Gentleman’s Getaway

A 350-year-old English estate boasts an unexpectedly American heritage.

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  • Written by
    Darren Elms

Like many of us here in the “Colonies,” I tuned in season after season to find out what peril awaited the upstairs and downstairs residents of Downton Abbey.

The popular British TV show captured the imaginations of audiences all over the world and introduced many to a fictional portrayal of wealth and title in early 20th-century England.

While visitors can tour the estate featured in the series, there’s another prestigious abode—similarly drenched in glamour, drama and intrigue—that doubles as a first-class hotel and National Trust garden. Located in the heart of the Berkshire countryside—a short car or train ride from Heathrow—Cliveden House has a colorful history. It was home to royalty, survived a devastating fire and even endured political scandal. After years of private ownership, the structure is now a hotel with 47 individually designed rooms and suites named after its most prominent guests.

Built in 1666 by the Duke of Buckingham to entertain his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, the stately home near the River Thames served nobility for centuries and even provided the inspiration for Toad Hall in the The Wind and the Willows. Guests have included Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and The Beatles. And while the home has a distinctly masculine vibe, it was a woman— and an American—who was its final private owner.

Nancy Astor, wife of Waldorf Astor, inherited the property from her father-in-law, William Waldorf Astor, in 1906. William, the richest man in America, had left the States for England with his family to enjoy a life of privilege abroad. He purchased Cliveden for $1.25 million in 1893.

The Astor family was responsible for many of the existing well-preserved interiors in the home. Nancy, a native Virginian, would reign over the property for many years and even became the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons. The house became a hotel in 1985.

Cliveden House retains the elegance and etiquette of the past, combined with a contemporary approach to service and hospitality. Each room and suite is totally unique, with vintage furnishings and details throughout. The property also hosts a Spring Cottage, a private three-bedroom accommodation on the bank of the River Thames.

On the main level, guests can enjoy tea or cocktails in the library or dine at the award-winning André Garrett restaurant—a feast for the eyes and taste buds. Cliveden recently debuted The Astor Grill in the former stables, a stylish wink at the home’s equestrian past. This summer a new spa will also open.

And outside, 376 acres of National Trust garden await your stroll. The grounds also host both indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a fitness suite, golf nearby and the River Thames for vintage cruises.

While walking around the estate, you will notice architectural elements by Charles Barry, the architect commissioned to rebuild the mansion after a fire nearly destroyed the main house in 1849. This same architect also designed the Houses of Parliament in London and Highclere Castle … better known as Downton Abbey. Well, isn’t that grand?

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