Sunday, 25 August 2013

Afternoon Tea at Cliveden

Standing, or should I say, reclining, 130ft above the River Thames in Taplow, with glorious, verdant, panoramic views as far as the eye can see is one of the sparkling jewels in Berkshire's crown. Welcome to Cliveden!
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There are not many places that make me gasp quite as much as I did whilst rolling up the grand, lime-bordered, quarter-mile, drive to the luxury five-star hotel at Cliveden. The unique, historic estate covers an astonishing 375 acres, 180 of which are beautiful gardens that I explored with great earnest this summer.

In 1849 the Duke of Sutherland commissioned Charles Barry; the architect who designed the Palace of Westminster, to build the current house at Cliveden after the original 17th century building was destroyed twice by fire.

Towards the end of the 19th century the estate was bought by and became the home of William Waldorf Astor. The 1st Lord Astor gave Cliveden estate to his son as a wedding gift when he married in 1906. The young Viscount Astors were renowned for hosting lavish parties and political gathering at the house attracting a veritable who's who of world leaders, writers, artists and film stars. Famous guests have included Churchill, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Kipling, Lennon and Chaplin to name but a handful.

In later years the house was to also become notoriously synonymous with the scandalous affair that rocked the nation in 1963 between John Profumo and Christine Keeler.

On the south terrace, a 17th century Travertine stone balustrade from the garden of the Villa Borghese overlooks the formal manicured parterre. It is one of the largest parterres in Europe, covering a vast 4 acres consisting of clipped yew topiary pyramids and box hedging. The 19th century planting schemes are overseen by enormous Roman oil jars that can be found strategically placed like giant chess pieces throughout the gardens. 

With his unrivalled passion for Italianate statuary and classical antiquities  Astor commissioned sculptor Thomas Waldo Story in 1897 to create the magnificent and enormous Fountain of Love which welcomes visitors at the foot of the lime tree avenue leading to the house. The central character appears to be that of Venus as the source with two swooning female figures either side, both lured in by winged amorino. All this happens atop a monumental Carrera marble shell that secretes the crystal clear elixir of love. Rather racy I thought at first but I notice that the corresponding dates that mark the early death of Waldorf's wife and the acquisition of the piece indicate that this could also be the ultimate testament to lost love.

On the north-west lawn, Clivedens grand water tower is topped with a bronze figure of Augustin Dumont's Spirit of Liberty, it's 23.5 carat gilding sparkles in the sunlight.


The secluded and peaceful Long Garden has an unquestionable air of fantasy and magic about it. Comprising of tightly trimmed topiary in the forms of spiralling helices, strutting peacocks and curvaceous box hedges. A group of 18th century Venetian statues of characters from the Commedia dell'Arte interject the greenscape by playfully greeting you en route.

Several hours enjoying the gardens and grounds built up a very healthy appetite, so we headed back to the house. Cliveden is the home of the £100 Von Essen Platinum club sandwich. A triple decker gourmet delight containing poulet de Bresse, Iberico ham, quails eggs and white truffles. Today I had my eye on another prize as I had made reservations for an indulgent afternoon tea in the ornate, oak-panelled Great Hall. I played it a bit 'Cool hands Luke' but I must admit that I was beyond excited. I had it on good authority that Cliveden's afternoon tea is absolutely wonderful and you known how much I like a good afternoon tea.

Our position for tea was just about as perfect as I could have wished for. We were escorted to our table in front of the impressive 16th century stone fireplace that William Astor rescued from a chateau in Burgundy just before it was demolished. To the left of the fireplace and above the piano is the beautiful and hypnotic portrait of Nancy, Lady Astor by John Singer Sargent. The rooms further extravagant furnishings of Brussels tapestries and medieval suits of armour adding dramatic and conclusive confirmation that we were most definitely sitting in the lap of luxury.

The level of service was absolutely en pointe perfect, my tea cup was magically refreshed by none less than three wonderfully slick and attentive tea masters, who did everything for me bar dabbing the corners of mouth with the crisp linen napkins. The sandwiches, cakes and pastries were out of this world and plentiful. The sugar pearl embroidered √©clair was a delicious triumph of p√Ętissier finesse, which I thankfully claimed ownership of the moment it landed on the table.

At the end of such an incredible day of beauty, decadence and refinement, I must say I felt quite at home. The only thing one could possibly want for after such an afternoon is a nice nap. Of course, you can always check into the Astor Suite!

If you need me, you know where to find me, just dial Cliveden 8561!
Taplow, Berkshire

Monday, 19 August 2013

Pots and Pithoi

In urgent need of a fresh pot to house some newly acquired plants, I jetted off to my favourite pot-stop in West Sussex this week to do a little shopping.

I discovered Pots & Pithoi in Turner's Hill several years ago whilst en route to Nyman's which is just a few miles up the road and it has now become one of my go to places whenever I am on the hunt for pretty pottage for friends, clients and also our own garden. Prince Charles gave the pots his seal of approval by granting Pots & Pithoi a royal warrant and uses them throughout the gardens at Highgrove. I love the gentle, buff tones of the Cretan ceramics and how they sit so harmoniously in the garden.

They have a huge range of over 120 designs of pot in 240 different sizes which are all made using ancient traditional Cretan techniques. Each pot is hand thrown and fired using olive pits and grapes seeds to fuel the kilns; a traditional method that harks back to the Byzantine era when these styles of urn and pot were used to store and transport precious oils, ointments and grain.

It was here that I first encountered and fell in love with one of my favourite roses. On my very first visit, early one summer, Rosa Claire Jacquier was clambering over the barn emitting the most beautiful fragrance that filled the courtyard, stirred up by the flitting wings of overhead swallows that nest in the neighbouring pot-filled barns. Such was the experience that I planted the very same rose in our garden that summer.

If you are looking for a something really unique with a history to it, owner Tara Bowles also stocks the most beautiful antique pots and ancient storage vessels from all around the Mediterranean and is on hand to offer inspiration and advice and often provides excellent tea and delicious homemade cakes which are served in a charming room overlooking the courtyard.

Pots & Pithoi
The Barns, East Street
Turner's Hill, West Sussex
RH10 4HQ

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Picnic at Mottisfont Abbey

The last fragrant puffs of rosarian splendour that line the walls of the garden here at Magical Manor were sadly taking their final bows this week and I felt the need to ensconce myself in an environment that would soothe my roseless jitters.

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After packing a picnic basket with cucumber sandwiches and elderflower champagne, we headed to Hampshire to catch the final act of the infamous old fashioned roses in Mottisfont Abbey's romantic walled garden.

The former 13th-century Augustinian priory is situated on the banks of the River Test, one of the longest and finest chalk streams in the world and said to be the birthplace of modern fly fishing.

The priory was founded in 1201 by William Briwere, one of the barons who signed the magna carta.
In the early 20th century, society hostess Maud Russell used the abbey as a base for her wild lifestyle, attracting members of London's social circle and many a bright young thing. Visitors and lovers included George Bernard Shaw, Ian Fleming and Rex Whistler.

The entire rural estate exudes a serene energy and tranquillity that calmed me almost immediately. The house still retains the hypnotic spring or 'font' from which its name is derived, feeding the babbling brooks and crystal clear streams that meander through the magical woodlands, some shallow enough to paddle in barefoot.

This perky little chap followed me on my walk to help me find a pretty place to relax and eat.

Finding the perfect spot, we picnicked streamside, serenaded by a bubbling aquatic soundtrack before spending the rest of the afternoon savouring and memorizing the scent and beauty of every available rose within the walled garden.

Adieu mes belles roses. See you next year,
Mottisfont Abbey
Romsey, Hampshire
SO51 0LP