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.