I began to regret travelling up in comfy jeans and T Shirt the moment I stepped out of Burnham Station to find a Rolls Royce Phantom waiting for me in the car park. The chauffeur was flicking imaginary dust off of the king sized bonnet and the paintwork shone like black sun.
As the beast glided out into the main road, seemingly taking up both sides at once, I basked in the air conditioning and tried to adopt the air of an eccentric millionaire who simply didn’t feel the need to dress up. The natives who gawped at me slack jawed in wonder as I passed certainly seemed very impressed. The journey to Cliveden took about fifteen minutes, but I would have been happy if it had taken all day, especially if it had gone past the houses of all my ex-girlfriends so I could cheerfully wave at them.
Cliveden is of course pronounced Clivden, as if your lower jaw was locked. It’s one of those little language tricks the upper classes play to keep us in our place, as well as a memory of how the name was once spelt. As the Roller entered the estate, and then at the famous Fountain of Love, slowly turned to make its stately approach to the house, I was glad I hadn’t come in my twenty year old Saab to leave incontinent oil stains on the plush gravel.
The view of the house is tremendous. The main body and its two older wings reach out around the courtyard to embrace the approaching visitor and the alerted staff gather in front of the portico to welcome you. It’s Gosford Park made real and it’s quite, quite lovely. There’s no sense of it being a hotel, instead you feel like Evelyn Waugh arriving for a weekend at some friend’s ‘place in the country’.
A country estate fit for a Duke
In fact Cliveden has been welcoming guests since 1666, originally as an aristocratic home for the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, then later as the home of the fabulously wealthy Astor family. Apparently though, as you find out from the books in your rooms, William Waldorf Astor wasn’t the best of hosts, insisting on regimented behaviour from guests and timetabled activities to kill all joy. 1t was when his son Waldorf Astor and wife Nancy took over that the social whirl really began in earnest. Over the years President Roosevelt came to stay along with Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw and many more until finally a Waldorf bequeathed the house and grounds to the National Trust. The trust arranged for him and his family to continue to live there while they looked after what is now one of the top ten gardens in England. Then of course came the infamous Profumo affair in the 1960s, and soon after the house became a hotel, one now refurbished perfectly and owned and run by the von Essen group whose portfolio of superior hotels around the world it fits perfectly.
The portico where you collect your key, while your luggage is discreetly whisked away and in my case should be humanely destroyed, gives onto the Great Hall, a tremendous room of deep rugs, wood panels, an enormous fireplace, that is cheerfully lit in winter, and a plethora of the most comfortable and elegant armchairs and sofas you will ever lower your posterior into. Glancing through to the library you can see endlessly tall sash windows, framing views that really deserve a Canaletto to record them and not my Canon; a tiered and manicured parterre and a landscape of 376 acres that falls gracefully away to the Thames far below. In the distance can be glimpsed the eternal city that will always be known as Maidenhead.
Rooms with views
The key to my room reveals not one room but four. As I am on the ground floor in the East Wing I have a lobby for my dog (if I had one and I now rather wish I did), an enormous sitting room with fireplace, a bedroom that extends forever and a bathroom featuring original plumbing, which despite its external age is thoroughly modern in function. I lounge in the sitting room, eating the raspberry pastries, admiring the antique furniture, leafing through crisp magazines and books and occasionally glancing outside when I hear the sound of another Bentley, Porsche or Maserati arriving to deposit their owners. Naturally staff open car doors, haul luggage and park the cars leaving guests free to stroll in. For an hour I wander the upper grounds in the warm gathering twilight, admiring the stunning views, the ‘Christine Keeler’ swimming pool and swiftly passing the Spa, which although very impressive is not for lardy me. Back at my rooms a knock on the door admits a waiter bearing a flute of champagne and tray of excellent canapés to nibble while I ‘dress for dinner.’
Drinks in the Great Hall prefigure the main event in Waldo’s restaurant. Named after the architect of the great fountain, Thomas Waldo Story, it’s not perhaps the best of names to have chosen; I keep thinking of Nando’s, but maybe that’s just me. It’s located underneath the West wing so it has no windows, which is a shame, but clearly the distance from the main house rooms to the kitchen is too great for the food to travel well and remain hot. And odd name or not, Waldo’s is a premier restaurant run by a premier chef and the food deserves nothing but the best presentation.
You can read about the food here, but it was excellent, Chris Horridge is a talented chef with a CV that includes Bath Priory, and he is also a keen nutritionist creating menus that are good for you in every way. After the meal we escaped upstairs for coffees in the library and I snuck out the French windows to stand on the Terrace looking over the ancient stone balustrades. These were brought over complete from an Italian palace; Cliveden’s owners have often been quite shameless about raiding other buildings for bits they coveted. Here with the house dark behind me, except for the library itself, Heathrow asleep and just the twinkling lights of towns off into the distance, it was easy for a few minutes to feel the 1930s breathing all around.
Bed and then Breakfast
The next day, the ultimate hotel test – breakfast and the usual ritual of sitting down at the table only to get up again to go the buffet a moment later. I was at first disappointed to find the hot food was also self-service, but of course that was how it always was in a country house – the guests straggling downstairs at various times throughout the morning to peer into chafing dishes and languidly gossip. So that’s what I did too, although the stunning view from the table was enough to make me forget to chew from time to time. If you like you can order at table hot dishes from the kitchen such as kippers, haddock and eggs Benedict. For some reason there was no black pudding in the hot dishes, which I hope was an oversight and not policy.
Afterward we made our way down to Spring Cottage on the river bank, where Keeler was staying the time she met Profumo. It’s a cute place originally built as a summerhouse back in 1822 and Queen Victoria, who adored Cliveden, would often spend time in itsgarden.
Today you can stay there yourself, with a butler provided, as well as a fridge full of provisions. They will even send a chef down to cook dinner for you, with a car laid on to take you back and forth to the main house. Here too are Cliveden’s exquisite vintage Thames boats that run excursions up and down the river. ‘They’re popular when a gentlemen wishes to propose,’ the head of boats told me. ‘But on the rare occasions it doesn’t work out, it’s a very, very long ride back!’
My ride back to the station is waiting, this time a more prosaic people carrier, so after a quick glimpse of Nancy Astor’s bedroom with its enormous terrace, yours for something like £1500 a night, it’s back to the real world and the train to Paddington. I’ve glimpsed how the other half lived in a time when England was perhaps at the height of its glories, before our current descent into enforced mediocrity and self-loathing. If you have a hankering for a taste of something very special then Cliveden awaits you, the silver is polished, dinner is ready and the beds are turned down. And you never know who you might meet by the swimming pool.
Taplow, Berkshire, SL6 0JF
Tel: +44 (0) 1628 668561
Fax: +44 (0) 1628 661837
Prices start at £240 + VAT for a Club Room with bed and breakfast
A range of cars both classic and contemporary are available to pick you up and there is a heliport in the grounds. The von Essen fleet of helicopters can bring you from office, home or airport and are also available for pleasure flights around the area.