When it comes to colourful history, I’ve yet to uncover an English stately home that compares with Cliveden House. Since it was built in 1666, for the second Duke of Buckingham’s pleasure pursuits – and to entertain his mistress – the Berkshire residence has earned a reputation as a playground for the great and the good, from British aristocrats to American presidents.
After passing between the hands of various nobility, in 1893 the estate was bought by American businessman William Waldorf Astor (of Waldorf-Astorias fame). Then in 1985, Cliveden opened its doors to the public, as one of the most luxurious hotels in England. With 47 opulent rooms and a spring cottage within its 152 hectares, it offers guests a chance to stay in a slice of English history, and continues its tradition of indulging all who walk within its walls.
Last year, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, resided here the night before her wedding to Prince Harry in nearby Windsor Castle, which ensured almost two billion people caught a glimpse of Cliveden’s pristine exterior on the big day.
The Astor family legacy
Step through the grandiose main entrance to The Great Hall – a low-lit, seductive lounge with deep mahogany panels and soft red furnishings. A closer look finds priceless decorations dotted around like it’s a living museum.
You might spot the 18th-century floor-to-ceiling tapestries and suits of armour that were gifted to a former owner, the Earl of Orkney.
You’ll definitely see John Singer Sargent’s sultry painting of Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP to take her seat in the Commons, and glamorous wife of Waldorf Astor.
"The Astor family lavished a fortune on Cliveden House because it was their family estate, and they were one of the wealthiest families in the world," explains the hotel’s general manager, Kevin Brooke, over a coffee in the plush residents’ lounge.
"They were the last family that lived here and, between their three generations, they lived here the longest. They brought in many of these statues and ornaments, and they put in the panelling, the fireplaces, the sweeping staircase and the French dining room, which they transported wholesale from a French chateau."
Perhaps the Astors’ most important legacy is Cliveden’s reputation. They turned it from an English stately home that attracted formal visits from Queen Victoria and other dignitaries, to an infamous destination for socialites and international elites.
"When Nancy was here with her husband, they would host prominent figures of the day, such as Roosevelt, Churchill and Chaplin," explains Kevin. "With that comes wonderful stories – and some mischief too. We’ve got this wonderful history to showcase in the present-day guest experience."
The extensive spa area is a pertinent example. The centrepiece is the Profumo Swimming Pool, named after John Profumo, a former Secretary of State for War, and the subject of one of the biggest scandals in modern British history. At the height of the Cold War in 1961, a friend of the Astors introduced Profumo to a 19-year-old model named Christine Keeler at that very pool.
They began an affair – while she was also sleeping with a Russian diplomat. Needless to say, it was a major security breach, especially because Profumo lied about it to Parliament. The affair ended his career, and brought down his party’s government too. Not one to shy away from its chequered past, Cliveden House marks the event with the Profumo cocktail: a sultry rosé Champagne-topped gin drink infused with a real hibiscus flower. Suitably naughty but nice.
Cliveden’s sleeping quarters
I’m in the Lady Astor Suite, which occupies a large corner of the first floor. It’s Nancy’s former bedroom, and one of only two suites with a private terrace that overlooks the manicured gardens and the glistening River Thames.
Kevin can’t reveal if the Duchess of Sussex stayed in this particular suite but, extravagantly filled with antiques, art and a plush king-size bed that lends itself to beauty sleep, it is certainly fit for a princess. As tempting as it is to admire the room all day and night, there’s too much to see and do within the grounds.
Among the decadent activities on offer are cruises from the Cliveden boathouse at the property boundary, the routes of which can be tailored as required. "We can go to Marlow, or Windsor, if guests desire," the skipper Ken tells me as we gently chug along the Thames in a restored vintage slipper. "This morning we even did a breakfast cruise." For me, the sunset cruise complete with a glass of Veuve Clicquot is perfection.
In the evening, if neither of the estate’s exemplary restaurant menus (Astor Grill and Cliveden House Dining Room) have you salivating, the hotel is helpfully located within a constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants. A final draw is its elaborate grounds. It boasts a rose garden, a yew tree maze and walking trails around its vast parkland.
It seems impossible that the serene countryside estate is a 30-minute drive to Heathrow Airport, but that makes it a hotel to consider for an overnight London stopover, if not a destination for both hedonism and history.
Fine dining nearby Cliveden House
Foodies rejoice: Cliveden House is a quick drive from an uncommon number of celebrated restaurants. In the three-Michelin-star category, The Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck are both found in Bray. The latter is an unforgettable, multisensory journey over the course of a long and delightful evening.
For England’s only two-Michelin-star pub, Tom Kerridge’s The Hand and Flowers offers well-balanced food in the informal setting of a low-ceilinged 17th-century room. There is no shortage of one-star options, which includes The Crown in Maidenhead, a characterful pub that serves French-influenced cuisine. Note that these restaurants need to be booked well in advance.