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Program 102

Situated on a high wooded plateau close enough and yet just far enough from London, Cliveden estate has long served as a retreat for those who needed refuge from matters of court, business, or politics.

Cliveden has a complicated history, but it was the 2nd Duke of Buckingham who bought the site some 20 miles from the city in 1666 and created its huge plateau overlooking the River Thames. He is said to have built it for his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury. Not surprisingly, the Earl of Shrewsbury was none too happy with this arrangement. A sword inlaid in the grass on the estate commemorates the result of a duel between the two men in 1668. Legend has it that the countess actually held her lover's horse while he killed her husband, and she was thereafter known as the mistress of Cliveden as well as the mistress of the Duke of Buckingham.

The present house, the third on the site, is a magnificent estate designed and built by Sir Charles Barry in the mid-19th century. The striking tapestries of the main entrance hall date from the early 18th century and tell a great deal of the estate's history, but about a hundred years after they were made, the tapestries disappeared. Ironically, another century on, Lord Astor, who was by then the owner of Cliveden, bought the tapestries at an auction in Paris without realizing he was about to bring them back to their original home. But how they got to France in the first place remains a mystery.

Cliveden was purchased in 1893 by William Waldorf Astor, scion of the prominent American family of financiers who had made their money in fur trading. He had moved to England in 1890, partly because of a failure to further his political ambitions. But William rapidly established himself as a successful businessman in England. In 1916 he was made a baron, and the following year, the 1st Viscount Astor.

When William died in 1919, his son Waldorf, who was then serving as a member of parliament (MP) for Plymouth, succeeded him as the 2nd Viscount Astor, thus leaving the House of Commons to join the House of Lords. Waldorf's wife Nancy decided to run for the Plymouth seat in her husband's place. She won the election, and became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, going on to serve with great distinction.

In addition to her political acumen, Nancy was also a renowned hostess. In the 1930s Cliveden came to be known as a gathering place for the "Cliveden Set" of influential political and entertainment figures, including Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Amy Johnson and Charlie Chaplin.

The Cliveden estate was given to Great Britain's National Trust in 1942 and today is run as an upscale hotel.

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