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It may have been a spy bar but there was more than sources leaking

Quantum of nostalgia: a storied former hangout of British spooks in London evokes past intrigues, as the world of espionage changes

Unprompted, the woman on the Tube proffered me a fresh tissue. Her face was creased with a look of genuine concern. The man with her, presumably her partner – they also had a baby with them –, then gave me the whole packet.

I thanked them and began wiping the red wetness from my hands. I looked down at my torso, where a small crimson stain was beginning to seep into my shirt. Then I opened my blazer and removed the culprit, a leaking pen, from my inside pocket.

The woman’s face immediately flipped from worry to amusement. “We thought you were bleeding,” she said, sighing with relief. We had a good laugh there on the Tube, the three of us, about the fact that I was definitely not the latest London stabbing victim that I had probably first appeared to be.

The laughing stopped the moment I stepped off the Tube and realised I was on my way to one of London’s plushest new hotels looking like a human red-ink blotter.


The hotel was the Raffles London at the OWO on Whitehall. The acronym in its name refers to the Old War Office, the baroque, revamped Edwardian former defence building in which the sumptuous hotel opened late last year. Its basement Spy Bar, themed on Britain’s intelligence services, had invited journalists from the Foreign Press Association for an evening gathering.

The Old War Office was where a middle-aged Winston Churchill worked as secretary of state for war between 1919 and 1921, and where one of his successors in the 1960s, John Profumo, used to bring Christine Keeler, the then-19-year-old model with whom he infamously had an affair.

It was also an occasional hangout for British spooks; its back door is known as the Spies Entrance, as it was well out of sight and located near the old headquarters of MI6, the UK’s foreign spying agency.

In 2016 the UK’s ministry of defence sold a 250-year lease on the building to Indian billionaires for about £350 million. The buyers pumped a further £1 billion into its revamp and it opened last year with London’s first Raffles hotel, as well as 85 luxury apartments marketed to buyers for millions of pounds, a few for tens of millions, and the largest for a reputed £100 million.

Media tycoon Michael Bloomberg is said to have bought an apartment, along with Australian comedian Rebel Wilson and King Caesor Augustus Mulenga, a Ugandan businessman who styles himself as a tribal monarch.

The Raffles manager who showed me downstairs to the basement cocktail bar, via a washroom to tackle the blinking ink, said it wasn’t really the basement at all. There are another three floors below it – beneath the Old War Office was one of the subterranean government and military citadels the British built in London during the cold war.

The Old War Office’s citadel now houses a ballroom and spa, but the modern ministry of defence headquarters around the corner on Horse Guards Road is said to go as deep below ground as it is above, and that building is 10 stories high from street level. It sits on top of the Pindar, the most important British military citadel, linked to Downing Street through a network of underground tunnels that criss-cross Whitehall. There are other government underground lairs in central London.

The bar beneath the Raffles really plays up its spy theme; Ian Fleming, the former intelligence officer and writer of the James Bond series, used to frequent the building. The room, off one of the old citadel corridors, is numbered 007. It must sell lakes of shaken vodka martinis. Half of a silver 1960s Aston Martin is built into the mirrored wall behind the bar.

As if to deliberately stir up the intrigue, the bar operates a “no photographs” policy, even though it is more likely to be amorous couples meeting up discreetly in its booths instead of cold war spies. A host politely asked for my smartphone upon entry, and covered its camera lens with a black sticker.

The suave British spy persona is woven into the fabric of the nation’s psyche. Yet these days, UK intelligence experts are somewhat less mysterious than they once were. Former heads of MI6, such as Richard Dearlove and Alex Younger, pop up regularly as media talking heads opining on everything from China and Ukraine to Gaza.

And to become a British spook it is no longer necessary to be recruited in secret in some smoky backroom by a raffish Bond-esque figure. You can simply go online and fill out a form – both MI6 and MI5, the domestic spying agency, accept applications for new intelligence officers on their websites.