Putting Cliveden House to the test
PUBLISHED: 16:17 16 October 2015 | UPDATED: 16:26 16 October 2015
The magnificent country house hotel is full of delights and temptations. Jan Raycroft was lured to put it to the test.
The height of opulence with a tempting but historic hint of risk. Grand and imposing, but still so very welcoming… if one dares. You think I’ve been at the thesaurus to describe the five-star glory that is Cliveden House, don’t you?
No, I’m talking about The Bed. Not just any bed, but the formidable four-poster in The Gibson, a truly beautiful room on the second floor, overlooking the Grand Drive and the Fountain of Love.
It reflects the spirit and style of the period marking the end of the Victorian era and, like others rooms in the hotel, is named after one of the significant visitors of the Astors’ ‘Cliveden Set’. In this case it’s Charles Dana Gibson, brother-in-law of the fascinating Nancy Astor by virtue of marrying her supposedly better looking and taller sister, Irene.
Mainly using Irene as a model, skilled artist Gibson created ‘The Gibson Girl’, the epitome of refined beauty with graceful long limbs and swan-like neck combined with a tiny waist and prominent bust produced by tight corsets. And yet this was ‘power dressing’, combining femininity with athletic proportions, and the Girls were often accompanied by comical little men whom the women treated in a derisory manner.
But back to The Bed. I was staying at Cliveden House, lucky to have been allocated this extraordinary room which had absolutely everything a treasured guest might need… except a step ladder. The Bed was the highest of its type I’d ever seen, and for someone 5ft tall would require determined scaling rather than simply climbing in. When a bed towers over the back of a sofa I’m in trouble.
Photographer Maureen had joined me for a ‘Down Memory Lane trip’. She’s an ‘old hand’ at Cliveden House having regularly swum (I mustn’t say frolicked) in that famous outdoor pool in the years when the Profumo and Keeler scandal, while becoming a fading memory, was not yet part of Cliveden’s history.
The plan was that we would discover some spa treats, tour the hotel to see more of its wonders, and then relax before being thoroughly spoilt in André Garrett’s superb dining room, after which Maureen would depart home and I would find the climbing gear necessary to reach the Land of Nod.
While photographing The Gibson, Maureen eyed up The Bed and put herself in charge of Health and Safety as well as the camera. I was required to demonstrate that I could reach the summit and safely descend again. A dozen ungainly photographs later, with not a hint of Gibson Girl grace, proved I had the grit and determination, if no longer the knees, to arrive like a flapping fish on The Bed’s summit and shimmy down again.
No, you are not seeing the snaps, as we are now setting off for the spa. It was that ‘Scottish weather’ we’ve been having, so while I enjoyed a marvellous facial and mini-massage, Maureen clocked up 50 laps in the sparkling indoor pool, followed by a relaxing massage.
Settling down to read the Telegraph, my hands somehow instead picked up one of the celeb mags. The brain was taking a welcome break too, although it did remind me that some pretty wealthy people love the ambience of Cliveden House.
It’s no good asking the staff about famous faces, there’s not a morsel of gossip forthcoming under my best interrogation techniques, but the team are undoubtedly one of the things that makes this place so special. In any case, I already knew that former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard married there, and the Ant one of Ant & Dec had his reception at Cliveden after a Taplow church service. And that GBBO judge Paul Hollywood was once Cliveden’s head baker. There are many others from a cast of the international private jet set, but none is more important than the two ladies we found enjoying the hot tub outside regardless of the misty rain.
Joanne Brooks of Binfield was on a spa day with her sister Janet Blayney from London. They’d arrived at 9am to make the most of it, enjoying lunch with Prosecco along the way. Joanne explained: “We do this every year. It’s a Christmas present from my husband. He gets me some other nicely wrapped little bits and bobs but always says ‘Don’t worry, your Cliveden thingy is all sorted’. It’s our special day of the year.”
So there you are, any men who don’t know what to buy… that’s most of you, get it right like that and we will love you forever.
What became clear is that this very special place is for everyone. Yes, you can spend thousands at Cliveden House, or just go for afternoon tea, from £35, and ponder some of the fabulous art in public areas. Early evening champagne cruises on one of Cliveden’s vintage launches start from £50 (until end of October) and you could hire a launch for a party of up to 10.
Back on dry land, private dining room packages are competitive, not a word you might naturally associate with the Cliveden name. Then there are the spa offers, the treat of dining under huge chandeliers overlooking the parterre, or even staying for just a night or two in one of the 39 rooms to soak up the Cliveden experience. Once a year, once a month, Cliveden is affordable as an experience, alongside those who could, should they wish, stay for weeks in a glamorous suite or historic Spring Cottage beside the Thames.
We caught up with the hotel’s director of sales, Alex Bew, and general manager Sue Williams. Both ladies are keen to stress this egalitarian approach, and you can imagine Nancy Astor backing it, too. The ultimate mistress of Cliveden had some fairly commonly-held views of her time that would create hideous headlines today, but she was never one for ‘following the rules’ and enjoyed genuine, lifelong friendships with political opponents.
Cliveden is precious and looking after it is a complex matter. The Grade 1 house stands in beautiful National Trust grounds and has lower sections dating back to 1666 (two fires, the last in 1849, led to previous rebuilding). For much of last year the Trust, the building’s freeholder, was restoring some of the oldest parts of the exterior and re-roofing the East and West wings.
For the hotel business – Cliveden is a sister of renowned Chewton Glen in the New Forest – it’s been an opportunity to carefully refurbish parts of the interior. Anyone who hasn’t visited recently should definitely do so as the results are well worth seeing. Glamorous period suites now sit alongside such delights as a below stairs screening room (complete with giant sofa and bean bags).
Next year the focus will be on the spa area, and once again this will be a very carefully managed project to protect the ambience and history.
So on to dinner in that magnificent room with its huge chandeliers, which were quickly outshone by not only exceptional food, which we’ll get to, but by the staff’s attention to detail. Oh… we were fussed, but nothing was fussy. Everyone dining there was special (we surreptitiously spy on this sort of thing). It feels like the waiting staff have found that rare mark of being exactly the right side of ‘menu flirting’ with guests, making all feel individually treasured alongside the real treasures.
Our dinner was spectacular – read any of the expert reviews of André Garrett’s imaginative dishes which fly the flag for the very best of British seasonal ingredients with a truly individual flair. I had roast fillet of turbot, a feast of taste and textures, which came with The Most Amazing Cockles Ever (my name for them, not Cliveden’s) alongside braised celery hearts. Already I know I’ll not taste their like again unless returning there. Maureen had a similar experience with fillet of Lake District longhorn beef, cooked as she likes it (right on the edge of medium).
And once again, Cliveden turns out to be an affordable special experience that will last in the memory until you can book again. Starting from the top, a stunning seven course tasting menu dips just under £100, and there’s a £75 wine flight which can be added should you wish. But at lunchtimes you can come inside £40 per person for a splendid Market Menu three course treat plus coffee and bonbons to finish. To be fair, you have to add a 12.5% service charge and, unless you are a National Trust member the rule is that a NT admission fee of £6.75 has to be plonked on top. Add a pre or after lunch walk to your meal to make the most of it.
So returning to The Bed… back in The Gibson I began reading the room’s guest book which was full of delight courtesy of previous guests. A recently staying family had written how their children had goggled and then giggled at The Bed, imagining how a 5ft 3ins auntie would have got up there. Looking down on me while I read this was a portrait of a beautiful, young, lithe Nancy Astor.
It’s moments like this that I think ‘What would the Queen Mum (another of us little ones) have done about this dilemma?’ Probably have called for her loyal steward Backstairs Billy and a gin and Dubonnet. I had a sherry and turned on the TV to find highlights of the World Athletics Championships, where modern day Gibson Girls were soaring over the high jump and Buckinghamshire’s Greg Rutherford was taking gold in the long jump. It was all I needed as inspiration to conquer the now Incredibly Comfy Bed, falling asleep thinking of powerful ‘Littlies’ and that I never believed Margaret Thatcher reached 5ft 5ins, it was the hair and heels that did the trick.
The next morning Maureen rang to make sure I hadn’t tumbled down the mountain and was now in need of rescue from Wexham Park Hospital. Instead I was on to breakfast, once again enjoying a special Cliveden moment when I thought a fellow guest was sporting a footie shirt (surely not!) only to realise it represented the Dubai Polo Team.
A final tour of some of the corridors before leaving was to top this. Past the lifts and walls of large and worthy portraits, you take a couple of turns and discover sketches by Stephen Ward, the man who brought Wraysbury’s Keeler to Cliveden. Ward Girls were somewhat different from Gibson Girls, but his drawings are excellent studies. Here’s Christine… there’s Mandy Rice-Davies… some racy Cliveden guests… and ooooh… in the middle of all this, one of the Duke of Edinburgh, marked Buckingham Palace 1961.
It’s Cliveden, and so irresistible.
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