Night at the Museum was the fifth-most successful film of 2006, suggesting that ending up somewhere prestigious for the night is the sort of thing travellers dream about. So why not give it a go, I thought? It was two o’clock in the morning at the Old War Office and I ended up starring in my own remake of the Ricky Gervais film. The lights were off but the twelve foot high windows broke the darkness, revealing the relentlessness of light even at nighttime in central London.
Around me wood panels dating back to 1906 creaked in the wind, like lungs of the building breathing through the night. It was controversial that Raffles bought Churchill’s old war office buildings for £350 million in 2016. (The full refurbishment cost over £1.5 billion.) Some said these hallowed rooms should be turned into a museum. Others raved that the famous hallways would be open to the public for the first time in over 100 years. (Complementary tours of the building will be bookable to non hotel guests from 2024 as part of an agreement to make this history accessible to everyone.)
I had been standing silently in the Clementine Churchill Suite, named in homage to the big guy’s wife. “You get Horse Guard’s Parade, live,” a staff member said as I dumped bags on check-in. There are no other hotels on Whitehall: this is it. It’s hard to find truly new experiences in the capital, but watching one of London’s most iconic ceremonies with my slippers on from a windowside chaise longue certainly counts as fresh. I heard a whistle and soon saw another of my neighbours: Rishi Sunak. His motorcade pulled out from Downing Street opposite; the besuited man himself visible as I finished some work from my laptop.
Helpfully, a large in-suite desk has been placed in a similar position to how they would have been in this building’s 1940s heyday. Back then officials would have pushed pens in the area that has become my Suite’s lounge. Late designer Thierry Despont put in a comfy sofa and mod-cons, but everything else, from the marble fireplace to the miraculous lattice work on the ceiling, to the secret door leading to my bedroom, almost a foot thick, so palpably spy-era that it makes your heart leap, is original. You feel you really shouldn’t be here without your shoes on, and certainly not in bed. But there I was, considering having a bath where Churchil confirmed Britain was going to war. And where he drew up plans for the D-Day Landings.
In case you need more reasons to feel overwhelmed, there’s a spa with an enormous underground swimming pool that’s much bigger than other central London five-star hotels
The cigared minister would undoubtedly have strode into my room. Why? His private office was next door. The Haldane Suite reimagines where Churchill worked, and from £18,000 in off season, it’s yours for the night. For tens of thousands more you can interlink my room with the very room Churchill worked in throughout the war, connecting the whole Whitehall front of the quadrilateral office into one absurd lodgings. Octopussy, A View to a Kill, Licence to Kill, Skyfall and Spectre were filmed on site. Film-makers understandably wanted to get Bond as close to his nonfictional forefathers as possible. They succeeded: Ian Fleming worked here during his days as a spy, and would have turned up to work via the spy’s entrance (ask door staff and they’ll guide you to the still-secret entrance point). The man who inspired M is contested – more than one London building has reason to claim that ‘the real M’ worked there – but one of them was certainly here.
The date of my visit was fortuitous: on the streets outside, commemorations were underway for Remembrance Sunday, and people were wearing suits and poppies. It’s the one day of the year where the stoicism and formality of Whitehall feels similar today to how it would have done in Churchill’s time. While the people and vibe have changed, The Old War Office remains the same. Nonagenarians who worked here have been visiting to ascend the marble staircase, which for their whole lives – when this building was a working government office – they weren’t allowed near; the elaborate climb was strictly for senior officials.
Part of that hierarchical feel is retained, as only hotel guests can ascend it, apart from when public tours are available. You can pop into the hotel for a coffee, but go near the guest rooms at your peril. From the top, Churchill would give speeches to staff. The noses of the lion statues at the bottom of the Edwardian Baroque masterpiece, clad in marble and alabaster, are diminished from the war leader’s obsessive rubbing. All you really want to do when you’re in one of the historic suites is wear your robe and wander about looking at the details and screaming into your fist to muffle your excitement.
But if you do venture away from privacy, the OWO – as it is already becoming known as in Hooray Henry circles – also has contemporary accolades. His name doesn’t carry far in the UK but French chef Mauro Colagreco is thrice-Michelin-starred and he runs the main restaurant, Mauro’s Table. Saison, where the old library was, is marketed as more casual but still has white tablecloths. In Saison, the cocktails are strong, the paleron de boeuf intimidatingly well cooked and the service a smidge over attentive. Staff are understandably anxious, trying to live up to the reputation of Raffles, which has never had a hotel in London before.
Opened over 200 years ago, Raffles Singapore and its titular Singapore Sling cocktail made the brand world famous. In case you need more reasons to feel overwhelmed, there’s a spa with an enormous underground swimming pool that’s much better equipped for a proper swim than other central London five-star hotels with smaller pools.
With the most basic rooms on the higher floors starting from £1,200, this isn’t accessible luxury, but it is like nowhere else in the world. London’s other significant hotel opening for 2023, The Peninsula, can hardly claim that.
View the rooms and restaurants at the Old War Office
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