Hot beds of intrigue
From espionage to literary links, two historic hotels in London and Bath have a storied past
TUCKED up in a cosy room at St Ermin’s Hotel in London’s Westminster, I’m woken at 2am by the muffled chimes of Big Ben and, somewhere below, the sound of running feet on a rain-slicked pavement.
If you’re a British crime procedural tragic like me, this is an ideal hotel, j ust around the corner from New Scotland Yard. In my fevered, jetlagged dreams I’ve been imagining all manner of villains, glimpsed beneath sulphurous yellow streetlights, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade or a brooding Adam Dalgliesh, PD James’s poetry- writing detective inspector, in hot pursuit.
One of the joys of visiting Britain, aside from following in the footsteps of favourite fictional coppers, is the chance to stay at a historic hotel with a storied past. It’s even better if that heritage involves spies, espionage and secret tunnels.
St Ermin’s may appear to be just another snappy ‘‘design’’ hotel, courtesy of a recent £30 million ($50.7m) makeover, but it has a secret history and a handy locale that places it at the centre of Britain’s between-wars espionage story.
Even today it’s hard to escape the feeling there’s more going on here than meets the eye, for behind its red-brick facade, set back off Caxton Street, and past the Rococoinspired, wedding cake-like lobby created by London theatre designer JP Briggs, lurk countless spy yarns, sufficient to fill a dozen Le Carre novels.
During the 1930s and World War II, the hotel and adjacent building served as an unofficial annexe for the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) or MI6. Guerilla warfare classes were held here and the likes of Ian Fleming, Kim Philby and Eric Maschwitz worked in the ’hood. There’s thought to be a secret tunnel beneath the lobby staircase leading to the Houses of Parliament.
In 1940 Winston Churchill gathered the founding members of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) at the hotel to plan covert operations. Guy Burgess passed secret government files to his Russian counterpart over drinks in the bar.
These days, little more than office gossip is being passed among the dark-suited young gents enjoying a drink in the refurbished Caxton Bar, where scrubbed floors and a medley of smart fabrics and upholsteries are typical of the eclectic interiors.
Los Angeles-based designer Dayna Lee has drawn on a range of influences to carry the Grade II-listed St Ermin’s into the 21st century, taking Briggs’s extravagant plasterwork and adding botanical papers and fabrics (inspired by 19th-century British botanist Christopher Dresser) to create a modern-day version of the English great house and its ‘‘Grand Tour’’ trappings. Alongside chandeliers and handpicked antiques sit quirky objets d’art, lamps with webbed feet, Vivienne Westwood wallpaper and elephant-daubed cushions.
The 331 guestrooms and suites come in all shapes and sizes, dictated by the Victorian-era building’s layout, but all feature the sort of home comforts Australians look for: good tea (with fresh milk if you ask), iron and ironing board, loads of coathangers, comfy beds and nightly turndown with chocolates. Bathroom toiletries are from The White Company.
As ideally located for sightseeing as it was for spying, St Ermin’s is a five-minute walk across St James’s Park to Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly and a coin’s toss from Westminster Abbey. If you’ve never visited this extraordinary building, it’s worth joining the queues to collect a headset. Jeremy Irons’s commentary is voiced in tones so
Above: St Ermin’s Hotel’s wedding cake-like lobby and, right, the spy Guy Burgess. Opposite page, top: the Francis Hotel, Bath, and, far right, an attic room featuring bespoke wallpaper