Careless talk costs lives. You never know who is sitting next to you, who is listening. For the chilling core of the 20th Century, Second World War to Cold War, St Ermin’s was the cloak-and-dagger hub of international espionage.
Nicknamed “The Works Canteen” by nearby MI6, the 331 room hotel, including 41 suites, was a grandiose location for dining, drinking, meeting and all the other stuff on a Spy’s job description
Arriving at St Ermin’s is like walking into a Royal Wedding Cake, an opulent fin de siecle white-plasterwork fantasy. When the hotel, converted from spacious mansions, extravagantly imagined by Savoy Theatre architect JP Briggs, opened in 1899, Queen Victoria was still on the throne, the British Empire coloured a quarter of the world map pink and a telephone in each of St Ermin’s room was cutting-edge high-tech. There’s an assured swagger that our neurotic 21st Century seems to have lost.
And the link to St Ermin? A Welsh monk prayed for Henry ll’s ship to be rescued from a storm. He would never get past the Canonisation Committee with such a flimsy case today. The Westminster Chapel honouring him was pulled down to be replaced by St Ermin’s Mansions.
Walking through the micro-climate of the horseshoe-shaped courtyard, in the first days of Spring, the garden’s blossom is a month ahead of the rest of the chilly country. There are palms and even fruit on the orange tree. I seem to have stepped right out of both London and the 21st Century.
In the late 1930s Noel Coward and Ian Fleming, British Intelligence Officers, attended St Ermin’s for Guerrilla Warfare classes. There’s a great film to be made on that one.
Location, location, location gave St Ermin’s its prestige. There is a Division Bell in the lobby, when it rang an underground passageway took MPs straight back to Westminster, in eight minutes, to vote. Nowadays the door leads only to a cupboard, the tunnel and history have been blocked off.
In the darkest hour of 1940, Churchill came to St Ermin’s ordered Champagne and founded the Special Operations Executive. Steadily the SOE took over the hotel’s top two floors, storing their explosives above the guests, long before the concept of Health and Safety was born. Churchill gave them a simple mission statement: “Set Europe ablaze.” But there was a culture clash with the clandestine operations of secretive MI6: all the SOE boys wanted to do was blow things up.
Proudly, St Ermin’s Hotel displays messages coded on silk that were sewn into spies’ jacket lapels. There’s a book too: “House of Spies”, Peter Matthew’s account of the hotel’s history.
Drink in the history by ordering a cocktail from the Cambridge Five cocktails page in the Caxton Bar. Each cocktail is named after the code name assigned to the double-crossing spies by their KGB Russian handlers. If you’re selecting on historical significance opt for a Hicks – Guy Burgess. It is given a kick by spiced rum and Grand Marnier. Allegedly, Burgess handed over secrets to his handler at St Ermin’s.
And the other four? That’s the sort of question asked by the Hotel’s Top Secret quiz pack for children – Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and John Cairncross.
The Caxton Grill is decidedly creative contemporary with its shades of taupe – broken up by vibrant flamboyant floral abstract prints – and candle-bulbs housed in hanging glass aquariums.
Waiter Marius, he’s from Transylvania, is the very antithesis of the “Manuel-he’s-from-Barcelona” School of Waiting. A self-confessed foodie he’s about to travel to Japan and New York on foodie pilgrimages. Take heed of his recommendations, on both food and wine, he knows what he’s talking about.
Alex Boyd, Head Chef, has the chef’s latest must-have gizmo: a Josper grill. It seals in the heat and keeps out charcoal flavours to quickly cook at 400 C. It retains moisture, enhances flavour and gets your steak quickly to the table. Suddenly, a Josper grill has accelerated to pole-position on my Christmas list.
Boyd’s Modern British style restores faith in a cuisine’s reputation ravaged by decades of soggy mush Shepherd’s Pie and boiled-to-death cabbage. Bone marrow reduced to a gel over four hours of cooking reinvents the side dish of Mashed Potato.
Even though Boyd spent time learning his trade in chilli-hot Hong Kong he uses spices with judicious wisdom: there is just a delicate sprinkling of chilli on the Sea Bream Carpaccio and the ginger in the Mousse is merely a playful hint.
Food steps rather than food miles are measured at St.Ermin’s. A rooftop herb garden contributes to a herb butter of basil, parsley and tarragon. As well as growing vegetables on the roof, there are six “Bee Hotels” for 400,000 Buckfast bees whose honey is used for canapés, cocktails and the Hotel’s hugely popular afternoon teas.
American guests, in particular, love the reassuring red brick Queen Anne style facade as well as the surprisingly quiet and spacious rooms. They value the proximity to the Thames, the Churchill Museum and all five syllables of Buck-ing-Ham-Pal-ace.
Tell Me More About St Ermin’s Hotel
St. Ermin’s Hotel, 2 Caxton Street, Westminster SW1H 0QW
T: 020 7222 7888
A double room begins at around £230 per night.
In the restaurant, starters are usually in the teens, main courses in the twenties and puds at £8.50
The hotel is a two-minute walk from the St Jame’s Park station on the District and Circle lines.