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TRAVELING in style : SPLENDOR FROM THE PAST : Incomparable Cliveden is the only British stately home owned by the National Trust that operates as a hotel

March 19, 1989|JERRY HULSE | Hulse is The Times' travel editor.

It was one of those spiffy British limousines that dukes and duchesses and such ride in, and it scattered gravel like buckshot as it sped up the drive to Cliveden, Britain's most celebrated stately home. Waiting to fetch the luggage were Michael Holiday, the butler, and a retinue of footmen. Although his role is that of general manager, butler is the title given to Holiday, who, attired in the livery of a royal servant, would do justice to the staff at Buckingham Palace. Indeed, as would his impeccably dressed footmen. Inside the mansion with its splendors of a past century, Holiday surrendered his new guests to Cliveden's aristocratic managing director, the Hon. John Sinclair, who, with his American-born wife Marion waited in the Great Hall before an immense 16th-Century fireplace. Polished mahogany walls shone brilliantly as Sinclair led the group on a tour, identifying paintings of Cliveden's former owners--including Lady Astor--and such celebrated guests as Queen Victoria, Edward VIII, Henry James, Henry Ford, Sarah Bernhardt, Lawrence of Arabia and H. G. Wells. These and myriad others.

Indeed, Cliveden's 24 rooms and suites are named for famous guests who snoozed under its roof: Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Mountbatten, one of the Vanderbilts and the Countess of Shrewsbury, who is best remembered for having callously stood by while her paramour slew her husband in a duel. (The wench even held the reins of her lover's horse while he administered the coup de grace .) At any rate, the names of guests, celebrated and nefarious, go on.

Dating from the 15th Century, Cliveden is not your ordinary stately mansion. Barely 30 miles outside London, Cliveden rises on a 375-acre estate near the village of Taplow, with the River Thames flowing by its door. Its gardens are magnificent. The service is without fault. Dignity is its hallmark. (As one visitor noted: "No chocolates on the pillow, no ribbons in the flowers, no sanitized bands around the loo.") At Cliveden a staff of 85 footmen, maids and servants stands ready to pack and unpack one's luggage, shine one's shoes, draw one's bath and otherwise pamper the dickens out of any wayfarer who ventures within its gates. For all this, a service charge is neither included nor expected.

Not another shelter in all of Britain compares to Cliveden, the only stately home owned by the National Trust that operates as a hotel. There is no reception desk, no gift shop, no bar. Should one wish a libation, one rings for a footman. Faster than an Olympiad, the footman returns with a belt of good Scotch. Or whatever. High tea is an afternoon ritual of dignified tradition and surplus calories (finger sandwiches, scones, ginger cake, fruitcake, eclairs). Guest rooms are opulent. No two are alike. Priceless tapestries are displayed along with suits of armor but without diminishing the warmth and hospitality of this splendid retreat hidden in the heart of the Thames Valley.

As the one-time home of a Prince of Wales and three dukes, Cliveden grew in stages, one of its architects being William Winde, who designed Buckingham Palace. Dating from 1666, it is a masterpiece of pomp that mesmerizes the most discriminating guest. William Waldorf Astor, the American-born statesman and publisher, bought Cliveden in 1893 and later passed it on to his son Waldorf as a wedding gift for the young man and his bride, Nancy, who was to become Britain's first woman member of Parliament.

At Cliveden, Lady Astor entertained lavishly. The famous appeared ceremoniously in the spotlight with surprising frequency. And though she loathed Winston Churchill, the statesman made her guest list on numerous occasions. They argued constantly. During one encounter Lady Astor is said to have remarked to Churchill, "If you were my husband I'd put poison in your coffee," to which Winnie responded, "If I were your husband, I'd drink it."

Life indeed was lively at Cliveden.

Told that Cliveden was to become a hotel, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan remarked: "Dear boy, that's what it always has been." Macmillan, of course, was referring to those lengthy periods during which the home was crowded with celebrities and statesmen, generally at the invitation of Lady Astor. Franklin Delano Roosevelt slept beneath its shingles as did Anthony Eden, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin. Kings. Queens. It was always party time.

Cliveden never fails to get raves. Its mahogany walls soar to lofty ceilings; its furnishings create a sense of relaxation. Panels gracing the French dining room were lifted from Mme. de Pompadour's Chateau d'Asnieres, and an immense staircase leads upstairs to guest rooms. Cliveden is a collage of carved oak, marbled pilasters, friezes and fluted Corinthian columns. Statuary and temples appear in the gardens, and dead center of the driveway stands the inspiring Fountain of Love with its marble shell and life-size figures.

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