A chance to step out of reality for just a little while…
It’s June, and thanks to the classic English summer – weeks of rain followed by sunshine followed by a little more rain, just for good luck – the Buckinghamshire countryside has exploded into luscious, bottle green life. I can’t be sure, but I think we can see all of it – the entire of Buckinghamshire – from my seat in the library at Cliveden house in Taplow.
The terrace of the hotel rolls down into a carefully crafted, symmetrical garden, with zig-zag bushes no higher than my knee which zip back and forth across the parterre until they meet a huge, curving flowerbed and a dramatic Grecian statue of Persephone. After that, the sculpted topiary gives way to thick, vibrant woodland; the three hundred odd acres of Cliveden’s sprawling, precious, National Trust protected grounds.
But back to our prime position inside, where I’m reclining in a plush armchair which makes me feel like a character in an Agatha Christie, shielded from view by the luxurious wings of my seat and about to hear something I shouldn’t. I fell head over heels in love with Cliveden when I was here last year to review it as a premier countryside wedding venue, and I couldn’t resist coming back to visit and sample Andre Garrett’s afternoon tea.
The occasion, as if I needed one, is a special birthday treat with an emphasis on the ‘special’ – but the hospitality at Cliveden never lets special slip into snooty. The atmosphere is that of a welcoming countryside home (an extremely grand one, to be sure) where the staff are personable while professional, and the service is impeccable without being overbearing. There’s a pleasant mix of people around; ramblers emerge from the woodland to stroll on the parterre, and gardeners are tending to the magnificent flowerbeds. Somewhere in the enormous mansion a mid-week wedding is being expertly and discreetly conducted, with only sneak peaks of happy wedding guests pottering
on the terrace giving the game away. We get to watch it all from our Agatha armchairs with a glass of champagne; as far as Wednesdays go, it’s not bad.
Sublime food and a sweet takeaway…
I always love a good nose around Cliveden – at the mish mash of austere portraits spanning hundreds of years, each hinting at a different moment in the estate’s 350 year history, then marvelling at the change in interiors as you walk from the rich reds and wood panelling of the great hall into the bright, elegant Andre Garrett restaurant with its golden flourishes bathed in sunlight from the vast south-facing windows. But today is all about the food.
The funny thing about afternoon tea is how dainty it looks when it arrives, compared with how enormous it feels when you’re half way through eating it… Of course, it didn’t help that when offered more sandwiches, sausage rolls and quiches we really, really couldn’t say no, even though we hadn’t yet embarked on the scones. All of it was absolutely gorgeous; the savouries were moreish, the scones were fresh from the oven and served with plentiful homemade jam and cool clotted cream, and the cakes were… too much for us to finish! Luckily, our lovely waiter was more than happy to box them up for us to take home, complete with a sweet personal touch.
The whole thing was accented with Cliveden’s blend of loose leaf tea, which was readily replenished without asking, and a cold glass of Tattinger Champagne. After two hours of uninterrupted luxury, we sensed that the steel grey sky was about to perform its bucket-emptying routine again, and reluctantly vacated our armchairs.
On our way out we spotted the newly married bride and groom having their photos done at the front of the house. I wished the bride congratulations as we walked past; in her mid-length fringed dress she looked like a chic guest of Nancy Astor at one of the legendary Cliveden weekend parties in the 1920s, and she gave me a beaming smile.
I honestly can’t recommend the experience highly enough, and likewise I can’t think of enough excuses to make a return visit (I mean, there’s birthdays, anniversaries, other Wednesdays…) as soon as possible.