What better way to make the most of some unusually warm March weather than with a picnic! Determined to spend the day out-of-doors, I packed up the thermos and a picnic and headed off down to the magnificent Cliveden House.
Commanding views out over the Thames Valley, Cliveden has seen many a scandal throughout its colourful history. The 2nd Duke of Buckingham was the first to build a house on the site. He commissioned architect William Winde to design a lavish four story house atop an elaborate terrace. Rumour has it that the house was built for his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury. When Lord Shrewsbury heard of the affair, he challenged Buckingham to a duel, in which Shrewsbury sustained injuries that would later cause his death.
Following Buckingham’s death in 1687, the house then became home to an ever changing stream of England’s well connected and politically aligned. I felt suitably British as I enjoyed a cup of tea where, during the residence of Frederick, Prince of Wales, the patriotic song “Rule, Brittania!” held its public début.
The house we see today owes its magnificence to Sir Charles Barry, the architect made famous for designing Westminster Palace, now the site of UK Parliament. He was tasked by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland to create an Italianate masterpiece above the only surviving feature of the original house: Winde’s arcaded terrace.
Cliveden’s reputation as a place of political intrigue and scandal was firmly cemented during the early part of the 20th Century. William Waldorf Astor, a wealthy American, purchased the estate in 1893. Astor subsequently gifted it to his son Waldorf Astor as a marriage present when he married Nancy Longhorne in 1906. The young Astor’s were renown for their lavish parties whose guest lists featured the likes of Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill and F.D. Roosevelt. Some interesting conversations must have taken place, to say the least!
The spotlight fell on Cliveden once again in 1963, with the revelation that the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, had an affair with would-be model Christine Keeler, after meeting at a pool party at the estate. Fuelled by reports that Keeler had connections with a Soviet naval attaché, the affair sparked concerns of a national security risk. Despite these reports being unsubstantiated, they destroyed Profumo’s career, and in so doing, severely jeopardised public opinion of the government.
Having gifted Cliveden Estate to the National Trust in 1949, under the condition that they could remain for as they required, the Astor’s moved away from Cliveden in 1968. The house continues to accommodate the upper echelons of society as it has been refashioned into a luxurious hotel. All 375 acres of its glorious grounds, however, have remained open to the public as part of the National Trust as a combination of woodland, fields and themed gardens.
Take time to explore the Italianate Long Garden, where topiary and sculpture jostle amongst a riot of seasonal colour . Unwind amongst cherry blossom and magnolias in Oriental Water Garden. Lose yourself in the yew maze. Gaze adoringly at the Fountain of Love. Don’t forget about formal Parterre to the south of the house. It’s one of the largest in Europe! Additionally, there are lots of woodland walkways to explore, some of which descend down to the banks of the River Thames.
My advice? Take a picnic and relish in the historical intrigue!