The Novichok poisonings in Salisbury six months ago shocked the nation, even more so when two random strangers stumbled upon the offensive weapon leading to one's subsequent death. Wiltshire tourism has yet to recover. But for those of us in far-off London it's always felt a distant story.
Until now. The government's announcement that the two suspects stayed in the capital while they were carrying out their operation brings the whole attack a lot closer to home. And in my case very close to home, about 300 metres, to a hotel on Bow Road.
The City Stay Hotel is a former Victorian townhouse, plus rear extension, jammed in between the DLR station and Barclays Bank. It scores 4 stars for location, but more generally two for facilities and service, as you might expect when some of the bathrooms are shared and the Continental Breakfast is self service. It's cheap and cheerful, a £50-a-night kind of place, and I've often seen foreign families lugging suitcases up the front steps in the few years it's been in operation. If you were coming to the area I'd never have recommended you stay there, but it has always looked one rung above the standard of the former Kings Arms pub just up the road.
According to the publishedtimeline, the two suspects flew into Gatwick at 3pm on Friday 2nd March, then travelled via Victoria and Waterloo to Bow, arriving at the City Stay Hotel after half past seven. Here they spent the night. On Saturday morning they headed to Salisbury for a recce, departing Waterloo on the 11:50 train and returning on the 16:21. They were back at the City Stay Hotel at 8.05pm, a remarkably precise bit of timing which shows just how good surveillance techniques are these days. And here they stayed for a second night before departing on the Sunday at 8.05am to carry out the deadly deed, then flying home from Heathrow.
That's at least 24 hours spent in Bow, which is longer than they spent in Salisbury. The pair probably left the Novichok here the first time they went out, which means I was less than quarter of a mile away from the nerve agent for most of the weekend. I even walked past the front of the hotel at 9.45 on the Saturday morning on the way to the station, so might even have passed them, you never know. It was a memorably cold weekend, although Friday's snow had all thawed by Sunday, and I guess a couple of Russians would have been more than au fait with a Beast From The East.
The police took until 4th May to recognise the significance of the City Stay Hotel, by which time dozens of other travellers had stayed there, even in the very same room. The security services say only two tiny traces of Novichok were found there, so tiny that swabbing them removed both, and that nobody's ever been in any danger. And that makes perfect sense, because if you were staying in a room with a lethal bottle of perfume, you wouldn't want any of it leaking out either.
A more nervous soul might be unnerved by the presence of a killer nerve agent so close to home, or paint some fearful picture of London E3 as an unacceptably dangerous location. To them I say for heaven's sake, get a sense of proportion, indeed I was at far more risk crossing the road on my way to the station that morning than walking past their hotel. But blimey, it just goes to show you never do know quite what's happening on your doorstep, and sometimes the biggest story of the year plays out just around the corner.