Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling


The pathway does not return immediately to the river, but takes a necessary diversion and I will rejoin the main river a little downstream of Formosa Island. The reason for the deviation is that the river suddenly splits into four channels creating much chaos for the earlier barge owners. A system of four ferries was required to get all of the horses and barges through these natural obstacles and the Thames path takes a much more realistic route across the fields. The route twists around the field boundaries and suddenly comes to a sudden stop at the remains of an old ferry landing stage. I am back at the waterside at Old Lady Ferry with a steep wooded hillside on the opposite bank. This is spring and everything is freshly painted green, but in the autumn it is a cascade of yellows and browns. A convenient wooden bench allows me to sit and look at the banks opposite. Through the gaps in the trees can be seen well-tended gardens and cottages. I am back in notoriety land, for this is the Cliveden Estate.

The plateau on the opposite hill is a wonderful location for a home. George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham certainly thought so and began to build the first house here in 1666. From 1739 to 1751 it was let to the Price of Wales, and it was here that the song “Rule Britannia was first performed at a theatre party held in the gardens. In 1795 the house was severely damaged in a fire and was not restored for another 30 years. Within a few years this, too, was destroyed in a fire and the house was totally rebuilt in 1851.

The current house was designed in Italian style by the architect Charles Barry for the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. The three-storey mansion passed through several hands, with each owner making modifications to the internal design and adding their own follies and statues to the gardens. Eventually the property was purchased in 1893 by the Astor family and in 1919 began its journey to infamy when it became the home of Waldorf Astor and his wife Nancy. These were the “fabulous Astors” and the house became known for its lavish parties for the rich and well-connected. His wife, Nancy Astor became the first woman Member of Parliament to take her seat in the House of Commons. She was not, as is commonly but mistakenly assumed, the first female to be elected to Parliament. That honour belongs to Constance Markiewicz. Constance was a firebrand of her day and was a prominent figure in the fight for Irish Nationalism. She was elected to Parliament in 1918 as a Sinn Fein representative for Dublin St Patrick’s constituency. In line with Sinn Fein policy she refused to take her seat in Parliament and so the first woman to sit on the benches was Nancy Astor.

Waldorf Astor gave the Cliveden Estate to the National Trust in 1942 on the condition that the family could continue to live in it.

It was in the early 1960’s that all the partying of the Astors paled into insignificance with the public scandal that became known as “The Profumo Affair”.

Osteopath to the famous and London playboy Stephen Ward organised a party at Cliveden that was attended by Christine Keeler who was described at the time as a “showgirl”. At the party Keeler met the current Minister of War, John Profumo and they embarked on a brief affair. At the same time Keeler was conducting another “affair” with Russian naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov who was based at the Russian Embassy. With the cold war at its height alarm bells should have been ringing all over the place, but everything stayed quiet until a year later when everything went up at once.

Profumo was questioned about the affair in the Commons, and emphatically denied everything and threatened to sue any accuser who dared take it further. He thus broke two unwritten rules, number one, don’t get caught, and rule number two when in a deep hole stop digging. The press had the inevitable field-day and Profumo was forced to resign. The scandal severely damaged the public confidence in Harold MacMillan’s Government and this took its toll on the Prime Minister, and he too resigned a few months later suffering from ill health.

The estate is still owned by the National Trust but the house is now a lavish hotel. It is open to the public and you can walk through the same enchanting woodlands and enjoy the same gardens and spectacular views over the Thames as did those high-society party-goers of the Astors. Just don’t talk to any showgirls or Cabinet Ministers.

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