I’ve been meaning to visit Cliveden in Buckinghamshire for several years but somehow never got round to it until now. We’ve visited several of the other properties nearby, including lovely Greys Court and impressive Basildon Park but for some reason Cliveden had escaped us.
Finally, on its National Trust opening day for the new 2013 season we dusted off our National Trust Membership Cards and managed to finally make it past the impressive imposing gates of Cliveden. It was a great day to visit, with my husband and I celebrating the first of the spring sunshine with a delightful meander through the estate grounds with our daughter in her backpack, taking in the beauty and magnificence of this stately home perched on the slopes above one of the most lovely stretches of the rural Thames.
A bit of history
Cliveden is these days owned by the National Trust with the main house leased out as an upmarket hotel. However it has a long history including much glamour and famous faces, as well as the notoriety it attracted as a result of the scandal of the Profumo Affair in the 1960s.
The house today stands on land that can be traced back to the 1300s and the family of de Clyveden. The first house at Cliveden as we would recognise it today was built by the George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1666 and was subsequently the residence of a glittering list of aristocracy, including Frederick, Prince of Wales. During this time, the Cliveden House burnt down and was rebuilt twice. Perhaps Cliveden’s most famous residents though were the Astor family, who lived here between 1893 and 1968.
During the tenure of the Astors, Cliveden became well known as the glamorous backdrop for elaborate soirees for many a celebratory and it was also the meeting place for the great political thinkers of the day. During its heyday, between the two World Wars, everyone from Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandi put in an appearance at Cliveden. Sadly, its later notioriaty in the Profumo Affair, in which it featured as the meeting place of John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War and good time girl Christine Keeler, tainted its more illustrious past. The Astor family moved out shortly after the scandal broke and the National Trust took over completely.
What to do at Cliveden
The main draw at Cliveden these days is its glorious estate and gardens. Set high up on the banks above the sleepy Thames it somehow manages to combine breathtaking grandeur and formal garden with gentle and wild rural charm. On our visit, despite the overflow car park being full and the gardens immediately near the house and visitor facilities being quite busy, we managed to lose the crowd completely and wandered in seclusion along the river banks on a two hour circular walk through the estate, emerging peaceful and refreshed. There are three routes marked out by the National Trust through Cliveden estate, all of varying duration and difficulty. We combined a few of these – you can read details of our walking route here.
Cliveden house itself is available to visit by timed appointment only, and only on Thursday and Sunday afternoons between April and October. If you’re anxious to explore the interior outside of those times then you will need to either check in to the hotel for a luxurious mini-break or for those on smaller budgets, book in to take afternoon tea overlooking the lovely formal gardens. This is a lovely idea for Mother’s Day or any other special occasion but prices are not cheap and don’t even think of tramping in in your hiking boots!
The massive push by the National Trust in recent years to focus on families is very much in evidence at Cliveden and judging from the amount of pushchairs and young families we saw on our visit, all their hard work is paying off. With a fantastic playground, complete with picnic benches and backing onto a cafe for the parents (what more could you ask for), there is plenty on offer for all the family. Children can explore the maze, run wild in the grounds (including access to an area set aside for ball games) or explore the Oriental Water Garden. A free family trail including a natural treasure hunt for the children has been set up by the National Trust, with handouts available from the visitor centre. I also liked the sound of Wild Wednesdays – set up to entertain (& exercise!) children between 4 & 11 years old outdoors during the school holidays, at the bargain price of £2! For those arriving unprepared, there are even all-terrain buggies available to borrow and a buggy friendly route provided at the information centre. The staff in the visitor centre incidentally were lovely and incredibly helpful. I was laden down with all manner of walking routes and information and they made sure they understood the purpose of my visit and what would be of most interest to me for that. I couldn’t fault them.
In Cliveden ‘s woodland there is a fitness trail with monkey bars and other equipment which teenagers might enjoy challenging themselves on but for me, best of all, was the sign pictured below. I think it perfectly sums up just how far the National Trust have come since I was a child, when my memories are of old ladies glaring at the children, hands outstretched at the ready to halt small exploring fingers and ‘don’t touch’ being permanently issued from their mouths. Let’s hope they continue on this road.
The only annoyances for us during our visit were fairly minor. One was that at one point, we found ourselves with our screaming daughter next to the water gardens – exactly one hedge between us and our car and the nappy changing kit we so urgently needed. Unfortunately, with flowerbeds (and perhaps safety) ahead of practicality, we were forced to reteat all the way back around past the shop and all the way through the overflow car-park. By the time we had got back to the car, our daughter was in such a state that we were considering abandoning our visit completely! The other is that all the walking routes are mapped from the out-of-seasons car-park at the other end of the estate. That’s great for out-of-season but less helpful if like us you have already rocked up to the main entrance and also want to visit the house, picnic areas and shop/cafe. Surely its not too much to ask to also mark on an alternative starting point for the three walks from the Cliveden House end?
Facilities & visiting information
If you’re after picnicking then you’ve come to the right place! Picnic tables are hidden in all manner of places around the grounds, with plenty of opportunity to escape the crowds should you please. There are several cafes, a kiosk and a coffee house as well as two shops at Cliveden. All the facilities you would expect for families, including baby changing facilities, are provided and the cafes are well thought out with children in mind. Access for the disabled and those with mobility requirements has also been thought through and there is even a volunteer shuttle bus between the car park and the house available at certain times.
Entrance to Cliveden is free to National Trust members and it is quick and easy to join. For non-members, you can pay on the day and depending on which parts of the estate you would like to visit. Current rates are £21.55 for a family for access to the gardens and woodland and an additional £1.50 and 75p respectively for adult and child access to the house. Access to the woodland only during the winter months is £9 for a family. For the full list of prices, please visit the National Trust website.
The estate woodland and footpaths are open year-round but the house and gardens, including all the main facilities, are open from early spring. Please check on the National Trust website for opening hours before your visit.
Getting to Cliveden
Cliveden is located just north of the village of Taplow, in Buckinghamshire. It is also easily accessible from Marlow, High Wycombe and Beaconsfield or indeed anywhere along this stretch of the M40 as it is only 5 miles to both Junction 2 & 3 of the motorway. There are stations in several nearby locations, including Taplow and Burnham (both on mainline to London). However the road to Cliveden is very fast from these stations with no footpaths for much of the way, so it is better to bring a bike and cycle or hop in a taxi for the last bit.
View Cliveden in a larger map