The first glimpse of Cliveden House will take your breath away.
Standing at the end of a majestic driveway, this stunning Italianate hotel and spa sits atop a chalk cliff, overlooking the winding Thames and the lush green villages of Berkshire.
But it’s not just the stunning architecture and perfectly-manicured grounds that make this five-star country hotel so fascinating: CLIVEDEN HOUSE has a dark past – one full of intrigue, scandal and revenge.
The estate was built by the Duke of Buckingham 350 years ago to entertain his friends and liaise with his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury. When the Earl of Shrewsbury caught wind of his wife’s infidelity he challenged his love rival to a duel and was mortally wounded.
The illicit affair and the Earl’s death may have been the first event to cloak the country estate in scandal, but it wasn’t the last.
In 1795 the house was destroyed by fire; it was rebuilt only to be razed to the ground again in 1849. Two years later the house rose from the ashes for a third and final time, with the help of Sir Charles Barry, celebrity architect and designer of the Palace of Westminster.
In 1893 American multi-millionaire, William Waldorf Astor bought the property for a mere $1.25 million – around $31 million in today’s money, eventually gifting it to his heir, Waldorf Astor, as a wedding present. Waldorf and wife Nancy wasted no time showing off their splendid country pile, inviting the who’s who of international society to visit – including King George (accompanied by his young daughter Elizabeth), Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt, Gandhi and Hollywood silent film star Charlie Chaplin.
Their parties were lavish and legendary, but it was during the Swinging Sixties that the stately home became truly infamous.
In 1961 their eldest son, Bill Astor had an outdoor pool built inside the walled garden, next to the stables. It was a balmy summer’s evening when a young showgirl named Christine Keeler – a friend of a friend – decided to take a twilight dip.
As she emerged naked from the pool, the stunning 19-year-old caught the eye of then Secretary of State for War, John Profumo. They embarked on a brief affair, which was scandalous enough on its own, but Keeler was also simultaneously seeing Yevgeny Ivanov, a suspected Soviet spy.
Rumours swirled of the inadvertent love triangle. By the time Profumo admitted the truth and resigned the ‘Profumo Affair’ – as it had come to be known – had already tainted the Government and the credibility of the entire Conservative Party. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned soon after, and the following year Labour toppled the Tories in the general election.
Next, the spotlight fell on Stephen Ward, the friend who’d introduced Keeler to Profumo. Accused (falsely, many believe) of living off the proceeds of prostitution, he died of a self-inflicted barbiturate overdose.
Profumo spent the rest of his life carrying out voluntary charity work to make amends for his indiscretion, while Christine Keeler’s notoriety meant she struggled to establish a life away from the sordid headlines.
All because of a skinny dip.
Today, the pool is the centrepiece of the newly renovated and reopened Cliveden House luxury spa. I’m here as the plus one of my great friend Vicki from HONEST MUM, and we’re both looking forward to a day of calm before the frantic reality of the school run.
The spa is an art deco oasis in the already-tranquil surroundings of the five-star house and gardens. From the moment the door closes softly behind you, the world melts away.
We’re met by business development manager James Rogers, who tells us Cliveden House has just completed a multi-million-pound renovation, including this stunning state-of-the-art spa, gym and café. He leads us through to the elegant lounge area – which reminds me of a beautifully restored art deco orangery – where we can relax until our treatments.
Floor-to-ceiling windows allow natural light to pour in, and for visitors to gaze out over the infamous pool, now circled not with flirting politicians and showgirls, but sunbeds and perfectly manicured gardens.
I literally can’t remember the last time I was able to sit down and flick through a magazine, so my day has already been made before I’m called through for my shoulder and back massage.
I was still in a bit pain from the breaking a rib over the summer, so this was pure heaven. The spa has two signature scents, both paying homage to former ladies of the house: Nancy is a brisk blend of fruit blossom, jasmine, wild mint and lily, while Anna Maria (my favourite) combines black rose with cedarwood.
Vicki and I cross paths back in the lounge and excitedly compare our treatments before deciding to take a relaxing dip.
As I stand at one end of the carefully restored ‘Profumo Pool’ (which is also the last listed outdoor pool in England) it’s surreal to think this was where a chain of events was set in motion that would end in disgrace, death and the downfall of a Government.
It’s a surprisingly sunny autumn day, but we decide not to follow in Christine Keeler’s footsteps, because the bubbling Canadian hot tubs are just too irrestible. Lying back, watching the steam rising up into the cloudless blue sky, it’s hard to imagine feeling any more relaxed than we do right now.
Bundled up in our oversized towelling robes we shuffle slowly inside for lunch. The café is bright and airy and there’s a laid-back, calm feel – something I realised I’d been desperately missing.
Life is so hectic, especially now we’ve just started a big house renovation, that I often feel guilty slowing down (which is one of the things I write about in my post ‘Battling the Blog Blah – How I’m Getting My Groove Back), but and it’s so important just to shift down a few gears whenever possible. It’s these little moments that give you the patience and the strength to cope with the insanely crazy times.
After polishing off our light lunch (chicken pesto panini, washed down with a fruit juice for me), we decide to take a dip in the indoor pool. A few leisurely laps later we figure we’ve earned a break (this relaxation lark can really take it out of you), and catch up on the gossip over a poolside cup of tea.
The staff are amazing – friendly and present when you need them, but also with that ability to subtly fade into the background when they’re not, so you really do get that lovely sense of peacefulness and solitude.
Before we know it, we’re being whisked off again: this time I’m treated to a facial – an indulgent treat for a busy mum. I can’t decide which part I enjoy the most; the treatment itself or being able to lie in a darkened room for an hour and letting my thoughts tumble around. As a natural introvert I used to spend hours inside my own mind mulling over life, but I simply don’t have time for this kind of self-reflection anymore. I’d forgotten just how calming it is to just be.
And, like that, our spa day is over. We reluctantly hand back our robes and – like Cinderella dashing from the royal ball – head back out to the real world, where the school run awaits us.
But I leave smiling, with my shoulders relaxed and my face glowing, already dreaming of visiting again.
• thank you to Cliveden House for our amazing spa day, and to Vicki for inviting me to tag along; read Honest Mum’s account of our day here.