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Minding his Manor

Once an Astor estate, Cliveden is now one of England's grandest hotels. An Astor cousin checks in to check out the changes.

I was five years old when I first visited Cliveden, the eighteenth-century house of my great-aunt Nancy Langhorne Astor in Berkshire, England, and I remember being overwhelmed. I got lost one afternoon and wandered from floor to floor, never seeing the same servant twice. Finally I was rescued by the butler, the inestimable Mr. Lee, who'd been with the Astors for 50 years.

A few months ago, I went back to stay as a guest at Cliveden, which was converted into a hotel in 1985. I was overwhelmed all over again, this time by the extraordinary service, the food and the sense of history. And I explored the beautiful house anew, this time with the charming head butler, Duarte de Arez Cintra, as guide.

Cliveden is still operated in the spirit of the bustling house it once was. The late Nancy Astor, one of the famously beautiful Langhorne sisters of Virginia, moved to England to marry Waldorf Astor and in 1919 became the first female member of Parliament, when she took her husband's seat. She transformed Cliveden, Astor's grand inheritance, into a welcoming place for guests as varied as Winston Churchill, Henry James and Charlie Chaplin. Today the National Trust leases the property to a hotel group with the stipulation that its essential character and physical structure remain intact. Modem ports (introduced two years ago) are hidden; fax machines, installed in the rooms in the late 1990s, were determined to be an unforgivable aesthetic gaffe and taken out.

On any given weekend during the Astors' tenure, Cliveden's 25 bedrooms might be filled by as many as 40 guests, who would be greeted upon arrival by Mr. Lee (until his retirement in the early 1960s) or a footman dressed in a livery of yellow silk stockings, knee breeches and buckled shoes (the footmen powdered their hair when more than eight were expected for dinner). A list would be consulted for room assignments, then guests were escorted upstairs.

This was exactly as my wife, Jana, and I were treated when we arrived this May. We checked in at the reception desk in the porte cochere, where you disembark at the end of the broad gravel avenue that takes you to Cliveden from the gated entrance. Duarte introduced himself; then a footman, in black tails and a stiff collar, led us to our suite.

Before going up, I walked across the 82-foot-long great hall, with its walls paneled and ceiling coffered in rich red oak. There, in the spot it has always occupied beside the looming French medieval stone hearth, stood John Singer Sargent's life-size oil painting of Nancy, who gazed out with the reassuring air of the chatelaine. My father told me that when he was a small boy, the floor was exposed stone with animal skins thrown before the fireplace; today Oriental-style rugs cover the ground. The eighteenth-century Orkney tapestries hang along one wall. They disappeared after a fire in 1795, but Waldorf Astor's father bought them by chance at auction years later, not knowing their provenance, and returned them to their rightful spot.

Because of the falloff in tourism due to the foot-and-mouth-disease scare, I overheard mostly English accents. (Americans usually make up more than half of the hotel's guest list.) But we never met any of the other guests, I think because Cliveden provides real privacy.

As an Astor cousin and a visiting journalist, I expected to receive doting service--and I did. But I realized that not all the staff of 110 (versus 40 in Astor's time) could have known who I was. It seems that any guest is treated as a VIP here.

We were given a master suite in the east wing named after the Countess of Inchiquin, one of the six previous owners of Cliveden. Inchiquin would do well as a pied-à-terre in the heart of Mayfair. A long hallway opens into a sitting room, which has a small dining area looking out on the woodlands of the 376-acre estate. Papered in pale gold stripes and furnished with nineteenth-century antiques, the room mixes luxury with British reserve. The bath has charming period elements, like the lights that come on with a pull string and the Victorian tiling around the tub.

Each of the 38 guest rooms has its own layout and design, with striking decorative touches only a house-hotel like Cliveden could pull off. The passionate Cliveden aficionado would want to stay in them all: the Jacobean wood-paneled Canning suite, the neoclassical Lord Astor suite, and especially the Lady Astor, with its large, balustraded private terrace.

Dining is an event at Cliveden, as it was under Nancy. Nancy had a French chef called Monsieur Gilbert who traveled with the household from St. James's Square in London to Cliveden. She met with him every morning to go over the menu for that day's meals, and to critique the food from the day before. "She'd say, 'Well, I don't think that went too well yesterday,'" my cousin David Astor, Nancy's sole surviving son, told me recently when I visited him in London. "I think it flattered rather than depressed him. It meant she was taking his work very seriously." Nancy was a perverse mix of love and harsh judgment. One morning, my mother recalls, Nancy had a less-than-satisfactory breakfast in bed, and she brought it down to the kitchen herself and told the chef, "If you ever serve this to me again, I'll make you eat it!"

Today, the main Cliveden kitchen is run by a staff of 15, three times what Gilbert required. Cliveden produces its own jams and marmalades, cures its meat and salmon on-site and bakes its own bread. A third of the produce comes from local organic farms.

When I was there, John Wood, who trained at classic hotels, including the Dorchester in London and the Paris Ritz, was executive chef. He has since left, but the food at Cliveden will remain similar, featuring traditional British dishes infused with international flavors. Ravioli is filled with bubble and squeak (a British potato-cabbage mash); layers of salmon and brill, a cold-water whitefish from the Cornwall coast, lie on a bed of grilled fennel tagliatelle. Waldo's, the more intimate restaurant downstairs from the great hall, is more ambitious, with inventive dishes such as a frothy "cappuccino" of Jerusalem artichokes.

The Terrace Dining Room, which David Astor remembers as the "big library," has undergone the most change--five remodelings since 1850. The walls are lined with book spines as a nod to its former use, but the books have been removed for health reasons: Dust and food don't mix. A somber portrait of William Waldorf Astor, who deeded Cliveden to his son, Nancy's husband, presides over the room. The view is possibly the finest of any restaurant's in the kingdom, a commanding vantage of the parterre overlooking a narrow western reach of the Thames known as Cliveden Deep. On first seeing the poetic sweep of the Thames, a visiting maharaja asked Waldorf, "Do you allow people to use your river?"

As we enjoyed the view during our first lunch, Jana and I were distracted by the sudden appearance on the terrace of several tourists, who seemed underdressed for the occasion and were caparisoned with camera gear. It turns out that the National Trust makes the grounds, and some parts of the house, open to the public; so during the summer, the hotel puts up a rope before the windows of the dining room to keep gawking day-trippers from getting too close. I smugly thought to myself, "Quite right," and then felt chagrined; the tourists are here on account of the National Trust, and so, thankfully, is Cliveden.

Jana and I asked Duarte to arrange for us to take a meal in the dining room the Astors used every day, which is now reserved for wedding banquets. What David calls the French Dining Room is by far the most over-the-top showpiece in the house, featuring heavily gilded boiserie (wooden wall panels) brought from Madame de Pompadour's Château d'Asnières, carved cherubs and watercolor friezes of pink-cheeked coquettes and their paramours. I felt naked in there without silk breeches and a peruke.

Nancy was a famous teetotaler, but Cliveden had a very good wine cellar, as it does now. The manager is a boyish-looking chap of endless knowledge and enthusiasm named David Harvey. He keeps a serious and comprehensive cellar but communicates to the guests a sense of fun about it. His notes for the wine-and-digestifs menu are full of his personality: "1893 Monnet Cognac, selected and bottled for Cliveden, a truly awesome and rich old boy. Or lady? £273 a glass."

I'm afraid the point and pleasure of a Cliveden visit is to spend a lot of money and pretend you're British aristocracy. Let's face it, the Astors were transplanted Americans who did as much. Still, the hotel doesn't take itself too seriously. This may be news to the National Trust, and I'm not sure how Nancy would take it, but every now and then Cliveden rocks out. Rumor has it an ex-member of Abba who lives nearby likes to rent the great hall and play for his friends. It's good to know Cliveden is still making lots of noise.

Lang Phipps lives in a Brooklyn brownstone that he considered rather grand until he visited Cliveden.

Published August 2001
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