Uncover London: How Very A-Mewsing

Once upon a time, back in Georgian and Victorian days, the London mews behind fancy houses in grand neighbourhoods provided stalls for horses, servants quarters, and storage for carriages. But the second half of the 20thcentury has seen the transformation of these diminutive side streets. Gone are the bridles and back kitchens. Today we find, instead, palatial pied-à-terre’s boasting bright colours and big windows, boutique workspaces, and manicured outdoor seating areas. In light of this, it’s no surprise that London’s mews are now considered desirable and chic, scouted by serious property investors, and even attracting coverage from socialite bloggers: https://www.aladyinlondon.com/2018/06/london-mews.html.

Given this metamorphosis, it’s fitting that British sociologist Ruth Glass had London’s mews in mind when she coined the word “gentrification” in her 1964 book London: Aspects of Change. “[M]odest mews … have been taken over,” Glass wrote, “when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences”. The mews of Mayfair and Kensington, then, were the starting point for the wave of gentrification – or social cleansing as some would call it – that is still working its way through outer areas of London such as Walthamstow, Leytonstone and Crystal Palace.

But aside from the relentless process of upscaling experienced by most London neighbourhoods since the 1950s, what else do these mews represent? What other places echo in their mix of cobblestones, two-up-two-downs and eye-catching exteriors?

Let’s start with those exteriors. Bedecked in snazzy colours, some pint-sized mews houses evoke the beach huts of British seaside towns in places such as Cornwall, Dorset and Norfolk. This is especially true during baking summer evenings when residents bring deck chairs out front and sit around swapping pleasantries and sipping mixed drinks. Next, the cobblestones. These refer to farmyards, and to the hurriedly built ginnels and snickets of northern cities, as do the small mews houses themselves, which either look like back-to-back terraces or cottages in tumbledown hamlets. Either way, these petite residences have a motherload of what estate agents call “charm” and “character”. Lastly, the setting of a mews itself, out of sight of main roads, without the busy footfall of major thoroughfares, and with the silent air of rarefied privacy this brings, means that walking into one can be a jarring transition, like entering a gated community for which one definitely does not have a key.

All of which leads us rather inevitably back to Ruth Glass and gentrification. For it’s not just the backstreets of West London that have been transformed in the past half century from digs for the lower classes to locations with the atmosphere of a private road. The seaside towns and rural idylls these mews evoke have also been hollowed out of long-time local residents by an influx of wealth that has turned once affordable homes into holiday lets that stand empty most of the year. A similar fate has befallen the terraced houses either side of those ginnels and snickets in northern cities such as Leeds and Manchester, where relatively low property prices have attracted investors and developers hoping to get more bang for their buck, and who in turn have pushed up the cost of housing outside of London.

The building of mews in the first place reflected Georgian and Victorian needs for rich and poor to have proximate but separate lives in ways that benefitted both master and servants – employers had easy access to employees, while those at the bottom of the pile at least got housed in London’s most salubrious neighbourhoods. Today, these same side streets, through the structural alterations they have undergone, and via the connotations to other areas of the UK that can be inferred by them, highlight the more recently attained ability of the wealthy to colonise any location they wish, regardless of the needs of the community that already lives there.

Elsewhere in London: Aspects of Change, Ruth Glass writes that gentrification can alter a neighbourhood “rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

It is impossible now, more than 50 years after the fact, to know the character that working-class residents once brought to London’s mews. But what can be seen is that through the presence of certain activities, materials and colours, each mews becomes a microcosm of the neighbourhood that surrounds it. To experience this, just walk west from Tottenham Court Road through Fitzrovia and Marylebone.

Behind Charlotte Street, for example, and its heady mix of galleries, ad agencies and bars, alleyways such as Berners Mews reflect Fitzrovia’s creative buzz, filled as it is with hustling TV companies, ambitious interns, and a cheerful hodge-podge of industrial surfaces. Stroll across Great Portland Street, however, to Marylebone’s Harley Place and the mood shifts. The mews here have a more serious aspect created through a decor of spotless white paint, clean, repointed mortar, and hygienic-looking pine doorways. It’s a calm and clinical aesthetic that feels very much on-point this close to Harley Street. Head further west still, in touching distance with Thayer Street, and you’ll come to Dunstable Mews. Here, among tree-lined streets and well-to-do red-brick flats, a high-end residential tone takes centre stage complete with well-groomed window boxes, smart cars, and the muted tones of Farrow & Ball.

From one point of view, this renovation and repurposing of buildings that once housed the working-class testifies to the increasing marginalisation of the poor. This is a narrative we know all too well. But it also elicits that most British of ideas: “make do and mend”. This optimistic, resourceful notion of squeezing the most from whatever materials were available was popularised in WWII, and it meant that in the 1950s those with money had the vision to see London’s mews as more than just pokey buildings used to house servants and animals. More recently, this same mindset has helped those with the financial means to buy a second home, seeing the charming side of down-at-heel seaside towns.

On the other hand, given that the needs of contemporary British life mean that neither dinky mews houses nor tumbledown seaside cottages are really fit for purpose as modern homes – even second ones – wandering through London’s backstreets brings another, more insidious, idea to mind. That perhaps there’s a sleight of hand at play. That at some point over the last half century someone – maybe the mercenary property developers and estate agents who like to talk about “charm” and “character” – flipped the script to make it less “make do and mend” and more along the lines of “mend and make money”.

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