a collection of exceptional sculptures. The ground floor of the house and all the grounds are open to the public twice a week, so you don’t have to stay at Cliveden to enjoy its beauty.
I walk back along the tree-lined driveway to the maze and the Water Garden, returning to the house via the Long Garden with its beautiful plantings, the exquisite rose garden and stop for a while in the peaceful War Memorial Garden. There is nothing as beautiful as resting in an English garden on a warm spring afternoon.
Deciding to check out the spa and pool area next morning, I head to my room – the impressive oak-panelled Buckingham Suite – named after the Duke who built the original house in 1666. Both this house and its 1824 replacement were destroyed by fire, and the present house was built in 1851 by architect Charles Barry.
The south-facing views across the 19th century Parterre towards the Thames and Berkshire are incredible – I can see for miles across the manicured lawns to the mature tress bordering the Thames and can even make out the speck that is Maidenhead in the far distance.
This suite is twice the size of my London apartment with an interior design that stays faithful to the original flavour, yet offers luxurious modern comforts – including an interactive Sony tablet and music dock. The colours are a bold grey and red palette with exquisite furnishings and the most heavenly bed ever. Antiques, brocade, heavy drapes complement a portrait of Buckingham and his brother as children above the writing desk. Carara marble flooring and screens behind a free-standing sexy red bath tub are the highlight of the capacious bathroom with its superb rainforest shower.
It was a wrench to leave for dinner, but when the culinary expertise of Executive Chef André Garrett (Galvin at Windows now his eponymous residency at Cliveden) is waiting, you don’t dilly dally.
Over a splendid Cliveden 1666 Taittinger cocktail, I explore the evening’s menu from charming restaurant manager Pierre Rizet Mosser. British ingredients take centre stage and I choose from the à la carte over great conversation in this most sophisticated of dining rooms, its generous windows affording beautiful sunset views across the Parterre. A wonderful location for a birthday meal.
I begin with a Parmesan cheese and avocado pate amuse bouche, followed by Seared Orkney Scallops, a Musquée de Provence pumpkin risotto and tamari-glazed pork belly as starter. Deliciously flavoured and seared, these succulent beauties are large and sexy with incredible flavours. And, tasting my first pork belly, I’m amazed at how much I like it, especially since I’m mostly a non-meat eater. The salty flavours are delicately balanced – what a creation!
Wine expertly chosen for me is a crisp, fruity New Zealand 2015 Gisborne Albarino and a perfect match with seafood. A divine line-caught sea bass adorned with Cornish mussels, enoki mushrooms, fregola (Sardinian pasta) and samphire is served next. When this fish reaches my palate I’m in heaven. Such a delicate touch… and more rounded flavours than some Michelin star establishments I’ve eaten in.
To my regret I didn’t have room for dessert but had coffee and bonbons as a sweet finale. This was one of the best meals and the most gorgeous dining rooms I have ever had the pleasure to eat in. André and team – thank you!
My suite was adjacent to a wonderful roof terrace where stargazing provided a gentle digestif that evening. The moon was full. Life felt good and I welcomed the beginning of another exciting birth year of adventure.
Needing a long walk before breakfast and a good swim, I found the outdoor pool and spa area behind the stone wall. A secret garden the pool was deliciously cool, the perfect starter to a long walk around the grounds as I found the delightful Chapel next to the Parterre.
After a superb swim in the outdoor pool the next morning, (the spa area and treatment rooms will be the focus of a refurbishment programme later this year) General Manager Sue Williams shows me around the stunning Lady Ascot and Prince of Wales suites – accommodation that has housed royals and presidents. She’s an incredible source of knowledge about Cliveden and its former owners, the Astors, and will hopefully find time to begin her book on Lord Astor. “If I can find the time I’ll start it,” she smiles. Sue has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Astors that deserves sharing with a wider audience.
Duty Manager Oliver Crittenden was also a wonderful host, taking me down to the Thames to visit delightful Spring Cottage. A most private location with its own mooring, this three-bedroomed cottage is available to hire and was once the home to osteopath Stephen Ward who was also embroiled in the Profumo scandal.
Extending my stay by half a day, I wandered in the beautiful grounds before an excellent lunch at the Astor Grill across the courtyard from the main house. The former stable block has been beautifully transformed into a cosy equestrian-themed brasserie with tables in the former stalls where Lord Astor once kept his prized fillies – perfect for a late brunch, early lunch or a relaxed supper.
My half lobster followed by the most divine rice pudding and Seville orange soufflé served with 12-year-old malt whisky ice cream. My glass of Chapel Down 2010 Blanc de Blanc sparkling English wine was better than some Champagne I’ve tasted. If you come for the food alone, you will leave a raving fan, as I did.
A stay at Cliveden House Hotel will recharge you like no other. Run impeccably by MD Andrew Stembridge and his team, I received superb service from all the genuinely warm and friendly staff, who went out of their way to make me feel welcome and share their love of this beautiful historic home.
The luxurious suites and public rooms, and of course the excellent cuisine from André Garrett make Cliveden a very special retreat, whatever your reason for staying. The perfect venue for a romantic weekend, unforgettable nuptials, birthday celebrations, and even business meetings and conferences, Cliveden is country house living at its very finest and just 45 minutes from London – I can’t wait to go back.
Where & How
How: Visit www.clivedenhouse.co.uk, phone 01628 668 561 or email email@example.com to make a booking.
Where: Cliveden House, Taplow, Berkshire, SL6 0JF UK
Cost: Rooms start from £450 to £1800 per night.