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.
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 éclair was a delicious triumph of pâtissier 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!