The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond Film (though Bond himself is a few years older, having been "born" with the publication of "Casino Royale" in 1953). With the forthcoming release of a new James Bond film, "Skyfall", in October 2012, a central London hotel with a strong connection to spies and spying, will be offering special family packages for "Budding Bonds" throughout the year. Read more about the St. Ermin's Hotel's notorious past.
...Well, maybe you did.
St. Ermin's Hotel - A Nest of Spies?
This Victorian pile of a hotel, which recently underwent a multi-million pound refurbishment, was, in fact, the haunt of spies and double agents for years. That familiar film scene, where two rather ordinary looking men (in suits or trenchcoats of course) engage in cryptic and desultory conversation over cocktails in a darkened bar, while exchanging bits of microfilm or files of state secrets, did actually play out here, in real life, more than once.
The St. Ermin's Hotel began its life as a London mansion block (that's local lingo for a big apartment building) in the late Victorian era. Within ten years, it had become a hotel, catering to visitors to Scotland Yard (across the street), The London Underground headquarters (also across the street), and visitors to various nearby government ministries and The Houses of Parliament. Soon, it's bars and bistros became hangouts for MPs and Parliamentary staff, dining, schmoozing and boozing between debates and votes. According to rumors - which the current owners either cannot or will not disprove - a secret tunnel leads from the hotel directly to the Palace of Westminster. And the division bell, that summons Parliamentarians back to Westminister for votes, still rings here.
Spy Central in Central London
The hotel sits at the epicenter of what was (and, who knows, maybe still is) the British secret establishment. From the 1930s, officers in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS - now known as MI6), which had offices nearby, met their agents in the hotel bar. Then in 1938, MI6 actually moved one of its sections into the hotel.
Just below, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) an organization that carried out covert operations during WWII, occupied a floor of the St. Ermin's. The SOE was famously formed after Winston Churchill met a group of special people in the bar at the St. Ermin's and charged them with "Setting Europe ablaze."
Within peashooting distance of the St. Ermin's Hotel were the London Branch of the Government Communications Center, more SIS offices - including the offices of the SIS chief, the MI8 (Radio Security Serice)listening post, MI5 (internal counter intelligence and security service) and the Naval Intelligence Division.
You'd think that secret agents planning to betray, to turn double agent or to hand over secret dossiers would pick a spot that was - well, perhaps not so crawling with their fellow secret agents. You'd would think so, wouldn't you. But in fact, some of the more notorious spy scandals were played out right under the very noses of the secret establishment, in the bar at the St. Ermin's Hotel. I guess everyone likes to have a "local".
Before the outbreak of WWII, MI6 held guerilla warfare classes at the St. Ermin's. Noel Coward was one of the trainees. So was another more notorious member of the establishment, Anthony Blunt. Blunt, an art historian who later became Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, was publicly exposed as a spy and a member of the "Cambridge Five" in 1979 - though the establishment had known about his duplicity as early as 15 years before.
Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, also members of the Cambridge Five spy ring, both worked here at MI6. Burgess handed over secret files to his Russian handler in the Caxton Bar of the St. Ermin's before defecting to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean in 1951. Philby was exposed as a spy in 1963. You can still have a drink in the Caxton Bar - while checking out the motives of your fellow drinkers, perhaps?
And James Bond?
In 2011, the St. Ermin's reopened as a 300 room, 4-star luxury hotel, after a £30million refurbishment, and has been capitalizing on its reputation as one of Europe's most famous spy hotels ever since. Since Ian Fleming, in his wartime role as a Naval liason with the SIS and SOE, was no doubt familiar with the intelligence operations headquartered at the St. Ermin's, it's not much of a stretch to imagine James Bond himself meeting with M in a suite of offices there.