The Spooks Tour of London

We have been in our Nailsworth holiday cottage for three weeks. Another week and we are at the halfway point. This week we went into London, the big smoke, for an overnight trip. A vacation within a vacation, or, another way to look at it, paying for three beds but sleeping in one (our home in Santa Fe, our vacation rental in the Cotswolds, the hotel in London). 🙂

On Monday morning we took the train to London from Oxford. From Paddington Station we took the underground one stop to the hotel. We stayed at Vancouver Studios, highly recommended by moderator Maureen on the message board. The hotel location is good and our room was really nice.

The weather on Monday was foul. We were caught in a downpour on the way to the hotel. After checking in, we hopped back on the tube and went to Westminster. The rain had stopped and we crossed over the River Thames to walk along and see the view back of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, but what we were really looking for were scene locations from the British TV show “Spooks” (released as MI-5 in North America).

In seasons one and two, the Spooks characters frequently had meetings on the benches across from the Houses of Parliament.

River Thames and Houses of Parliament
River Thames and Houses of Parliament

Season one of Spooks started in 2002 on British TV (BBC). It has been very popular here and season six ended last month. It will be released on DVD in the UK in October. They are doing a spinoff called Spooks: Liberty. This should be on British TV this year.

I first heard of the show from the regulars on the Slow Travel Forums. Steve and I are both “24” fans (FOX network TV show) and I remember vividly the heart-racing six months when we went through the DVDs for seasons one to four. What a rush! I was glad that we had missed it when it first came on TV because it was exciting watching an episode or two every night for months.

We thought we would give Spooks a try and got the first season of it to watch in the US before this big England trip, to get us in the mood for the trip. Nothing like seeing what the security service does to citizens to get you in the mood for visiting a country. We were immediately addicted. I ordered season two to arrive before we left, so we could watch it during our jet-lagged days in Bath, but it did not arrive in time. So I ordered it from Amazon.co.uk to arrive at our rental cottage (it was half the price, which is surprising because every single other thing here is twice the price than it is in the US). We are on season four now and I am trying to convince myself to take a break before season five because once we finish it we have to wait until October for season six.

Spooks is about the British Security Service, known as MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5), which deals with internal things, like the FBI in the US. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), known as MI6, deals with matters outside of Britain, like the CIA in the US.

On the TV show, they show MI-5 located at “Thames House”. I could not find Thames House on my London map or in my guidebook, but I figured it would be near the Houses of Parliament since many scenes show the river, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. We found a building that looked like what we remembered from the TV show, just south by Lambeth Bridge, but we were not sure.

That night at dinner, Jonathan showed us his very detailed London A – Z map which showed Thames House at Vauxhall, one more bridge down from where we had been. We also amused ourselves by getting Jonathan to say “A to Z” a few times – Brits say “zed”, Americans say “zee”. Since we used to be Canadians, we used to say “zed”, but we now say “zee”. Amy and Larry were also with us at dinner (they say “zee”) – this was the whole reason for our trip to London, to see Amy and Larry. (Amy and Jonathan are moderators on the Slow Travel Forums; I am not anymore, but that is a very long story.) We had an incredible Indian dinner at Masala Zone, near Oxford Circus (highly recommended).

Amy and Larry had totally figured out the London buses, so after dinner we did a wonderful nighttime bus ride back across the city. We sat up top in the front row. The rain in the afternoon had been brief and did not return.

The next morning Amy and Larry headed off to the countryside and we had most of the day in London. Today was sunny but cold, you could see your breath. We wanted to catch the 3:30 train back to Oxford. Today was going to be our day for the Tower of London, but first we had to find Thames House! We took the underground to Vauxhall and looked all around the area. We found a very modern building on the river, called Vauxhall Cross. My map had it listed as “government buildings”.

Up on the roof were lots of satelite dishes and at the entrance there were security cameras and guards, so we figured it might be Thames House. As I was taking photos, one of the guards came out. Obviously we have watching too many episodes of Spooks. I figured he would take my camera. Steve figured he would arrest us. Instead he told us we can take photos of the building but not the people going in and out. We told him we were Spooks fans and asked if this was MI-5. “This is MI-6” he said. Steve said “Well MI-6 is the superior agency”. He replied “I can’t comment on that.”

Vauxhall Cross, south of the Thames
Vauxhall Cross, south of the Thames

We could not believe it – we were at MI-6. The guard showed us how to walk around the building and said the best view was from the Vauxhall Bridge. He said MI-5 is based in Thames House and that it was on the other side of the river, nearby, but he would not tell us where. He said most people know where it is.

We walked over the bridge and back along the Thames towards Parliament. The building that we had picked out the day before as being what we remembered from the TV show was Thames House! It is at the Lambeth Bridge, just down from Parliament.

Thames House, near the Houses of Parliament
Thames House, near the Houses of Parliament

But this is what I find hilarious. We have watched over 30 episodes of Spooks. Every episode shows Thames House at least once. We found Thames House and it looked like what we saw on the show, but it isn’t! They used the Freemason’s Hall, Great Queen Street, Covent Garden to represent Thames House! Here is a photo of it. It is quite different than Thames House.

I found this out when I finally spent ten minutes Googling for information, which I should have done before our London trip, but I had no idea we would decide to look for Spooks locations. Instead I had prepared by reading about Henry VIII and memorizing the six wives (divorced, beheaded, died – divorced, beheaded, survived). After a few more minutes of Googling, I found that the official government websites tell you exactly where MI-5 and MI-6 are located.

From MI-5 website: “It should be noted that the building that represents the exterior of Thames House in the TV series Spooks (or MI-5) is a different building altogether. Spooks’ version of Thames House is actually Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, and the interior depicted in the series is a studio set.” About Thames House.

After all that excitement, we still went to see the Tower (which was great) and we made our 3:30 train (with two minutes to spare).

Resources

BBC 1 TV Show “Spooks” – Season six recently finished in the UK. It will be available on DVD in the UK in October 2008. Season five was released in North America this month. (Remember, if you live in North America and are thinking of ordering from Amazon.co.uk to get season six early, the UK DVDs are for a different zone. Your DVD player has to be able to play DVDs from the North America zone and the European zone. You can play the DVDs on your computer where you can find software that lets you play both zones on your DVD player.)
Spooks is made by Kudos Production Company.
Wikipedia – Spooks

Security Service, known as MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5).
Wikipedia – Security Service, MI5

Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, known as MI6.
Wikipedia – Secret Intelligence Service, MI6

GCHQ – Government Communications Headquarters, heads both MI5 and MI6. They are based in Cheltenham on the western edge of the Cotswolds.
Wikipedia – Government Communications Headquarters

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

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