diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 13, 2017

On a chalk escarpment above the Thames between Marlow and Maidenhead sits Cliveden, a magnificent Italianate mansion in an astonishing setting, and which once helped bring down the government.

Of the first house, built in 1666 for the Duke of Buckinghamshire, only the arcaded terrace survives. But subsequent upgrades have added more rooms, more romance and more sparkle, not to mention gardens that make even the rich and famous purr. Today it's owned by the National Trust, so you can visit, but also leased to a luxury hotel chain, so you can't quite.

Previous Cliveden owners have included Frederick Prince of Wales, the Duke of Westminster and (from 1906) the American power couple Waldorf and Nancy Astor, who used the house for entertaining and basically showing off. Their innumerable guests included Churchill, Chaplin, Roosevelt and Gandhi, creating an atmosphere George Bernard Shaw described as "like no other country house on earth".

There's still a wow factor today, even with screechy kids kicking footballs on the front lawn, especially if you stand on the main terrace and stare down past intricate geometric beds and yew pyramids towards tumbling trees and the River Thames some 40 metres below. Or walk out to the statue at the far end of the Parterre and look back at the broad symmetrical facade glistening in the sunlight, if you get the right day, which I did.

Cliveden's greatest scandal dates back to the summer of 1961 when government minister John Profumo met showgirl Christine Keeler at a swimming pool party. She was wearing nothing at the time, which certainly attracted his attention, and their brief affair (described as "a screw of convenience") continued back in London. A suspected spy scandal unfurled, the Prime Minister's reputation faltered, and the house gained a notoriety that tarnished its social reputation.

The grounds surrounding Cliveden are enormous, or at least long, and you can walk in elevated shade for well over a mile along the wooded ridgetop. There are also zigzag paths down to the riverbank, where a small lawn is ideal for a picnic or a sprawl, but less fit visitors need to remember that they'll have to climb all the way back up again later, and the main Yew Tree Walk has 177 consecutive steps.

The grounds are also shared with hotel guests, who get to dabble in the spa, make use of the pool and park their cars along the Grand Avenue. For a few hours each week National Trust visitors can pay extra for a brief look inside the house, but tickets sell out fast, and all I managed was to peer in at the moneyed guests in their five-star dining room eating over-priced Sunday lunch.

As well as the sparse formality of the Parterre, a number of other beautifully-tended gardens are open for exploration. The Long Garden currently boasts a picture-perfect sea of yellow blooms enclosed by tightly trimmed hedges, while the Water Gardens have a slightly more Japanese flavour, and are thus awash with cherry blossom.

This being a National Trust property, small children are being entertained this month with a chocolate egg hunt labelled with the word 'Easter', not that the ignorant will have noticed. A more enjoyable entertainment is Cliveden's hedge maze, a full recreation of the 1894 original and covering a third of an acre. It has similarities to Hampton Court's, I thought, but was a trifle tougher, and even the fastest route out took me three minutes.

From the terrace by the tiny chapel, perched on the edge of the ridge, a sharp contrast between the two banks of the Thames can be clearly seen. The opposite side is utterly flat and farmed as meadow, with only a few cows as tenants, plus it takes at least an hour to walk there, thanks to the vagaries of local landowners and a paucity of bridges.

Cliveden's best set up for those who arrive by car, indeed as a rambling visitor I found it hard to find the gate through which I was supposed to gain admission. It might have been easier to walk from Taplow station than from the river, but I enjoyed adding four miles to my nine mile Thames Path ramble, and the long steep hill was a lot easier on the way down.

Cliveden's location above the Thames is the perfect spot for an exclusive residence within spitting distance of the capital, which might well have sealed off the estate forever, but actually ended up saving it for the nation. If looking for a word to describe the place, I think 'glorious' covers it. See if my dozen Flickr photos can help convince you of that fact.

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