‘ICA members and Friends take evasive action’
Agatha Christie, the American Civil War, George Crosses, V-1 ski ramps, WWI German military intelligence officers, Communist agents and secret tunnels all had walk-on parts in a recent ICA (SLAM) stroll through North London’s Belsize Park. The colourful walk, decidedly at the red end of the spectrum, finished at the Hampstead Training Centre where collective memories added further dimensions. Lester Hillman devised the walk attended (amongst others) by fellow-Friends Tony Hetherington, Chris Yates, David Elvy and Dave Farrell who masterminded the administration.
From the bright sun at Belsize Park tube station, with secret WWII tunnels deep below, the group were soon heading for the murky depths of Isokon. The striking isometric construction of the infamous Lawn Road Flats attracted architects and designers such as Walter Gropius. Before Gropius made his name with the Bauhaus, he had served in WWI German military intelligence with responsibilities for pigeons and dogs. In the 1930s and 40s, Lawn Road was home to a number of spies and agents, characters like Red Sonja. Amongst them lived Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, and his friend Stephen Glanville, a fellow professor. Both men served as officers in RAF intelligence and Glanville is said to have been the model for Christie’s Captain Hastings.
Exactly 75 years on, the ICA group can be seen in front of Christie’s second-floor landing. It was at Isokon that she wrote ‘N or M?’; published in 1941, her only spy novel. Sitting in ‘Isobar’, the social hub of Isokon, Christie is said to have picked up ideas for dialogue from fellow habitués and by page four this ‘Tommy and Tuppence’ book introduces readers to characters like Lord Easthampton, a former chief of intelligence. The Corps’ own Agatha Christie, Nick Humphrey, previously ICA secretary and editor, was on hand for the visit. Whilst The Rose and the Laurel is not a work of fiction, coaxing myriad contributions calls for rare imagination and tenacity.
The SLAM yompers then bravely saw off a surprise aerial threat. Out of a clear blue sky, a giant crane on a Lawn Road building site lost control of a skip which swung and crashed 60 foot aloft, to the accompaniment of dramatic sound effects. Instinctively the group deployed under cover and climbed up through dense woodland. With glimpses back to the adjacent Gospel Oak district here was a perfect opportunity to remember another writer, one with close links to the Corps a century ago: John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, who joined the Intelligence Corps in May 1916.
Buchan’s novels again and again feature Richard Hannay walking in the Gospel Oak area.
Pausing at Hampstead Town Hall, threats from the air offered a continuing theme. It was here on Tuesday, 9 December 1947 that Max Wachtel married Belgian nurse Isabella de Goy. As Oberst Wolf, Kommander der V-1 Raketendivision, he had been charged with keeping the V-1 ski ramps operational. After the war under Operation Windfall, Wachtel came to the RAF Intelligence School at
Athlone House on the edge of Hampstead Heath. It can still be seen today and it has been the subject of a long-running preservation battle. It was Wachtel’s minder Squadron Leader André Kenny, Air Technical Intelligence Interpreter Industry, who facilitated the couple’s reunion and their wedding.
Briefly, in 1955 opposite the former town hall, lived Odette Sansom Hallowes Churchill GC, the distinguished WWII SOE heroine portrayed by Anna Neagle in the 1950 film Odette. The only woman to receive the George Cross whilst still alive, she took a prominent role in the support association for holders of the VC and GC.
Heading towards Swiss Cottage the walk then stepped back two centuries strolling through the former estate lands of assassinated Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. His death a few days before the start of the war of 1812–14 is said to have had links to tensions with North America rooted in slavery.
A few decades later the area was dubbed Rebel Roost on account of passionate local support for the Confederacy. On Christmas Eve 1868, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina were guests of the local vicar Revd Francis Tremlett. He and his churchwardens had been prominent in organisations offering diplomatic, social and economic support to the South. Very near the Hampstead Training Centre, the walk paused outside his Buckland Crescent ‘Confederate Parsonage’. Tremlett entertained a string of senior Confederate Army, navy and technical officers and other visitors including the daughters of General Robert E. Lee.
In 1998 up the road in Hampstead, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain had a book launch. Local resident Anthony Minghella was present and he went on to make the film with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, before his death in 2008.
The area around the present day 3MI Bn Edinburgh Training Centre provided a fitting end-point. Several ICA members have been prominent in the local authority, serving as councillors and leading initiatives such as the memorial in Camden Town remembering Far East prisoners of war (visited on a walk in 2013). Maresfield Gardens nearby was once home to WWI Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. In the house opposite lived Sigmund and Anna Freud, reminders of the wave of émigrés between the wars who came to settle locally. South Hampstead High School for Girls, which has expanded into the Training Centre, numbers amongst its alumni Helena Bonham Carter, Angela Lansbury, Fay Weldon, Rabbi Julia Neuberger and Lynsey de Paul.
Previous ICA walks have explored King’s Cross, the City of London, Thames Bridges and the Fleet River. In October, Neil Fearn is to pick up the baton (or tour guide umbrella) exploring St James’s.
Lester Hillman Walk Leader
3 May 2016
Photo: Dave Farrell