Whitehall is more than a place of high politics – it also has a notable history of providing luxurious digs to eminent guests. Once upon a time, behind the now traffic-clogged Victoria Embankment, there stood the original Scotland Yard. One explanation of its name has it that, prior to the Acts of Union in 1707, Scottish royalty had a residence there reserved for state visits. (The site later hosted the first headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, where less regal guests were temporarily accommodated.) Scotland Yard was part of the Palace of Whitehall, home to English monarchs including Henry VIII and Charles I – both of whom died here. After fire destroyed the palace in 1698, the area was rebuilt with grand, governmental buildings, including a French renaissance-style chateau called Whitehall Court.
It is in this landmark structure that The Royal Horseguards was relaunched this week as a luxury hotel under the Guoman banner – a collection of four historic London hotels that also includes The Charing Cross (a Victorian railway hotel), The Cumberland (a 1920s hotel opened by King George V) and The Tower, part of the redeveloped St Katharine Docks.
One end of the turreted, limestone building was designed by the architect of the Natural History Museum, Alfred Waterhouse, as the home of the National Liberal Club. Now connected to the main hotel (with the former club rooms given over to functions), the building still retains an air of political intrigue. Portraits of notable Liberals – including Winston Churchill, who crossed the floor temporarily to join the party in 1904 – trace the impressive cantilevered marble staircase that coils around the atrium.
The Gladstone Library is named in honour of founding member William Gladstone. It still bears the original lavishly patterned glazed tiles that celebrate the Liberal Party's golden age. A bricked-up nook in the wine vaults reputedly conceals an underground passage that once linked Whitehall's governmental buildings.
Gladstone resided at the other end of the building, where The Royal Horseguards' guestrooms have just been spruced up. Today's guests will be in good company – other notable residents have included Lord Kitchener and George Bernard Shaw.
The Royal Horseguards Hotel, 2 Whitehall Court, Whitehall, London SW1A EJ (0871 376 9033; guoman.com). The building is within chiming distance of Big Ben. From the hotel you can almost hear the Thames slosh against the Victoria Embankment.
Time from main-line rail station: Charing Cross is five minutes' walk, and Waterloo 15 minutes across the river.
The paint has barely dried in the 280 bedrooms. Each has been buffed up with snowy-white walls, plump beds, and wooden and chrome furnishings. The prevailing whiteness in my room was enlivened with contemporary floral curtains and matching cherry-red cushions.
Rooms at the front of the building, particularly those on loftier floors, have spectacular views of the riverside skyline, stretching from St Paul's to the London Eye.
The bathrooms are decked out in the obligatory marble, with rain-head showers and a TV screen above the bath.
Freebies: Elemis toiletries, vanity kit, Duchy Originals shortbreads, slippers –and your very own Royal Horseguards umbrella.
Keeping in touch: iPod docking station, plasma TVs, free Wi-Fi and morning papers.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Published rates for a double room start at £368, room only, though weekend deals can be found online for as little as £160. Historic tours cost £15 per guest, bookable in advance with the concierge.
I'm not paying that: You'll be hard-pressed to find better value in this part of town. However, nearby B&B Belgravia (020-7259 8570; bb-belgravia.com) has smart, modern doubles from £113.