If these halls could talk ...

52 hectares set in the Berkshire countryside.
52 hectares set in the Berkshire countryside. 

Move over, Downton Abbey. Andrew Conway visits a British country house with an even more scandalous story.

The story goes something like this: Married and high-ranking government minister meets beautiful London good-time girl at one of England's grandest stately homes and starts a brief but torrid affair.

Rumours about the illicit relationship, and mistress's alleged links to a suspected Soviet spy, become public. Minister lies in Parliament, later confesses and resigns in disgrace, sparks the downfall of the prime minister, and scandalises a nation.

Serenity and scandal: one of Cliveden's 38 guest rooms.
Serenity and scandal: one of Cliveden's 38 guest rooms. 

A future episode of Downton Abbey?

Think again.

Half a century ago, at the onset of the swinging 1960s and the height of the Cold War, one of the greatest political sex scandals in British history played out for real in the grand salons and manicured gardens of another magnificent country house with a lineage that leaves Downton for dead.

The house and its period features date to 1666.
The house and its period features date to 1666. 

The infamous Profumo Affair - marking its 50th anniversary this year - may have passed into the annals of time but the story remains an integral and riveting episode at Cliveden, a spectacular Italianate mansion west of London with more than 300 years of power, politics and parties under its rafters.

Built in 1666 by the second Duke of Buckingham, a notorious womaniser who wanted a hunting lodge to entertain his friends and mistress, the house was twice razed by fire before rising again in stunning fashion.

The mansion played host to every British monarch since George I before being bought by William Waldorf Astor, America's wealthiest man at the time, who gave it to his son, the second Viscount Astor, and wife Nancy in 1906.

It was then that Cliveden really hit its stride as the glittering social hub of Britain's high society, its guest book reading like a who's who of the rich and powerful from Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill to president Franklin Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw.

With the third Viscount Astor throwing equally lavish weekend parties, an invitation to stay at Cliveden was seldom refused. And so it was in 1961 when the then-secretary of state for war John Profumo and his soon-to-be mistress, Christine Keeler, embarked on their explosive affair that ruined Profumo and two years later brought down the government of prime minister Harold Macmillan.

Fast forward 50 years and Cliveden is no longer playing host as a scandalous private residence but as a splendid five-star country house-hotel, owned by Britain's National Trust and leased and managed by Ian and Richard Livingstone, owners of Chewton Glen, an award-winning luxury hotel and spa in Hampshire.

Set amid 152 hectares of glorious formal gardens and woodlands in the sylvan countryside of Berkshire, only 20 minutes' drive from Heathrow Airport, Cliveden offers 38 classic English country house guest rooms, including 15 sumptuous suites.

You won't be met at the front door by Lord Grantham, Lady Cora, old Carson or Mrs Hughes, but you will be greeted by a neatly pressed valet, welcomed into the imposing Great Hall for check-in formalities, and whisked up to your room.

All of the guest rooms are named after notable people who have either stayed at or influenced Cliveden during its rich history - Gladstone, Kipling, Mountbatten, Chaplin, Prince Albert, Astor, and Vanderbilt, among others - although Profumo and Keeler are conspicuous by their absence.

The bedrooms range from compact but comfortable Club Rooms, looking out to a leafy courtyard, to oversized suites, many with views of the mansion's beautiful formal garden and parterre, and each decorated with authentic period furnishings and antiques.

The hotel's piece de resistance is Spring Cottage, a ravishing two-bedroom retreat on the banks of the Thames, where Keeler, best friend Mandy Rice-Davies, and shady associate Stephen Ward all stayed during that fateful country house party weekend. The recently renovated cottage accommodates up to six guests and has a very pretty garden.

Dining is a grand affair at Cliveden, a member of the Relais & Chateaux portfolio, either in the formal Terrace Dining Room or cosier gastropub-style Club Room, once the Duke of Westminster's personal stables and now filled with whimsical touches such as table legs in the shape of horses' legs and saddles for bar stools.

Afternoon tea best enjoyed during summer months on board one of Lady Astor's flotilla of century-old wooden river boats, which glide gently down the Thames while one tucks into a picnic hamper of finger sandwiches, scones, jam and lashings of clotted cream.

Guests have the run of Cliveden's facilities and gardens - including the walled-garden swimming pool where Profumo and a bikini-clad Keeler frolicked during the first flames of the affair - as well as the hotel's Pavilion Spa featuring heated pools, hot tubs and six treatment rooms.

Intriguingly, the hotel is taking a low-key approach to the 50th anniversary of the affair, marking it with a subtle but engrossing display of newspaper cuttings, old photographs, books and other memorabilia in the Great Hall to stir guests' memories or imaginations.

As managing director Andrew Stembridge notes: "It's topical; it's a nice talking point for guests, and we're in tune with it, but the Profumo association is predominantly negative. Ultimately, it was a sex scandal that took down the government of the time."

Cliveden will be in the news again next March when Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is scheduled to premiere his new musical about Stephen Ward and his role in the Profumo scandal.

For better or worse, this is an affair to remember.

Eat your heart out, Downton.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Qantas has return air fares from Sydney to London from $1992, including taxes. Phone 13 13 13; see qantas.com. Cliveden is in Taplow, Berkshire, a 20-minute drive from Heathrow Airport and about 45 minutes from central London. Phone +44 1628 668 561; see clivedenhouse.co.uk or relaischateaux.com.

Staying there Room rates from £252 ($395) a night. A special Profumo Affair Break package costs from £196.50 a person, including overnight accommodation in a club room, a tray of tea on arrival, three-course dinner in the Terrace Dining Room, full English breakfast, and a DVD of the 1989 movie Scandal, which portrays the affair.

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