Scandalous! That’s probably a fairly good word to sum up the history of Cliveden as it has certainly had its fair share of scandals over the years: there was the rakish Duke of Buckingham who built the first house on this site for his mistress and who murdered her husband in an illegal duel, then the Earl of Orkney who married his King’s former mistress, and then much later on John Profumo, the politician who met his downfall – aka Christine Keeler – during a weekend party at Cliveden. Even some of the far less scandalous folks to have lived at Cliveden still had a few skeletons in their closets. For example, the wealthy American William Waldorf Astor once unsuccessfully faked his own death so as to escape the public eye.
As you can see, Cliveden has a wealth of stories to tell and while the guidebook covers some of the tales, I learnt a lot more from an entertaining volunteer who filled us in on 350 years of history in half an hour, bringing to life many of these tales and the characters who inhabit them.
While Cliveden has extensive grounds to explore, the house is now a hotel so is only open to the public through guided tours on Thursdays and Sundays. Unfortunately, I went on a Saturday so I didn’t actually get to see inside, but the talk on the lawns beside the dovecote more than made up for this. And I may try to return sometime to take one of the tours and get inside the doors. The only other alternative would be booking a stay at the hotel and having heard that prices start at about £350 a night, I decided against that!
As the house is not generally open, I used a picture from the grounds as my introductory photo, but here is a picture of the south side of the house (avoiding as much of the ongoing building works and scaffold as I could).
This entry would go on for a long time if I repeated the complete potted 350-year story of Cliveden, so I will revert to my old tactic of bullet points to cover the things I found most interesting, hoping that this will be a little easier to read and digest.
- The ‘Clive’ in ‘Cliveden’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘give’ rather than ‘dive’ and we learned that the name derives from ‘cliff’ and ‘dene’, which sums up its landscape as it stands on something of a cliff overlooking a river valley.
- The first house on the site was built by George Villiers (the Duke of Buckingham), who planned the house as a love nest for him and his mistress, Anna Maria Talbot, the Countess of Shrewsbury. It is Villiers who is responsible for the existence of the raised South Terrace of the house, which was built up with many tonnes of earth to give better views. And the Sounding Chamber below the terrace, which has been reopened to the public recently, also dates from this time. There is still a lot of mystery about the design and function of this chamber.
- The Earl of Orkney, who made a happy marriage with a former mistress of King William and lived at Cliveden for over 30 years, was the first to influence the lay-out of the gardens. He created the huge open parterre (plainer in those days) and also built the Blenheim Pavilion and Octagon Temple (now the Chapel) to designs created by Giacomo Leoni (who was also involved in designing Lyme Park and the ill-fated Clandon Park). During the Orkneys’ time at Cliveden, both George I and George II visited (among several royal visits to add to my list).
- Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II, rented Cliveden with his family between 1737 and 1751, and the song ‘Rule Britannia’ was performed for the first time at Cliveden’s amphitheatre during his tenure. There appears to have been mutual loathing between Frederick and his parents, but he was popular locally and sadly the country was never to know King Fred as he died relatively young, apparently after being hit by a cricket ball during a game on the parterre. His son, the future George III, was raised at Cliveden.
- The house was to burn down twice, first in 1795 and again in 1849, so it no surprise that the Clock Tower, built around ten years later is actually a water tower in disguise. Our guide informed us that the clock is rarely accurate and it was indeed an hour and five minutes fast when we checked. Something else I found quite interesting about the house’s susceptibility to fire was the fact that the first time it burnt down, a man called William Burn was employed to rebuild it. He might not have been the best choice!
- Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, was employed by the Duchess of Sutherland to rebuild the second time. The Duchess was Mistress of the Robes and a close friend of Queen Victoria, who was another royal visitor, while she was also a supporter of Gladstone, the former Prime Minister, and it was he who wrote the Latin inscription that runs around a frieze on all four sides of the house.
William Waldorf Astor, the wealthy American, bought the house in 1893 and he was responsible for many more changes and additions to the grounds, including the Maze, the Long Garden, the Water Garden, the Fountain of Love, the Borghese Balustrade on the South Terrace, and many more classical statues and garden ‘furnishings’. He was renowned for being fairly reclusive and didn’t like people walking in his grounds so the locals took to calling him ‘Waldorf by name and Walled Off by nature’.
- William Waldorf gave Cliveden to his son Waldorf and daughter-in-law Nancy as a wedding present (not a bad gift!). Nancy was the first female to take her seat in the House of Commons, which caused quite a stir at the time, and the couple entertained many politicians as well as many other rich and famous celebrity guests. Rather unfortunately, the Astors’ son William (or Bill) continued this practice until the Profumo-Keeler affair somewhat took the gloss off society entertaining at Cliveden.
- Bill gave Cliveden to the National Trust in 1942 but the family continued to live there until 1966, three years after the Profumo affair. After that, the house was occupied by a branch of the Stanford University of California, perhaps a mistake as it needed quite some refurbishment when they left in the mid-1980s. After the Trust conducted the major repairs, a hotel company took on a lease of the building and helped with the refurbishment of the interiors.
Although Cliveden clearly has a varied and interesting history, this is probably not the main reason that so many visitors go there every year (it was third in the Trust’s list of most visited properties in 2014/2015 behind only the Giant’s Causeway and Stourhead). Cliveden is simply a lovely place to spend some time, exploring the many different parts of the garden and taking in the views. Having struggled to find some ‘wow’ moments on my previous visit, they came thick and fast this time. My particular favourite was the Long Garden, with its bright beds of begonias and white statuary alongside clipped topiary bushes. The stone Egyptian baboons, which are said to be between 2,000 and 2,500 years old watch over the garden with fairly kindly expressions on their faces, while there are also a number of pleasant-looking topiary creatures, which are apparently birds, but I preferred to think they were mice (can you see my point?). Another lovely spot was the Water Garden (pictured earlier), which we visited after a failed attempt at the maze (it’s not an easy one so you might want to buy a map from the Information Centre!)
There are many more things for visitors to discover on the estate, some of which are relatively well hidden from the casual explorer, so I would recommend that you take the time to seek out the Rose Garden and the Canadian War Memorial Cemetery. There are also acres and acres of woodland for walkers. We didn’t venture all that far from the formal areas but we did make the long descent down through the woods to the river (where there are boat trips available) and where Spring Cottage – once the weekend retreat of Stephen Ward, Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler – looks out across the water. Unfortunately, the long descent has to be followed by a similarly long ascent to get back up to the house, so we came back up the 172 steps of the straight Yew Tree Walk. Apparently, the Duchess of Sutherland used to get her staff to help push her back up the hill with a specially designed curved stick. How the other half live!
Highlights: The Long Garden, the Water Garden
Refreshments: Egg mayonnaise and watercress sandwich, crisps, a pot of tea, and one-third of a simply enormous flapjack!
Purchase(s): Guidebook, three birthday cards
Companion(s): David and Andrea (these friends suggested that I should tease my readers by putting names like George and Amal or Brad and Angelina, but they were great companions for the afternoon so I think they deserve to be properly credited!)