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Cliveden House

Listed under Best Hotels in Cotswolds, United Kingdom.

  • Photo of Cliveden House
  • Photo of Cliveden House
  • Photo of Cliveden House
  • Photo of Cliveden House
Photo of Cliveden House
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"Grand and decorous country house hotel, a place to dress for dinner"

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Written by  travelintelligence.

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Cliveden House

In the stampede to acclaim the latest designer makeover of a country house hotel, a more traditional model seems to be falling out of favour. Perhaps not in Scotland, because there they still echo with the eccentricities of their former lairds, and in any case they have always fitted the barren landscape like a glove; but certainly in England. And often with good reason: there is nothing many of us shy away from with more horror than hushed dining and chintzy pre-prandial drinks, where vast menus are handed around in redundant French, one for the men, another for the women. Their technique for survival – the corporate shindig and the catered wedding – have not helped. But then we are no longer a lucrative enough market for them. These houses need a lot of income to keep them running. They do not have the 100+ rooms of the city hotel. The traditional look, the antiques, the oil paintings, the libraries – whether reproduction or real - all of this needs maintaining. And inevitably, increasingly, reproduction creeps in. Unhappily, the authentic British country house experience becomes harder and harder to find in a hotel. You are now more likely to find it in Kerala than in Cumberland.

Step forward Cliveden. This, on the face of it, is a brute of a country house hotel, a unreconstructed stately home, an ungainly pile that sits atop its hill, lording it over the Thames Valley. Even taking into account the often exorbitant room rates you are left wondering, with just 38 guestooms, how on earth they manage it. The place is vast. What’s more, reproduction here means no more than what guests do in the bedooms and, most infamously, by the pool – the antiques are real, the John Singer Sargent and the Allan Ramsey original, and the decorative walls of the French dining room really did come from Madame de Pompadour’s house in Paris. And then you realize than practically everything here, including the building itself, does not belong to the hotel at all but to the National Trust, a lock stock and barrel legacy from the Astors in 1962 that included furniture , books, paintings and wall hangings.

This, of course, makes the house unique. What other hotel can boast such an array of splendour? It’s worth several times what they charge for the rooms – not just for the surroundings, but because the National Trust connection has meant that the house has had to remain true to the original spirit, so, uniquely, you get to stay in the house in almost exactly the way it was meant to be lived in. Wainscotting is chipped in places, floorboards askew, some window frames need restoring. This is just as it would have been – except today the hotel has to rely on the National Trust maintenance department, without whom nothing can be touched. It doesn’t feel like a hotel at all. You come down to the great hall where a fire is burning in the grate and the papers are laid out. Fires are lit in the library, breakfast served by the terrace. Unfortunately it is now served in what was the drawing room, for even the Astors were not geared up for feeding 76 guests every morning. This is a pity. If I was running the place I would have guests lining up for the kedgeree just like Profumo, but then I suppose the tourists would wonder what they were paying for. In fact I suspect this historical resonance passes most guests by. They just don’t know how privileged they have been.

I would be amazed if this lasts for much longer. The French dining room is still used for special dinners, and many are the occasions when drunken execs have leaned just a little bit too far back on the priceless 18th chairs – there’s only so much wear and tear that Cliveden can take. How long will it be before some drunken premiership striker takes a pot shot at the Singer Sargent?

Still, for the moment Cliveden provides an exceptional and unique experience. All the rooms are tastefully and elegantly furnished with a mixture of Cliveden originals, National Trust additions and the odd hotel-owned piece. The finest overlook the gardens behind – the wood lined Buckingham or the lighter Henry James. The gardens are extensive, if rather hard going, a steep walk downhill leading down to the river, and seemingly steeper climb back up to a breathless breakfast. In the distance, a shimmering Slough invites bombs. Overhead, the Heathrow flight path and a nearby A-road provide an occasional roar and a background hum. However, it's just 45 minutes from London and an ideal and impressive corporate breakaway from Heathrow. For the moment the spa is fairly basic, but plans are afoot by its new owners to create something special here. But above all it is the National Trust's historical preservation which makes Cliveden such a special place to stay.

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