George Smiley’s London: an offbeat itinerary

The 2012 Olympic Games will be coming to London this summer and along with them will be thousands of tourists, many of them Americans, some of who have been to London before, some for the first time.  For those of you who are fans of writer John LeCarré and/or have seen the film adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, you will find there is a London beyond the Olympic Park, the stadium at Wembley and the city’s many museums and monuments.  I am talking about the London of George Smiley.  So below, I give you what I call the Essential George Smiley Tour.
  1. Cambridge Circus—also known as “The Circus” –the home of the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS which employed George Smiley.  It was from here that George was forced into retirement only to be brought back to find the Soviet mole “Gerald,” who was burrowed somewhere in the upper echelon of the Service.  On my first visit to London, which was more years ago then I care to remember, I made a pilgrimage to Cambridge Circus in an effort to determine which building in that maze of jumbled streets was the building Smiley’s narrator had deemed to be the SIS headquarters.  I was armed with my clues as are most Smileyologists: The building was five stories and had Edwardian dormer windows and Bill Haydon’s top floor office was in a pepper pot turret overlooking Charing Cross Road.  See if you can find it.

    Cambdidge Circus

  2. 9A Bywater Street, Chelsea, a blue-shuttered cottage in a cul-de-sac mews just off of King’s Road; Underground stop is Markham Street.  This was the home of George and his wife, the aristocratic Ann, whose serial unfaithfulness went so far as to bring her lovers into the home.  One of those lovers was “Gerald,” who at the advice of his KGB handler Karla, joined “the queue.”  Ann, exhausted from her latest tryst, would compose herself into the dutiful and faithful wife while listening to Sibelius in the front room.

    The Smiley residence at 9 Bywater Street

    Nearby restaurants: Tom Aikens, 43 Elystan Street, with a contemporary French cuisine; Underground stop is South Kensington. Rasoi, 10 Lincoln Street, Indian cuisine; Underground stop is Draycott Place.  Both restaurants have been awarded one star by the Michelin Guide.  For a quick and decent sandwich or pastry, there is Paul at 134 Kings Road, right at the corner of Bywater Street and King’s Road; Markham Street stop.

    Paul's on King's Road and Bywater Street

  3. Heywood Hill Bookstore, 10 Curzon Street, Mayfair.  This antiquarian bookstore was favored by Smiley for its offerings of obscure German texts, including a volume of Grimmelshausen; the Underground stop is Green Park.

    Heywood Hill Bookstore

  4. Thomas Goode of 17-22 South Audley Street, nearby in Mayfair.  This is the exclusive store where Ann bought the bone china cup and saucer as a present for George.  When he retired for the last time he gave it to the secretaries in the Interrogator’s Pool as a going away present.   The shop is only a few blocks from the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.  Nearby, you can stop at the worthwhile cocktail bar in the venerable Connaught Hotel for a martini or The Punch Bowl for a glass of wine and you may run into one or two of “the Cousins” from the Grosvenor Square “Annex” while you are relaxing.
  5. Manchester Square, Westminster-the location of Smiley’s club, founded by one of George’s war-time bosses Steed-Asprey after he was asked to leave his old club.  The club was originally made up of the wartime spies and the “old” Circus.  Later, George avoided it, not the least because one of its members was that pompous twit from the Foreign Office, Roddy Martindale.   Closed to the public, you cannot dine in the club but at the Hertford House nearby in the Square is the excellent Wallace Collection of arms and armor.  You may take afternoon tea and enjoy viewing the collection; hours are 10 a.m. to five p.m. and the Underground stop is Bond Street. 

    Manchester Square-The Wallace Collection

  6. Sussex Gardens, Bayswater: Where mole hunter Smiley set up his operational HQ in Room 9 of the “Hotel Islay.”  Like The Circus, the Hotel Islay does not advertise itself and you will have to surmise its exact location from the descriptions provided by Smiley’s narrator.  The Underground station is Paddington.  For a great feel of Smiley’s world and its people there is the nearby Frontline Club, 13 Norfolk Place, Paddington where you can mingle with Brits (and a few others) who serve on the “frontline,” whether it be as journalists, with the F.O. or other agencies and even catch an insightful lecture on foreign affairs and news coverage (Tube stop is Paddington Station). 

    The Frontline Club Near Sussex Gardens

    And if you have a mind to, as I have, visit this area of the City of Westminster again at night as it is terrific for pub crawling.  Here are my two not to be missed favorites: The patriotic plus Victoria, 10 Strathearn Place, Paddington just across the road from Hyde Park (Tube stops are Paddington or Lancaster Gate) with an interior atmosphere that still breathes Empire; and the museum-like Windsor Castle, 27-29 Crawford Place, Marylebone, which is also the home of the Handlebar Club whose member sport handlebar moustaches. And if you are lucky you may find Cockney comedian Joe Brown standing next to you at the bar. The Underground stop is at Edgeware Road.

  7. Lexham Gardens in Kensington, central London.  Location of the safe house in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY where George lured Toby Esterhase to a meet and broke him down.  Described by Smiley’s narrator as a “two-room scalp hunters’ shakedown,” the safe house was located on a square that was “Victorian residential, at the centre, a caged garden, already dark.”  

    Lexham Gardens

    On nearby Marloes Road (where Peter Guillam “ghosted” Smiley as he left the safe house) and Stratford Road is the Devonshire Arms pub where you can get a decent, if not the best in London, fish and chips and a pint of good beer or ale. The surrounding streets contain some interesting mews and a few blocks away on Allen Street is the Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church.  Stroll further on through Edwardes Square and cross Kensington High Street and you will find another of London’s hidden gems, the Leighton House Museum at 12 Holland Park Road, the studio house of the 19th century aristocratic painter, Frederic, Lord Leighton.  The Underground stations for Lexham Gardens are Earl’s Court or Gloucester Road.

  8. Five-Lock Gardens, Camden Town (Underground station is Camden Town, Northern Line.  While the Chalk Farm Tube station is closer you cannot easily cross the Canal and thus it is a bit of a walk).  This is the location of the safe house where Smiley entraps the London KGB Rezident Polyakov and “Gerald,” the Soviet mole within the Circus.  As with Cambridge Circus and Lexham Gardens, Smiley’s narrator-confessor is vague as to the exact location of the safe house.  But here, perhaps out of exuberance over the exposure of Bill Haydon as “Gerald,” the Soviet spymaster Karla’s creature within the Service, more is revealed than had been intended.  We know from the files that the safe house was near the Camden and Hampstead Road Locks and that Peter Guillam had a clear view of the building from his surveillance post on the towpath on the other side of the Regent’s Canal, with its “ripple of rats and the stink of still water.”  

    Regent's Canal near the safe house in Camden Town

    We also know from the record that Guillam’s post was near the steel low-arched bridge with its zigzag stairs that led to Gloucester Avenue and that he could see the trains crossing the trestle over the canal.  The report also states that Guillam walked up Gloucester Avenue to meet Lacon at the corner of Princess Road.  The bridge is no longer there but the tow path is and you can take a canalboat ride down much cleaner water past the general location.  Surely these are enough clues for any Smileyologist to find the safe house, are they not?  But no, for if Guillam is where Smiley’s narrator-confessor places him, then he would be facing the back of the row of houses on St. Mark’s Crescent and could not see either Polyakov or “Gerald” approach the safe house.  If you are puzzled stop in at the Sardo Canale Restaurant at this corner and have a good Italian meal while you ruminate over all the geographic permutations.  Nighttime is best as you can imagine Guillam and Lacon conversing in the shadows across the street.

Afterwards, partake of the eclectic food the surrounding northwest London area has to offer.  The Abbey Tavern on Kentish Town Road is one I would recommend for good food and a good time (you retrace your steps to the Tube station and then walk up Kentish Town Road); another is the closer Albert at 11 Princess Road with a beer garden.

You can wind up the tour at the north end of Whitehall on Northumberland Avenue, where George finished his days in the Interrogator’s Pool before retiring to a cottage “somewhere” in North Cornwall.

Even though I have kept the itinerary short, I know that it may be tough to complete, especially for those tourists that have tickets for a full venue of sporting events, so if you have to cut it down, keep it to numbers 1, 2 and 8: the Holy Trinity of the George Smiley novels: Cambridge Circus, 9 Bywater Street, and the Lock Gardens safe house.

In my next blog article, I will give a pictorial description of Geoffrey Household’s Dorset, using the same itinerary his protagonist in ROGUE MALE used while on the run from foreign assassins.

Comments

  1. Gitte Kjaerulff says:

    This is amazing ! Although having been to London a few times, tracking down my #1 spy hero never occured to me. Saving your article ! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Gerhard Schreurs says:

    David Cornwell was careful not to reveal real persons or locations he knew from his years in the service, so all locations and characters were made up. A visit to the official website of MI6 https://www.sis.gov.uk/our-history/buildings.html will reveal that the SIS never had office space near Cambridge Circus. Many afficionados think of 90 Charing Cross Road (Trentishoe Mansions) as the closest fit to Le Carré’s description of the “Circus”, but that is somewhat removed from the Cambridge Circus (a roundabout changed into a crossroads in the late 80’s), so the BBC chose 24 Cambridge Circus, which does not have 5 floors, but does have a side entrance that Mendel could monitor from a vantage point across the roundabout, as described in the book. Mendel and the BBC camera were positioned in an attic turret room in 138 Shaftesbury Ave, which currently houses an HSBC Bank branch in its ground floor. The opening shot of Part One of the 1979 miniseries “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was taken from one of the top floor office windows in the Palace theater. In this shot, 24 Cambridge Circus is in the left of the frame.
    Another puzzle is the Camden safe house. Lock Gardens does not exist as a road. Furthermore, non of the Camden locks was fit for shooting the scenes as described in the book (in which Guillam inspects the canal side and bridges and waits for Smiley’s flashlight signals, to dash for the safe house and assist when the mole and Polyakov have arrived), The BBC found the City Road Lock, and nearby Noel Road as a location for the safe house, the perfect spots for the shots, but these are in Islington, a few miles east from Camden! Interlaced scene shots (of Gullam checking canal bridges) and sound recordings (railway yard shunting movements) made in Camden (there is no railway near Noel Road), mixed with scene shots from the safe house and the lock in Islington, put many people on the wrong foot!

    Happy scene hunting and greetings form the Netherlands!
    Gerhard Schreurs
    Santpoort-Zuid

    • Stan Trybulski says:

      Gerhard, thanks for the note, nice additional comments about the BBC filming..

      Stan Trybulski

  3. Gerhard Schreurs says:

    You’re welcome, Stan! And hi Karl. Indeed no, while walking along the lock path, Guillam couldn’t see the safe house ‘s front door. The book says he couldn’t and i didn’t claim that he could. Google maps allows for a perfect check of Guillam’s movement. He walks on the north path, which is adjacent to the back gardens and the back walls of the terrace houses, exactly as it was described in the book. When Guillam sees Smiley’s signal from a window in the safe house’s back wall, he runs towards a side street, where he turns twice to run along the front doors of the terrace houses in ” Lock Gardens” in order to enter nr 5. In reality and in the BBC shots he runs along the lock path direction west towards Danbury Street, where he turns right. When reaching Noel Road he turns right again, to reach the front door at about the same time as Mendel. When you use Google maps’ 3d-option, you can even see the grey back walls of the houses facingcthe canal and the white front walls of the houses dacing Noel Road. You can also use Google street view to have a lookaround in Noel Road, where you can see all the front doors and black wrought iron gates.

    Prior to shooting, the BBC found out that David Cornwell’s combination of details were a factual impossibility. A house overlooking Primrose Hill and being near a road leading to Camden Town, could only be a terrace house in St.Mark’s Crescent. These houses are not near any of the locks, so they were unfit for the scene. None of the Camden lock areas were fit, in fact, so Cornwell has obviously mixed details of several locations. That’s perfecy okay for a writer (“artistic liberty”) but a nightmare for a producer who is supposed a credible and accurate rendering of it. I think they did a perfect job. The added sounds of railway yard shunting put me on the erong foot for some time, because the Camden area has a lot of railway tracks, whereas there are none near City Road lock. Intermittent shots of Guillam walking near the lock ( Islington) and inspecting underneath bridges with a torchlight ( Camden) was a clever idea, suggesting that all shots were made in the Camden area, as dictated by the book plot.

    Coming autumn i will be in London and i will try to find the exact house number in Noel Road and i will make puctures of ita dront and back wall. I already have several interesting comparison pica, pity i can’t post them in this blog.

    Greetings all!
    Gerhard

    • Stan Trybulski says:

      Gerhard, thanks for the comments. don’t know if you read my recent blog on the Hemingway Code Heroes in which I discussed Jim Prideaux but I think you will find it interesting. If you can find the correct Noel Toad house and take some pics, I would be happy to have them posted on this blogsite.

      Best,
      Stan Trybulski

  4. Gerhard Schreurs says:

    Hi Stan, my reply from 10 minutes ago was typed on an iphone during a bumpy train journey and was sent too soon, without spelling checks. Feel free to edit my story, if you want to.
    Greetings
    Gerhard

  5. Hugh Davies says:

    Re Lexham Gardens

    In the TV original (1978) – Alec Guiness is seen leaving the house on a corner in Lexham Gardens with the road name in the foreground very prominently displayed – I have a still showing it. In the book there is no indication of the actual house. The house on the corner No 1 is in fact a hotel, The Lexham Gardens Hotel.
    In June 1952 Christine Skarbeck aka Christine Granville was murdered by an Irish lover at that hotel. She was ex SOE and before that MI6 SIS. Is this a coincidence? In 1952 she was working as a cabin steward with the Union Castle shipping line between UK and South Africa. A time when Vervoed was establishing apartheid. Was she in fact working for MI6 again? What better cover than a cabin steward to watch and search the belongings of passengers travelling to and from S Africa. Or is it just my imagination?
    HD

    • Stan Trybulski says:

      Hugh, Interesting addition to the Karla trilogy. Christine Granville was a tragic figure; apparently misused and then abandoned by post-war SIS much to their discredit. Imagination is sometimes the father of fact. Thank you.

      Stan Trybulski

    • Chris Sturgeon says:

      I’ve tried finding the Lexham Garden’s safe house.
      There must be twenty corners in Lexham Gardens and a few years ago I surveyed every one of them.The right combination of lighting pillar,railings,columns and street name escaped me.
      So you start trying to work out what was architecture and what was set dressing,the street name for starters.Then you realise that every house and corner in West London has railings and columns of that type.
      Location finding is fun and some film and TV programmes have a real industry going on with then and now shots etc.It’s great to see something so recent start up for TTSS. especially since the Imdb list is so scant.
      One thing I would say is that while Google Street View is great for those overseas,there is no substitute for the expenditure of shoe leather.
      Gerhard Schreurs mentions a visit to London.As regards Smiley,I would recommend a visit to Hampstead Heath to visit an old tin shack. It’s all new now so you cant place any Smiley’s People drawing pins but don’t forget your yellow chalk.There’s also an excellent London Walk commencing at 14.30 every Saturday from outside the Clydesdale Bank,Piccadilly Circus in the hands of Spymaster Alan.He’s the one with the green carnation.He’ll refer a lot to Smiley and of course show you some real espionage locations.
      Good hunting folks,
      Chris Sturgeon.

  6. Joakim Stoppenbach says:

    Thank you for a interesting and well researched guide.

    A question regarding Smileys club: is it a fictional club or a real one? If it is a real club; what is the name of it?

    Thanks in advance,
    /joakim

  7. Hello, and thank you for such a fantastic post! I’ve lived in London for years and one of my past-times is searching for these locations. I realise that for the 1979 production many locations around London were used and that many probably don’t exist any more. For instance, the building in which Control meets Jim in the first scenes has been gutted, while I believe Rowleys, which still exists, is the vantage point from which Jim originally sees Control walk by.

    One location in particular eludes me. I have searched high and low along Fleet Street for the vast wine bar in which Smiley meets Westerby in the mini series, but alas, I cannot find it. Does anyone know what and where it is, if it still exists? I have literally spent afternoons searching every alley! Thanks for your help!

    • Stan Trybulski says:

      Mike, good question! I will ask around.

      Best,
      Stan

    • Isn’t it the Cheshire Cheese? Westerby is a hack so it wld be somewhere near Fleet Street.

      • Stan Trybulski says:

        Andrew, was the Cheshire Cheese frequented by journalists in the 1960’s?
        Stan Trybulski

        • Chris Sturgeon says:

          I’ve a feeling I’ve seen this one discussed elsewhere and I sympathise with Mike,wandering around London,looking for locations is a time consuming business.
          Smiley goes down some steps and then into that vast restaurant come bar.It doesn’t ALL look like The Cheshire Cheese to me,I expect that was the first place you checked.
          We have to be conscious of two factors:
          Firstly TTSS (and Smiley’s People) had huge budgets so John Irvin could pick and choose his shots.It didn’t matter if a door and it’s room were actually miles apart.It’s not like The Sweeney.
          Stan Trybulski gives a head to the other point.Alec Guinness enjoyed his food and eateries in London are aplenty.And all this on the licence payer.The Corporation is a very different animal these days!!
          I’m interested in hearing from anyone who can identify locations especially from Smiley’s People.

        • Dan-Erik Westerdahl says:

          Gentlemen,

          I do believe the wine bar where George meets Jerry W. is the El Vino at No 47, Fleet St.

          Also known as Pomeroys in the universe of Rumpole of the Old Bailey. It’s been around since 1879, I think.

          Web site: http://elvino.co.uk/bars/fleet-street/

          • I do not believe El Vinos’ is correct. The DVD leads you to the location. George walks down At Bride’s Ave opposite the Express Building and turns left. Stairs down lead to what was called St Bride’s wine bar in the 1970s and now recently refurbished (again) as the Humble Grape. The interior is much changed but you can still see some of the original pillars, the split level (now with stairs between) and some of the wood panelling.

          • Stan Trybulski says:

            But was the BBC production location the same location that was in the book? Are there other suggested venues?

  8. Hello and thank you for this site! May I contribute by identifying the location of the Hotel Islay as it appeared in the BBC miniseries? It is 80 Sussex Gardens at the corner of Southwick Street, London. After Smiley interrogates Ricky Tarr, he asks Lacon for Mendel’s help, and the scene cuts to Mendel walking down Sussex Gardens and into the Hotel Islay. There’s enough evidence from the scene to match it to Google Street View. All the best, Mike.

    • Stan Trybulski says:

      Mike Sobol, thanks for the information. I am always glad to hear from readers even if I reply a tad late and for that I also apologize.
      Kind regards,
      Stan Trybulski

  9. Mike Sobol says:

    Hi I just left the post about the Hotel Islay. i used the name Mike, but see there is another mike commenting. So if you want you can use my full name Mike Sobol.

  10. I appreciate how you have found the real places that were the basis for the fictional places. I also started using internet maps, satellite images and street images to find some of these. I notice that you comment how comment that at Five-Lock Gardens Guillam could not have seen the front of the house and the arrival of Polyakov or Gerald. But actually the book never indicated that he could see the front of the houses. According to the text of the book, Smiley was signaling from a room at the back of the house across the canal to Guillam because he couldn’t see the front of the house. He was looking at the backs of the houses and not the front. As I recall he was there looking for someone coming toward the house from the canal side. It is obviously the location, but he did take liberties with the houses on the street.

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