Cliveden estate and garden date back to the mid-1600’s. The overall design consists of: a grand mansion on a platform, a terrace that gently slopes to a small cottage on the Thames River, and a series of pleasure gardens. In 1849 John Fleming, head gardener and author of Spring and Winter Flowering Garden, created the formal parterre and geometric floral planting pictured above.
At over six acres, this is not a small garden. Sixteen formal beds are framed by 2.5 miles of hedges. Eighteen topiary pyramids provide height and punctuation. Each spring and summer a new display of 30,000 plants is put in place. That’s 60,000 new plants each year! Preparing for each season takes 12 full-time gardeners and 40 volunteers 2 weeks. When originally created, it set a global standard combining formal elements with gardenesque ribbon planting.
Historic gardens are great places to celebrate plants and design; they also connect us back to important events. In 1893, American William Waldorf Astor bought the property with his New York City real estate fortune. An example of American’s using their gilded age wealth to buy great European houses (and titles). The Astor family lived in the house for 3 generations. They saw the depression and two World Wars; and lent part of the house to the Canadian Red Cross as a military hospital.
In the early 1960’s the world was in the midst of the Cold War. The US broke off relations with Cuba, the Berlin Wall was built, and the USSR detonated the hydrogen bomb.
With this political backdrop, Bill Astor invited friends over for one of his summer house parties in July 1961. The guest list and ensuing events of a particular weekend kicked off what became known as the Profumo Affair.
The story begins when John Profumo, Secretary of State of War, and his wife join the Astors for a weekend at Cliveden. One evening, Stephen Ward, the estate’s cottage resident, joined the Astor group along with his house guests: model Christine Keeler and Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov.
That weekend, Keeler and Profumo started a short affair. Things got out of hand when Profumo denied his relationship with Keeler and the press discovered that Keeler also had an affair with Ivanov. The mix of British official, Soviet attaché, and a shared mistress during the Cold War posed a security risk too potent to contain.
The results ranged from the expected to the tragic. Ward faced mounting allegations related to his involvement in facilitating the relationships and committed suicide. Prime Minister MacMillan resigned to save his political party but the Conservatives lost the 1964 elections anyway. Profumo was forced to resign but dedicated his life to philanthropy, eventually winning honors for his charitable work. And while Keeler made some money from her story initially, she found it hard to find work again.
Today Cliveden is a National Trust property and a wonderful hotel. Close to London’s Heathrow Airport, it is a great stop over. And if the Cold War history is too much, there is always that beautiful 6-acre parterre to enjoy.