London’s Spy HotelPosted on: 01 April 2019 by Michael Edwards
St Ermin’s Hotel, Westminster, was at the heart of spying intrigue for much of the last century. Michael Edwards investigates.
In 1940 the war was going badly. Winston Churchill headed for St Ermin’s Hotel, ordered Champagne and established the Special Operations Executive. He commanded the SOE to “set Europe ablaze”.
Taking over the top two floors of the hotel, the SOE decided to store their explosives there too. Guests would have slept less soundly, in this Central London oasis of peace, if they knew how many pounds of dynamite were stored above.
Opened in 1899, converted from mansions, there is an impressive grandeur to the ornate wedding-cake plasterwork of St Ermin’s’ reception. With it’s red brick Queen Anne facade there’s a solid reassurance to this horse-shoe shaped hotel. Take a seat by the patio heaters on the Winter Terrace and look out over the exquisitely planted courtyard.
For the record, Ermin was a Welsh monk, who was canonised for his prayers which saved Henry ll’s ship from a storm. A chapel, honouring him, stood on the site, from the 15th century until the mansions were built.
The creation of the SOE was not the hotel’s first brush with intelligence units. The Caxton Bar and restaurant were used so frequently by MI6 during the 1930s that the hotel became known as “The Works Canteen”. Those unlikely MI6 Intelligence Officers, Noel Coward and Ian Fleming, took a Guerrilla Warfare class at St Ermin’s before the outbreak of the Second World War.
St Ermin’s is at the heart of London, just a two minute walk from St James’ Park tube station. Once a tunnel linked the hotel to the House of Commons so that MPs could walk from the Caxton Bar to Division Lobby in just eight minutes. Location has always been a huge advantage for St Ermin’s. It is just a short walk to Buckingham Palace, The London Eye and the Churchill Museum.
Yesteryear’s spies have hopefully been replaced by today’s visitors to London seeking a surprisingly quiet sanctuary. Built to 19th century expectations the 331 rooms, and 41 of those are suites, are more spacious than most London hotels.
After Victory in Europe it was thought that St Ermin’s would gracefully focus on its role as a 4* luxury hotel. The Iron Curtain that slammed down from the Baltic Sea to the Aegean dictated otherwise.
In the Caxton Bar there is a page in the cocktail menu dedicated to the infamous Cambridge Five: Blunt, Burgess, Cairncross, Maclean and Philby. Each one has a cocktail named after the code names given them by their KGB Handlers. The five double-crossing spies flitted in and out of the hotel during the Cold War Years. For the full story buy a copy of “House of Spies” by Peter Matthews telling the story of espionage at St Ermin’s available from reception.
This is not just a hotel for humans. On the second floor there is a Bee Gallery. You can watch 400,000 Buckfast bees coming and going from their six hives. They forage for pollen in St Ermin’s sheltered courtyard and make the short flight to St James’ Park. Monday to Thursday the staff host a wine reception for guests and the canapés frequently feature home-produced honey.
Up on the roof there are herb and vegetable gardens. Currently the Caxton Grill provides a herb butter of homegrown basil, tarragon and parsley. Alex Boyd, Head Chef, provides a menu of Modern British cuisine. The organic meat is sourced from a Welsh Farm, the duck from France. A high temperature Josper Grill sealing in flavour and moisture produces succulent steaks and sea-food. Guests rarely wander any further than the Caxton Grill for their evening meal.
To find a hotel in Central London that tells such a rich story is rare, to find a luxurious hotel in such a quiet and secluded spot is rarer still.
Find out more
St. Ermin’s Hotel, 2 Caxton Street, Westminster SW1H 0QW
Tel: 020 7222 7888
Double rooms begin from around £270
St James’ Park is the nearest tube station, just a three-minute walk away. rooms begin from around £270.
St James’ Park is the nearest tube station, just a three-minute walk away.
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