Following decades of scandal and disrepair, Cliveden, one of England’s most storied country-house hotels, has received the renovation it deserved.

By Andrew Meier
September 17, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Cliveden House

Like all Great British stately homes, Cliveden has survived its share of catastrophes: infidelities, fires, lost fortunes, and the reckless schemes of profligate owners. Originally the seat of the second Duke of Buckingham, the estate was bought in the late 1800s by the fantastically wealthy Astor family, and later became the setting of the Profumo Affair—a 1963 sex scandal that brought fame to a pair of “good-time girls” and toppled the serving British government.

When I visited as a boy, in the 1970s, the 376-acre Berkshire estate (a 20-minute drive from Heathrow Airport) had fallen into disrepair and become an overseas campus for Stanford University. After the undergrads moved on, the house was subjected to a carousel of corporate overlords, until von Essen Hotels ran it aground in 2011.

Credit: Jacqueline Mia Foster

Today, Cliveden—now owned by billionaire property developers Ian and Richard Livingstone—is nearing the end of an ambitious three-year revival. The brothers have secured a 77-year lease on the property and undertaken a restoration that reflects a love of history as well as a profound inattention to the bottom line. Forced to abide by the strictures of the National Trust (the Astors bequeathed the estate to the U.K. heritage organization), the Livingstones have deployed an army of artisans and interior designers—and a multimillion-pound budget—to restore the 1851 house and introduce 21st-century comfort to its suites, salons, and boudoirs.

The result is stunning. Lady Astor, in the famous John Singer Sargent portrait, seems to glow with pride from her position above the Great Hall, where everyone from Winston Churchill to Charlie Chaplin once held court. The hall itself is now reappointed in lush red-and-gold velvet and is the setting for afternoon tea. The library rooms, with their dark oak paneling and grand chandeliers, have been transformed into a spectacular bar and restaurant (led by André Garrett, formerly of London’s Galvin at Windows restaurant) with views of the gardens and the Thames beyond.

The National Trust has been charged with restoring the extensive gardens. Lord Astor’s 1,000-yew maze alone took two years and a quarter of a million pounds to replace. Geoffrey Jellicoe’s 51-variety rose garden has been returned to its original glory, and the Italianate gardens are once again bursting with 21,500 bedding plants, as per the original Victorian design.

Credit: Courtesy of Cliveden House

There are 38 guest rooms (including 15 suites), a club restaurant in the old stables, and an elegant spa with indoor and outdoor pools. You can even sleep in Lady Astor’s vast suite—for a mere $2,400 a night. Despite the luxurious upgrade, the experience still feels genuine, thanks in large part to a hyper-attentive staff of 154— slightly fewer than Lady Astor had on call, but no longer tethered to the bells that remain on view below stairs.

All rooms have tablets loaded with information about the hotel and the surrounding area, but (despite requests from numerous visitors) there are no mini-bars, nor are there TVs in the marble bathrooms. The aim, explains general manager Sue Williams, is to create “the experience of a country house, not a hotel.” At the revived Cliveden, she explains, “we want people who enjoy the sense of history.” The mansion’s 324 windows may all have been restored, but whenever a workman asked what to do with a rattling doorknob or creaky door, Williams would reply: “Leave it!” doubles from $694.