A view to some thrills

Craig Tansley discovers a London icon with a beguiling secret history.

For any child who ever grew up on a steady diet of James Bond films, there should really be only one hotel to spend your nights in the city of London.

Forget for a moment that St Ermin's Hotel is conveniently located in the heart of the city and has just undergone a $45-million refurbishment; what's important is that real-life British double agents used to come here to trade secrets with the Russians, in the hotel bar.

Prior to that, top-secret British government organisations used St Ermin's as a base to perform clandestine operations under the authority of Britain's greatest wartime leader, Winston Churchill.

If that's not enough to pique the interest of the little boy or girl still lurking somewhere deep in everyone, St Ermin's is also rumoured to possess a secret tunnel at the bottom of a spiral staircase near its foyer that leads directly to the Houses of Parliament. Secret tunnels, spies and covert operations ... perhaps not something you'd find at your local Best Western?

If it wasn't so darn British you'd swear St Ermin's Hotel was conjured straight from the pages of a boy's own adventure tale. But that would be to overlook its old-world sensibility and its stiff upper lip; for St Ermin's doesn't broadcast its shady past - far from it; you'll have to ask the right staff member or do your research - it prefers to highlight the crisp bedlinen and elegant furnishing of its 331 rooms and suites, and its afternoon tea served each day from 1pm to 5pm in the library (bottomless cups of tea, made from leaves of course; heaven forbid you even mention tea bags in this establishment).

Just a few hundred metres from London's most famous inner-city landmarks - including St James's Park, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace - St Ermin's Hotel somehow manages to block out the hustle and bustle of London.

But that's what it was designed to do. As the streets of London grew busier through a late 19th-century industrial boom, the city's aristocracy thought of ways to keep its distance from the riff-raff. Originally conceived as a mansion block in the late 1880s, the St Ermin's site was conceived to provide old-world relief from an emerging middle class. A decade later, in 1899, the mansion was converted into a hotel, losing none of its grace.

The hotel has undergone numerous refurbishments in its 113-year history, but it still manages to look as regal as a palace.

On entering its doors - opened by a porter in an immaculate uniform - you'll notice the foyer dominated by a dramatic, undulating balcony accessed via a double staircase.

The hotel's creator - the renowned Victorian-era theatre designer J.P. Briggs - wasn't known for his subtlety. He ensured St Ermin's boasted a dramatic collection of reception rooms with soaring double-height ceilings.

Its rooms are every bit as elegant as those of its 19th-century former self, however the addition of a lush, green courtyard beside the bar ensures the hotel lacks the claustrophobic feeling of many Victorian-era establishments.

Among all this elegance, you can't help but feel for designer J.P. Briggs; St Ermin's Hotel became far better known for its shady meetings than its dandy Victorian grandeur. But then, being the grandest hotel in the heart of London's political space made it only a matter of time before English history's power figures paid it a visit.

In 1940 Winston Churchill held a meeting at the hotel asking a group of powerful London individuals to assist him in "setting Europe ablaze". This group became the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a collective that carried out covert operations during the Second World War from its headquarters at the hotel. During the war years, MI6 moved some of its operations here.

But it was double agent Guy Burgess who gave the hotel its most enduring infamy. Burgess was the secretary to the British foreign minister and was able to transmit top-secret Foreign Office and MI5 documents to Russia's KGB. He eventually defected in 1951.

The writer travelled courtesy of Accor Hotels and Etihad.


Trip notes

Where St Ermin's Hotel is located at 2 Caxton St, London, SW1H OQW, in the heart of the city. Fly to London daily from Sydney via Abu Dhabi, etihad.com.au.

How much St Ermin's offers 331 rooms and suites starting from $176 a night. +44 20 7222 7888, sterminshotel.co.uk.

Top marks Staff at some historic London hotels can be complete snobs but not at St Ermin's, where all check-in staff are friendly and helpful regardless of how many titles you have missing from your name.

Black mark The recent extensive refurbishment has opened up hotel rooms to London's natural light, but the bathrooms in the classic rooms still feel slightly cramped in their design.

Don't miss St Ermin's has about 200,000 bees producing honey on the rooftop and offers guests Honey Afternoon Tea, with treats including honey and caramel mousse.

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