Royal Horseguards Hotel – A Political Journey
Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise stay at the Royal Horseguards Hotel London in the heat of the capital’s political turmoil and discover it a most appropriate venue.
It was a turbulent time to pick for our mini-break based in the heart of London’s political district. Twenty-four hours earlier, voluble crowds had protested at the gates of Downing Street over Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexit strategy.
Royal Horseguards Hotel History
Yet we were able to check into an oasis of calm, just yards away from the epicentre of this crisis, in Whitehall Court, in one of the capital’s most stylish, traditional luxury hotels. The Grade I-listed Royal Horseguards Hotel, set in a handsome mansion block modelled on a French chateau, has a rich political history of its own, not least because of its links with its equally grand neighbour – with whom today it shares an adjoining door – the National Liberal Club, formed in 1882 in the heyday of William Gladstone.
Royal Horseguards Hotel restaurant The One Twenty One Two still retains a Division Bell, historically rung to alert MPs and peers to go and vote down the road in the Palace of Westminster. It’s been estimated that it would take eight minutes to reach the lobbies.
But while the ghosts of Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill may still stalk the environs of the Royal Horseguards – there were rooms on the site here, but it didn’t become a fully-fledged hotel until 1971 – it actually has even more interesting connections with the world of espionage. More of that anon.
Clearly a major selling point for the Royal Horseguards is its perfect location, overlooking Whitehall Gardens and the River Thames with the Embankment underground station just over the road. A five-minute stroll over the Hungerford Bridge would later take us to our evening destination, the National Theatre on London’s South Bank.
An Exquisite Property
Location is one thing, however, but what really matters is atmosphere, amenities and service – and the Royal Horseguards is not found wanting in any of these. It’s a striking looking building inside, preserving the original Victorian architecture, with plenty of dark wood and crushed red velvet furniture, silver damask curtains, ornate crystal chandeliers, exquisite sculpted ceilings and romantic archways.
Glancing around the impressive wide lobby your eye is drawn to the many classic oil canvas paintings adorning the walls. There’s a strong equine theme, not surprising given the hotel’s intimate links with the Household Cavalry and the Blues and Royals (The Royal Horse Guards). Taking pride of place is the painting behind the concierge’s desk in the lobby, a dramatic depiction of a fearsome cavalry charge with officers in red uniforms on the back of splendid white horses, brandishing their swords and hurtling towards the enemy.
There’s nothing stuffy or formal about the Royal Horseguards Hotel. The staff are very friendly and welcoming, and the elegant public areas, with restful armchairs and sofas, are the perfect place for a post-breakfast newspaper read or afternoon tea.
The hotel has 285 rooms, and ours, on the fifth floor, was a good mix of the traditional and the contemporary. We had an extremely comfortable king-sized bed in a room with dark furnishings and red leather armchairs. Small 19th century portrait paintings lined the far wall, while over the bed hung a large, impressive impressionistic painting of the River Thames with a hazy St Paul’s Cathedral in the background. The view from our bedroom window across the River Thames was magnificent.
Our bathroom had a lighter, more modern look and featured underfloor heating, a pedestal sink, deep luxurious bath and large glass monsoon shower.
Spying on the Past
Back to the hotel’s history – and its spying heritage. The Blue Plaque outside commemorates the remarkable Sir Mansfield Cumming, the very first head (‘C’ ) of the Secret Intelligence Service who had his headquarters here on the seventh floor for ten years from 1911-1921.
Cumming’s office was ideally situated, able to liaise with the police in Old Scotland Yard next door, and within easy reach of political customers and controllers. Initially his principal role was to ferret out German spy networks on the eve of World War I: after it, he was more involved with tackling the Irish Republican Army and Bolshevik revolutionaries.
Cumming was one of the great eccentric British heroes. He carried a swordstick, wore a gold-rimmed monocle and possessed a “chin like the cut-water of a battleship” – his was a naval background). He enjoyed gadgets, codes, practical jokes and tall tales. The tallest tale – one assumes, although there is some evidence of veracity – associated with Cumming is that when his Rolls-Royce crashed in France in 1914 and his leg was nearly severed, he completed the amputation with a penknife so that he could crawl over and aid his dying son. Such is the stuff of which legends are made.
Inevitably perhaps there is a great Churchill story promoted in the hotel literature. There is, apparently, a bricked-up doorway in the cellar of the National Liberal Club, which might just lead to a secret passageway under the Royal Horseguards and a series of underground tunnels under Whitehall. Could the wartime Prime Minister have used it in the event – which seemed likely in June 1940 – of a Nazi invasion?
We left the hotel to walk the short distance to Soho, where we took lunch on the street in the brilliant sunshine at a characterful little restaurant, and enjoyed some people-watching. After touring nearby Chinatown, we visited some old favourites on Piccadilly – Hatchards and Fortnum and Mason’s – before returning to our room to prepare for our evening out.
For another capital adventure with a link with espionage, read Mark Bibby Jackson’s review of St Ermin’s Hotel Westminster: of Spies and Shards.
A Day at the Theatre
This was the great benefit of our location – just a pleasant, relaxed stroll over the Hungerford Bridge to the South Bank complex and our destination, the Lyttleton Theatre at the National. In keeping with our political odyssey we were there to see Hansard, the debut play from actor Simon Woods.
Hansard is the name given to the official record of parliamentary debates: the title of the play refers to the sometimes playful, but often vicious debate between suave, self-satisfied Tory MP Robin Hesketh, played by Alex Jennings, and his bitter, waspish left-leaning constituency wife, played by Lesley Duncan. Both are well admired theatre and TV actors, and both here were at the very top of their game.
The set was the drawing room and kitchen of the couple’s classic Cotswolds home, replete with Aga and chintzy furniture. Jennings and Duncan are the only two characters in the play, which has echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in its portrayal of a bitter, seemingly disintegrating marriage.
This is not a Brexit-related drama, although a couple of topical lines were inserted, one about how Old Etonians – of which Robin is one – were running the country, that drew loud laughs. It’s more a satire on 1980s Tory-run England, with some of the controversies of the time – notably Clause 28, banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools – providing the subject matter for the bickering between Robin and Diana.
We returned to the Royal Horseguards Hotel in time for supper al fresco on the busy terrace on a beautifully warm late summer evening. The restaurant – named after the original telephone number of Scotland Yard – possesses two AA Rosettes and is best described as serving modern British cuisine with a European twist. We settled for a superb saffron risotto, accompanied by wild mushrooms and pea truffle sauce, washed down with a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
A hugely enjoyable twenty-four hours – a great venue, lashings of culture, politicians and spies, and a mystery down in the cellar. Now it’s back to reality, and Brexit….
Royal Horseguards Hotel
Rooms from £220 per night.