When a Country Bumpkin Hits a Metropole

Or rather "When a Metropole Hits a Country Bumpkin".

My time in London 1998 was a tumultous and not entirely happy one. Even a less overpowering city than London would have intimidated me. I'm a country bumpkin at heart, after all. So I commuted every day from semi-rural Oxford to Cavendish Square, W1. Apart from the financial necessities, nights and weekends in that city would have driven me over the edge, or so I felt at that time.

However, the few moments I felt at peace was, when I discovered "the mews". Around Sloane Square, habitat of the "mildly retarded Sloane Ranger" (Jilly Cooper), Lady Diana Spencer used to be one of them, that was. The peace, tranquility and orlde-worlde charme right in the middle of a overheated cauldron of precipitant hustle and bustle always at the edge of exploding, so I felt, was like Alice transgressing through the looking-glass.

In the course of my humble research for this, I was a bit put off by the pictures of the interior of those houses, all from real estate agents' sites. One category of those abominalities I dubbed "expensively modernized to the point of destruction", the other one "cheap and tasteless". It will never cease to amaze me how people who can afford a million (at the very least) for such a house, in most cases several more, can have such awful taste. I have chosen the few I found at least bearable to illustrate the interiors of such houses.


They are much more spacious than one would think, quite a lot even have a small garden at the back.

Those lanes had not always been what they are today. In fact London's iconic mews have humble origins as service roads behind the grand town houses of the Georgian and Victorian elites.

Mews were built when London expanded to the west in the 18th century, when grand terraces of town houses where established on the fields in areas such as Mayfair, Kensington and Marylebone. Most mews houses had stables and a coach house on the ground floor, the first floor a hayloft and a couple of rooms where the coach drivers, the grooms and sometimes other servants as well could sleep. Mews were utilitarian places, with hard-wearing cobbles and a drain down the middle to take away the waste from the horses.

There was usually a tunnel under the garden connecting with the basement of the main house, so servants could slip out to the stable without disturbing the residents. A curious feature of almost any mews house is that it had no windows at the back, so servants could not spy on their employers enjoying a stroll in their garden.

This solution was different from most of Continental Europe, where the stables in wealthy urban residences were usually off a front or central courtyard. The advantage of the British system was that it hid the sounds and smells of the stables away from the family. 

Today, mews houses have been in their majority more or less tastefully restored to provide everything for a 21st century lifestyle. An authentic mews property will still retain the approximate appearance, form and footprint of the original mews but it may have been re-developed to a degree and no longer retains all original features A mews is a safe, virtually traffic-free environment, often found along quiet cobbled lanes. Due to their past as coachhouses, many of them have retained garages, a very useful feature in a huge metropole.

The name "mews" comes from the Royal Mews, gigantic stables on what is now Trafalgar Square. the word, again, is derived from the original use of the stable buildings which housed the king's falcons. Falcons work was called to "moult" or "mew" (from the French verb "muer"), so the place where they performed was referred to as a mews.

Today's Royal Mews are open to the public and surely, at least for the non-horsey but rather glossy-magazine-inclined visitors the iconic coaches we all know from royal weddings will be the prime attraction.

Mews lost their equestrian function in the early 20th century when motor cars were introduced. At the same time, after World War I and especially after World War II, the number of people who could afford to live in the type of houses which had a mews attached fell sharply. One place where a mews can still be found put to equestrian use is Bathurst Mews in Westminster, near Hyde Park, where several private horses are kept.

Some mews were demolished or put to commercial use for small businesses and workshops, but the majority were converted into homes. Mews became a byword as scruffy back-streets, often used as locations for gritty gangland dramas on black-and-white TV. Then, in the swinging 1960s, racing drivers such as John Surtees and James Hunt discovered they could buy a mews house for not much money and live above their cars.

One of them was rally driver Antoine Lurot, founder of Lurot Brand, now one of the leading agents in the market for mews houses. Antoine realised that mews houses might become very fashionable as they were originally built to serve the aristocracy and are thus located in the very best areas.

In short: the concept worked.

No doubt, a lot of time, sweat and money will have to be spent on this one.

I got all the pictures from the website of Lurot Brand and  from the London Perfect Blog.