Mews Houses

Christina here. Wench Anne has recently been talking about the hidden gardens of London – green oases of calm in the midst of all the grand houses in the fashionable areas of town. But there were other hidden areas there too, much less impressive and kept out of sight of the rich people – the mews. Those of you who read Regency novels are probably very familiar with the term. Many of the big houses in London had a set of adjacent buildings containing stables, a carriage house and usually also accommodation for coachmen, grooms and their families on the levels above. These buildings were situated in a sort of small back alley behind the main house, mostly running parallel to the street at the front. Ironically, although they were built for servants and horses, these days they are very sought after.

Walking around in London I always find it fascinating to take a peek into these little streets or alleyways. They are secluded and quite cosy, almost intimate at times. Not all survive intact, so often it is only a small part of one that finishes in a dead end. Some are tucked away around a corner and have to be actively searched for, while others hide behind grandiose entrance arches. It’s hard not to speculate on what the people who lived there thought of having to go through such a fancy gateway when the dwellings inside were so much less luxurious. It was just the rich trying to hide that which they didn’t want to see or be reminded of.

The word “mews” apparently comes from the French word muer – to moult, and was used about birds of prey who were confined while they were shedding their feathers. The English king’s royal hawks were kept at the so-called King’s Mews near Charing Cross in London from 1377 onwards. In falconry circles today, the word still refers to the housing of birds of prey. Later, in the 16th century, King Henry VIII changed it to stables for horses, but the name stuck and started to be used for other sites containing streets or rows of stables. Gradually, during the 20th century, the stables were replaced by garages for cars, and of course the servants disappeared. There are only a few mews stables left in London actually used for horses these days, such as Hyde Park Stables where you can pay to take a ride through Hyde Park.

Mews houses are considered great places to live nowadays, and there is even at least one estate agency that specialises in buying and selling them exclusively. A lot of mews buildings have been converted into single-family homes. That includes the former stable and/or carriage house on the ground floor level. These can either be turned into a built-in garage (very sough-after in London as parking is a nightmare!), or incorporated as living space. Where once a staircase might have risen to the second level and a door leading into the home of the coachman or grooms, now one can normally find a Juliet balcony or simply a large window. The outer staircases, if they existed, are gone and no longer needed.

As the mews buildings typically back onto what used to be the main house, there are often only windows at the front. This can make the rooms rather dark and poky, but builders converting them into homes can compensate by adding larger windows at the front, skylights and sometimes mirrors on the back walls inside to reflect more light.

I lived in a mews house for a time and I have to admit it wasn’t my cup of tea – I was quite glad to leave. I found it cramped and darker than I would have liked, especially the kitchen which was situated behind the garage and had no windows. But others obviously disagree with me as these dwellings are very popular.

They do have a charm all their own and part of that is the location. Frequently, these mews have very little through traffic and many are still paved with cobbles or paving stones so it feels like stepping back in time. The owners of mews houses also seem to delight in putting planters outside, perhaps to compensate for the fact that the buildings do not have gardens of any kind. This means there’s a riot of glorious flowers adding to the often gaily painted front doors and window frames (and sometimes façades).

I can’t help but wonder too what the former inhabitants would make of this. Their homes which were formerly despised by those rich enough to employ them are now worth millions. The very families of the upper echelons of society that they used to serve aspire to live in them, or own them as a “London pad” or pied-a-terre.

What is great, though, is that buildings like these are cherished and used, revamped and loved. Just like old warehouses and churches/chapels can be converted to magnificent homes, so can the mews houses. I love old buildings and I, for one, am very pleased they are still there.

Would you want to live in a mews house if you had the chance?

 

18 thoughts on “Mews Houses”

  1. I love this post, Christina. I used to peer down the narrow streets containing mews houses, and thought they might have been mews (is stables) at some stage, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t realize they’d be so dark inside, though — they wouldn’t be pleasant. Though these days there are so many clever architectural solutions for that. And I’ve seen some that have really gone to town on the potted gardens out the front, looking so pretty.

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  2. I wonder: is there anything that would prevent windows being added to the back wall? Presumably those buildings back onto private gardens belonging to houses on the main street, many of which are likely now commercial!

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    • Yes or there is another house wall behind them in some cases. Some have lovely windows at the front though!

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  3. Thanks for this lovely bit of history, Christina! I had a general idea of what mews are like, but now I know more. For the modernized versions, they’re cute and convenient but I’d like more light. A LOT more!

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  4. I think a mews home would be lovely. One of the Hercule Poirot TV shows had a murder take place in one. And the entire street looked so serene. Except for the dead body of course.

    Thanks for the post.

    I need help – I no longer receive the newsletter or blog posts. Not sure why. But, when I have tried subscribe, it is not working. I never get the email in order to confirm. I was wondering if someone could let me know what I am doing wrong. Or how to fix it? Or anything? I have missed some wonderful posts. I thought y’all were simply on a break and I missed the notice. Thanks for any help you can give.

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  5. I had read of mews in many a regency romance, Christina, but I appreciated learning more.
    If someone were to buy it for me and pay for the upkeep, I imagine that I could be perfectly happy living in a mews house! I’d best not hold my breath waiting for that outcome….

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  6. How interesting. Always wondered why they were called mews. Would love to see one, but don’t think I’d care to live in one.

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  7. I never knew where the word “mews” came from, very interesting. It does sound a bit cramped, I suppose if I was living alone it might be fun.

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    • I think some of them have more space than it looks from the outside, but the one I lived in was fairly cramped and too dark for my liking!

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  8. I do like the idea of the romance of living in a mews house but I think the darkness would not appeal. Also I would have to have some kind of garden, no matter how small but somewhere for pots and a small table and chairs.
    Lovely post, really enjoyed it!

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    • Thank you Teresa! A lot of them have loads of plants outside in pots and some climbing up the outside – very pretty. There might also be a small balcony, but not really anywhere to sit outside.

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  9. Loved the back story on why they are called mews. I kind of knew about them being repurposed but not the whole story.

    Small space MIGHT be okay, but dark. No no no… I also need to see some greenery when I look out a window!

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