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In the shadow of spies

In the shadow of spies

Winston Churchill chose 2 Caxton Street, London as the birthplace of his Special Operations Executive (later known as MI6) because of its proximity to the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Indeed, it is said that secret tunnels linked the building to Whitehall and that these were later closed off by Scotland Yard.

Today, 2 Caxton Street operates as the very elegant St Ermin's MGallery Hotel and General Manager, Douglas McHugh, shows us the secret door in the lobby behind which these tunnels are said to still exist (albeit behind a concrete wall).

It's fascinating to hear some of the hotel's rich history, as we sit surrounded by Vivienne Westwood wallpaper and an eclectic array of artefects in Caxton's Bar, while Douglas tells us tales of espionage. It was here that playwright and actor Noël Coward worked away on propaganda to encourage the Americans to enter the war on Britain's side; that famous spy Guy Burgess handed over secret documents to his Russian handlers; and that Anthony Blunt slipped photographs to the Soviet Union. Blunt, long the Queen's art historian, was scandalously exposed as a Soviet spy in 1979 and was subsequently stripped by Elizabeth II of his knighthood.

Another reminder of the hotel's rich history is the original Parliament Bell, used to beckon MPs and peers back to Parliament, which takes pride of place near the reception desk. It was unveiled in 2011, complete with commemorative plaque, by Nicholas Soames, MP and grandson of Churchill, bringing the hotel back full circle.

Today, business travellers and tourists alike choose 2 Caxton Street for its great location — just a short stroll to the Queen's stately residence and gorgeous St James Park and surrounded by dignified buildings whose rich history is detailed in blue plaques throughout the neighbourhood. Elizabeth Taylor, Roger Moore, Peter Sellars and many others got married next door at Caxton Hall (some more than once — nudge, wink).

Hidden behind a tree-lined courtyard, St Ermin's MGallery Hotel is wonderfully theatrical, with its detailed rococo plasterwork, high ceilings and ornate chandeliers (we're not surprised when Douglas tells us it was created by JP Briggs, famous for designing the Grand Opera House in York and the Grand Theatre in Doncaster, amongst others). In the Crystal Chandelier room, the balcony perches, theatre-box style, over the ballroom and in the balcony a grand open staircase invites guests in. These touches — plus the quirky interior design — give St Ermin's a homely feel (albeit a very expensive home).

My favourite pieces are a bright pink-pleated lampshade perched on duck feet in the lobby and some children's clothes made origami-style from maps of the local area which decorate the library and which tie the hotel to its location.

The interiors have a very tactile feel thanks to multiple textures and well-chosen colours (and there are lots of cosy corners in which you could lose yourself for hours and no one would mind). It's the kind of hotel where you feel welcome to linger, and staff are both respectful and friendly. Throughout our stay we're warmly greeted by every staff member we encounter and Douglas is especially hospitable, offering to take us through the hotel's signature Whisky flight, through which he pays homage to his Scottish heritage.

These little touches set the hotel apart. Now part of Accor's MGallery collection of boutique hotels, you can feel the pride staff have for the place. MGallery hotels claim to appeal to travellers seeking distinctive services or looking for a hotel with real personality and soul (St Ermin's certainly fits the bill).

Thankfully the red brick Queen Anne exterior of the hotel has been Grade II listed, so while the interior has been modernised, you still feel like stepping into a history book when you enter. The court-garden at the front of the hotel makes it very quiet because it's back from the street, and while the rooms are not massive they are beautifully decorated, with olive walls, rose-coloured throws and a bed that feels like you are sleeping on clouds.

Outside the door, the wonders of medieval Westminster beckon, from the nearby Abbey to the posh streets of Petty France. The hotel offers guided tours of Westminster Abbey and we head there to trample on the gravestones of Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde and from there head to nearby St James Park for a picnic, with a view over Buckingham Palace.

The hotel's location will be a real draw for the Olympics this year, with the beach volleyball being played just metres away at Horse Guards Parade, in the heart of Whitehall. The nearby gardens of St James Park and the grounds of Buckingham Palace will also be a great spot to enjoy the Olympic celebrations so St Ermin's will once again be at the centre of history.

For more information go to www.mgallery.com

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