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Short stay: St. Ermin’s Hotel, Westminster, London, UK

The four star St. Ermin’s Hotel is a horseshoe-shaped Grade II Listed mansion that can be found in a tranquil Westminster location, befitting of its reputation as a hotel that is shrouded by mystery and secrecy. St. Ermin’s has a long history of involvement with the British Secret Service and the top two floors served as a spy headquarters during World War II. Built on the site of a 15th century chapel back in 1889, today the hotel has 331 guest rooms and suites and belongs to Marriott’s Autograph Collection, having enjoyed a £30 million makeover; it is approached via an enclosed tree-lined courtyard away from the hustle and bustle of nearby St. James Park tube station (accessed by the District and Circle lines). The welcome You enter the hotel via a lobby that is bustling with activity – in a nice way: lively and full of atmosphere, not hectic and hurried. To your left, is a smart reception desk with a series of large iPad displays to assist with an efficient electronic check-in process. But before you get there you are immediately struck by the strikingly white Art Nouveau lobby, complete with ornate, theatre-style balconies and original plasterwork from the famous Victorian theatre designer J.P. Briggs. Keep your eyes peeled also for the division bell (which has had its fair share of use in recent months with the ongoing Brexit debacle), restored to the hotel in 2011 by Nicholas Soames MP, Winston Churchill’s great grandson. The bell is used in the immediate vicinity of the Palace of Westminster to signal that a division is occurring and that members of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords have eight minutes to get to their chosen division lobby to vote for or against the resolution. The room Room at St. Ermin’s are beautifully modern whilst still retaining their historical significance. I was fortunate enough to stay in a ground floor suite with a king size bed.  It was both elegant and contemporary, retaining occasional period features that remind you of the hotel’s 19th Century architecture, adorned with art deco furniture and boldly patterned soft furnishings. On entering, I was greeted by a spacious lounge area; the suites vary in size from 50 to 60 square metres – a very generous size, particularly by London standards. There was plenty of up-to-date technology – flatscreen TVs, an iPod dock, Nespresso machine and more. Multi-functional power sockets, with both European and US outlets, were also a nice touch that is all too often overlooked, particularly given that the hotel enjoys a significant proportion of American guests. Beyond the lounge was an equally spacious 2-poster king size bedroom with crisp bed linen and luxurious soft furnishings. The bathroom An inviting, beautifully-marbled bathroom could be found just beyond – modern and bright, and with indulgent toiletries from The White Company. The facilities The hotel’s Caxton Bar is open to both guests and passers-by and has tremendous historical significance for it was there that Kim Philby, a high-ranking member of British intelligence who worked as a double agent before defecting to the Soviet Union, is said to have handed over secrets to his Russian handler, Guy Burgess. Today the bar offers a large range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including signature ‘flights’. Caxton Bar’s flights are three complementary glasses of either wine or whisky designed to give guests the chance to compare, contrast and discover new flavours or enjoy old favourites. Throughout the public areas of the hotel are comfortable lounges and other spaces such as the Tea Lounge and the Caxton Terrace, a massanine balcony that overlooks the courtyard entrance. In any of these locations you can enjoy an afternoon tea presented on tiered serving plates – including sandwiches, cakes and scones – from midday until 6pm. The Caxton Grill, the hotel’s signature restaurant, is due a re-brand in the near future so we’ll hopefully report back on that at a later date. In the meantime, because I was on a business trip and had work to juggle, I opted for room service. There’s an all-day room service menu but, if you’re ordering whilst the restaurant is open, you can order from the restaurant menu also which is what I did on this occasion. I had a starter of sautéed scallop and wild mushroom fricassee with baby leeks and crispy shallots – sweet and tender scallops complemented by plenty of rich, earthy flavours. Other dishes that caught my eye were the sea bream carpaccio with dill oil, chilli and citrus, and the burrata, blood orange and fennel salad. For my main, it was between the slow-cooked sea bass with a lobster broth, sea herbs and crispy Jerusalem artichoke, or the halibut with an almond crust, spiced pork and potato purée and purple sprouting broccoli. I opted for the latter and wasn’t disappointed… delicious! Finally, on the recommendation of the lady I spoke to on the phone when ordering, I went for the chocolate crémeux dessert with caramel which I hadn’t seen on the menu and was a little over-indulgent of me! The Caxton Grill is also where a buffet breakfast is served each morning – a buffet with all the usuals, as well as a nice array of cheeses, smoked salmon and more. Alternatively a ‘wake and take’ breakfast on the go, consisting of a freshly-brewered coffee and an artisan muffin is available as a takeaway from the lobby for those in more of a hurry. The location The hotel is literally a 2-minute walk from St. James Park Underground station so enjoys a very convenient location. For tourist visitors, this makes all of central London easily accessible, but within immediate easy walking distance are Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster. Westminster Abbey and the London Eye to the east, and Buckingham Palace to the west, with all being within a 15-20 minute walk. I was in the area for business, attending and speaking at Travmedia’s sit-UP event for travel brands and influencers, held at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre immediately opposite Westminster Abbey. This is just 5 minutes walk from hotel. Other nice touches In a city that’s enjoyed so many benefits from embracing multi-culturalism, it’s still a pleasure to see the hotel retain its English charm, and I would imagine this is partly why it has such an appeal to the American market as well as other overseas guests. The hotel is very typically English – doormen in bowler hats, the division bell in the lobby, not to mention its history as the preferred meeting place for the British secret service. Something else that’s really special at the hotel is its ‘bee hotel’ – a bee colony on third floor terrace, and home to over 350,000 Buckfast honey bees. The hotel even uses its own honey in the restaurant and offers bee workshops courtesy of resident beekeeper Camilla Goddard. And finally, another special treat is drinks in the lobby every Monday to Thursday evening. This is open to all and is a regular, very welcoming and social event. Cost Standard rates start from £322 per night. Suites start from £579 per night. The best bit What sets this hotel apart from many others across the capital is its incredible history and fascinating connections with secrecy and espionage. There’s a book on the subject and children staying at the hotel are even given a ‘top secret’ document, complete with a ‘mission’ briefing. It’s possibly not quite fair to say this is the ‘best bit’ since there are many other ways to commend this hotel, but it is something that makes the hotel truly unique. It’s even rumoured that there’s a tunnel running from beneath the grand staircase in the lobby all the way to the houses of Westminster. Perhaps a fairer choice for the ‘best bit’ would be the staff who are well-trained and, no matter what position they hold, are trusted with their responsibilities and nurtured in a culture where they feel truly valued… and this really shows. The final verdict Although St. Ermin’s is officially a four star hotel, it has all the attributes of a five star with exceptional staff and an attention to detail that is every bit on a par.  It is certainly one of London’s most interesting and intriguing hotels and, for this reason alone, you won’t find another quite like it. Disclosure: Our stay was courtesy of St. Ermin’s Hotel.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Daily Telegraph.

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  1. There’s quite a history to this hotel. When things were going badly in the early years of the Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill held a meeting in the bar and created the SOE, Special Operations Europe, and gave them the simple mission statement of “setting Europe ablaze.”

    There didn’t seem to be much Health and Safety back then. SOE stored their explosives on the top two floors, which during the Blitz, could have been highly dangerous for the guests sleeping below.

  2. I bet St Ermin’s being right in the middle of London must be a real draw for visitors to London. As it’s dripping in history I bet Americans especially love it.

    1. I think I’m right in saying that the US is the hotel’s main market. The location is certainly perfect for tourists, with easy access to so many key landmarks.

  3. Why’s it called St Ermin’s? I’ve never heard of a St. Ermin. What did he or she do to get the title? Why did they have a hotel named after them?

  4. I met a friend in the bar recently. There’s a highly inventive cocktails menu named after the traitors who leaked secrets to the Russians during the Cold War. For those spies recruited at Cambridge University – Burgess, Blount, Maclean, Philby and one more I can’t remember – this was their watering hole and it’s thought that some of them would have handed over secrets to their Russian handlers. In fact, the cocktails are named after the code names of the Russian handlers. There’s a historic display of a message, printed in code on silk, that was sewn into the lining of a jacket. My friend called it “ The Spy Hotel.”

  5. I like it when hotels do drinks like that. It’s a great icebreaker for getting to know the other guests. Talking to tourists is fascinating as they’ll have tips for things to do and also advice on what not to do. Also talking to people who are there on business is fascinating too as you get to find out what’s really going on in the city.

    1. Yes, I think it’s a really nice gesture on the part of the hotel. An opportunity for guests to meet each other should they wish, and an event that’s even open to members of the public also, I believe, not just exclusively for guests staying at the hotel.

  6. That picture of the lobby is utterly incredible. It’s like walking through the middle of a white-iced wedding cake.

    1. I believe it has sometimes been described as the ‘wedding cake hotel’, Leo! J.P. Briggs most definitely left his mark in the lobby as well as in many other parts of the hotel.

  7. When I stayed at St Ermin’s, as a base for showing the kids some London sites, the kids were absolutely delighted to be given an envelope stamped “Top Secret” In red ink. It was a quiz about the hotel’s past. It kept them occupied for a while.

    Meanwhile, I read the opening chapters of a book that I bought from reception on the hotel’s history. Before the Second World War the hotel was used as a training centre for intelligence officers. Both Noel Coward and Ian Fleming took courses at St. Ermin’s.

    1. You chose a good base from which to enjoy a family break in London, Karen! And yes, they are good with kids at St. Ermin’s, too… next time you visit, ask for their bedtime story for kids which has been produced especially for the hotel.

    1. Thanks, Alastair…! Hope you’re well. And yes, it was very handy for attending SitUp – just an easy 5-minute walk, which meant I could nip back to my room prior to the evening event!

  8. Such a lovely hotel but I do worry about how it will be impacted by the coronavirus. I would guess that the hotel is very popular with American tourists due to its fascinating history. Let’s hope US visitors are able to come back soon or that the hotel will deservedly gain in popularity with the domestic or European markets.

    1. Yes, Clive, it’s an awful situation for the tourist industry right now, particularly for those businesses that rely on international tourists. I have no doubts that St. Ermins can adapt and welcome a greater proportion of UK and European clientele if circumstances dictate it, as it such a lovely hotel.

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