Cliveden House review

Cliveden House: Berkshire’s undisputed national treasure

21 Feb 2024 | |By Rob Crossan

Sixty years since the Profumo scandal, the Thameside hotel at the heart of the hullabaloo remains a very English affair

‘In its unbroken loveliness this is, perhaps, the sweetest stretch of all the river.’ With its boyish humour and comic one-upmanship you could argue that Jerome K. Jerome’s wildly successful Victorian farce Three Men in a Boat – which sees Jerome and a brace of hapless friends embark upon a disastrous riverboat holiday on the River Thames – is proof enough that something approaching ‘lad mag’ culture has existed as far back as the 1880s. Indeed, you could no doubt successfully plot a line of literary male incompetence and macho embellishment from the slapstick humour of that novel all the way to the cringe-heavy comedy of The Inbetweeners.

For real-world proof of the Y-chromosome’s propensity for dim-witted dalliances, we can look to a decade halfway between the publication of Jerome’s witty, water-based masterpiece and the travails of Will, Simon, Jay and Neil in a suburban sixth form.

Cliveden House review

Located on the banks of that same river, amid Berkshire’s clipped topiary and manicured lawns, Cliveden House, a member of the Relais & Chateaux portfolio, is a Palladian pile designed by Charles Barry (better known for the Houses of Parliament) and one of the best-preserved examples of the jiggery-pokery that can occur when American money meets British high society.

Destroyed by fire, twice, in the preceding centuries, the Cliveden that became a byword for louche behaviour among the upper echelons of British society was given license by William Waldorf Aston, once America’s richest man, who bought the place in 1893.

For the next seven decades he and his family, which included his epicene daughter-in-law, Nancy, Britain’s first female MP, hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi. Yet no visitor caused as many ripples as a topless dancer by the name of Christine Keeler.

Cliveden House review

Invited for a weekend of utile hedonism by ‘osteopath to the stars’ Dr Stephen Ward in July 1961, a nude swim in the Cliveden pool brought 19-year-old Keeler to the attention of John Profumo’s wandering eye and restless groin.

The affair between Keeler and the then-Minister for War brought down Harold MacMillan’s Conservative government and, for the first time, enabled the chattering classes, just emerging from post-war rationing, to come to terms with the then apostate notion that the panjandrums who ruled them could have moralities as porous as powdered eggs.

Soon after the scandal, Cliveden was vouchsafed to the National Trust, while Nancy Astor fled from the now-tainted ludic gambols of the aristo party set for a life of obscurity somewhere near Godalming, Surrey.

Cliveden House review

Cliveden House today still represents everything that an American would expect from an English country house, all the way down to the portrait of Nancy that hangs in the wood-panelled, unnaturally vast reception room, painted by John Singer Sargent, another American who got caught in the tractor beam of the Brideshead myth.

The National Trust routinely refuses filming requests for anything to do with the Profumo affair, so the pool you saw in the 1989 John Hurt film Scandal, and in the more recent BBC TV drama starring James Norton and Sophie Cookson, isn’t the real thing. It’s a sign of needless prudishness that one suspects would not exist were Cliveden in American ownership today.

The pool itself, lying partially in the shadow of an extravagant clock tower, built from Roman stone and complete with a spiral staircase on the outside, is not a place designed for skinny dipping. There are far too many sun loungers for starters. They’re occupied by dozing visitors who’ve travelled from everywhere from the States to Shanghai; supine guests who slurp larcenously-priced Aperol Spritz’s while devouring The Daily Telegraph searching, perhaps, for the latest news on Meghan Markle, that famously media-shy recluse who spent her last night before becoming a Windsor in this hotel.

Cliveden House review

Cliveden is a slick operation; a place where you’ll find your name on your bedroom door in copperplate script. A place from which a teak-decked ‘Suzy Ann’ launch boat, built in 1911 and piled high with Laurent-Perrier, will take you for a soporific chug down Jerome’s sweetest stretch of the River Thames.

My room was, admittedly, a tad on the diminutive side. The bed, however, was comfy and the spread of fruit, chocolates, mixed nuts and tub-sized shampoos and conditioners made a valiant attempt to compensate for the proportions of my temporary abode. 

Chris Hannon currently presides over the Cliveden stoves and his cooking, served in a sumptuously formal dining room, is a model of exactly what you would want once you’ve checked in. Although there are vegan and vegetarian menus, once you’re in a Cliveden mindset what you want is truffle risotto, fresh asparagus and saddles of lamb. Hannon delivers with adept craftsmanship; the halibut in particular, served grilled with octopus, capers and lemons, was a pulchritudinous slab of pure piscine pleasure.

Cliveden House review

There are almost 400 acres of grounds to explore around the house itself. Though, despite the National Trust’s squeamish attitude towards the whole Profumo thing, it’s back to that, now Grade I-listed pool (the only outdoor pool in Britain to attain such status) that most guests head, regardless of the weather.

It was Nancy Astor’s son, Bill, who built the swimming spot that would change British society so profoundly in the 1960s. He only managed to construct it once the house was bequeathed to him, and after his horse had won the Epsom Oaks, in 1953. His mother, acerbic to the end, was never in favour of what she considered to be such a tawdry addition to her home.

Demonstrating that vast sums of American money don’t always come at the cost of good judgement, Nancy would tell her son, ‘No, no, I think it’s disgusting…. I just don’t trust people in pools’.

Rooms from £370 per night, visit

Read more: The best five-star hotels in London