Cliveden isn’t just a British pinnacle of lavish opulence and aesthetic beauty, it is also steeped in history. It was the epicentre of a scandal which threatened the established ‘status quo’ and epitomised a seismic change in a previously rigid, class-bound world. Two tectonic plates of influence moved against each other, on the one side a world which desperately clung onto the established norms of aristocratic governance, influence and pseudo-integrity, and on the other a bold ‘new world’ catalysed by the swinging 60’s and a not so fond farewell to hardships of post-war England.
I did my homework before visiting and initially scoffed at what a fuss had been made of the ‘Profumo affair’ – not much has changed between then and now and the prurient public loves to sink its teeth into a seedy scandal which defames and reeks of bad behaviour, so why was this occurrence so different to any other? I mulled it over during the journey out to Cliveden, and on arrival pieces of this jigsaw puzzle started to fall into place.
The key reason is just the sheer scale of it all. The Profumo affair, when Secretary of State for War (the eponymous John Profumo) confessed at last to various ‘dabblances’ with queen-of-the-social scene, Christine Keeler, at Cliveden, who had simultaneously been ‘dabbling’ with a Soviet Naval Attaché, was against the backdrop of the house itself – the location of their first meeting.
Their introducer, an Osteopath, named Stephen Ward, had an eye-watering influential client list including musicians, actors and royals and so the murky waters deepened and deepened – I could practically taste the decadence before I’d even got off the train at Taplow. The affair between Profumo and Keeler eventually caused Profumo to resign, the Macmillan Tory government to crumble and Ward to take his own life, and so the wheels within wheels ultimately became catastrophically tangled in their own spokes. The sheer scale and opulence of Cliveden House mirrors the scale of this catastrophe which began its implosion in the swimming pool, of all places.
The journey up the drive to Cliveden House must be one of the best bits, purely because it is so unutterably beautiful and grand, but there are so many ‘best bits’ that each one is immediately replaced by a new one on a minute-by-minute basis. The lounge and bar were much busier than I anticipated, with large groups of people enjoying post-lunch libations and generally staying true to Cliveden’s rich origins and making seriously merry.
The initial impression is that this is an institution for which the devil is truly ‘in the detail’, as no stone is left unturned. The interior decoration is sumptuous, and every surface around the bar area seemed to be teeming with either meticulously arranged fresh flowers, or well-mixed cocktails just crying out to be consumed and then immediately re-ordered. The air is thick with an atmosphere that whispers encouragement to all of its visitors and guests to merely accept the hedonism, embrace the ever-expanding waist-line, and allow a beautiful chesterfield armchair that happens to be roaring fire adjacent to claim yet another contented victim.
The restaurant is exactly what you would expect; breathtakingly well decorated, flawlessly crisp table linen and equally flawless service. I embraced the unavoidable spirit of hedonism and allowed myself, without any hint of protestation, to be reeled in by the tasting menu (but of course with paired wines).
The following two hours were sublime, I was lucky not to sink spontaneously into a coma of shameless self-indulgence. Real ‘standouts’ from the tasting menu were the Portland crab with avocado, lemon and quinoa crackers (suspiciously healthy towards the start) which then descended deeper into my preferred territory of the significantly less healthy with a braised shoulder of local deer, with chestnut and pickled blackberry. Supper concluded with the peanut butter parfait, with toffee, honeycomb and chocolate – just to make sure that absolutely no sense was left un-indulged. The wines were paired to perfection, and the rationale behind each individual selection was provided along with each new generously filled glass.
The hotel rooms at Cliveden are as sumptuous as the menu, with open fire galore and tasteful opulence the moment you stagger towards your bed having barely made it up the stairs following a supper that quite simply cannot be beaten. Bed linen that is whiter than snow and more inviting and welcome than the first day of the British summer awaits each and every guest.
Yet another proud boast in the seemingly endless list of accolades of Cliveden is its newly revamped spa, which is accessed by crossing the front courtyard and entering underneath the impressive clock tower which looks down on the spa’s revellers like a quietly watchful sentinel. The spa’s features include an indoor pool, a well-heated outdoor pool, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, state-of-the-art treatment rooms and of course a beautifully presented cafe, just in case the 20-second walk to the spa has spurred your appetite back into gear once again. Cliveden has an exclusive partnership with the Sarah Chapman ‘Skinesis Range’ of facial products, in addition to the Oskia range. Absolutely everything one could possibly desire is on offer in the spa, and it becomes harder and harder to recall quite what it was like back in the real world when you’ve reached that giddy level of serenity.
Put quite simply, the worst thing about visiting Cliveden is having to leave. It’s a gut-wrenching moment of pain when the full realisation sets in that your stay there is over. This is a place that has an answer for every single question put to it and provides a service and a degree of quality which is simply staggering. The attention to detail in absolutely every facet of the hotel and spa’s offering is perfect, it’s hard to think that once upon a time it was the seismic epicentre of a scandal which engulfed the entire political establishment. To be perfectly honest, somewhere between the fourth course and the first dip in the pool, it’s hard to think of anything else except blissful serenity.
Cliveden Road, Taplow SL6 0JF