‘Follow the drive, past the water feature and we you can’t miss it,’ the National Trust gatekeeper tells us soon after we’ve turned off the Taplow Road and down brochure-pretty Berkshire country lanes. He isn’t kidding. A baby-faced angel rescuing a semi-naked stone dame is a fitting welcome to the ultimate country house hotel. The long, wide drive allows the view to sink in slowly and the horseshoe-shaped Italianate mansion at its end is breathtakingly beautiful, way beyond grand. Frankly, we are no longer Mr and Mrs Smith; we’ve just been made Lord and Lady.
An immaculately dressed footman with a suitably sophisticated French lilt waves us to a stop, and asks for the keys. Oh dear! Why hadn’t Monty the 10-year-old Saab been cleaned? Why had Mrs Smith spilled half a packet of crisps all over the centre console? And why-oh-why, was he parking it between two Aston Martins? We were both mildly horrified. Another polite man in a constricting eight-piece suit carries our bags and ushers us through the oak-panelled luxury of the great hall, past the three suits of armour and up the roomy staircase. Huge 18th-century portraits stare down at us, a Who’s Who of Anglo-American history, and I can’t help but think of the talking artworks in Harry Potter. I’m sure I can hear an oil-painting long-forgotten princess tut-tutting as we ascend.
Our calligraphied name has been added to the little brass holder on the door of the Gibson Superior Double Deluxe. And this is mid-range, apparently. With views back down the drive to the Fountain of Love water feature and to our left, the kind of clock tower that has graced many a silver screen. It’s reminiscent of a lifestyle once enjoyed by the Astors and now not many other than the Windsors or Wales, or whatever their surname is. Old-fashioned opulent English luxury in that chintz-and-blue-china-plates-on-the-wall way. Sotheby’s would have a field day. There is even an old writing desk where I can pen my review, and a make-up table for Mrs Smith, who has just thrown herself squealing onto the four-poster bed. (Later she is bitterly disappointed that the curtains are just for show and don’t actually close.) Elgar, naturally, is emanating from somewhere, and after inspection we discover it’s not from the walk-in wardrobe but from the modern radio in an antique console, now a tasteful 21st-century entertainment cabinet.
I pop down a level and sneak out onto a terrace for a crafty smoke. Terribly vulgar I know, but think of it as a tribute to Sir Winston, Cliveden’s most famous former resident. Palace of Versailles meets ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ in the palatial, manicured and staggeringly magnificent 376 acres of grounds. Beyond the trees lies the River Thames. It couldn’t be any more peaceful. The orange lights of London in the distance and the jumbo jets circling Heathrow don’t even taint the view, rather reinforce the fact that so close to the city, this is a haven, a retreat from the chaos. It’s a million miles away from the Capital and at least a hundred years apart.
After a night’s slumber, we realise how well we slept in that big, dark room. To try and revive ourselves, and make the most for this new taste we’ve acquired for how the other half live, we order a decadent fresh truffle and chive omelette then, more spoilingly, head for the Pavilion Spa. I recognise the outdoor pool as being the legendary scene of the start of the Profumo affair; namely thanks to having seen the film ‘Scandal’ rather than having been a fly-on-the-wall at Sixties’ soirées. Well, if you are going to muck about, you might as well do it in style. The spa and my deep-tissue sports massage are a fantastic pick-me-up – only I was disappointed not to spot any Christine Keeler types splashing about in the plunge pool. Mind you, they’d have be part Eskimo to survive its temperature.
Refreshed and virtuous we explore the grounds. Mrs Smith is determined to find the grotto, which Mrs Smith spies plotted on a map in the gardens, but hidden in reality. We see a chap having a beer in the sun with the papers and my own treasure hunt reaches completion. It’s the private members club and I ask the waitress if we can luncheon here. Not only is the answer resoundingly to the affirmative, but there is some mirth as the kindly waitress even asks if we’d like our veggie burgers rare or medium.
Pre-prandial ablutions beckon and we discover that as a salute to its cheeky Profumo-party heritage, the bubble bath fits two easily. And at a squint I can even make out the statue spot-lit at the end of the drive. Sure, if I were to nitpick I might mention that the yellow paint just above the bath is mottled and chipping but that just adds to the charm of this country house hotel steeped in history, doesn’t it?
Having heard less-than-glowing reports about the award-winning, but pretentious Compleat Angler in Marlow, we decide to stay put at Cliveden and plump for dinner at the garden-view-augmented Terrace Restaurant. As a vegetarian, I understand why most great chefs scoff meat – it’s hard to do gourmet fine dining with root crops alone (and even tougher to charge the same price for Broccoli Tart as Oven Roasted Noisette of Balmoral Estate Venison) – but I admire their determination. We retreat to the sumptuous grand hall in front of the fire, which has been besieged by a raucous wedding party. This stately home certainly makes for good people-watching with a whisky in hand.
Sunday morning comes around too quickly and we pack up our bags in near silence and head out for one last walk through an undiscovered part of this National Trust property’s grounds. Down the 170 steps to the idyllic bend in the Thames, rowing boats are for hire, as is the cottage where the disgraced politician used to stay. On our way back through the crispy Autumn woods we try to find the blessed grotto and fail again.
This standard and quality of living should be savoured by anyone lucky enough to be able to book such a special luxury hotel – even if only for 48 hours. Cliveden House is a place to fall head over heels not just with the wife or mistress, but back in love with life. We watch the vast historical house vanish in our rear-view mirror, and soon we are back on the busy road towards the M4. The music swells, the credits roll, it starts to rain and my windscreen wipers have stopped working. Not quite the Hollywood ending we'd hoped for.
Anonymously reviewed by Jake Knowles (Intrepid advertiser)
Whenever you book a stay at a Mr & Mrs Smith, we'll invite you to review it when you get back. Read what real-life guests had to say in Cliveden's guestbook below.
Cliveden is the perfect place for a getaway. We enjoyed a lovely walk in the National Trust Park, followed by facials of a very high quality in the spa, followed by cream teas in the Great Hall. We then relaxed in our gorgeous room before getting ready for dinner in the Club Room restaurant. It was so relaxing and the staff could not do enough for us. All this was complimented by the fact that our dog was allowed to be with us, meaning we didn't have to worry about where he would stay, and he could enjoy the break with us.
The stay wasn't cheap, but it was pretty much perfect.
Lyndsey, BlackSmith stayed on 5 Oct 2013
Everyone we met at Cliveden was welcoming and friendly, from the moment we arrived to the moment we left clutching home-made biscuits. Our room wasn't ready when we arrived so we went to the spa where we had wonderful massages and lounged in the hot tubs outside. Our room was called Chaplin and we felt spoilt in there. Dinner was good. The puddings were superb and we had a lovely, lazy breakfast with the papers and then a great two-hour walk around the grounds in the autumn sun. Quite frankly a perfect weekend!
The food (other than pudding) was only good. Our shared fillet steak was most definitely not medium rare – and the waiter didn't seem to understand when we explained this to him. However we were hungry so ate it up!
Katie, BlackSmith stayed on 13 Oct 2012
We timed our trip well with perfect weather, so we were able to spend both days by the pool, which is a lovely walled-garden affair. The National Trust grounds are of course beautiful and picturesque, especially at sunset.
We were unable to eat in the main restaurant because it was full both at dinner and breakfast (seems a bit daft to be unable to accomodate all guests at breakfast!) so we ate in the carpark of the spa/club. We were removed from the library bar because a wedding party needed it. Billing was inaccurate and didn't take into account Smith discounts promotions – or even that we were on B&B room rate. The hotel is not somewhere suitable for kids, but the club membership that takes over the pool brings all the kids, making for a very different experience than the rest of the hotel. Poolside service was slow, forgetful and overpriced (even compared to, say, San Clemente in Venice).
Edward, BlackSmith stayed on 18 Aug 2012
The staff were extremely friendly and helpful and this really made us feel welcome and at home. Sounds like a bit of cliché but they really did make our stay a success by always being on hand to help with whatever we needed.
The sauna and steam rooms were in the changing rooms which meant we couldn't relax in the sauna together which is a bit of a drawback. Generally the spa could do with a little bit of an upgrade though the outdoor pool is fabulous.
emma, BlackSmith stayed on 14 Aug 2012