Donkey’s years ago I did history as one of my A Levels.  The fact that I passed was totally attributable to rote learning (my history teacher was uninspiring) and, of course, as soon as the exam was over I promptly forgot the lot and for many years afterwards had history earmarked as boring.  However, my late history teacher would be amazed to know that, in my dotage, I’ve seen the light; history is fascinating! 

I only mention this because my wife and I, for the first time ever, sloped off at Christmas and spent three days at Cliveden.  Before going I read two books about Cliveden (Cliveden: The Place and the People by James Crathorne and The Mistresses of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone).  I even made notes that I could miraculously produce from my inside pocket whenever fellow guests had a query (disappointingly, not enough queries so I didn’t do this as often as I’d hoped).  However, I felt quite smug when I joined a small group on a conducted tour of the house and realised I knew almost as much as the guide – and spotted a couple of dates he got wrong!

The Cliveden estate is now a National Trust property and the house is run as a plush hotel.  During our brief stay we were, of course, thoroughly spoilt and waited on hand and foot.  (‘Hand and foot’ is a particularly apt description since my wife has broken a bone in her foot and is encased in one of those things that looks like a ski-boot.)  As soon as you arrive at the front door you are greeted by a butler and a bevy of porters who spirit away your luggage and insist on parking your car for you even though this means moving it all of 12 metres.   

Cliveden celebrates 350 years of chequered history this year.  Cliveden, originally a hunting lodge, was bought in 1666 (an easy date to remember; the fire of London!) by George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham.  He built the first elegant house on the site in the late 1670’s, a venture that required large volumes of earth to be moved to create a 433-foot platform upon which the house would stand.  The house was subsequently owned by the Earl of Orkney and leased to Frederick, Prince of Wales from 1737 until his untimely death in 1751 just before he would have become Frederick 1st.  ‘Rule Britannia’, the final song in a masque called Alfred, was first performed at Cliveden in 1740. The house burn down in 1795 and was left as a picturesque ruin for 30 years. 

Sir George Warrender bought the estate and built the second house in 1824. Upon his death in 1849 it was bought by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.  No sooner had they taken possession than the house burn down for the second time.  Undaunted, they commissioned Sir Charles Barry to build the house that survives to this day (oh lord, I hope I’m not tempting fate!).

The Astor family owned Cliveden for over 70 years.  It was bought by William Waldorf Astor in 1893 who at the time was reputed to be the richest man in America.  He gave the house to his son, Waldorf Astor, in 1906 when he married Nancy.  Nancy, as you probably know, was the first woman to take her seat as a Member of Parliament in 1919.  

During WW2 the Astor’s gave Cliveden to the National Trust on condition the family could continue to live there for as long as they wished.  They eventually left Cliveden in 1966 after it had become tainted by the so-called ‘Profumo Affair’ when Jack Profumo, the secretary of state for war, started a relationship with Christine Keeler having caught sight of her climbing naked out of the newly built swimming pool at Cliveden.  The house was subsequently leased to Stanford University and became a splendid hotel in 1985.

The roll call of famous people who have visited Cliveden over the years is impressive; George 1st, Queen Victoria (often), Gladstone, Tennyson, Garibaldi, Edward 7th, President Roosevelt , George Bernard Shaw, T E Lawrence, Charlie Chaplin, Joyce Grenfell – to name-drop but a few.

End of potted history lesson!

After such fascinating goings-on, Cliveden took our three-day stay in its stride.  Mind you, my wife tried her best to leave her mark by drawing back a heavy curtain that tipped over a tall brass lamp that in turn knocked over, first one then two, full glasses of tomato juice.  The domino effect sent the tomato juice cascading down the wall behind a priceless antique bureau where it seeped into an electrical socket and fused all the lights.



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