If you are a spy fan and you are in London, odds are you will want to take a spy tour. I was able to take advantage of many of the ones I found during my recent trip there and wanted to offer a list of the various options. I didn’t take a bad one, but they all have their pluses and minuses.
The Intelligence Trail
The Intelligence Trail is probably the most comprehensive option. Brian Gray, aka Mr. X and host of the Sunday Spy show, offers several options for spy fans. Through the generosity of Shane Whaley, best known from the Spybrary podcast, I was able to go on the classic spy tour. For over three hours we walked through the streets of London learning the secret history of many buildings. Brian has been doing this awhile, but his talk never felt overly scripted. You learn about the Cambridge Five, Clubland, and visit the former locations of MI5 and MI6.
He’s clearly done his research and if you had a question he certainly knew the answer. From what I gather this tour is on the higher end budget-wise and only booked privately, so you get a personal experience but it does come at a bigger price point for that service.
In addition to the classic tour he offers four more options including a Sexpionage tour, a Cold War tour and more. He’s also created an audio tour I’ll get into later.
Spies of Westminster
It’s a two hour walk looking at modern spying. I was able to book a spot for $20. We met on a suitably rainy afternoon by a park fountain. Very spyish. From there we walked to a couple of different spots to get good views of both the MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross and the soon to open US embassy. We also saw the MI5 headquarters – Thames House, the Foreign office, the old MI6 headquarters and various other spots. His talk was loosely scripted and overall that was fine but could do with a certain amount of tightening up. Perhaps going into a scripted aspect first before moving on to a less scripted part.
He had just seen le Carré speak the night before and so that was very much on his mind as he was mentioned several times in the talk. If he wants to lean on the literary end of things, perhaps finding a few quotes from writers to set the scene at the locations could help.
We saw all the main sites you want to see and if he beefs up the talk a bit – finding the balance between scripted and improvised – I think this will be a good option for folks. Dettmann has just introduced two new additional tours – Spies of Mayfair and Spies of Marylebone.
In the tour business for years LondonWalks offer a tour of London for every interest.
H. E. Cooper, aka @MrsSimonTemplar, was kind enough to share this review –
London Walks – Spies’ and Spycatchers’ Walk – runs every Saturday afternoon from near Piccadilly Circus tube station. They also run an Ian Fleming Walk every few weeks at the moment as well. The walk is run by Sue or Richard IV, so named because London Walks seems to have attracted a disproportionate number of Richards to the tour guiding profession.
Richard IV has a wonderfully smooth voice that you could listen to for days. He was happy to expand on parts people were more interested in and said himself that he does slightly vary each tour, so no tight script here. While the emphasis is on the factual world of spying, there are rare bits of fiction brought in too. Most of these relate to le Carré and in particular, locations used for the BBC adaption of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The walk covers the early 20th century up to the 1960s, including numerous sites related to MI5 and MI6 during this period. Many of these have had a change of use and it was intriguing to learn what the properties are used for today. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean get plenty of attention, with their clubs and a flat getting stops. Half the fun of the walk is that Richard IV often leaves you on a cliffhanger in one location with your mind whirring away until he reveals the conclusion one or two places further on.
All London Walks cost £10 and £8 for concessions. If you intend to do two or more walks with them, it is worth asking for one of their loyalty cards on your first walk. These are valid one month for visitors or three months for UK residents.
Be sure to check out Cooper’s blog, Visual Mutterings, looking at 60’s/70’s era issues of TV Times and talking about what was airing. Having looked at some TV Times issues myself in the past this is a fun project and worth checking out. Currently running on the site is a special series offering a unique take on the James Bond rewatch. It’s very enjoyable!
True Spy Stories – Footsteps of London
From the description –
[t]he walk visits the outside of buildings used by MI5, SIS (formerly known as MI6), Defence Intelligence and SO15 as well as a few places used by the security services today that hide in plain sight of thousands of Londoner’s each day.
Along the way you will hear true spy stories, like the amazing tale of Agent Zigzag, the woman SIS operative that helped catch Russian double agent Kim Philby, the unfortunate Agent Snow and the ungentlemanly warfare conducted by Section D.
Tom Cull, who runs the excellent Artistic Licence Renewed website, has been on this tour and said it is very good.
In addition to live tours, there are also a couple of audio tours. If your timing or budget doesn’t match the above suggestions, an audio tour can be a great option as you a can do them almost any time of day and they are typically inexpensive.
Piccadilly and Polonium: The Alexander Litvinenko Affair
This is an audio tour by Brian Gray, previously mentioned, and available via VoiceMap. VoiceMap is an app that uses your GPS coordinates to trigger the tour to play specific audio selections based on where you are. It also gives you directions along the way in a seamless manner so you aren’t checking your phone to figure out where to go next. Done well, you put your phone away and just do what the voice tells you while listening to their story. I fell in love with the VoiceMap app when I used it in China last year and was eager to see how it worked here.
The story Gray picked is a good one. Litvinenko was poisoned by two Russian spies sent after he spoke out against Vladimir Putin. Overall, it’s enjoyable and the best part is it gives you a great walking tour of the various areas in London. Cambridge Circus, Leicester Square, Chinatown, Piccadilly, and Embassy Row in Mayfair are all visited. It’s a great way to get your bearings in the city.
If I had a criticism It would be that the GPS trigger locations and directions need to be tweaked. It was easier to get turned around and off track than ideal. I’d also come up with longer speaking sections. In certain areas, I was walking quite a long way without hearing anything. A minor amount of that is fine and expected, especially if there’s traffic, but many times that wasn’t the case. Just dropping in some spy trivia to keep the listener engaged and sure they haven’t gone off track would be helpful. The Ian McKellen Theaterland tour on VoiceMap does this very well. Still, even with those caveats it’s an interesting tour and would be worth your time for the cost.
Mayfair: A Spy’s Guide
Update: Unfortunately since the time of this post, Detour has shutdown and this tour is no longer available.
Told by Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent and whistleblower, she gives a thoughtful discussion on what spies do and whether the privacy and control citizens give up is worth it. I later learned that apparently she has a bit of a reputation as a crank, at least in terms of 9/11 conspiracies but there’s no sense of that on this tour. This one is through Detour, an app similar to VoiceMap.
The tour gives excellent seamless directions and it’s as if you were walking alongside a friend telling you a story, almost like a walking documentary. One of the fun things that it offers if you have two people is a spy game. You practice looking for tails and checking for signals. You do something similar if you’re on your own that’s fun but it would be even more enjoyable using the 2 person version.
It is a tour that is informative and thoughtful on whistleblowers and the current state of spying.
I really got a kick out of it and even better, they were offering it free this summer. Right now it appears to cost $7.99 but keep an eye out for deals. Even without one, it’s well worth the price.
Any other London spy tours you’re aware of? Let me know and I’ll add them in!