Monday, 29 September 2014

Last guests at the 'spy hotel'

Way off the beaten track and nestling high on the cliff tops of the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England, is one of the strangest hotels I've ever stayed in. 

The building used to be a Ministry of Defence underwater weapons facility that, back in the late 1950s, was mysteriously infiltrated by Soviet spies, causing an international scandal.  Known as 'The Portland Spy Ring', the core of the traitorous network was finally detected in 1961 and the five main perpetrators arrested by Police Special Branch in collaboration with the secret services. 

Front page news - the 'Portland Five' spies on trial
It was probably because of the carelessness of the one of the spies that the spy ring was discovered at all.  Harry Houghton was a lowly civil service clerk at the weapons base but his new lifestyle attracted suspicion.  

In the early 1960s he had just bought his fourth car, and a house, and would happily buy everyone a round of drinks at the local pub.  He was living way beyond his means.  His mistress, Ethel Gee, was also watched by increasingly alarmed MI5 officials.  She had access to secret British documents and she and Houghton would often visit London to hand over the documents to a 'Canadian businessman' known as Gordon Lonsdale. It was also noticed that Lonsdale, who was said to trade in juke boxes and bubble gum machines, would often visit an antiquarian bookseller, Peter Kroger, and his wife, Helen, at their home in Ruislip.  MI5 decided to keep a close eye on them too.

Toilet treachery - how Houghton hid secret documents
On Saturday 7 January 1961 Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale were apprehended and arrested.  Gee’s shopping bag contained a large cache of films and photographs of top secret material, including details about HMS Dreadnought, the UK’s first nuclear submarine.

British officials then went to Ruislip to arrest the Krogers and take them to Scotland Yard for questioning.  Before leaving, Mrs Kroger said she just needed to stoke up the boiler.  But her ploy was intercepted.  It was discovered that her handbag contained microdots – photographic reductions of British secret documents – that her husband would hide in antiquarian books for smuggling to Russia.  Mrs Kroger had intended to destroy this evidence in the boiler, but she was stopped just in time.  The unassuming house in Ruislip was found to be full of spying equipment worthy of a James Bond movie, including secret codes, fake passports and a long-range radio transmitter for communicating with Moscow.

45 Cranley Drive, Ruislip - secret home to Soviet spies
The homes of all the spies were also found to contain large sums of hidden cash – the spoils of being in the pay of their Soviet Masters.

At the subsequent trial, it was revealed Mr and Mrs Kroger were really Morris and Lona Cohen, infamous spies who had collaborated with other Soviet spies working in the United States.  At the time, the true identity of Gordon Lonsdale wasn’t established, although British authorities were convinced he was really Russian.  It was later discovered that he was a Russian Intelligence Officer known as Konon Trofimovich Molody, and the Mastermind of the Portland Spy Ring.

Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison; the Krogers to 20 years; Lonsdale to 25 years.  In 1970, Houghton and Gee were released from prison and got married.  One year earlier, in 1969, the Krogers were exchanged for British citizen, Greville Wynn, who’d been arrested whilst visiting Russia.  And just three years into his 25-year-prison-sentence, Lonsdale – aka Molody – was released in 1964 and exchanged with British spy Greville Wynn, who’d been apprehended by the Soviets in Russia.
Soviet stamps of approval - for their spies Konon Molody and Morris and Lona Cohen
British authorities considered that the Portland Spy Ring numbered more than the five who were arrested and convicted, but the others included staff at the Russian and Polish embassies in London and therefore immune from prosecution.
Spy story -  just released on DVD
The story of the treacherous spy activities on the Isle of Portland was portrayed in a 1964 movie called Ring of Spies, just released on DVD this summer.  The dramatic story has also been turned into numerous dramas for stage, television and radio.
From weapons base to cliff-top hotel - the Ocean Hotel and Spa Retreat with panoramic views 
Eventually part of the building where the Russian spy ring operated was turned into the 4-star Ocean Hotel and Spa Retreat, with majestic views over the English Channel and Dorset’s dramatic Jurassic coastline, the UK’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

The hotel, built from the famous Portland Stone which was also used to construct the United Nations headquarters in New York, recently won the accolade of being in the top 10% of accommodation and facilities on TripAdvisor
Eye Spy: dramatic Jurassic coastline overlooked by the Ocean Hotel and Spa Retreat
I stayed at this unusual hotel on August Bank Holiday weekend, and although on the outside the windswept building looked more like a prison – or the Ministry of Defence weapons facility that it once was – inside the large bedrooms were wonderfully spacious and generously appointed, and the award-winning restaurant served deliciously sourced and cooked local food.
Hotel view - overlooking the coast and the Portland Bill Lighthouse, just 10 minutes walk away
Me - outside the Portland Bill Lighthouse, one of three lighthouses within a short walk of the hotel
• Beautiful Dorset coastal walks surround the Ocean Hotel and Spa Retreat
So it was with sadness that last week I learnt via a management email that The Ocean Hotel and Spa Retreat had now closed down.  I was one of the last guests at the ‘spy hotel’.  

The hotel owners were anxious to point out that the hotel had not gone into administration; they just considered that the isolated, cliff-top location – albeit beautiful and breath-taking - simply wasn't viable for a hotel.  They also blamed the foundation of a new  ‘school academy’ -  the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy  - which recently won planning permission to be constructed on part of the ex-weapons building next door to the hotel.

It was almost only by accident and through my natural journalistic curiosity that I learnt about the hotel’s intriguing historical connection with one of the most serious Soviet spy scandals to shake the British establishment. 

I can’t help thinking that if the hotel’s management had only made more of its association with Soviet spies and the threat to the UK’s first nuclear submarine, then more guests might have been enticed to book a stay at this admittedly strange but compelling coastal hotel.   (Especially, of course, rich Russians – and history-loving Americans.) 

Maybe this unusual lodging establishment might have enjoyed more success if it had changed its name to, 'The Ocean Hotel and Spy Retreat'.

Don’t you agree?

 Preview: 'Ring of Spies' movie, just released on DVD (click arrow to watch)



Other stories by Jon Danzig:

4 comments:

  1. There is a second interesting movie about this famous 1960's spy case, called "Pack of lies". Things here are seen through the eyes of MI 5 people staying in a house across the Ruislip bungalow and the family members of that house. Very interesting, even if the moviemakers made the Krogers younger and Helen hipper than she was in reality. Sadly enough, the stress for one of the inhabitants of that improvised MI 5 look out had negative influence on her health. The woman, who was on friendly terms with Helen died much sooner than the average British life expectency. Maybe the hotel could have added a restaurant called "A touch of spice..." Or "Of spice and men"...

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  2. I was having a read of the reviews for hotel on tripadvisor as thought the sea view sounds nice, and ended up being entertained by the 1 point Terrible reviews, about guests calling the police for hotel management fighting with them. Also the hotel responses calling the reviewers stupid.

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  3. I agree with your comment Suzanne, I have stayed at the hotel and it is a hotel which seems to be run by the local mafia. You made the best decision Suzanne by not staying, its a time-bomb waiting for a catastrophe to happen!

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