The London We Don’t Want to See

What the gentrification of the city's mews reveals about our obsession with history

By / March 2016

We come to London with anticipation. We want to see the crown jewels, to hear Big Ben, to see the Tower Bridge, to clamber around any number of palaces in hopes of a royal sighting. We want to feel a part of history.

But just to the south of the Queen’s residence, there’s a less sought-out attraction, the Royal Mews, which function as the carriage house, stables, and garage for the royal entourage. The mews actually take their name from those buildings where birds were housed for falconry. The fouls’ annual shedding of feathers was known as molting, or mewing, hence the label.

Under Henry VIII, the King’s Mews eventually incorporated equine stables into the bird sanctuary. The name ‘mews’ came to signify a horse stable. It also came to be synonymous with the narrow service streets of London where such stables could be found.

Few people see them. In fact, they were meant to be concealed. Off the main thoroughfares. Behind stately manors. Tucked in cobbled alleyway and secluded by bricked wall, they are the many varied mews of London.

In contemporary London, mews, royal or otherwise, are choice real estate, if for no other reason than they come with built-in garages. Blunt, utilitarian, austere, and typically not more than two stories high, these structures, once dark and dung-filled, now posh and pricey, are all over the place, once you start looking for them.

Just west of Buckingham, in the Belgravia neighborhood, are the upscale Eaton Mews. The horses here have been replaced by Bentley, Maserati, and Rolls Royce. Recently a relatively small house in the area sold for a whopping 30 million pounds. No small price for a citified barn. Since the Mews’ exterior are now a protected historical landmark, the owner chose to dig down and create a two-floor basement to justify the purchase price.

On a recent trip to London, I spent the better part of a day in the Museum of London. While no rival to the British or lesser-known Victoria and Albert Museums, The Museum of London collection attractively bookends London’s anthology from the time of Julius Caesar up to the 2012 Olympics.

A casual perusal reveals a London that we might sentimentalize but probably wouldn’t ever want to visit. Her many tragedies so monumental, so severe and personal, they are known on a kind of first-name basis: The Great Plague, the Black Death, the Great Fire, the Blitz.

Of course, modern London is far from perfect. Even so, the headlines in the newspapers during my visit weren’t nearly as worrisome. Sure, there was the suicide in Kensington Park within eyeshot of William and Kate’s apartment. Then there was the standoff, near Belgravia’s mews, of about a hundred news cameras and one Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Most disturbing was the double decker bus that exploded on the Lambeth Bridge. Turns out the stunt for the latest Jackie Chan movie ruffled the neighbors quite a bit.

But that’s just it. The worst of London today is not as bad as it could be, and not nearly as bad as it once was. In fact, in some expressly good news, that same week David Cameron and the UK were hosting leaders from around the world in Westminster in the push to support Syrian refugees with $10bn in aid.

I believe the London of the past, the London we don’t see, is actually a London we don’t want to see. We want to visit the Tower of London and gape at “the Rack” and other devices of torture from a roped-off distance. We want to pass the front lawn, mown immaculate, where there are park benches for us to watch reenactments of former battles or royal spats. We want a clean, sterilized version of London’s history, but one that still offers us a sense of place.

I think that’s ultimately the draw of the mews. To feel close to history without actually touching it. And sometimes, as I’ve found, by coming close to the past we learn to appreciate the present.


Brian McKanna is an EthnoTraveler contributor.