On a pale grey January morning in 1965, my mother, sister and I set out from Chelsea to walk to Whitehall. There, we were met at the Old War Office by my bowler-hatted father and his friend, who was someone important at the MOD.
We were escorted past security to an upper-floor office and stationed in front of a street-facing window. I remember that this was a great honour; I remember the solemnity, the crowds, and the blue and white ranks of sailors flanking the gun carriage that bore the coffin of Sir Winston Churchill as it rolled by below. Most clearly, I must admit, I remember my new fluffy white hat, bought for the occasion.
And now, nearly 60 years later, here I am again in the building where Churchill had once held such sway and from which I’d had a ringside view of his state funeral.
So much changes in a lifetime, and somehow, as I step inside Raffles London at the Old War Office on its opening night, I feel the full force of those changes in mine. Frankly, when I was a child growing up in London, it felt quite dull: yes, the Sixties were Swinging but the capital was so much quieter, with empty streets at night. Now, despite great challenges – social, economic, climate – London appears to be permanently en fête.
It has certainly become a magnet for super-luxury hotels (the Peninsula has also just opened, with a slew of others slated for the next few months). Raffles includes no fewer than nine restaurants plus three bars, a Guerlain spa, a huge pool and gym, a vast and glittering ballroom and 120 bedrooms. The cheapest of these (and there are only 10) will set you back £1,100 per night, not including breakfast, rising to between £18,000 and £25,000 for the top suite.
Then there are the 85 “branded residences” costing between £4 million for a one bedroom and £100 million for the five-bedroom penthouse (you can still snap that one up). These apartments for sale are, of course, the financial engine of the Hinduja brothers’ hugely ambitious project, whose purchase and subsequent redevelopment of the 770,000 square-foot building have cost them £1.4 billion. As with many similar luxury developments these days, it’s all about real estate. The hotel is simply the icing on the cake.
But what a hotel. It has been beautifully done, the vision of the late Thierry Despont, who died last August, as well as interior designer Shalina Hinduja. They have injected the velvet touch of utmost luxury without losing any sense of history, endeavour and intrigue, no mean feat in a building, completed in 1906, that required 26,000 tons of Portland stone, 26 million bricks and hundreds of thousands of floor mosaics to create 2.5 miles of corridors and 1,100 rooms.
Now those corridors, so wide that messengers on bicycles could ride along them, are an exceptional feature, resplendent in their red and cream livery, including floor-length brass-buttoned curtains, that recall the uniforms at Horse Guards opposite.
Stepping into the splendid hall with its original marble double staircase and enormous new chandelier, then entering my corner suite named after an SOE officer, Vera Atkins, I felt none of the international glitz of other similar hotels. Above all, I felt as if I had been eased into an earlier era by that velvet touch of luxury, and as I looked down at the mounted sentries outside Horse Guards opposite, I felt proudly British. Like others of that generation, my mother-in-law, who was a gutsy Second World War ferry pilot flying Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers, would have loved it here.
My suite, with sitting room, bedroom and spacious, sober bathroom of wood and marble with lovely herringbone floor (wonderful shower gel too, more like massage oil, by London perfumier Azzi Glasser), was perfect in its elegant, dark wood restraint.
I would have preferred old-fashioned light switches to tablet-operated everything, but I suppose that would be a step back in time too far. But why not, as I saw in a hotel recently, hang a circular electronic door key card from a pretty tassel? A plastic card, as here, breaks the spell.
There are five Heritage Suites, set in the magnificent former offices and conference rooms of the most illustrious figures to have planned and plotted here, including Churchill. The Granville Suite, wildly grand yet also wonderfully inviting and cosy, is one of the most beautiful hotel rooms I’ve ever seen, with a bathroom to match. The view from the Turret Suite is unforgettable. All the room rates are jaw-dropping, but the price asked for those 10 smallest bedrooms takes the breath away.
Back on the ground floor, a disappointment, for me, was the lack of a central room in which to simply sit and relax; the original Drawing Room is given over to all-day afternoon tea. There’s a small guest sitting room-cum-library but it’s tucked away, best suited to learning about the OWO’s history (talking of which, guests can take advantage of concierge Emile’s absorbing and amusing daily tour). The preponderance of places to eat but lack of places to sit makes one think of Raffles as “restaurants with rooms” rather than as a grande dame hotel.
Restaurants plural: all nine will be open in due course. Three of them – Saison, where I breakfasted beside a muralled wall under a glass roof and felt I was in the South of France; Mauro’s Table (for private dining) and Mauro Colagreco – are a collaboration between Raffles and the eponymous chef, whose Menton restaurant Le Mirazur has three Michelin stars.
Mauro is a delightful fellow with a passion for home-grown quality produce and his menu puts the principal vegetable or fruit of each dish, locally sourced in and around London, to the fore. The sofa I was seated on was so low that I needed a cushion; otherwise, dinner, in a very elegant room, was a treat.
The vast, unknowable OWO always was a place of secrets and it remains so. Descend to one of the five new floors constructed below ground (there are also two on top) and you will find a long, languorous and lovely pool, and at the press of a button by your lounger, a Pool Butler will appear. As for the Guerlain spa, it has a cool, contemporary look and treatments from London’s finest therapists.
The Hinduja family are keen for OWO to become, like Battersea Power Station, a landmark London destination. That’s quite an ambition for a building, however extraordinary, in government-heavy, frivolity-light Whitehall. Personally, I think it’s rather more interesting than a shiny, look-at-me destination – an enigmatic other world, a place of power and mystery (reinforced by the reservations-only Spy Bar) that everyone, even if they can’t afford to stay, should try to experience, and will not forget.
Fiona Duncan was a guest of Raffles London at the Old War Office; 57 Whitehall, London SW1A 2BX (0800 026 0808)