Nicola Smith goes undercover on land and sea in pursuit of a Russian mole…
Photographs: The Nare Hotel
Cornwall’s hidden coves, rocky inlets, mysterious caves and cliffs have always lent well to cloak-and-dagger affairs, from the wreckers and smugglers of old to GCHQ’s satellite dishes looming eerily over the seascape at Bude. It takes only a small leap of imagination, therefore, to imagine a Russian mole masquerading as a staff member at a luxury hotel on Cornwall’s remote Roseland peninsula, covertly feeding information back to Moscow in between serving cream teas or escorting guests.
This is why I chose to accept the call to become Agent 0091, spending a weekend undercover at The Nare unearthing the enemy within – on one of the hotel’s Espionage Breaks. The themed weekends are inspired by author Jon Stock’s book, To Snare A Spy, which was written and set at The Nare. Aimed at adults, children, couples or groups, the break seemed like a great way to explore Cornwall’s coastline while having some furtive fun.
Having made discreet contact with the local handler through the hotel’s very own Moneypenny, we prepared to find out what awaited us on Operation Snare…
10.30am Making contact
We meet affable hotel owner, Toby Ashworth in the library, a fittingly discreet location to accept our mission brief over coffee. At the touch of a button, several shelves of books slide silently back to reveal a flat-screen TV on which we are shown a classified video to enlighten us about our task. The paperwork we’re given includes the Official Secrets Act 1989, which we are to sign and date (with trembling hands). It contains details of our first day’s undertaking – a land mission two miles north of St Mawes.
1pm A significant find
After a fortifying crab sandwich and chips at The Quarterdeck restaurant looking out on the sea, we meet the hotel driver, Andy, who transports us to the idyllic 13-century St Just in Roseland Church, tucked down a series of winding lanes on the edge of a tidal creek. We have been warned to maintain our cover story at all times, so we skilfully throw Andy off the scent by chatting about the weather…
On arrival, we follow our clues to find a particular gravestone of significance, which in turn leads to a memorial inside the church, containing vital information.
2.15pm To the fortress
Armed with the necessary intelligence, we hurry two miles along the coastal path to St Mawes, passing a working boatyard and hopping over stiles before skirting around rolling fields. To our right, against the backdrop of Falmouth, a flotilla of yachts is heeled over in the breeze, as if escorting us to our destination. Or are they watching us?
Soon we arrive at St Mawes Castle, the famous coastal fortress built by Henry VIII. Here we are tasked with exploring the premises with particular attention to the artillery. After a thorough inspection – and a ruthless grilling of the resident ‘gunners’ during their tea break – we emerge into the sunshine having gleaned the necessary information. Excitement mounts, the net is closing on the mole.
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4pm A hidden note
We meet Andy in the centre of St Mawes and he whisks us back to HQ, safe behind the tinted windows of The Nare’s navy blue Mercedes. He asks about our walk, unaware that we have been attending to pressing security matters.
Back at The Nare we convene over afternoon tea, where a sumptuous spread of warm scones, clotted cream, jam and handmade shortbread vie for our attention along with some important calculations. We tuck in while checking our facts and doing our sums, leading us to the location of the hidden note, secreted within the hotel itself. Excitedly – but maintaining professionalism and discretion – we run to find the document, which reveals chilling details of the hotel mole…
7pm To catch a mole
Our task at some point during the evening – whether over our pre-dinner G&T in the drawing room, during our silver service meal in the restaurant, or over coffee – is to approach the mole, slipping some well chosen words about lobster into the conversation. Half way through the evening we find the dastardly traitor and, hearts pounding, manage to communicate our code words, receiving a nod and wink shortly before our crepe Suzette are spectacularly flambéed in the dining room. It serves as a timely distraction.
Back in our room we leave a very important message on Moneypenny’s answer-phone. Who knew spying could be so much fun?
9am A mission at sea
We find the details of our next secret mission slipped cunningly behind the breakfast menu as we agonise over whether to plump for kedgeree, porridge, fresh eggs or a full English. Coffee and poached eggs set me up perfectly for our next task – a sea mission aboard The Nare’s 38’ classic motor launch, Alice Rose. Can we build on yesterday’s success?
10am All aboard
We are whisked down to Smugglers Cottage, on the banks of the River Fal, famously used as the assembly point for American troops before the D-Day landings. This stretch of river oozes history, and this morning an eerie fog is just lifting as we board the Alice Rose, welcomed by coxswain Simon and chief steward, Amy. Simon is recognisable from his role in To Snare A Spy, in which he heroically manages to lose his Russian pursuers and steer protagonist Noah to the safety of the Helford River, which is where we are eagerly headed.
After our safety briefing we settle on board the Alice Rose, marvelling at its elegant cedar wood planked hull and teak decking. But we mustn’t be distracted. We set off, wind in our hair, to secluded Bosahan Cove, which backs on to the ancient woodlands of the Bosahan estate on the southern banks of the Helford.
On arrival we are transferred by rowing boat to the beach where we join the muddy coastal path eastwards, breathlessly clutching our instructions. After half an hour we arrive at St Anthony in Meneage Church, which sits knowingly on sleepy Gillan Creek. We enter through the creaking gate and descend the path, taking note of a poignant plaque before entering the church itself. After scrutiny of the visitor’s book, we return to the daylight, where the sun is peeping its head through the clouds, the ominous fog having lifted. Satisfied we have all the intelligence we need, we climb cautiously over the rocks before being picked up and rowed back to the waiting Alice Rose.
12.45pm Picnic pondering
We anchor up in Gillan Creek and Amy produces a picnic lunch courtesy of The Nare’s wonderful staff (they can’t all be trusted, mind). We recline with a G&T as we tuck into a feast of lobster, king prawns, smoked mackerel paté and coronation chicken. There is even delectable Champagne jelly and mouth-watering lemon posset for dessert. We chat with Simon and Amy as we bob around in the afternoon sunshine enjoying our meal, but we are secretly ruminating over the identity of the second mole.
2.30pm Falling into place
Reluctantly we motor out of the Helford Estuary and back into Falmouth Bay, arcing around before entering the Carrick Roads and returning to the River Fal. No dolphins today, but we understand why they’re keeping a low profile, doubtless loath to become embroiled in such high risk maritime shenanigans. We berth back at Smugglers Cottage where our driver is waiting to return us to The Nare to complete the final piece of our jigsaw.
4pm Mission accomplished
It seems only warm scones loaded with jam and clotted cream can provide the necessary sustenance to power the intellectual capability required for Operation Snare. We enjoy the spread as we complete our final intelligence work, but not without a discreet foray to reception and another clandestine conversation. Feverishly we sneak into the hotel study to call Moneypenny with our final piece of intelligence.
Before departing we are congratulated on completing both land and sea missions successfully, and presented with a very fine bottle of wine. We resist the urge to whoop with joy and, as is more befitting of spies, slip out to the car park unseen. But we will be back…
ASK THE PRO
Jon Stock’s book, To Snare A Spy inspired The Nare’s Espionage Breaks… ‘I always wanted to write an interactive spy thriller and got my chance with To Snare A Spy, set at The Nare and surrounding countryside. I love the idea of hotel guests following in my hero Noah’s footsteps, whether taking a trip across to the Helford or finding clues in local churches. I rooted my book here, so it makes perfect sense for guests to visit these places and experience the same sort of challenges that Noah faced when he was exposing his Russian mole.’
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