On a delicious weekend away in Bray, we spent a gloriously sunny day exploring the gardens and woodland around Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire, on the border of Berkshire.
There are loads of walking trails through the Cliveden estate, although in hind sight we didn’t seem to actually follow any of them. It’s a great place for a walk, with so much to see, from the beautiful views over the surrounding country side to the hidden statues, fountains and temples. You can see why it’s one of the National Trust’s most popular ticketed attractions.
This walk is about 4 miles long, with one major climb downhill at the end of the Parterre (40m in fact), and one major climb back up right at the bottom of the map. There are toilets at points 3 and 4, and a cafe accessible to the public just to the right of the house and by the car park in the top right. To get in at the entrance on Cliveden Road is £16 for an adult ticket, or free if you’re a National Trust member.
High up on a chalk cliff with views all around the Buckinghamshire countryside, it’s unsurprising the name Cliff-dene was given to the estate when the first house was built in the 1660s. Owners through the centuries have sparing no expense, sculpting the gardens and landscape to create the magnificent summer retreat.
The Italianate Cliveden House you see today was designed by architect Sir Charles Barry, famous for Westminster Palace. Created for the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland in the 1850s, the luxurious building is the third house on this site, the earlier two having burned down.
Cliveden is infamous for scandal, intrigue and controversy, starting from day 1. It’s thought the Duke of Buckingham built Cliveden for his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury. In 1668, when he caught wind of the affair, her husband challenged the Duke to a duel and was fatally injured.
Fast forward to the 20th century, Nancy and Waldorf Astor are in residence and Cliveden is famous for its lavish hospitality and glamorous guests. The Astors entertained all kinds of people, from Charlie Chaplin and the Queen Mother to Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Ghandi and Henry Ford.
Cliveden hit the headlines in 1963 as the birthplace of the Profumo Affair. John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, was revealed to have first met 19-year-old Christine Keeler by the Cliveden swimming pool two years before. Their brief affair became a political scandal when it was revealed Keeler, a model and dancer, was also in a relationship with Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov. The scandal ended John Profumo’s political career and contributed to the downfall of the Tory government in 1964.
Cliveden is an important place for my family too. My grandparents lived in Beaconsfield for most of their married life, and spent many happy days out as a family at Cliveden. We have loads of photos of my mum and her brothers as children in front of the fountains. Then, 10 years ago, my uncle got married here!
It was a beautiful day in May. They had their ceremony in the library, with drinks on the terrace overlooking the Parterre, and their reception in one of the elaborate dining rooms. In the afternoon we walked down to the river and had Pimm’s on a barge on the Thames.
When I came here with Matt in February, I managed to peek through the window into the dining room where they cut their cake, and all the memories came flooding back. What a venue!
A discovery on the day was this cavernous, white, dome-ceilinged room underneath the terrace. If you creep inside, it makes for a cracking place to experiment with your singing.
If you’re interested in seeing inside the house (beyond just peeking in the windows), you’ll have to try to blag a spot on a guided tour. They’re only £2 a head (or free for National Trust members) from the info centre in the car park, but you can’t book them in advance, you just have to turn up and chance it. There are only 10 slots per tour, and the tours only run between 11am and 12.30 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, From March to July and then again in September and October.
Once you turn the corner around the side of Cliveden House, 376 acres of Grade I listed gardens and woodland comes into view, along with a panoramic vista over the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire countryside. Laid out in 1855 by John Fleming, this main stretch of the formal garden is called the Parterre. It’s a whopping 4 acres, making it one of the largest in Europe, and still maintains the 19th century-style planting, called “carpet-bedding”.
You’ll also find Italian-style long gardens, rose gardens, a Japanese-style water garden, and a 19th century round garden.
The Octagon temple
200 ft above the Thames is the Octagon Temple, originally designed as a gazebo and grotto in 1735 but converted by the 1st Viscount in 1893 to become the Astor family chapel and mausoleum. Today, three generations of Astors are buried here, including the previously-mentioned Nancy and Waldorf Astor.
If you were somehow able to get inside, you’d find the mausoleum’s interior and dome decorated with colourful mosaics depicting religious scenes.
And of course, at 200ft above the river, there’s a spectacular view.
The various paths on the Cliveden walking map zigzag all around the temple, above, below and between. If you follow them downwards and turn back on yourself, you’ll find the war memorial garden and the fountain of love.
The War Memorial Garden
When the First World War broke out, Cliveden went from a luxury party-pad to a sanctuary for injured Allied troops within months.
At the beginning of the war, Waldorf Astor failed his medical test, so as his way of service he offered part of the Cliveden estate as a hospital to the Canadian Red Cross. The Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital was opened in 1915, able to hold up to 110 patients. By the end of the war this was at 600.
Nancy Astor was often seen helping out in the hospital and it is said that her personality and great vigour worked wonders on the patients (Edith in Downton Abbey anyone?). Many ministers and royals also visited the hospital including Winston Churchill and King George V.
Of the 24,000 troops treated at the hospital only a relatively small number died. In 1918, the 1st Viscount Astor’s sunken Italian garden was adapted to create a memorial garden for the deceased. A mosaic floor was replaced by turf for the grave stones, and a sculpture was created especially for the garden. Australian sculptor Bertram MacKennal was commissioned by Nancy Astor to design and create a symbolic bronze female figure. Rumour has it he used Nancy’s features as inspiration for the face.
The hospital finally closed in 1985 and was left derelict until 2006 when it was demolished. The War Memorial Garden is open to visitors, where you can see the 42 war graves from the First World War, each marked with a stone set in the turf. MacKennal’s statue overlooks the graves, with the inscription, ‘They are at peace. God proved them and found them worthy for himself.’
The Tortoise Fountain
Not far from the War Memorial Garden you’ll find the tortoise fountain by American sculptor T.W. Story, commissioned in 1897 by Lord Astor and brought over from Rome. It sits on a lovely balcony in the middle of the surrounding trees, with spectacular views out towards Cookham.
If you continue your walk to the end of the Parterre, and drop the 40m downhill to the riverside, you’ll find the Cliveden Boathouse on the River Thames. This is home to a fully restored flotilla of vintage launches. Cliveden House Hotel offers champagne cruises to Henley, described as “the most luxurious boat trips on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Thames you can imagine”.
Belmont, a 33 foot Thames slipper launch, was built in the 1930s, and the Suzy Ann, built in 1911, was restored in 1986, winning first prize for best professional restoration of a vintage boat at the Henley Traditional Boat Rally.
Oddly, right on the waters edge you’ll find a beautiful tudor cottage, which despite having National Trust signs is actually a private family home.
Cliveden Reach, between Cookham Lock and Boulter’s Lock, is one of the most scenic stretches of the Thames and a popular spot for canoeing, kayaking, and angling. A section of the original Thames towpath extends from the boathouse, north to Cookham Lock. You can spot a series of Eyots in the middle of the river as you’re walking down. These are owned by the National Trust, and passing boats are allowed to moor there for short breaks as the cruise down the river.
The woodlands at Cliveden are really something else. In 1897 the 1st Lord Astor imported a section of a Californian redwood and had it installed in the woods. At 16 ft 6 inches across, it’s the largest section of a Sequoia gigantea in Britain. The woodlands were first laid out by Lord Orkney in the 18th century on what was previously a barren cliff-top, and were later restocked by the Astors. After suffering badly in the Great Storm of 1987, the National Trust continues the replanting of the beechwoods to this day.
Our route through the woodlands was perfect for enjoying the trees and the view, winding through the trunks and frequently revealing stretches of panoramic vista, the farmland stretching over green fields and the villages tiny in the distance. We were aiming for the statue of the Duke among the redwoods, which has the best view back over the valley towards the house.
On our way back to the house, we stumbled across yet another hidden folly. This one is made of flint and has been preserved from the 19th century. A sign warns children not to climb on it as it’s now extremely precarious.
We closed our loop and arrived back at the house on the other side of the Parterre. It was well into lunchtime and our stomachs were grumbling, so we made plans to go to the nearby village of Cookham, a recommendation from my mum, in search of a pub.
Lunch at the Old Swan Uppers
Cookham was heaving. Obviously. Who were we to try a spontaneous Sunday roast in this day and age? Lunatics, clearly.
Luckily we squeezed into a free space in the Old Swan Uppers car park, and our prayers were answered with an empty table for two inside. After quite a heavy weekend of indulging, I opted for a veggie roast which arrived in the form of a caramelised roasted butternut squash. Matt went for lamb and we told them to keep the gravy jugs coming. We stayed just long enough to watch the first half of the rugby, before heading home to catch the end.
Cliveden is such a great day out, for couples or families, with so much to explore and see. Having been so long ago I really enjoyed refreshing my memory of these beautiful gardens, and the walk through the woodland was excellent preparation for a pub roast.