Even though the Thames is synonymous with London, the river runs from the mouth of the Thames Estuary through nine counties including Surrey, Oxfordshire, Kent and Essex – and there are many picturesque towns in which to enjoy the longest river in England.
National Trust’s Cliveden House in Berkshire is one such place. Set on banks 40 metres high above the River Thames, the house itself is now a luxurious hotel but visitors can still see the ground floor by guided tour. The main attraction for us, however, was the to explore Cliveden’s impressive gardens and majestic woodlands that slope down towards the river.
Cliveden has a rich history dating back to 1666, and has been home to an earl, three countesses, two dukes, a Prince of Wales and the Viscount family Astor. It has also been visited by virtually every British monarch since Lord Orkney hosted George I here.Cliveden has also been rocked by disgrace and its story starts with scandal in 1666, when the Duke of Buckingham built the first great house for his mistress and fatally wounded her husband in a duel. Some 300 years later, scandal of the same magnitude engulfed Cliveden when, in 1963, it became the focus of the Profumo Affair – where Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, met society showgirl Christine Keeler at a Cliveden party and their illicit affair contributed to the fall of the Macmillan government.
During the First World War, part of the estate was turned into a hospital for allied soldiers and of the 24,000 troops treated at the hospital, only a relatively small number died. In 1918, the First Viscount Astor’s sunken Italian garden was adapted to create a memorial garden for the deceased.What struck us as we entered this huge sprawling estate was how much there was to explore. The map itself is a little overwhelming and be warned, because the Cliveden is on a slope, there are a lot of steep paths and steps – so getting down to the river can be tricky if you have a pushchair.
As we headed towards the Water Garden, Monkey spied the Storybook Play Den – a large play area with carved wooden models of favourite storybook characters including Peter Pan. He loved it here and we were hard pushed to get him out! He particularly enjoyed the ‘Charlotte’s Web’ climbing net.
When he eventually relented, we strolled to Oriental Pagoda and enjoyed stepping across the stones and watching the huge carp in the lake. It was such a tranquil spot – perfect for a picnic, which we saw several families enjoying on the grassy banks.Our next stop was Cliveden’s famous maze. I’m not brilliant with directions but we managed to find the centre in decent time after we took the advice of a passer-by who told us to always turn left at each junction. It seemed to work and after a few dead ends and false leads we eventually got free after 25 minutes. Monkey found the whole experience amusing!As you follow the path around to towards the main house through wooded areas and manicured beds, you find yourself at the top of Grand Avenue and by one of Cliveden’s most popular sculptures, The Fountain of Love. According to First Lord Astor’s note of 1920: ‘The female figures are supposed to have discovered the fountain of love and to be experiencing the effects of its wonderful elixir.’
We were pretty impressed by its scale and grandeur, while Monkey was more concerned with trying to throw coins in it and getting splashed by the spray.We then headed to Cliveden House via the stunning tree-lined Grand avenue. Monkey flung of his shoes and began weaving in and out of the trees. After we’d had some refreshments in the delightful surroundings of the Orangery Café, we headed to Cliveden’s Terrace which is currently undergoing renovation work as it’s the oldest part of the house. But the scaffolding didn’t detract from the wonderful views of the Parterre and its six acres of bright flower beds and topiary.Monkey was thrilled to find a small slope leading down from the terrace and, after seeing other children rolling down the hill, he copied them with gusto and we had lots of laughter.Even though Monkey had tired himself out, he was still determined to see the boats along the river. So we headed to the 172 steps that leads down to the riverside, but not before taking a peek at the chapel which was built in 1735. We were also rewarded with breathtaking views of the Berkshire countryside and to the Thames. Once at the bottom, we took a pleasant stroll along the river, watching the boats. We were disappointed to have just missed the skippered boat cruise that takes a 45 minutes circular route between Cookham and Maidenhead locks. Monkey still enjoyed exploring the boathouse and jumping onboard a moored ship. It was time to go home however and, even though we had to climb back up the steps and make our way back to the car, Monkey did so well. It took us a good 3o minutes and the light was beginning to fade. But we were able to enjoy for a second time the foliage and colourful gardens.
Cliveden is a huge estate with so much to explore, its landscape filled with several nooks and crannies – from woodlands to secret gardens, so it means you could spend a whole day here and not even see it all.
We had a wonderful, and exhausting day at Cliveden House. It’s a great adventure for the whole family – and we’ll certainly be returning to see if we can discover more of its delights…
National Trust’s Cliveden House, Cliveden Rd, Taplow, Maidenhead, West Berkshire SL6 0JA; Open 10.00am-5.30pm daily; Adult: £9.50; Child: £4.75; Family: £23.75; House entry extra charges – see website for more details