Wednesday 19 January 2011

An English winter

The snow disappeared a few weeks ago, at least here down south, and we have reverted to the more usual drab, damp English winter chill. But since nobody, least of all me, wants to look at depressing grey scenes more than they absolutely have to, and inspired by a recent glut of new period dramas on telly - Downton Abbey and the remake of Upstairs Downstairs - I revisited some photos I took mid-winter last year of a visit in the snow to Cliveden ... 

Cliveden, in nearby Berkshire, has been rocking it since 1666 with a lively history of fires, parties and sex scandals. London’s 17th century gossip columnist, Samuel Pepys, records how its first owner, the Duke of Buckingham, installed his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, there after killing off her husband in a duel to which the cuckolded Earl had challenged him. Over the next couple of centuries the house burned down twice in the course of occupation by successive aristocrats and minor royalty, including a Duke of Westminster and a Prince of Wales. The present house was designed by Charles Barry (architect of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster) in grand Italianate style.

(source for above photo:

Bought finally by the American billionaire Astor family at the turn of the 20th century, Cliveden became the site of legendary house parties thrown by Nancy and Waldorf Astor between the wars, with an extraordinary line-up of guests including the likes of Gandhi, Churchill, Roosevelt, the Kennedys, T.E. Lawrence, Henry James, G.B. Shaw and Rudyard Kipling. 

It was all too much for Harold Nicholson, evidently, who complained after a visit in 1936, “There is a ghastly unreality about it all … to live here would be like living on the stage of the Scala theatre in Milan”

Portrait of Lady Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargeant in the entrance room at Cliveden House

Later, in the sixties, it was at an Astor house party around the pool at Cliveden that Britain’s War Secretary John Profumo began his affair with call-girl and ex-mistress of a Russian spy, Christine Keeler. Perhaps this was one scandal too many for the Astors, who handed over the estate to the National Trust soon after. 

The Beatles filmed scenes for 'Help!' at the Cliveden pool in 1965.
(Photo source: Google images)

Harold Nicholson might feel the same way about the unreality of the place if he could see Cliveden now. Today the house has been reinvented as a five-star von Essen hotel and remains, as A.A. Gill (see here) points out, an American vision of a grand English country house (I don't think he meant that kindly, but then  the English wouldn't be English without the odd kvetch about Americans) ...

Since lunch at Cliveden will set one back a bit, it was time, after a quick ogle, to jog on cross-county to the Lord Nelson pub in Oxfordshire, a 300 year old inn in the tiny village of Brightwell Baldwin. 

The Lord Nelson fits every anglophile's fantasy of the English country pub, from its setting opposite this stone church ...

to its cosy fireplaced interior ...

And while I'm reminding myself of the small pleasures of winter, lets not forget the days when school's out and all this becomes possible ...

Snowman-envy, brought on by the emergence of some dandy-looking chaps in neighbouring front gardens ...

... produced some determined shovelling on the part of younger daughter and her friend

'Andrew' had frozen blueberries for a mouth (which bled somewhat macabre-ly), shiny baubles for eyes, and sported oupa's bowler hat from dapper diplomatic days in the 60s. He even acquired a small family to keep him company ...

But English snow is a fickle thing and doesn't linger too long ...
RIP Andrew


  1. What a wonderful romp through magic winter scenes, thank you! :-)

    Love that little snow reindeer and all those well-scarfed snowmen (imagine, sporting a Burberry, who'd have thunk? *giggles*).

    Spring seemed to be in the air around here lately, but today it was wet and cold and snow is predicted for the weekend. Winter's not giving up the reign just yet.

    Stay warm and safe,

  2. mmm...nice. the snow shots remind me of "Io sono l'amore".. those opening scenes in Milan. It's amazing how cold can seduce.

  3. The disappearing snowman Andrew was quite a gent! Wonderful photo, as are all of your snow scenes.

    In New York, we have had a sampling since Boxing Day of blizzard, light snow, annoying snow/sleet/rain. Some of these give no photo ops at all.

    Tomorrow, Thursday night into Friday...we will get a chance of another pretty snow. And I will have Friday off, and might actually be able to take some photos.

    I so enjoy your posts!

  4. What a great collection of photos!

    I just heard of Downton Abbey, and plan to watch my first show this week. Can't wait!

  5. I love the photos!! I remember those good old days of snow and snow men :D R.I.P. andrew!!


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