Hot beds of in­trigue

From es­pi­onage to literary links, two his­toric ho­tels in Lon­don and Bath have a sto­ried past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain & Ireland - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

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

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