Scandalous luxury at Cliveden
Do you fancy being a little risqué or simply regal? As that time of year approaches, why not consider extending your visit to Ascot races, or to anywhere in Berkshire, England, with a short break at Cliveden; luxurious home of international intrigue for the rich, royal and famous and now a sumptuous hotel for all to enjoy.
We, with two friends, were attending Royal Ascot for a day that promised as much in the way of hospitality as it did horses and we didn’t want the chore of a long drive home afterwards.
Where better than dinner and a night at Cliveden; an Italianate mansion and now country house hotel at nearby Taplow in Berkshire.
After Ascot and flopping down into the welcoming sofas of the Great Hall, we would have been happy to be left there, simply to mellow further in the rich surroundings. However, a perky member of staff entered into the spirit of our visit and after some lively banter, with her wearing our friend’s fascinator and my hat, shortly delivered a bottle of champagne to our seat.
Cliveden has been home to earls, countesses, dukes, a Prince of Wales and the Viscounts Astor. It seems to have received the great and the good from all walks of life during its history including Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Amy Johnson, Roosevelt, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and Rudyard Kipling, As home of Nancy Astor, the house was the meeting place of the intellectual Cliveden set of the 1920s and 1930s and appears to have earned the reputation as the ultimate party house.
In the 1960s, it became infamous as the setting for key events of the notorious Profumo Affair, which scandalised the political scene in Britain with tales of sex, intrigue and consorting with Russian spies. Today, Cliveden is owned by the National Trust but the house is leased as a five-star hotel.
The Profumo affair had been the talk of Britain in our parent’s time and the heady mix of society, sex and spies had left a residual interest for us that Ascot races provided a perfect excuse to satisfy.
We arranged for a car and driver to collect us from Cliveden in order to leave our own at the hotel; which also removed the hassle of parking at Ascot. Ascot itself is a wonderful day out as long as the weather is good and, with the Queen’s parade, is the epitome of all that’s wonderful about an English summer event.
Needless to say, feeling truly at one with the world after a successful flutter and several glasses of fizz over an extended lunch, we were ready for collection by our driver for the short journey back to Cliveden.
It was now that Cliveden’s jaunty staff rekindled our sense of fun and reawakened our taste buds.
We eventually decided that it might be wise to retire to our rooms; simply to prepare ourselves for dinner that none of was sure we needed. Cherrie and I had reserved the Joyce Grenfell room, which overlooked the infamous swimming pool where Christine Keeler had seemingly seduced John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War in Macmillan’s government of 1963.
Joyce Grenfell OBE was an acclaimed comedy actress at a time when it was unusual for someone of her social standing to work at all. Nancy Astor was one of her mother’s sisters and she became a frequent guest at Cliveden.
Our room was perfect, with every attention to detail in terms of creature comforts and a quiet inviting calm that was so welcome after the day’s hectic events.
Dressing for dinner we met our friends in the bar for a pick-me-up before being shown to our table in the main dining room – a rather grand but slightly cavernous room that is nonetheless immaculately presented.
Much of the dinner fades into a happy blur albeit we did send our meal back as the meat was more cooked than to our liking but these were changed without question. The atmosphere in the room was much more intimate than its size promised and the service was efficient and attentive.
We enjoyed a deep and undisturbed rest in our bedroom and had made the prediction of not expecting to make breakfast in the morning; preferring instead to order it in our room. It arrived on time and beautifully presented. Standing in our robes and looking out over the swimming pool, it was easy to visualise the events that had brought an end to Prime Minister Macmillan’s tenure in the 60’s.
As it was still quite early (even a late night sees us awake early – if not bright!) we decided to wander down to the pool. Entering through the weathered wooden door in the stone edged wall opening we stepped back in time to the sixties. The pool seemed unchanged from documentary footage with only the addition of a Jacuzzi in front of the little pillared gazebo to upset the illusion. We swam for a few minutes, dipped in the Jacuzzi and spent a little time in the Spa before returning to our rooms to dress.
Meeting our friends, we decided to extend our stay at Cliveden by taking a boat ride on the Thames; reached at the end of the formal garden and down a long flight of steps. The staff at Cliveden were most concerned and attentive, offering to drive us to the jetty – but feeling the need of some fresh air we elected to walk. It is quite a hike but well worth it, albeit I don’t think our wives appreciated what a toll it would take on their high-heels; not having prepared for a long walk when packing.
The walk itself takes you to Spring Cottage, again featuring in the Profumo affair; as society osteopath Stephen Ward stayed here who was subsequently accused of living off immoral earnings from Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. He became the scapegoat for the whole affair and the debate over his suicide, or murder, continues today as its convenient timing allowed the Establishment to breathe a sigh of relief and move on.
We boarded the little day boat and spent a leisurely sunny hour or so cruising the Thames; being rewarded with grand views of Cliveden House from the river as well as an impromptu sail-by of the Royal Barge that had been used during the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations.
The girls rebelled over the prospect of a long climb back to Cliveden and, almost by magic, a driver and car from Cliveden appeared at our side to whisk us back to the house for lunch prior to our departure. It also gave us the opportunity to investigate some of the other rooms within Cliveden whose contents and pictures each have their own story to tell.
As we left we reflected on our stay, concluding that the service at Cliveden was thoughtful and faultless; the general staff cheerful and accommodating and the setting both evocative and beautiful. There was little to criticise in our stay at this historic location and we’d certainly recommend it if you fancy a scandalously luxurious visit – but if you fancy a foray to Ascot, best plan ahead.
Details about the Profumo affair:
A press article that reviews events and continuing controversy prior to the opening of Lloyd Weber’s musical in the West End
An English Affair – Book
http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0007435851/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0007435851&linkCode=as2&tag=theluxcou-21″>An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo
Scandal – Film on DVD