Sunday 7 April 2013

Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire

Surely one of the most extensive and evocative National Trust properties in the south east of England, Cliveden's varied and verdant 365 acres must warrant almost a day of your time. Start by walking the long, straight and wide driveway leading down from the Fountain of Love to the elegant Italianate mansion, which dates from the mid-1800s.  Now run as an upmarket hotel, the grand three storey house  dwarfs the lines of smart cars outside the main entrance. The stately centrepiece is flanked by two substantial wings, one with an attractive tower hosting a large blue clock, embellished with an elaborate gold frame. The rows of classical windows and balustrades strike the right balance between fussy detail and clean lines.  

The best vantage point is the other side of the house at the far end of the impressive parterre where you will find an odd stone statue of a near-naked man lifting a women. From here, the view is pretty much as it would have been in the early twentieth century when Cliveden was at its zenith. You can reach the parterre via some steps leading down from the flagstones of the wide terrace at the back of the hotel.  Mounted on a hillside, the terrace itself offers a sweeping view of the formal gardens with their triangular flower beds, enclosed with box hedges and the estate's vast lawns and woodlands tumbling down to the Thames.

From the parterre, venture down the 172 steps of the ruler-straight Yew Tree Walk to the riverbank, past the photogenic tortoise fountain, for a stroll along a lovely stretch of the Thames.  After about half a mile or so, you can climb back up towards Cliveden, past a grassy amphitheatre with fine views over the meandering river. Before long, you will be in the Long Garden, which is dotted with eye-catching white statues, box hedges, elaborate topiary and, disappointingly, an astroturf corridor. It leads back to the Fountain of Love with its voluptuous statues writhing around a huge shell. 

If you continue past the car park, you'll come to the surprisingly large and tricky maze, which kids love. A little further on is the water garden, encompassing a series of pools, criss-crossed by mini-bridges.  At this point, you might be looking for tea and cake, but the Orangery cafe, in an airy conservatory, can be crowded and the queues long. Moreover, the staff can run out of cutlery and crockery on a sunny Sunday. You might be able to beat the queues by going to the smaller of the two rooms. Suitably refreshed, you can explore one of the woodland walks or take another lap of the gardens, perhaps visiting the atmospheric War Memorial Garden and the octagonal chapel, which is decorated with intricate mosaics of scenes from the Bible. With a colourful history of entertaining the great and the good as guests of the fantastically-rich Astor family and, later, as a key setting in the notorious Profumo Affair, Cliveden is a must for twenty-century history buffs and fans of a fine day out. 9/10