Posted on: August 28, 2015

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I had heard a lot about how beautiful Cliveden house was, but on a recent visit there it left me cold.  This is unusual for me, as I normally love mooching about the grounds of big houses.  There is no doubt that the view, when you walk around the south side of the house, is absolutely stunning.  You stand on the back terrace, looking out over the huge heavily manicured garden to the Buckinghamshire countryside stretching to the far horizon.  The house itself though seems oddly out of place.  It looks more like an ornate villa I saw  in the middle of the Borghese park on the outskirts of Rome, than somewhere you’d find in south-east England.  I found out later, when reading up on the place in Wikipedia, that Lord Astor had purchased the balustrade overlooking the garden from there.

The current house is the third one to stand on this site.  It was built in 1851, to replace the previous one which had been destroyed by fire.  The ornate clock tower and the fountain in the grounds are well-worth seeing, (again, reminding me of Rome),  but the house itself is just a soulless-looking ornate box.  I didn’t go inside, as it’s a posh corporate hotel, but to be honest I didn’t have much inclination to do so.

These days the house is famous for it’s political associations.  It was the home of the influential Astor family for many years.  Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat in Parliament, and the grounds are peppered with her sayings, unfortunately reminding me all too often of Twitter Inspirational Quotes!  The Astors lived a hugely lavish lifestyle, but the air of unreality seemed to be there all along.  Harold Nicholson, after visiting the place in 1936, remarked on the “ghastly unreality” of it, and said that to live there would be like living “on the stage of the Scala theatre in Milan”.

It was it’s associations with the Profumo scandal which largely drew me to Cliveden.  Dr Stephen Ward was a charismatic, debonair artist and osteopath who gained admittance to the elite when his healing hands became invaluable to them.  He was  said to have helped Winston Churchill to cope with his depression by recommending art-therapy.  He also groomed attractive young girls like Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis, in a Pygmalion-like way, to seduce powerful men of the time.  By the early 1960s Ward had made himself so indispensable that he had acquired a weekend cottage, Spring Cottage, on the Cliveden estate (it’s now a holiday cottage, if you can afford the arm-and-a-leg it costs to stay there).

One weekend, in July 1961, Christine Keeler joined Ward at his country cottage.   At the same time John Profumo (Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s government), along with his wife Valerie, was hosting a gathering of the great and the good up at the big house.  It is said that Christine had gone to use the swimming-pool late one evening, which was where Profumo first saw her, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Also amongst Ward’s house-party was Yevgeny Ivanov, an intelligence officer and double-agent for the Soviet Union.  In turn, Ward himself was relaying all the details of this gathering to MI5.  Soon Christine was sleeping with both Ivanov and Profumo.   This was at the very height of the Cold War.  After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ward was supposed to have confided to Christine and Ivanov that “a man like John Kennedy will not be allowed to stay in such an important position of power in the world, I assure you of that”.  Fateful words.

The Profumo scandal when it emerged was huge, and led to Profumo’s resignation, and also to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation from ill-health in October 1963. Ward was quickly abandoned by his high society friends.  He was put on trial and found guilty of living off immoral earnings, but before sentence could be carried out, he killed himself by taking an overdose of sleeping-pills.  Since then theories have been raised that he was killed on the orders of MI5.

In her memoirs The Truth At Last Christine relates the kind of antics which could have you thinking “this has all gone a bit David Icke”.  She tells of private parties for Ward’s rich and powerful men friends, where the hired girls would be naked, apart from Masonic aprons, and of them dancing around, and showing obeisance to, phallic totem poles.  She remarked that “having money dictated that you had group sex as often as you could”.  On one visit to Ward’s cottage, she said she had gone for a walk in the woods on the estate, and had found a witch circle – a magic circle, for use in ritual ceremonies – about 10 feet in diameter.  She also mentions the “macabre statues” in the grounds.

After Dr Ward’s suicide, his cottage was exorcised by Father Petitpierre, on the orders of Lord Astor’s wife, Bronwen.  Petitpierre said he had never experienced such a heavy atmosphere of evil, and that “the most potent Satanic entities he had ever come across, including the spirits of several murdered boys”.  In the interests of balance, I should also add that one sceptical observer at the time was reputed to have said that Petitpierre would say anything to get a free meal!  The Astors ceased to live at Cliveden in 1968, and the house is now run entirely by the National Trust, who have been maintaining it since the Second World War.

One poster on a paranormal website I’ve seen has written of Cliveden’s “oppressive” atmosphere.  I’m not going to claim I experienced anything psychically strong there, and I suspect distance might lend enchantment, and I’ll feel more fondly of the place later on.  I do know that I didn’t appreciate the close proximity of the house, and yet I enjoyed the walk through the woods on the way back, and the grounds are undoubtedly very beautiful.  The hotel’s motto apparently is “Nothing ordinary ever happened here, nor could it”.  I suspect they’re right.



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