Perched above the River Thames, the gardens and woodland at Cliveden are a wonderful place to visit throughout the year.
Leave the M4 at junction 7 on to the A4 and follow the signs to Cliveden. It is near the village of Taplow near Maidenhead and takes about an hour from Central London. The gardens belong to the National Trust although the house is now a hotel.
Steeped in history, the estate has often been associated with scandal and intrigue. In 1666, George Villiers, later the Duke of Buckingham owned the estate, having bought it for his ‘whore’, the Countess of Shrewsbury. This notorious affair led the Earl of Shrewsbury to challenge Buckingham to a duel at ‘Barne-Elmes’ on 16th January, 1668. Having been ‘run through the body’ by a sword, Shrewsbury died several weeks later from his wounds. Rumours circulated that the Countess had been there, dressed as a page, to cheer her lover on.
In 1696, Cliveden was bought by the 1st Earl of Orkney and the estate entered a more settled period. Orkney enlarged the house and commissioned Charles Bridgeman to create the grass amphitheatre with views over the River Thames, and woodland walks. John Evelyn, diarist and gardener, visited in 1679 and wrote that ‘the place altogether answers the most poetical description that can be made of solitude, precipice, prospect, or whatever can contribute to a thing so very like their imaginations’. This was the beginning of the landscape movement with the move away from formal gardens to a more naturalistic approach.
On inheriting the house from her father, Anne, 2nd Countess of Orkney and Countess of Inchiquin, leased the property to Frederick, Prince of Wales. Using Cliveden as a summer retreat away from the smog and noise of London, the Prince carried out futher work on the house and gardens. And it was here, to celebrate his daughter’s third birthday, that Rule Britannia was played for the first time.
After the Prince’s death in 1751, Anne and her family moved back to Cliveden and the house and gardens became a popular destination for tourists. Daniel Defoe commended the ‘delightful….and agreeable grounds’ on his visit in 1778 while six years later Mary Shackleton included it on her Tour Through Part of England. She wrote: ‘Walked a little in the beautiful grounds & gazed at the rich and various prospect, thro’ which the Thames flowed’.
Disaster struck in 1795 when a fire completely destroyed the house. Recently a widow, the 4th Countess held on to Cliveden for the next twenty-nine years until she finally sold the estate to Sir George Warrender. Sir George rebuilt the house to a design by William Burn, and after his death in 1849, the estate was bought by 2nd Duke of Sutherland. After only owning Cliveden for a few months, the modest, two-storey house was also destroyed by fire and was replaced by a far more impressive ‘Italianate Villa’ designed by Charles Barry.
After the Duke died, the Duchess remained at Cliveden until her death in 1893. Described as ‘large, boisterous and charming’, she wrote: ‘When one lives in Paradise, how hard it must be to ascend in heart and mind to Heaven.’ The estate was bought by William Waldorf Astor but tragedy struck when his wife Mary, died the following year. Astor remained at Cliveden as a recluse until 1906 when he moved to Hever Castle. He gave the estate to his son Waldorf on his marriage to Nancy Langhorn. In 1942, Cliveden was given to National Trust along with an endowment, on the condition that Astors could live at Cliveden for as long as they wished.
In 1961, Lord Astor gave a party at Cliveden that would change the course of British history. Astor had asked two guests: a nineteen year-old mistress of a suspected Russian spy, Christine Keeler, and John Profumo, Secretary of State for War and husband of Valerie Hobson. Profumo and Keeler began an affair which led to Profumo’s forced resignation and irrevocable damage to Macmillan’s Conservative Government. Seven years later, the whole estate was given to the National Trust. In 1984, the National Trust leased the house to Blakeney Hotels and in 2012, Cliveden was let to the current owners, London and Regional Properties. Meghan Markle stayed here the night before her wedding to Prince Harry.
The house lies at the centre of the garden and is approached along the Grand Avenue from the Fountain of Love by Thomas Waldo Story, dated 1897. William Waldorf, 2nd Viscount Astor noted in 1920: ‘The female figures are supposed to have discovered the fountain of love and to be experiencing the effects of its wonderful elixir’. The Great Parterre lies to the south of the house and is best viewed from the Terrace. In c1723, elaborated plans were drawn up by Claude Desgots, nephew of Le Notre, however a simpler design was chosen, called the ‘Quaker parterre’. By the mid-nineteenth century, this area was neglected and resembled ‘a prairie…a huge field of grass and wild flowers’. Charles Barry and head gardener, John Fleming created a new design with complex flower beds planted according to Fleming’s ideas popularised in his work Winter and Spring Flower Gardening of 1864. This concept of ‘carpet bedding’ was extremely popular in the Victorian era and in 2010, the National Trust reverted to Fleming’s plans.
At the southern end is the Circular Ring with the bronze Rape of Proserpina c1565 while paths lead through the woodland and down to the Boat House on the River Thames. Steps lead up from the Thames with various features on the way, some easy to miss. The Tortoise Fountain lies to the east of the path while Leoni’s Octagon Temple of 1735 is above and was converted to a family Chapel and Mausoleum by Lord Astor.
The War Memorial Garden was created in 1918 from the sunken Italian garden. The mosaic floor was replaced by grass into which 42 war grave were placed and a sculpture by Bertram Mackennal, commissioned by Nancy Astor. Underneath the symbolic female figure is the inscription: ‘They are at peace. God proved them and found them worthy for himself.’ Continuing past Canning Oak is the amphitheatre to the left with the Blenheim Pavilion up to the right with one of the many modern sculptures facing the building.
Lord Astor commissioned Norah Lindsay to create the Long Garden in 1900s while the circular Rose Garden was designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe in early 1950s for the third Lord Astor. After the original roses died of disease, the rose garden was replanted in 2014.
Near the entrance to the Car Park is the Japanese Garden and Maze. William Waldorf Astor bought the Chinese Pagoda at the sale of Marquess of Herford’s villa near Paris in 1900. The Pagoda was originally made for the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, Emperor Napoleon’s exhibition to celebrate the achievements of the Second Empire. The Pagoda has recently been restored by National Trust; the restoration of its bells is an ongoing project.