Spy sites in the heart of London

Brian Gray of London's Intelligence Trail spy tour dons appropriate sunglasses and trench coat. KAYLEIGH KULP
Brian Gray of London's Intelligence Trail spy tour dons appropriate sunglasses and trench coat. KAYLEIGH KULP
Posted: July 22, 2012

During the height of the Cold War, George Smiley is called up from forced retirement to spy on a Soviet mole in the Circus, the highest echelon of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Tensions are high and the stakes are serious as Smiley obtains information that eventually leads him to Jim Prideaux, the agent at the heart of a previous operation gone wrong in Budapest, Hungary. Will Smiley be able to save his agency and the world at large from Soviet destruction?

This fictional tale from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carre's 1974 classic spy novel, hit the big screens in the United States in December. It takes place in the heart of London, where, during this time, England helped topple Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime and later, the Soviet Union.

Whether or not you'd notice them, London's touristy districts — known locally by their post codes — are jam-packed with places where spies thrived and plotted historically significant moves against enemy states. Luckily, on a recent visit, Brian Gray of the Intelligence Trail spy tour, clad in sunglasses and trench coat, was there to dish the dirt. So skip high tea. These five London spy haunts and their secretive stories are worth checking out next time you visit. But don't forget to look over your shoulder. You never know who might be watching.

St. Ermin's Hotel, 2 Caxton St., SW1H OQW

This historic hotel, which is located in Westminster, was renovated and reopened under new American ownership last year. The hotel was a haven for spies, who were recruited over dinner at its restaurant. It was here that Prime Minister Winston Churchill founded the Special Operations Executive, which committed espionage against the Axis powers during World War II from an entire floor in the hotel. The MI6 was also based here during that time. Rumor has it that a secret tunnel runs from the grand staircase in the lobby to the Houses of Parliament, but no one seems to know how to get to it now. Don't be surprised to see Members of Parliament and agents of Scotland Yard sharing drinks there.

2 and 3 Carlton Gardens, SW1Y 5

Just outside of St. James' Park, this group of pretty buildings in a tranquil, tree-lined setting could make the average person think they were upscale housing. It was in 2 Carlton Gardens that in February 1954, the CIA and MI6 met to discuss plans for the Berlin Tunnel, a wiretapping operation that spy George Blake leaked to Russia before the project began. 3 Carlton Gardens is where the MI6 interviews prospective applicants. Every once in a while, diplomatic protection may be seen around. Keep your eyes peeled.

21 Queen Anne's Gate, SW1H 9BU

Near St. James' Park, Buckingham Palace, and posh private clubs like the Royal Automobile Club, this was the residence and office of the second chief of MI6, Adm. Hugh Sinclair. The property was connected to MI6's nearby headquarters by a secret passageway and was headquarters of the "Passport Control Office," which gave a semblance of cover to MI6 officers in embassies abroad. Sinclair's successors remained in the building until 1966.

Tower of London, Tower Hill, EC3N 4B

William the Conqueror began building the Tower of London at the center of his fortress in the early 1080s. Connected to the widely photographed Tower Bridge, the tower has a morbid history. Not only is it rumored to be haunted by royalty (including Anne Boleyn and the two sons of King Edward IV), it also was a prison and weapons arsenal. The tower remained an active military establishment for many centuries. Between 1914 and 1916 several spies were held and subsequently executed there.

The Old Star Pub, 66 Broadway, SW1H

Located in Westminster near Parliament, Scotland Yard, and the St. Ermin's Hotel is this historic pub where MI6 operatives met recruits and where tense conversations were conducted over pints of beer. It's less likely today that the prime street-side view will give you glimpses of mysterious-looking men in black suits heading into unmarked buildings, but you still can enjoy a fine British ale and fish and chips.

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