[The latest in my very occasional series about Stately Homes – click the label for the other three.]
Keen to get out of Reading on a dank festival weekend, we settled on this ‘stately home’, even though we knew in advance that, nowadays, it’s no such thing. It’s a self-styled luxury hotel, owned by the National Trust under a perpetual bequest but leased, at the moment, to an outfit called ‘London and Regional Properties’, a company name which probably tells you all you need to know about them. It was a nice afternoon out, and the rain held off, so I’m happy for the festival-goers at Rivermead.
But I can’t pretend to be much impressed by Cliveden. I don’t blame the NT for milking it as an earner, because the raw material, frankly, isn’t that special. In fact rather than on the actual fabric (the first house here was built in 1666, but this one dates back all the way to just 1851, and has been hacked about beyond recognition since then), it trades almost entirely on its back-story. Dukes and Earls (Buckingham, Orkney – how did Orkney get its own Duke, you have to wonder? – Sutherland, Westminster, plus a Prince of Wales called Fred); a go-to venue for inter-war high life under the attractively monied patronage of Waldorf and Nancy Astor (Shaw, Chaplin, Churchill, Joe Kennedy, Kipling; all the usual suspects hung out there); and of course, in the early sixties, it was one of the settings for some genuine scandal, as opposed to the ersatz 1920s sort. (There are a couple of exquisite line drawings of Christine and, I think, Mandy – we were allowed only a fleeting glimpse during the grudgingly granted ‘house tour’ – in a corridor in the old servants’ quarters, by Stephen Ward, the true victim of that particular contamination.)
As I said, I can’t pretend to be impressed. This place is, basically, a fake. Worse, it’s a weighted compromise. It’s the perfect exemplar of how, when you cross charitable good intentions with professional corporatism, the latter will win out to the detriment of the former, every time.
The best bits were the lovely, tiny chapel with its beautifully crafted biblical mosaics from the 1890s; the walk from there, down about 450 steps, through woodland to the river, and more importantly back up again (because it proved I could do it (just)); and the subsequent life-saving cream tea in the Orangery café.