AS VIEWS go, few outlooks are quite as spectacular as that enjoyed by the late Duke of Sutherland from his lofty perch among the trees at Cliveden.
From here, the 2nd Duke can stare perpetually out over the elegant house he and his wife had built here after their newly purchased home burned down in 1849.
The man in charge of the project was Charles Barry, the architect responsible for the Houses of Parliament, who had rebuilt the Duke’s other homes at Trentham Hall in Staffordshire and Dunrobin Castle in Scotland.
Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, wanted a retreat from London that was close to her friend Queen Victoria at Windsor, and by 1852 the three-storey Italianate villa was complete and able to host a ball for 200 people.
“Just, compassionate and good” is how the Duke was remembered by his son in the inscription on the rear of the larger-than-life Grade II listed marble statue that stares out across the Cliveden estate, with an equally impressive panorama over the Thames on the other side.
The Duke died in 1861 and the statue was erected at Cliveden at Christmas 1866, but it wasn’t always in this location, being moved from the Grand Avenue in 1896 to make way for Lord Astor’s new acquisition, the Fountain of Love.
But the Duke’s commanding position is an apt choice, offering such an unequalled view of the house which has witnessed so much history.
If only trees could talk, what a tale they could tell – of parties and politics, scandal and intrigue.
The estate has been here from more than three centuries, successive owners sparing no expense in their efforts to create a magnificent summer retreat.
Within 20 years of buying Cliveden in 1849, both the Duke and Duchess had died. They were not to know just how famous their house would become for its lavish hospitality and glamorous guests when Nancy and Waldorf Astor lived here during the first half of the 20th century.
Nor could they have foreseen how a chance meeting at the newly installed swimming pool in the 1960s would ignite one of the biggest scandals in British political history when John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, met model and showgirl Christine Keeler there.
Nonetheless, the estate survived the Profumo scandal and the Sutherland legacy lives on – not just in their beautiful mansion, but through no fewer than 11 children, whose descendants read like a who’s who of the British aristocracy.
CHILLY nights and rainy days can turn your favourite walk into a muddy morass and take some of the fun out of autumn rambles.
But brighter days in October and November are a perfect time to capture autumnal colour when the sun breaks through the clouds and turns local parks into places of wonder and mystery.
Nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.
Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.
The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.
Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.
This is also a very different world from your visits back in the spring (below), with so many of the vivid greens replaced with russets, reds and golds.
There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.
And if the landscape looks familiar, it might be because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.
Mind you, the same can be said for nearby Black Park, another perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.
And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.
Although the area round the 14-acre lake and popular cafe tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.
As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.
Nearby Langley Park is another favourite autumn retreat, offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.
This is a world of pooh sticks and Eeyore houses, where toddlers decked out in bobble hats and wellingtons are kicking leaves and splashing in puddles like generations before them.
For those wanting an even more spectacular vista, there is also the sprawling Cliveden Estate, 376 acres of magnificent Grade I listed formal gardens and woodlands with panoramic views over the Berkshire countryside.
Owned, managed and cared for by the National Trust, the dog-friendly grounds slope down to the River Thames and feature a number of woodland walks suitable for families, as well as perfect picnic spots for when the rain lets up.
This estate was the meeting place for political intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s, and in the early 1960s was the setting for key events in the notorious Profumo sex scandal that rocked the Macmillan government.
In 1893, the estate was purchased by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who moved to Hever Castle and left Cliveden to his son Waldorf when he married in 1906.
The young Astors used Cliveden for entertaining on a lavish scale and it’s not hard to see how the spectacular location made it a popular destination for film stars, politicians, world leaders and writers of the day.
Witty, glamorous and fashionable, Nancy became a prominent hostess among the English elite and followed her husband into politics, in 1919 becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons.
That sense of history is all about you here, on the banks of the Thames – memories of autumn walks across the centuries where the timeless beauty of the trees has provided a backdrop to countless human dramas, hopes and fears…
For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website. For Black Park, visit the park’s website and Facebook page or call 01753 511060. For Langley, visit the website or call 01753 511060. For more information about Cliveden, see the National Trust website.
WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.
One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as
explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a
marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and
felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their
candles to church to be blessed by the priest.
On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church
would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the
statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of
the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.
February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.
SYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]
As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the
feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are
clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined
abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.
This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered
early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of
January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in
purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”
And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.
A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis
means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a
“drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it
that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve
was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared
and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove
that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.
Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.
As McCarthy argues in his Independent article
it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too:
“They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an
undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they
fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead
tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest
CANADIAN visitors to Cliveden might be surprised to find a peaceful corner of the estate set aside for a small war cemetery paying tribute to their fallen countrymen.
When the First World War broke out, Cliveden was a grand country estate well known for its exclusive parties and famous guests.
But Waldorf Astor (later 2nd Viscount Astor) offered part of the estate as a military hospital, and the Canadian Red Cross took up the offer.
The Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital opened in 1915 and by the end of the war was treating up to 600 injured personnel at a time.
Nancy Astor was often seen helping out in the hospital and famous visitors included Winston Churchill and King George V.
Of the 24,000 troops treated there, only a relatively small number died. In 1918, the 1st Viscount Astor’s sunken Italian garden was adapted to create a memorial garden for the deceased.
A mosaic floor was replaced by turf in which grave stones were later set and a sculpture was created especially by Australian sculptor Bertram MacKennal.
He was commissioned by Nancy Astor to design and create a symbolic bronze female figure for which it is thought he used Nancy’s features as inspiration for the face.
Today the War Memorial Garden contains 40 war graves from the First World War, each marked with a stone set in the turf. MacKennal’s statue overlooks the graves and below it reads the inscription: ‘They are at peace. God proved them and found them worthy for himself.’
In September 1939 Waldorf Astor again offered the use of the land and the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital was built. A further two war graves on the site date from World War II.
WHERE better for a picnic and evening of outdoor theatre than the stunning National Trust Cliveden estate near Maidenhead?
Heartbreak Productions set the perfect tone for the occasion last night with their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners about a divorced couple having an unexpected reunion when they honeymoon with their new spouses in the same French hotel.
And the energetic five-strong cast of this Midlands touring company presented a lively and engaging reinterpretation of the play at the tail end of their marathon summer season.
The company head back home to Leamington Spa after presenting more than 250 performances of a quartet of different shows during a hectic three-month summer season that has incorporated everything from Romeo and Juliet to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.
Some 200 theatregoers took their picnics to L’Hotel Crevecoeur to watch Elyot and Amanda struggling with their rollercoaster emotions after their unfortunate meeting in Deauville.
The parts were played by Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1930 production, and later by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 Broadway production.
For this outdoor adaptation of the celebrated comedy, nostalgic music and dance helped to create the 1930s ambience as dusk fell on Coward’s delicious one-liners, but there were darker undercurrents too in the barely suppressed violence underpinning the central couple’s stormy relationship.
A fitting season’s end to Cliveden’s open-air theatre productions, as the Heartbreak team packed up and headed home for a final couple of shows and a welcome break.