Cliveden is an outstanding country house, now owned by the National Trust and simultaneously operating as a five-star hotel. It has been the home to a succession of wealthy families including two dukes, an earl, Frederick Prince of Wales and the Viscounts Astor. Most recently, it was where Meghan Markle stayed on the eve of her wedding to Prince Harry.
Nestled in the Chilterns about 30 miles west of London, this Italianate mansion and its 376-acre estate occupy land that slopes gently down to the River Thames. The word ‘Cliveden’ means ‘valley among the cliffs’. Now a Grade I listed building, the stately home hotel includes 47 guest rooms, two restaurants and the Library Bar. If you’re lucky enough to be a guest, there’s a health spa with indoor pool, tennis courts, gym and a flotilla of vintage boats at your disposal.
But let’s go back to the roots of this grand landmark estate. The land was originally owned by the de Clyveden family from the 13th Century. It was eventually bought by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham who commissioned architect William Winde to build a suitably grand house. Completed in 1666, the original house rose above the arcaded terrace, which still remains today. Villiers used Cliveden as a hunting lodge and home for his mistress Anna, Countess of Shrewsbury. The affair led to a duel between the 2nd Duke and Anna’s husband at Barnes Elmes (now the London district of Barnes) where the 11th Earl of Shrewsbury was killed.
In 1696, the 1st Earl of Orkney purchased Cliveden. He had the gardens landscaped including the Octagon Temple and Blenheim Pavilion, two surviving highlights. In 1795, a candle started a fire that destroyed the house. Rebuilt in 1824, the second mansion was also destroyed by fire just 25 years later. So we come to this third house, designed in 1851 by Charles Barry for the 2nd Duke of Sutherland, and little-changed since that time.
The estate has since passed through many different owners including the wealthy 1st Duke of Westminster (1868-93) and American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor, from 1893. The 2nd Viscount’s wife was Nancy Astor. In 1919, she became the first woman MP to sit in the House of Commons. In the 1920s, the estate was the meeting place of the ‘Cliveden set’, a group of political individuals. It was the hub for social entertaining on an unparalleled scale. House parties were the prestigious gathering place for invited guests including Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Rudyard Kipling, T.E. Lawrence and even Franklin D. Roosevelt, on occasion.
In 1961, Cliveden was at the heart of the infamous political scandal between “model” Christine Keeler and Secretary of State, John Profumo MP. They met at a house party hosted by the 3rd Viscount Astor. Their liaison was alleged to involve a security breach with the Soviet Intelligence Agency, later disproved.
In 1942, the Astors gifted Cliveden to the National Trust along with a huge endowment on the condition that they could continue to live there. By the 1970s, the house had a new life as part of the overseas campus of Stanford University. In 1984, it was leased to Blakeney Hotels who restored it, filled it with Edwardian furnishings and created a luxury hotel with lavish rooms and suites. Above the 16th Century fireplace remains the portrait of Nancy, Lady Astor by John Singer Sargent.
The magnificent gardens include a manicured 4-acre parterre, one of the largest in Europe, an Italian Long Garden filled with clipped topiary and a Japanese Water Garden with island pagoda. It is stunning in spring with the cherry blossom and wisterias in full bloom. And we just adore visiting in summer when the rose garden and ‘hot’ herbaceous borders are overflowing with delight.
Cliveden remains one of the most impressive estates in England with its display of wealth and grandeur that reflects a bygone era. At Violets & Tea, we just love visiting and staying overnight, and indulging in the delicious afternoon teas on offer.
We stay at Cliveden on our Enchanting Cotswolds & the Chelsea Flower Show tour in 2021.
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Images © Eliza Ford