Venetia van Kuffeler visits Cliveden House, the home of over 350 years of powerful personalities, debaucherous parties and scandalous affairs
BUILT IN 1666 by the second Duke of Buckingham, as a hunting lodge to entertain his mistress and friends, Cliveden House has remained a pinnacle of intrigue for the elite ever since. Over the years, the house has been altered by its succession of incumbents, each adding their little piece of history. But there is one link that binds them all: politics.
The 1961 Profumo Affair was the Grade I listed stately home’s most heinous scandal. John Profumo, an up-and-coming Conservative Secretary of State for War, and Christine Keeler, a nineteen-year-old mistress of a suspected Russian spy, embarked on an illicit affair following a chance meeting at a summer party at Cliveden, hosted by Lord Astor, the owner at the time. This was an affair that shook British Parliament, forced Profumo’s resignation, and irrevocably damaged the Prime Minister’s reputation.
Fifty years on from that fateful meeting that altered Britain’s political landscape, the pull of the stately home is just as strong. The Duchess of Sussex spent the night before her wedding to Prince Harry at Cliveden just earlier this year. Less than 45 minutes from London, and just 20 minutes from Heathrow, today Cliveden is a luxury hotel owned by the National Trust and operated by Iconic Luxury Hotels. Set in 376 acres, the magnificent Grade I listed formal gardens and woodlands feature an amazing collection of floral displays, distinctive topiary and works of art including the Fountain of Love and the Roman sarcophagi, plus an amphitheatre where the first recital of Rule Britannia was ever played.
Inside the main house that stands majestically upon chalk cliffs that lend the house its name, each of the 47 rooms and suites has its own personality and is named after a figure from its past. We stayed in the stately Blakeney, with majestic views over the famous Parterre laid out by John Fleming in 1855. Boasting beautiful antique furniture and period features, the decor stays true to its roots. With our names on the suite’s door, (also furnished with a visitors’ book allowing us to read about the room’s previous residents), the overall feeling was of a grand, private house-party.
In the grounds, the three-bedroom Spring Cottage is perfect for families, small groups or couples seeking further privacy. Set on the banks of the River Thames, the cottage houses its own country kitchen with Aga, and has private gardens ensuring the utmost escapism.
The hall of the main building is kitted out with 15-foot tapestries, suits of armour, wood paneling and a huge stone fireplace. The atmosphere is one of high opulence, a feeling that extends into the dining room, where André Garrett’s innovative dishes and fastidious preparation shine through each exquisitely crafted creation. Using locally sourced fresh produce, his three course à la carte and eight course tasting menus are governed by seasonal English ingredients, and are worth a trip to Cliveden alone.
Garrett also oversees The Astor Grill located in the charming old stable block, which once housed Lord Astor’s most prized fillies. Immaculately refurbished with an equestrian theme, guests sit in booths dining on a mixture of classic American and British dishes. The name recalls William Waldorf Astor, America’s richest citizen, who gave the house to his son and daughter in-law, Nancy Astor, in 1906, when Cliveden became a vibrant gathering place for guests including Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill.
The house’s most dazzling space has to be the captivating French Dining Room. Flooded with natural daylight and adorned with gilded panelling, it can seat up to 60 people. The story goes that on a visit to Paris in 1897, William W. Astor saw the ornate gilded panelling in Madame de Pompadour’s eighteenth-century dining room at the Château d’Asnières, which he promptly purchased, going on to reconstruct them once he was back home.
The Cliveden Spa has been revamped in a tasteful state-of-the-art building that connects to the rest of the house via a walled garden. Cutting-edge design and quintessentially British treatments have created an oasis next to the Profumo Pool that remains as glamourous as ever, sensitively and luxuriously renovated for the present day. Once again, the history of Cliveden inspires the treatments and products: Anna-Maria, for whom Cliveden was originally built, and the house’s most famous resident Nancy Astor, provide the vision for the scents present in the spa. Guests can take home this bespoke collection of luxurious body products which have been designed by luxury British skincare brand, Oskia.
For the ultimate experience, Cliveden House is hosting a two-night house party from 31 December 2018 to 2 January 2019, including signature afternoon tea, champagne reception, black tie dinner, Scottish piper and accommodation. What a way to enter 2019…