Not being able to go abroad has opened many people's eyes to the joys of staying somewhere truly spectacular in Britain — and they don't come more spectacular than Cliveden House. James Elwes paid a visit and finds little has changed since the glamorous house parties of old — just as you’d like it.
Few luxury hotels hold such historic currency as Cliveden — which occupies 376 beautifully landscaped acres on the banks of the Thames. Its owners and guests make for a veritable Who’s Who; and the rigorously classic style it adheres to — polished antique furniture, wood panelling, chandeliers, portrait galleries and suits of armour — succeeds in conjuring up this fascinating history at every turn.
It was built by notorious rake and statesman George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and after the Restoration, it served as his hunting lodge and playden. It’s safe to say the hunting was of more than one sort — one such conquest, his mistress the Countess of Salisbury, led to a fatal duel and his ultimate disgrace.
Among other occupants, Cliveden has housed three dukes (Buckingham, Sutherland and Westminster), a Prince of Wales and the Astors. It was a favourite of Queen Victoria who stayed there a total of eight times. It has burnt down twice. The latest iteration was built by Charles Barry in the Italianate style, loosely modelled on earlier versions as well as John Webb’s Somerset House — and it certainly is impressive, with its stately facade overlooking a fine 19th-century parterre and the Thames snaking through trees in the distance.
Later additions, such as the striking campanile-esque Water Tower, were made by Henry Clutton and the gardens were developed by John Fleming. Under the ownership of Nancy, Lady Astor the house played host to everyone from Chaplin to Churchill, not to mention the infamous moment in the sultry summer of 1961, when a scantily clad Christine Keeler emerged from the swimming pool and locked eyes with John Profumo. Less Government shaking but equally momentous, The Duchess of Sussex stayed here the night before her wedding in 2018.
On being told by a fellow guest that the house was to become a hotel, Harold Macmillan quipped ‘My boy, it always has been’ and it’s heartening to know that little has changed. Staying at Cliveden is as close an approximation to spending a weekend at a stately home in its glory days as you are likely to find. The staff are wonderfully understated and helpful.
The house and gardens are immaculate and laid out just so. The art, furniture and furnishings feel appropriate and authentic. All 47 rooms and suites are laid out with a firm understanding of the weary traveller’s requirements. Even the smallest of bedrooms are not at all small and immaculate down to the last pin tuck, with calming colour palettes, original yet draught-free sash windows and power showers in Asprey-scented marble bathrooms. This is a place where you sleep extraordinarily well. A place where you’d feel somewhat odd underdressed for dinner. And dogs are most certainly welcome.
Located in Buckinghamshire, a stone’s throw from the Thameside towns of Henley and Marlow, Cliveden is 40 minutes’ drive from central London yet set in blissfully unspoilt country. Surprisingly, its dramatically designed vistas and settings predate Capability Brown.
Cliveden, Berkshire, England, SL6 0JF . Double rooms from £445 per night — see more at www.clivedenhouse.co.uk
Things to do
Food and drink
After a ride on a vintage boat, a long walk in those 376 acres or a trip the hotel’s superb spa, a drink is required. You can’t go far wrong with a Cliveden 66, the gold-leaf embellished Champagne and vodka signature cocktail. The hotel boasts two restaurants, the playful stable-boothed Astor Grill and the somewhat more grand Cliveden Dining Room. We ate at the latter and enjoyed strong modern takes on British traditional cuisine — tart and tasty oysters, perfectly cooked chicken breast and rich, reduced lobster. The wine list is top notch and the service smooth and informative.
Slink into the spa
Nowadays, there are two opulent swimming pools — one inside, one outside (costumes required, politicians welcome). The treatment rooms — where they use deliciously scented own-brand products, created for sister hotel Chewton Glen by OSKIA — have just the right balance of zen, courteous attention and fluffy robes. In short, faultless.
Stanley Spencer’s Cookham
A short drive takes you to Cookham, the artist Stanley Spencer’s much referenced and revered home. He lived there until his death in 1959 and used it as the background setting for many of his most famous paintings. The Stanley Spencer Gallery, located in Cookham high street and open from Thursday to Sunday, holds a glut of 120 of his works and is well worth visiting. It was also home to the author Kenneth Grahame and the Thames running between Cookham and Henley certainly inspired his descriptions of Ratty’s beloved riverbank.
Cliveden Literary Festival
On October 23 and 24, the hotel plays host to its annual literary festival. Invoking the salons of the house’s past, which featured such luminaries as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and George Bernhard Shaw, the festival attracts the best names in contemporary literature. A packed schedule of talks and panels — which Ian McEwan calls ‘probably the world’s best small literary festival’ — provides an edifying touch to an indulgent experience.