By Denise Martin
Turning onto Caxton Street, the cab driver makes a quick right onto a dramatic carriageway lined by a vibrant, colorful English garden courtyard leading to the main entrance of the iconic St. Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster, London.
Gazing at the Queen Anne style red brick and pink sandstone building, I imagine what it must have been like arriving by carriage at this grand hotel during Victorian times. Upon check-in my husband and I learn the hotel is located within an eight minute walk to the House of Parliament. The proud registrar points out a “Division Bell” hanging in the lobby. It’s still operational and was used in WW I to alert Parliament members of a vote.
“They had exactly ten minutes to walk to the House of Commons and cast their vote. There must have been a lot of scurrying,” he chuckles.
Once settled into our room, subsequent research uncovers more of St. Ermin’s past. In 1940, during World War II, one of the most prominent guests of the hotel was the newly appointed British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. According to history, the Prime Minister created the Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as Churchill’s Secret Army. The SOE headquartered on an upper floor of St. Ermin’s under the guise of the Statistical Research Department and formed the basis of the Secret Air Service (SAS), the British Army’s elite special forces.
Close by at 54 Broadway resided Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and MI6. St. Ermin’s Caxton Bar was frequently the meeting place for prospective secret agent interviews. Among those recruited to become members of MI6 were Noel Coward, one of the greatest playwrights of all time and Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. Coward conducted intelligence work in occupied France and set up a propaganda bureau for British SIS. Fleming was a Naval Intelligence officer charged with coordinating intelligence operations overseas. He worked closely with US officials to set up the precursor organizations to the CIA.
This new information peaks my curiosity. I slip my tablet into my tote bag, quietly close the hotel room door on my napping husband, and set out to find the Caxton Bar. Arriving at the infamous watering hole I’m surprised to find it much smaller and less private than I envisioned. In the spirit of the bar, I do my own examination and pose the obvious questions to a patron. “It’s cleverly sealed off to blend in with the architecture isn’t it? What’s behind it, do you know?”
“But of course I know.” He jovially answers. “There’s a tunnel that leads to the Palace of Westminster.”
“How do you know?” I ask skeptically. “Are you a history teacher?”
He laughs, “No, I’m Winston Churchill’s grandson.”
I’m dumbfounded. “But my husband and I met Winston Churchill’s grandson working in a pottery shop in LaCock outside Bath when we visited last year.” The memory was distinct because the supposed grandson argued that Churchill’s decisions had won World War II, while my husband insisted America saved Great Britain. This man was approximately the same height but much wider.“He had more than one grandson, you know. You Americans!”
“Wow, you sure are a proud lot,” I wanted to say. Instead I squeeze around the wide body. Winston Churchill’s grandson! ‘How many people in this country go around saying that?’ I wonder.
Next, I peek into the library and see people enjoying afternoon tea. I had read St. Ermin’s is a favorite afternoon tea destination for those who tour Buckingham Palace. The scent of the fresh flowers on the tables, the tiered silver trays with scones, finger sandwiches and pastries makes me excited for the tea at the pavilion overlooking the sunken gardens at Kensington Palace I have planned for Friday. I’m anxious to try an Elderflower Prasse’, the Queen’s favorite cordial.
Stepping outside I hear voices coming from an adjacent terrace. I wander over to lap up the sunshine and ambiance. The hostess immediately rushes over to shoo me away. “As you can see, we’re booked today, Madame. Would you like to make a reservation for tomorrow?”
Do I detect a Russian accent? Before I can answer an Asian gentleman on his cell phone steps in front of me and dashes to sit at a communal bar in the middle of the venue. The hostess scurries off to explain to him they are full for tea. Her instructions to leave go unheeded as he waves her off and continues his intense conversation. As the hostess starts to ricochet in my direction I turn and head back down to the lobby to pick up a nearby Italian restaurant recommendation and theatre guide from the concierge.
I see Hamilton is playing within walking distance at the Palace Theatre. Prior to crossing the ocean I had checked ticket prices. They were selling from twelve to fifteen hundred pounds on the secondary market. I ask the concierge if there is any way to get tickets at a reasonable price.
“Madame, some Americans have had luck getting tickets the day of the show. You must go to the ticket office and wait in the queue to see if anyone has turned back their tickets. That is your best opportunity.”
“How much are they paying for tickets?” I brace myself for the reply and I’m sure my expression gives away my disbelief when he tells me between 50 and 200 pounds. I make a mental note to try on Tuesday. Starving, I head back upstairs to wake my husband and tell him all I’ve learned.
The restaurant recommended by the concierge, the Collosio, is small and plain. The lasagna and pasta primavera are plain as well. We exclaim how we seldom get good food in England. It lacks seasoning and is often overcooked. It reminds me of my Mother’s and Grandmother’s English cooking. As we wait on our bill, an unkempt man enters the restaurant, approaches the foursome dining nearest the door and begs for the food on their plates. Patrons freeze in either horror or disbelief. I can’t tell which.
“The homeless are more brazen here than in D.C,” I whisper to my husband. The manager moves swiftly toward the table under attack. Handing the scruffy man coins, he explains the restaurant is closed. The beggar’s hungry eyes aren’t buying his explanation so the manager gives him a few more coins. The indigent reluctantly heads back out to the street. The silence is broken and dinner conversations start up again.
Sunday morning and we are walking to Westminster Cathedral for the 10:30 Mass. The Church, opened in 1903, is the Roman Catholic Mother Church of England and Wales. Upon entering the church of Byzantine Architecture we are greeted by the glass enclosed remains of Saint and Martyr John Southworth (1592-1654) bedecked in bright red regalia. His feast day is later in the month on the 27th. Saint Southward was known for comforting and ministering to the sick and dying in Westminster plague stricken areas in the early 1600’s. In 1654, John Southworth was “hung, drawn and quartered” for being a priest. As I stare down at the skeletal remains I ponder the seemingly European necessity to display dead saints. Their shrunken remains look disturbed. Why not let them enjoy peace in death?
The church’s website says the choir is world-famous and after hearing the angelic voices of the boys choir in the acoustically friendly church I understand how the choir got it’s distinction. Returning from Mass, walking past Caxton Hall, located next to St. Ermin’s and similar in architecture, we notice a plaque stating that Winston Churchill had given speeches in Caxton Hall. I decide to look into what other interesting events Caxton Hall may have hosted. My research does not disappoint.
For forty years Caxton Hall served as the Westminster Register Office until closing December 30, 1977. Many celebrities were married here. For example, Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, English actor, Michael Wilding were wed here February 21, 1952. Among others exchanging vows over the years were Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Eden (Britain’s foreign secretary and niece of Sir Winston Churchill), and Orson Welles, American actor, director, writer and producer.
Some of the more unusual weddings included twenty year old 1961 Miss World Rosemarie Frankland and journalist Ben Jones. The marriage ended after six months when Mr. Jones discovered his wife was having an affair with comedian Bob Hope. Actor Peter Sellers, known for his role as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther series married Miranda Quarry. Ms. Quarry’s dogs served as her bridesmaids. Sellers left his bride during the honeymoon and married Britt Eckland the same year.
Aside from weddings, the building hosted the First Pan-African Conference in 1900 as well as various musical concerts throughout the years. In 1905 Winston Churchill was heckled during his speech by two suffragettes who unfurled a Votes for Women banner. One was arrested for spitting on a policeman and subsequently imprisoned after refusing to pay a fine. In 1955 The Russell-Einstein Manifesto in response to the threat of nuclear war was released at Caxton Hall. Over one thousand people gathered at the site on May 12, 1960 to attend the first public meeting of the Homosexual Law Reform Society. An openly Neo-Nazi British political party, “The National Front,” was formed on February 7, 1967 at Caxton Hall. Today the building holds apartments and offices.
Having spent the weekend exploring my surroundings I am looking forward to the adventures the rest of the week may hold. A visit to Great Britain always yields new places to explore, vast history to learn and evocative experiences to be had.
Denise Martin resides with her husband, Gary, in Virginia where she teaches Language Arts and Social Studies to students in grades four to eight. Her most recent publications can be read in DASH Literary Journal and online at tinyseedjournal.com. She is currently working on a memoir of her travels throughout Great Britain and a political thriller loosely based on her experiences over three administrations in the White House. She can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.