Travel Story History lives on at England's magnificent Cliveden House Hotel

Photo of Mark Thornton

Of all the stately homes that grace the English countryside, few have as interesting a history as Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire. 

The magnificent three-storey Italianate mansion has been home to an earl, three countesses, two dukes, a prince of Wales and the super-rich American attorney, politician and newspaper publisher William Astor.

In 1963 it was also the setting for one of staid England’s biggest political and social scandals, involving the Conservative government’s secretary of state for war, John Profumo. Profumo had a series of dalliances with a 19-year-old prostitute and Tit-Bits magazine model named Christine Keeler, who he first met at a Cliveden swimming pool party where she swam nude. 

As if that was not shocking enough, even though national morals had softened somewhat as the country began to enjoy the Swinging Sixties, Keeler was also reportedly simultaneously involved with Soviet naval attache Capt. Yevgeny Ivanov. This was too much. While the link was tenuous, in the early 1960s the British media had been dominated by a series of spy scandals involving Soviet double agents and Profumo was lumped in with the rest.

Profumo maintained his innocence but the public outcry was overwhelming, despite an inquiry finding no evidence of a security breach. In April 1963 he resigned. The repercussions reverberated through Parliament and within six months prime minister Harold Macmillan, whose health had deteriorated under the pressure of the scandal, resigned. His Conservative Party was similarly tarnished and lost the 1964 general election to the Labour Party after 13 years in power.

In 1968 the Astors, perhaps also tarnished by the events, left Cliveden.

The house remained seemingly unaffected by the fuss, standing proudly blase and largely empty for 20 years until its lease was bought by a hotel chain. Appropriately, when the mansion was leased to property developers five or so years ago as a five-star hotel, they gave it a motto stating brazenly: “Nothing ordinary ever happened here, nor could it.”

For the 100 years before Profumo, Cliveden had enjoyed a far more genteel occupancy. Sitting gloriously on the summit of a ridge overlooking the River Thames and surrounded by 150ha of woodland, paddocks and gardens that slope down to the river, it is the third building to occupy the site. The first, built in 1666, burnt down in 1795, while a second burnt to the ground in 1849.

The third and current mansion, a blend of Italian Renaissance and English Palladian styles, was built in 1851 for the 2nd Duke of Sutherland by architect Charles Barry, whose most famous project is arguably the Houses of Parliament, which he began building in 1840. After the duke’s death, Cliveden was sold to the 1st Duke of Westminster. The duke in turn sold it to William Astor, who liked it — and England — so much he became a British subject. He was made a peer in 1916 for contributions to war charities.

He gave the entire estate to his son Waldorf in 1906 and under Waldorf’s ownership Cliveden became the centre for England and the world’s social, intellectual and political elites who gathered for regular weekend “house” parties — and what parties! Known as the “Cliveden Set”, guests included Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Joseph Kennedy, George Bernard Shaw, Amy Johnson (the pioneering pilot who in 1930 was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who became president of the US in 1933), former British prime ministers H. H. Asquith and Arthur Balfour, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and the writers Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and Edith Wharton. 

Oh, to have been invited to one of their parties — you wouldn’t want to go home. 

Apparently many felt the same way and stayed for days, presumably leaving only after they’d finally sobered up.

Despite their penchant for partying, during both world wars the Astors offered their grounds to the Canadian Red Cross to build a hospital for war wounded. In 1942 they gave the mansion to the National Trust with the proviso that they could continue to live in it as long as they wished. Waldorf died in 1952 and the family eventually left Cliveden following the Profumo affair and the death of their son, William.

A new era began in 1984, when a hotel chain acquired a 100-year lease to the building, though the National Trust retained ownership.

As a five-star hotel, Cliveden continued to attract very well-heeled and often famous guests — in 2007, Cliveden House Hotel, as it had become, offered the “world’s most expensive sandwich” for the princely sum of £100. The lease was bought in 2012 by the aforementioned property developers, who also own and are restoring a similarly sized estate next door named Dropmore Park, built by Lord Grenville — later the prime minister known for pushing through a law abolishing the slave trade — in 1790.

One might wonder whether a hotel chain can look after such a national treasure in a manner appropriate to its extraordinary history, but it does, and the grounds are open to the public.

When my wife and I visited Cliveden recently in the company of my sister, who lives just 15 minutes’ drive west in Marlow, we fell under its spell just as surely as generations of visitors. And as Australian National Trust members we were able to explore not just the grounds but some of the interior of the hotel free of charge, complete with well-informed guides. 

To the south you can see Windsor Castle and just across the Thames to the west is the charming village of Cookham Dene, deemed the second richest in England and thus scarcely touched by development. 

Kenneth Grahame lived there and was inspired by the river and the bucolic surroundings to write The Wind in the Willows, one of the most charming and beautiful books I have ever read, as my children would attest from many bedtime readings out loud. Quarry Wood nearby was Grahame’s inspiration for the book’s Wild Wood.

Incidentally, during this visit to Cliveden and Cookham Dene I was astounded to learn that The Wind in the Willows was rejected by the first three publishers Grahame submitted it to. It was only after proactive campaigning by US president Theodore Roosevelt, no less, that the book was finally published by Methuen and Co in 1908. 

This erudite president visited Oxford University in 1910 to deliver a lecture and was asked whether there was anyone he particularly wanted to meet while there. Kenneth Grahame was the reply.

Back across the river at Cliveden, a perfect English summer’s day had turned into a golden afternoon. Parties of hotel guests have gathered on the hotel’s expansive gardens. A favourite location for several parties was along the terraces festooned with hedged Magnolia grandiflora — my wife tried not to think about the pruning challenge.

There are 73ha of gardens, the most outstanding being the 1.7ha stretch of lawn with its formal parterre marching south to the river. Such is the wealth behind the property and the style of its various owners that the gardens are as enticing and as magnificent as the buildings. They include a formal maze and exquisite sculptures, including the Fountain of Love by Thomas Waldo Story, which was specially commissioned by Lord Astor.

Eventually we could linger and wander no longer. The sun began to set over the river and fields of recently baled rolls of hay beyond, which shone golden in the gloaming.

Much as we’d have liked to stay and mingle with the other guests, some now already in dinner dress, and take one of the hotel’s double rooms — at £650 ($1100), including breakfast — I believe they call it Cliveden House Hotel dreaming, we turned away and wandered back to my sister’s VW Golf. 

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